The Past in The Present
History is more than documenting, writing and chronicling what happened in the periods that precede our generation. Equally it is not about the processes, politics and developments of our time.
Like Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan, writer, essayist, historian and poet- I am defined by a commitment or an obsession, to remember what has happened in the World, the economic South, the African continent and above all, South Africa. It is through constant remembering, committing to memory the events of past centuries, that we can understand processes by which we have come to being. It also through the evolving lenses of history, in the past as well as present- that we find courage to imagine and revisit the very dreams and ideals that propelled us forward in the first place.
Watching debates during the election campaigns, I thought of women, whose courage and ideals, apparently defying reason, spectacularly pushed back frontiers of patriarchy and untold power and aggression. They did so, in order to simply be, to exist and be women and citizens.
The political campaigns mirrored neither the reality of rising food prices, homelessness, and shocking rape statistics. Rural men and women, forced by a democratically elected government to live under the thumb of chiefly power, were also rendered invisible.It obscured the uncomfortable truth that through complex ways the Traditional Court Bill and Restitution of Land Rights Act, Mining Laws and The Traditional Affairs Bill dispossess the people whose loss of land during colonial and apartheid times, parliament is meant to reverse.Nor did it mirror the reality of women entrepreneurs whose potential is largely untapped because of lack of funds, even as there are multiple funding agencies meant to assist them. The political campaigns and empty promises failed to say, especially to poor communities how rising food prices have put tremendous strain on people’s livelihoods.
Listening to politicians and following their campaign, one often sighed that “this is not what it was about.”
This line ‘this is not what it was about’ became a mantra through which I rejected the empty rhetoric. I constantly reminded that as soon as elections are over, the business of Parliament entailed tabling and finalising laws that render a significant part of South Africa’s population vulnerable. This mantra, is also a way of remembering and honouring those who came before us and their dreams.
August is a month packed with “celebrations” of women of 1956. The same politicians who failed to acknowledge women as leaders, except in glib references, will be at the forefront of these events. The 1956 women’s march against passes represents a time in our history when women said “kwanele” it is enough. Behind, Lillian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Amina Cachalia and Sophie Williams (Later De Bruyn), the four women who went up the steps of Union Buildings, were twenty thousand women from all over the country, including far-flung rural areas. They possessed a conviction that the ties that bind women had to be expressed not only in the petitions they carried but also in how that march was organised.
As we celebrate their courage, we cannot help but reflect on our times. Others will focus on representation in politics. Others will turn their attention to South Africa’s private sector, and its resistance to real transformation and inclusion of women in the highest levels of decision-making. Some will look at the levels of sexual violence and homophobic violence and wonder, what does “zero tolerance” of crime actually mean?
We will have different answers. But raising them is a form of girding our loins for new challenges, opportunities in every institution and level of life in of South Africa.