Rhodes University: The stories that never got told: reflecting on women and the armed struggle

In a two-day virtual colloquium, the Rhodes University Political and International Studies Department collaborated with Nelson Mandela University Centre for Women and Gender Studies and the University of Cape Town’s Historical Studies Department to bring together the voices and stories of women who participated in the armed struggle in South Africa.

Called “S’obashaya ngamatye”: Women and 60 Years of the Armed Struggle in South Africa, the event started on national Women’s Day 9 August 2021 and commenced on 10 August 2021.

Rhodes University student and programme chairperson Zikho Dana began the session by giving a brief introduction on the purpose of the day. Rhodes University Vice-Chancellor, Dr Sizwe Mabizela, issued an official opening and welcoming address. In his speech, Dr Mabizela said the colloquium provided everyone with the rare and valuable opportunity to spend time with and learn from some of the most remarkable women who made an immense contribution and selfless sacrifices in the liberation struggle. He acknowledged the significant role some of the guests played in the armed political struggle, honouring those who laid down their lives and gave their all to the cause. He added that it was an opportunity to document the history of the speakers’ contribution to a just society.

Dr Mabizela noted that by interacting with the veterans of our struggle, the youth could learn about the histories and gendered histories that will inspire and shape their future roles as researchers, practitioners, and future leaders of our society. “This platform allows us to learn from our elders, as they share their memories and the values that guided them as they prosecuted our liberation struggle,” he said.

Rhodes University senior lecturer and organiser, Dr Siphokazi Magadla, briefly introduced the keynote speaker, Honourable Thandi Modise. Honourable Thandi Modise left South Africa for Botswana as a teenager in 1976 to join the African National Congress (ANC). Modise was transferred to Angola, where she received her military training. Magadla noted that Modise was the first to return to South Africa to organise the women in the townships after receiving military training with uMkhonto we Sizwe. She was arrested in 1976 and received an eight-year jail sentence which she served at Kroonstad prison. “By the end of this colloquium, we hope to generate a systematic and connected archive of women’s lives, roles and techniques of leadership in the armed struggle in Southern Africa,” said Dr Magadla.

Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Honourable Thandi Modise began her keynote address by expressing her gratitude to the organising committee for their incredible work to give women a platform to tell their stories and shine a light on this crucial issue. Honourable Modise applauded the organising committee for the initiative, expressing her disappointment with the deliberate efforts to blot out the contribution of women to the liberation of the nation in the past. She also honoured her “mother”, Ruth Mompati, who had paved the way for women in the struggle.

Honourable Modise then went on to give personal accounts and descriptions of her experiences in the armed struggle. She told stories of journeys to foreign lands and the struggles women like her had to endure in an organisation where they were the minority. She highlighted the many significant roles played by women in the history of South Africa. Modise put great emphasis on the importance of giving credit to all those who played a role in the struggle, no matter how trivial it may have seemed. “We must also thank those whose job during the armed struggle was just to ferry messages,” she said. So often, the stories that never get told are those of women. “We must also remember that in every armed struggle, the women were not just on the curbside; they were involved. Sometimes they were involved on both sides of the struggle,” she added.

Modise thanked the women who had come before her, saying: “We thank them for their courage to stand.”

She honoured the likes of mam’ Charlotte Maxeke for being at the forefront of educating women and leading from the front.

After the keynote address, attendants were allowed to ask questions. Honourable Modise responded and engaged with the questions posed, giving much insight into how platforms like this celebration and commemoration could help educate the youth about their history and hopefully pave the way to a much better future.

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