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Making History and Shaping Feminism

Perspectives of Indian-origin South African Black Women

Narissa Ramdhani ( teaches at the Vaal University of Technology, South Africa.

A historically grounded account of South African feminists, who were the products of an apartheid, colonial, and largely patriarchal society, is discussed, with a focus on personal narrative. The voices of seven South African Indian struggle icons—Phyllis Naidoo, Poomoney Moodley, Ela Gandhi, Judge Navanethem Pillay, Amina Cachalia, Rajes Pillay and Munniamah Naidoo—who dispelled the prescriptive role of women as understood in the country and among the Indian community are highlighted. They were the game changers who made history and shaped interpretations of feminism in South Africa.

This paper is based on my experiences in gathering histories that had been scattered through the apartheid years. I came of age at the height of South Africa’s freedom struggle and, today, I am a successful executive, a diplomat, an academic, an Africanist, a feminist, an activist (former and present), a mother, grandmother, and a wife. But this was not meant to be part of my life’s plan. The same is true for thousands of South African women who were not only products of an apartheid, colonial, and largely patriarchal society, but who also subverted traditional norms of femininity. How did these women become game changers, and how did race, class, and gender shape their struggles and their contribution to the country?

This paper is about women who were part of the struggle against apartheid. Many authors have written about feminisms in South Africa (Gouws 2008; Govinden 2008; Hassim 2002); here I draw upon a part of that unfolding her story. From 1994, after my return to South Africa and at the invitation of the late former President Nelson Mandela, I directed many special projects for the President and for the African National Congress (ANC) of South Africa. The more notable ones included the repatriation of ANC documents held in safe custody in 33 countries, the preparation of liberation records for use by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, the management of President, Mandela’s records and personal correspondence held by the apartheid-era security police, secret projects for the President and the development, implementation and management of oral history projects devoted to the resistance struggle by ANC activists and others.1 The latter
included the ANC–University of Connecticut oral history project (1999–2002) and the University of Durban–Westville Voices of Resistance Project. A further involvement in oral histories was related to my doctoral degree from 2002–08. These projects and the accompanying research exposed the voices of ­almost 1,200 South African activists and freedom fighters as well as anti-apartheid activists and exiles from 10 countries. Among these were the narratives of 505 women, including 105 South African Indian women. These voices spanned a ­variety of sources from high profile to illiterate and poverty-stricken women who had nothing else but their commitment to social justice to give to the fight for freedom from apartheid. This experience has led me to reflect on South African women’s legacy.

I interweave a personal narrative with those of seven South African Indian struggle “icons”Phyllis Naidoo, Poomoney Moodley, Ela Gandhi, Judge Navanethem Pillay, Amina Cachalia, Rajes Pillay and Munniamah Naidoo—who I refer to as game changers. These iconic women dispelled the prescriptive role of women as understood in the country, among the South ­African Indian community and liberation organisations, as they became key architects of South Africa’s struggle against apartheid. They engaged constantly on issues of gender, gender hierarchies, resistance and conflict, identity, and nation-building. They were game changers, whose legacies are shaping the newer generations in post-apartheid South Africa.

Politics of the Plantation Economy

To fully understand the value of the game changers who made history in South Africa, it is necessary to explore the politics of the plantation economy and its impact on the freedom struggle. A brief historical outline of this period shows how the history of South Africa’s liberation struggle has been shaped by the boatloads of over 1,00,000 Indians who arrived from 1860 to 1912 as indentured labourers to serve the needs of a plantation economy. For many like Kiru Naidoo, it was a “history rooted in the struggle credentials of their forebears who 140 years ago strode off ships of the Empire onto African shores” (Naidoo 2000). It was this plantation economy with its accompanying brutality that proved to be a critical factor on the liberation struggle in South Africa (Dhupelia-Mesthrie 2000).

However, while many scholars have been reluctant to label the system of indentured labour as a new system of slavery, there emerged one journalist, Henry Polak, who was determined to expose the evils of indenture.2 Classifying the system as one of “temporary slavery” and abhorrence, he compared the attitude of plantation owners towards Indian labourers as similar to the treatment of slaves in the Southern States of the United States (US). Indian indentured labourers were subjected to long days of work, poor diets, harsh living conditions, and the severest of torture for the slightest sign of non-compliance. Many committed suicide to preserve their honour instead of suffering further injustices of public flogging. Others bore the trauma of their daughters being raped by the lords of the estates as though it was their right to do so, and other such atrocities. Seedat Khan (2012), Desai and ­Vahed (2010), Diesel (2007), Goonam (1991), Marie (2014), and Meer (1975) have documented the vulnerabilities female ­migrants faced during this period, especially their constant vulnerablity to sexual violence.

The situation worsened when the Nationalist government came to power in South Africa in 1948. While colonialism
was devoted to the oppression of Indians and Africans, the Nationalists entrenched such oppression through the introduction of apartheid, which formalised racial segregation through a series of repressive legislations.3 It was, therefore, not sur­prising that the 1948 election manifestos carried vitriolic racist expressions. An example of this would be the manifesto of J H Loock, a Nationalist candidate in the 1948 elections, who proposed that

The dregs of India came here half a century ago to work in the sugar plantations ... The coolie is not an inmate of this country but a usurper and exploiter. Millions of people have recently been shifted in Europe to solve racial problems. Why can we not shift 2,50,000 coolies. (qtd in Dadoo and Jadwat 1948)4

That the racist and oppressive narrative was carried further was clear when Major P W A Pieterse, warning the House of Assembly in the White Parliament that he would not tolerate coloureds, natives, and others (including Indians), said, “Give me a machine gun and bring them before me and I shall mow them down as far as they come” (qtd in Dadoo and Jadwat 1948). Such utterances foreboded the unrelenting savagery that was to follow for the next 40 years.

For women, it can be said that they bore their horrific violations as a “sword of vengeance” (Naidoo 2000). From colonialism to apartheid, struggle and resistance remained a strong part of their heritage. From their resistance on the cane fields, railways, and coal mines, to their resistance on the factories and docks, and much later to their resistance in educational institutions, they contributed in a meaningful and significant way to South Africa’s liberation struggle, having been active in campaigns as early as 1913 in the Satyagraha campaign, to the downfall of apartheid in South Africa. Yet, very little has been documented about their lives, indicating that, in the South African historical scholarship, Indian women are barely visible or even given much recognition due to the patriarchal nature of South African society as well as of the struggle in which they participated (Hiralal 2014; Govinden 2008).5 Even President Mandela lamented the dearth of research on the role of women as he continued to call into question the treatment of women in South Africa. He was acutely aware of the role these women played in the struggle and in shaping the future of the South African nation as mothers, leaders, and spouses. He said, “Freedom cannot be achieved unless women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression ... therefore our liberation must be about the liberation of the Woman.”6 His directive that women should comprise a large segment of the oral history projects provided an inspiration for the careful crafting of women’s histories.

Women in South African Diaspora during Apartheid

Apartheid provided the most horrific conditions in which class and colour coincided, placing South African women of colour at the bottom of the ladder, with white men and women occupying the uppermost rungs. Many of these hierarchies were rooted in the colonial past, which also exacerbated the gender gap between the sexes. Life roles were set at birth by skin colour, sex, education, achievement, class, and economic status. For Indian South African women, there was no way to change this, except by causing an entire society to change. For them, suffering torture and persecution, detention without trial, house arrests, banning, indefinite imprisonment, and solitary confinement were an integral part of their participation in the anti-apartheid struggle and the formation of women’s movements in the country. Many were affected through their involvement in the boycotts, arrests, and political trials, while others suffered through the long and indefinite imprisonment of husbands, fathers, sons, daughters, and friends, and even the deaths and kidnapping of their loved ones. In celebrating the role of women in the South African struggle, Phyllis Naidoo (2001) emphasised that these women’s lives, their selflessness, their nobility, their heroism, their tremendous integrity, and their footprints are etched in “our soil, in our democracy.”7

As issues of race and colour played a pivotal role in these women’s decisions to become politically active, it is important to note that the women I interviewed were in agreement that they were not race conscious. While growing up, they did not realise that there were coloured, Indian, Chinese, black, or white. For Amina Cachalia, a close friend of Nelson Mandela, and a prominent player in the women’s movements:

I did not know there were differences between people … we lived, and I was just a kid really on the street. I never knew I was Indian. I knew I was Muslim because of my family background. My Dad was a religious man and so was my Mum and they taught me the Islamic rules of life and so I knew I was a Muslim, but an Indian, no. I had gone to a Coloured school, but there were all of us there, Indians, Chinese, Black kids and there were a few white kids too ... So we were all a very happy cosmopolitan crowd of kids and never knew the differences between us, until much later in life when I was sent to an Indian school … Everyone looked like me. Then I began to question my parents.8

It was in this Indian school that Cachalia began her political activism through her understanding of second-class education and the issue of race and politics that segregated education
institutions. She was also exposed to Indian teachers who were members of the Communist Party and of the Indian Congress; they were politically active and passed such consciousness onto their young charges. She was 12 years old at the time and, hence, learned the art of underground organisation and the importance of attending meetings and demonstrations early in life.

In her highly placed role in the liberation struggle and her relationship with struggle icons like Govan Mbeki, Nelson Mandela, Oliver Reginald Tambo, Chief Albert Luthuli and Thabo Mbeki, to name a few, Phyllis Naidoo consistently wanted to be known as a human being, rather than Indian, and it was this humanity that guided her political journey. Known as the mother to all exiles, and a member of the Communist Party, Naidoo also indicated a lack of knowledge of race and colour in her childhood. Her family had come to South Africa in 1902 from India and she grew up in a poverty-stricken community which included people of all races. She knew no difference between them. They were all human beings like her. Like Cachalia, Naidoo knew her language and religion. She was of the South Indian group and spoke Tamil, which was the language used at home. Although she wrote letters for her grandparents in English right up to Standard 6 (Grade 8), her grandfather discouraged her from speaking English in the home as it reflected the power of the British colonial authorities. She remembered the wrath of her grandfather, when, at age five, she returned from school and greeted her grandfather in English. He warned her never to use that language “in my home.”9 Her father on the other hand, encouraged her to speak the language of the oppressor. “We have been brought away from India,” he pointed out, “In India Tamil is good because somebody will employ you, will give you a job if you speak Tamil. But in this country, it is English.”

Such interactions over language made her aware of the dilemmas of language and religion. But, as Naidoo grew older, she turned away from religion and described herself as an atheist.

This whole idea of God, for me, is a horrible thing I must tell you, because then you depend. You pray, like you pray for the bloody lotto, for some help, thinking that the lotto is going to give you and you know it won’t. You can waste a whole lifetime of 20 cents or whatever you pay for the lotto, you have got to work, this is your God, this, your hands, nothing else.

Her grandfather broadened her view of humanity by making her believe in the value of workers. He explained that “people who work, workers, must be fed first, children and workers.” This emphasis in the value of workers played a major role in encouraging Naidoo to join the Communist Party. Like Naidoo, many women in the 1930s and 1940s became active in the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA), which played a significant role in politicising this group. When she was 10 years old, she attended a race relations meeting with her father, who was a teacher. The meeting comprised all races and she was charged with serving tea to all present when a white woman ordered her to “go and call the boy.” Being unaware of which boy the woman was referring to, she walked down a passage and saw an old Black woman with a long dress. She communicated the woman’s message to her whereupon the old lady responded by saying that the “boy she wants is my husband.” Naidoo burst into tears. Having found his daughter in such a distraught state, her father took her home and explained the race hierarchy to her. For Naidoo, that experience was a significant moment in her decision to fight the oppression of the state and racism.

Understanding Race, Colour and Apartheid

Like Naidoo and Cachalia, I was uneducated on the issue of race and colour when I was very young. My father, Harrynarain Ramdhani, was the grandson of an Indian indentured labourer who had arrived in South Africa in 1892 to work on the railways. My mother, Savitri, was the matriarch of the home. I was born in Clairwood, a mixed-race community that lay adjacent to an industrial area. From the day my sister and I were born, in accordance with cultural values of my community, our lives had been pre-planned by the extended family structure: education only up to a certain level, thereafter an arranged marriage to someone of the same caste, and thereafter a life that my mother lived, as did her mother before her, tending to the needs of husband and family. In Clairwood, I remember a childhood with friends who were Indian, coloured, black and white. I never saw them as being different from us; neither was I aware of something called apartheid, which was already official policy in South Africa since 1948. However, my naivety disappeared when I was about seven years old. My father was a horticulturist who tried to establish his first horticultural enterprise in our town. The obstacles he faced on this path were horrendous. I recollect accompanying my dad to various white-owned businesses where he was verbally abused, threatened with physical violence and treated in a manner that clearly affronted his dignity, especially in his young daughter’s presence. In many instances he was driven off the premises of white business persons by ­vicious guard dogs. I recall that on many occasions I would return home in tears, complaining to my mother about “what they did to Daddy.”

Unknown to me, this was the lot of South Africa’s oppressed majority. By this time, my parents realised that it was necessary to explain apartheid and its racial policies to me. Their explanation perplexed me, but I silently promised that I would ensure that such people did not get the opportunity to treat my family and friends in this manner ever again, and thus began my politicisation. From my youth to my adult years, I recall all our family dinners revolving around the politics of the country. It was during this time that I learned about my father’s participation in the many rallies and demonstrations at Red Square, so named because it was especially used by the members of the South African Communist Party. This open space was symbolic of the Indian role in the resistance struggle and the Defiance campaigns; the space disappeared when a parking garage was built there in 1967. My political education received a further boost during my visits to my paternal grandfather Robby Ramdhani’s home in Sea Cow Lake, where many clandestine meetings with Indian activists would take place.

The material conditions of our lives could have acted as barriers to political participation. My parents struggled, working tirelessly to feed and educate us. Although my parents were extremely poor, I inherited cultural wealth in terms of moral and educational values from them. They believed in the commitment to truth, education, and social justice. Most important of all was their view that young Indian women needed to strike out of traditional boundaries, educate themselves, seek their independence, and never allow themselves to become dependent on a partner. These bold views and values remained unwavering against the extreme pressure from their community and extended family. As a result, they lost their place and respect in the Indian community permanently. Yet, their sacrifice has blessed me with the following characteristics: I am determined, principled, righteous, committed, and tolerant. All of this made my sacrifices for the struggle and further adversities to come, even more worthwhile. The treatment of my father remained etched in my memory. Witnessing family, friends, and colleagues lose their lives, or the lives of their loved ones through police torture, detention, disappearances, and persecution, along with everyday indignities and ill treatment inspired me to join the struggle from my student days, resisting an oppressive apartheid state.

Being an Indian South African Feminist

Being Indian, did it really matter? It mattered to many Indians like myself as it shaped the horizons—including building barriers that we had to resist—of our thoughts, actions, education, marriage, and careers. Further, being “Indian” had consequences in terms of South Africa’s race classification: we received an inferior education, were deprived of skilled occupations, and treated as third-class citizens. Like other Black South Africans, we were stripped of any sense of dignity and any human rights. Race permeated every fibre of our being. Yet, despite these burdens, I matriculated with good results, arranged my own funding, and obtained initially a university undergraduate ­degree, and then two postgraduate degrees in South Africa, before leaving an infant daughter and fleeing to the US as a political refugee, where I obtained another postgraduate ­degree. All this happened despite constant discouragement from extended family members and the Indian community in my area who remained adamant in their beliefs that Harrynarain Ramdhani’s daughters did not know their place and that they deserved to be outcasts, and would never find suitable husbands. So many of us were confronting the triple burdens of being women, ­being Indian, and being oppressed not only by the state, but by the constraints of community and extended family structures that were patriarchal.

Navanethem Pillay, a South African jurist and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights from 2008–14, found herself confronting similar dilemmas. During the course of her interview, she outlined various challenges she faced when she wanted to pursue a career in law. These were aggravated by the fact that when she completed her articles as a lawyer, she experienced difficulty securing employment as she was an Indian and a woman.

What motivated me and many other students to consider law, was this injustice that we saw all around us. There was no justice for black people. All the laws, which we regarded as immoral and unjust laws and that we had to defend our people against those laws … But I experienced much opposition from my parents, the community and even my school teachers. Out of fear, my parents discouraged us completely … And because they were so poor they would discourage us from any involvement in politics. And I recall once, my parents saying to me very angrily that: “Do you think that that you are now equal to the Europeans? Is that what you have the presumption to assert?” And I put it down to the fears that controlled them … Many in the community also resisted my career choice, arguing that “she is very presumptuous to start a law practice.” My community bluntly reacted by pointing out that “you are a bus driver’s daughter, you should not even think about that.” Even my teachers discouraged me in my career choice.10

Her first legal case was that of Naidoo, who later became a lawyer herself, and was charged at the time for failing to report on a Monday to the police station, as she was required to report every Monday morning. This oversight was due to Naidoo nursing her young baby and studying all night for her law exams. She only remembered about reporting three–four days later and was charged for that. She requested that Pillay, who had only opened her practice for about three months, defend her as she could not afford a lawyer. At the time, her sentence was one year, where, after most of it being suspended, people only served four days. But Naidoo was required to serve seven days. While in prison Naidoo learned about atrocities inside the women’s prison and came out determined to address this issue. According to Pillay, this brought a new dimension to Naidoo’s perspective on the situation in South Africa.

For Naidoo, her interest in participating in any protest activity and in her joining the 1946 passive resistance movement did not meet with the approval of her community or her parents. Her father admonished her with the following question, “Do you think I educated you so that you can go to prison?” She was the only woman to attend the meeting held with Chief Albert Luthuli to discuss the inclusion of Indians in the ANC; she recalled with much bitterness that the men speaking in Tamil enquired “What is this Indian woman doing here?”

Many Indian women who participated in anti-apartheid activities in South Africa experienced such barriers in different arenas of their lives. An exception was Ela Gandhi, the grand-daughter of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Coming from a highly prominent political family and community, she did not face such attitudes, although she agreed that most Indian women had to face such attitudes of the community. Even after entering the realm of resistance, including being with organisations such as the ANC, Indian women activists lamented the treatment of women in the struggle. Ela Gandhi, Phyllis Naidoo, Amina Cachalia, Rajes Pillay and Navanethem Pillay were unanimous in their views that women were discriminated against in struggle activities. For Gandhi, women had to struggle or prove to their male colleagues that they were capable of accomplishing the same goals as other activists. For Naidoo, the ANC was no different from the “society we came from.”11 Although there was a Women’s section in many of the exiled units, women were required to do “women’s work,” such as sewing. Although there were attempts to “uplift women,” such as by appointing them as representatives in foreign offices, these were undertaken through the efforts of women themselves. There was no genuine attempt to empower women activists or exiles.

Rajes Pillay, who was prominent in the underground movements, was more cautious in her views on discriminatory treatment of women by liberation organisations, reminding me that one could not talk about oppression of women by these groups while greater oppression affected them all. However, she also said that women were not placed on the frontlines. They were charged with taking care of the crèches and the injured from the trenches. In contrast, Navanethem Pillay, a member of the Unity Movement, was opposed to the view of “liberation first and gender liberation later.” As the organisations were controlled by men who felt that gender issues distracted from the resistance strategies and tactics, she believed that this view was detrimental to the work of women in the struggle. Many women interviewed for the various projects recall the high levels of sexism and harassment suffered by young women at the ANC school in Mazimbu, often at the hands of ANC leadership figures.

Women Activists’ Experience of Suffering

Reflecting on their narratives, I would argue that men in the struggle failed to take into account the painful and torturous experiences suffered by women. Many of these experiences surpassed the trauma suffered by male activists. Moreover, what emerged from the interviews was not just the physical pain, but the emotional toll that the torture, harassment, and underground nature of their activities and constant fear had on the women. Moving from country to country, sleeping at different locations regularly to escape security police, leaving home suddenly in the dark hours of the night or in the early morning hours and leaving babies behind exacerbated their emotional trauma. For instance, Poomoney Moodley from Mooi river in Natal—whose grandparents were indentured labourers and whose passion for fighting injustice led to her incarceration under the apartheid government’s 90-day detention laws—was cruelly tortured and suffered solitary confinement. It was said that her screams could be heard by male inmates all across the prison courtyard. Another game changer, Cachalia’s participation in the Defiance Campaign of 1952, led to her imprisonment along with 11 other Indian, one coloured and 17 black women. Her husband Yusuf Cachalia was also imprisoned and mentally tortured through solitary confinement. Given these circumstances, her family life was non-existent as her children suffered severely, especially as a result of the
imprisonments and police raids.

Suffering epitomised the experience of all of these game changers, though the exact details varied. Phyllis Naidoo suffered through the imprisonment of her husband on Robben Island for five years while she had to take care of the children. It was this experience that inspired her to devote her work to looking after the welfare of those imprisoned on the Island. Following her ban in South Africa, she went into exile in Zimbabawe and Lesotho. While fleeing to Lesotho, she trudged its icy and harsh landscape of Lesotho in the dead of night, risking frostbite and death. While in exile, apartheid death squads continued to hunt her, and mercilessly bombed her home using a parcel bomb. Pieces of shrapnel from the Lesotho bombings of 1982 remained lodged in her kidney and created many health problems for her until her death. All of this did not matter, she said, in comparison to her greatest loss, which was the merciless death of her son in Swaziland at the hands of the apartheid police.

The harassment of Rajes Pillay who was deeply influenced by Naidoo, at the hands of the security establishment was unbearable for her and it resulted in her going underground. It was very stressful, she explained, especially since she never slept at home, and had to be on the run 24 hours a day while protecting her comrades from arrest. But, after the Soweto Uprising of 1976, she was ordered to leave the country and seek refuge in Swaziland, and thereafter in Mozambique, and then Zambia. She was constantly on the move due to the fear of further attacks from the South African state which was involved in the kidnappings of many activists from across the borders. After the apartheid state bombing of the ANC office in Lusaka in 1989, which caused the death of her commanders, she became ­extremely traumatised and finally suffered a massive nervous breakdown which resulted in her being sent for intensive ­medical treatment.

Ela Gandhi was a victim of bannings, house arrests and surveillance for almost two decades while her husband continued to suffer in detention. Both her sons were harassed and arrested. While one son was arrested for 90 days, her second son, who was 30 years old, was tortured and eventually killed by the security police in 1993. She painfully explained that “it was the worst thing when they picked up my son ... I just wondered why they did not pick me up, why my child.”12

All the narratives tell of the immense power of women, who, in spite of such turbulence in their lives, took their strategies and struggles to new levels, thus moving from the peripheries to the centre stage. This was achieved further through the formation of many women’s organisations and youth organisations and through the planning of many women-only protest marches and demonstrations, proving that they were skilled organisers and tireless campaigners. Further, during my interview with Cachalia, I learned more about these strategies. She alerted me to her role in the formation of the Women’s Progressive Union and the Federation of South African Women. While the former was devoted to women’s education and economic independence, the latter was devoted to securing political freedom. The Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW), formed on 17 April 1954 in Johannesburg, was a strategic attempt to form a national organisation representing women of all races. Delegates numbered 146 and they represented 23 lakh women nationally. The FEDSAW pledged to secure full equality for all women, regardless of race, with Cachalia assuming the role of executive member and treasurer. The FEDSAW played a key role in the well known and successful Anti-pass Women’s March of 1956 where about 20,000 women marched to the union buildings of South Africa to meet with Prime Minister J G Strijdom (SAHO nd). The FEDSAW had proved that it was a force to be recognised, while reversing outdated stereotypes of women as politically ineffective. Indian women such as Cachalia and Rahima Moosa played key roles in the strategies surrounding such struggle protests and demonstrations. These protests by women continued until the 1980s, when the Pass Laws were lifted.

Yet, evidence of sexism among the liberation organisations remained evident following this march. “That was a landmark in the lives of all women and for the liberation struggle,” explained Cachalia, as they proved that they could accomplish this without men, who remained sceptical of the successes of this march. Years later, after their release, she discussed this with President Mandela and Walter Sisulu and emphasised that “You people did not agree with us because we did it and you did not do it.”13 Gandhi remained scathing of the attitudes of men and remained pained by the fact that “we had to struggle for our positions within the organisation. it was a constant battle ... but we not only struggled, we proved to them that we could do things and the 1956 march really showed that women can achieve a lot.” Both Navanethem Pillay and Rajes Pillay agreed that this march helped to turn the tide for many aspects of the struggle.14

South African and Indian Identities

While this period epitomised unprecedented upheaval and pain for the voiceless and vote-less, these women, through their experiences, demonstrated a proud heritage of South
Africans. Equally significant, for them an Indian identity was less important than the struggle to end injustices and bring about freedom and dignity as South Africans. All the women I interviewed emphasised that their contributions and identity were shaped by the issues of race, class, patriarchy, and traditional beliefs. Phyllis Naidoo remained dogged in her views on this issue, saying,

You know if you think of me as Indian, I don’t think of myself as Indian, I am a South African. I was born here, my father was born here, my children were born here and died for this country. I am a South African. Nobody’s going to take that away from me, even the Indian community which says I am an Indian. I told Thabo Mbeki in a meeting, “I am not Indian, I am South African … we are one.”

This quote reveals how incredibly difficult it was for these women to meekly accept an Indian identity imposed upon them by the apartheid regime and with which they felt no bond.

Another poignant example of how identity was shaped was illustrated in an interview with Munniamah Naidoo, who was 91 years old at the time of the interview. Born in 1911 in Clairwood and of a mother who came to South Africa as an indentured labourer from India, she lived in poverty without access to electricity and water. Yet, she joined the passive resistance movement in 1946—she suffered incarceration for 32 days in prison in Pietermaritzburg and was allowed no visitors—having left her children, including a little baby, behind. When the prison officials asked her why she chose this route, she explained, “I South Africa ... this country fighting ... I want a country.” She further explained that while in prison, a person of authority came there and informed them that “Tomorrow you must go India you all, plane to India.” Her response which echoed the views of all the other Indian women prisoners was

No I can’t go. We South Africa. We come here. We not India. We not go. I came fighting my country, my country I want it, that is why I do this. One lady, Subaikum said ‘No I can’t go to India, I came here. I can’t go’. I struggle like this. I leave husband and children at home. I come fight my country. I want it. Family support me but no family come to see me. No mother no father. My children only worried. Then mother and father die when I in prison.15

My own views on identity were no different. I saw myself as a South African, an African, and a black person in what was a race-conscious South Africa. I believe that I spoke for that generation of South Africans of Indian origin which was confronted by race, racial discrimination, inequality, sexism, and political oppression, not limited to just disenfranchisement. For example, during my years at an Indian university in South Africa, my history grades never ventured even onto the borders of respectable. In spite of my numerous attempts to improve on these grades, I did not succeed. I was told that in the writing of my history essays, I demonstrated intellectual independence which was not acceptable to apartheid education. My history professor, who was white, pointed out that Indians “are not allowed to think.” Navanethem Pillay pointed out that, like me, she was accused of “thinking with her blood.” These experiences with racist lecturers were common at universities. Many were determined to ensure that black students did not move beyond “an arm’s length in education.” But it made us more determined to succeed as South Africans.

South African Black Feminist in the United States

At the height of the struggle in 1982, I married my partner who further supported my commitment to fighting injustice in South Africa and redressing the historical legacies of apartheid. Hence, in later years, he remained in South Africa, taking care of my ageing parents during my exile in the United States (US). Four years after our marriage, we were blessed with an adorable baby daughter, who became, like her mother, another child of the struggle. At only four months old, she experienced a baptism by fire, as I had to move to Connecticut in the US.

For me, the dilemmas of identity and its subsequent shaping became clearer whilst living in the US during the exile period. Far from apartheid South Africa and appearing neither “black” nor “white” according to US racial classifications, I was constantly required to justify my origins in terms of country and race. The common perception was that I was Hispanic. I did not fit in with Indians, Pakistanis, and Sri Lankans studying at university, since I could understand Hindi but could not speak it. I also felt distance from people who refused to see me as black. My political identity of black South African, which I shared with the game changing icons featured in this paper, served as a challenge to many people in the US. My insistence on identifying myself as black introduced the register of colour into the conversation. Many people I met used the US criteria of race and colour to remind me that I was brown rather than black. But to me, in apartheid South Africa, we chose our race as identities of resistance, and that remained important. Perhaps, the reason for such views could best be found in Amartya Sen’s explanation that the use of multiple identities stems from the “decolonization of the mind which demands a firm departure from solitary identities and priorities” (Sen 2006: 99). This prevents us from accepting the political categorisation of groups that have been imposed for the purposes of oppressing human beings.

As a graduate at the University of Connecticut and as a research fellow at Yale University, my activism knew no bounds as I involved myself in the many anti-apartheid rallies and divestment campaigns in New York, Connecticut, and Washington. As a fellow at Yale, I was exposed to the numerous Africanists from around the globe and many of the South African exiles who were spread across the world. I recall that while attending a research seminar in 1989, we received news that the ANC, the largest resistance movement of South Africa was going to be unbanned and that its President, Nelson Mandela, was to be released after 27 years in prison. This was totally unexpected even for us exiles and activists. But, subsequent months proved this was no joke as we received news via the underground networks that intense negotiations were taking place for the unbanning and release, which occurred on 2 February 1990. It is difficult to describe how I felt watching those events unfold on television from New Haven. I do know I cried a lot, especially for friends and family that were killed, tortured, or just disappeared. Those days passed in a blur as I asked many questions of the almighty and of myself. I knew that I had overcome my adversities and anything that followed would be mere shadows of these tortuous times in my life.

Three years later, while still at Yale, I received a phone call that changed my life forever. President Mandela asked me to take charge of collecting and organising archival material spread across countries. In 1994, I returned to a free and demo­cratic South Africa, cast my vote for the first time in my life, and took up a position in President Mandela’s office.


I have not used the word feminism too often in this paper because the game changers did not use the word. However, their work and lives exemplify the best principles of feminism. The resistance and change wrought by South African Indian feminists provide lessons for contemporary generations to be resilient and to stand firm in the face of such adversities and brutalities. Apartheid was a long-drawn-out process that combined genocidal horrors and extreme violence, and acts as a cautionary history lesson for all people across the world. As President Mandela famously warned that “never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by the other.” This oppression includes the oppression of the country’s women. Therefore, the South African case is an important one for all people.

Simply put, apartheid placed many brick walls around all spheres of our existence in South Africa, especially for the women, from inferior educational opportunities, to segregated residences, to access to facilities, career opportunities, and political participation. Sexism within our communities and within the struggle added more hurdles. Like the many women before us, we learned that these were temporary setbacks and that brick walls were there for a reason. They taught us that these walls were not there to obstruct us, but to allow us to demonstrate how badly we wanted a free and just society. Having been the inheritors of such a worthy legacy, we developed the necessary mechanisms to navigate them and, hence, I have, like the many women before me, used them to reach unimagined success. This reflection also demonstrates feminism in action. It is a part of our attempt to challenge large bodies of knowledge, which brazenly neglect to acknowledge the agentic nature of women. Women have made and will continue to make history, but, if their contributions are made invisible, it only enhances the power of patriarchal groups to dictate very restricted lives for women.

My interrogation of these voices shows how, through their struggle to overcome racial segregation, gender discrimination, patriarchy, and class struggles, South African Indian women proved that they were game changers of the political architecture as well as thought leaders who made history. We simply have to continue to value the power of the mind and the determination and maturity of women. The case of my country clearly illustrates this.


1 The documents that were repatriated numbered approximately seven million pages and were located in the most unlikely places globally. The management of Mandela’s correspondence held by the security police was a highly sensitive project and was undertaken with much secrecy and with the aid of certain Afrikaner police officers who were willing to cooperate.

2 Henry Polak (2006) developed a relationship with Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in 1904, was articled to Gandhi in 1908, and qualified as an attorney.

3 Apartheid divided the population into four separate groups: Indians, Africans, coloured and whites governed by classification from birth based on a combination of skin colour, physical appearance, language, group and descent. This classification decided what kinds of employment were given to them, whether they were to be awarded, or denied voting rights. It also decided where they lived, where they could own property, go to school, which hospitals they could be admitted into, the modes of transport they could use, restaurants they could use and who they could marry. This division was really a part of the policy of divide and rule. But, the people in all these groups rejected apartheid labels, choosing rather to call themselves black and, thus, allowing this to shape their identities, as indicated by the subjects of my interviews.

4 Quoted in the paper entitled “South Africa—On the Road to Facism,” which was presented by Yusuf M Dadoo and Cassim Jadwat to the India League, in London in 1948 (in the possession of the author who was presented with many such confidential documents in the underground years and while in the US).

5 For recent exceptions, also see the archive South African History Online (SAHO nd).

6 Interview with Nelson Rolihlala Mandela held at his private residence in Houghton, Johannesburg, 20 November 2002. This interview was undertaken for the purposes of my doctoral dissertation.

7 This was an article which Phyllis Naidoo wrote in celebration of Women’s Day in South Africa. President Mandela pushed for a day to celebrate the role of women. This date was chosen in commemoration of the 9 August 1956 Women’s March to Pretoria.

8 Interview with Amina Cachalia held at her residence in Killarney, Johannesburg, 5 October 2000, ANC/UCONN Oral History Project.

9 Interview with Phyllis Naidoo, held at her residence in Umbilo, Durban, 23 November 2000, ANC/UCONN Oral History Project.

10 Interview with Navanethem Pillay held at her residence in Durban, 11 August 2002, Voices of Resistance Project.

11 Interview with Ela Gandhi held in Parliament, Cape Town, 2 October 2000, ANC/UCONN Oral History Project.

12 Ela Gandhi interview.

13 Interview with Amina Cachalia for my doctoral research, Luthuli House, 1 December 2001.

14 Interview with Rajes Pillay for my doctoral research, Documentation Centre, University of Durban-Westville, 30 August 2001.

15 Interview with Munniamah Naidoo held at her residence in Durban, 25 June 2002. Her daughter, Govindah Moodley, who was 75 years old at the time of the interview, was also interviewed. She was only 16 years old when her mother was imprisoned.


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Desai, Ashwin and Goolam Vahed (2010): Inside Indian Indenture: A South African Story 1860–1914, Capetown: HSRC Press.

Dhupelia-Mesthrie, Uma (2000): From Cane Fields to Freedom: A Chronicle of Indian South African Life, Cape Town: Kwela.

Diesel, Alleyn (2007): Shakti: Stories of Indian Women in South Africa, Johannesburg: Wits University Press.

Ebr-Vally, Rehana (2001): Kala Pani: Caste and Colour in South Africa, Cape Town: Kwela.

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Hassim, Shireen (2002): “A Conspiracy of Women: The Women’s Movement in South Africa’s Transition to Democracy,” Social Research, Vol 69, No 3, pp 693–732.

Hiralal, Kalpana (2014): “Women and Migration in South Africa: Historical and Literary Perspectives,” Journal of South Asian Diaspora, Vol 6, No 1, pp 65–75.

Marie, Rowanne Sarojini (2014): “Across the Kala Pani: Untold Stories of Indentured Indian Women of Christian Origin in South Africa,” Oral History Journal of South Africa, Vol 2, No 1, DOI:

Meer, Fatima (1975): The Ghetto People: A Study of the Uprooting of Indian People in South Africa, London: African Publications Trust.

Naidoo, Kiru (2000): “1860: A Heritage of Struggle,” Mercury, 1 November.

Naidoo, Phyllis (2001): “Enshrining Their Legacy of Courage,” Sunday Tribune, 5 August.

Polak, H S L (2006): The Indians in South Africa: Helots within the Empire and How They Are Treated, Madras: GA Natesan and Company, Esplanade. 2000. 72, Digitised version from University of Michigan (2006).

SAHO (nd): “Indian Women and Passive Resistance in the 1940’s Women at the Start of the Century,” South Africa History Online,

Seedat Khan, Mariam (2012): “Tracing the Journey of South African Indian Women from 1868,” Contemporary India and South Africa: Legacies, Identities, Dilemmas, Sujata Patel, and Tina Uys (eds), London: Routledge, pp 35–48.

Sen, Amartya (2006): Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, New York: WW Norton and Company.

Updated On : 26th Apr, 2019


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