Black Women and the Struggle: Marginalization, Poverty, and Patriarchy

By Published On: 7th November 2017

Winnie Mandela with a clenched fist. Photo: Gille de Vlieg


Last week, IJR in partnership with the African Film Network hosted a screening of the documentary Winnie that was followed by a dialogue titled Black Women and the Struggle: Marginalization, Poverty and Patriarchy. The post-screening dialogue centered around the erasure of black women and their ‘herstories’ from the collective South African historical record. It sought to highlight the critical role black women have consistently played throughout history in the struggle for black freedom and to unpack the triple oppression (race, class, and gender) of black women that have consequently rendered her as the face of poverty in South Africa.

There were two sentiments that emerged from the dialogue, which really resonated with me. The first was when an Indian woman got up and said that watching this documentary has inspired her to ‘own her anger’ and to continue to speak up and speak out about marginalization and non-recognition as a woman of color working in a white male- dominated tech industry. This idea of owning ones anger as a black woman and that anger being entirely legitimate because there have been concerted efforts to not only marginalize black women but erase them out of history.  History is his story after all. Owning your anger as a black womxn is also a direct challenge to the stereotype of the “Angry Black Womxn” that we are all implicitly and explicitly taught not to be for fear of being written off by society. We should stop fearing because this society cannot survive without the black womxn, despite its attempts to erase the black womxn from view. It is little wonder then that everyone knows the story of Nelson Mandela but few know Winnie’s story; not the story crafted by the media, by the ANC or by white people but the story of Winne Mandela as told by herself.

In the context of the global black struggle, there have been many women who fought against the white supremacist system and who have been erased from the historical narratives, for example in the Black British Panther movement. History has taught us is that revolutionary movements are built on the backs of black women. In the South African context, the stories of Winnie Mandela, Albertina Sisulu, Charlotte Maxeke, Sibongile Khumalo, Thenjiwe Mtintso, Khanyisile Litchfield-Tshabalala, to name a few, have been left out of the mainstream historical narrative that is taught to young people about the history of black struggle in this country. How many can honestly say that they know the narratives of these women, as well as they, do that of Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Steve Biko?

In addition to this historical erasure, there has been a culture of gendered silence that has accompanied being a woman in the revolution. That black solidarity requires the silence of black women; requires black women to be especially silent when it comes to gender-based violence inflicted upon their bodies as black women, black bodies which they have given over to the revolution. A recent article in the Mail & Guardian speaks of the sexual abuse women freedom fighters experienced. It is telling that it is only now in 2017, in the wake of the #MeToo campaign (which, again to prove the point of erasure, was started ten years ago by a black woman) that these stories are coming to the fore. It is this silence that young radical black feminists of the Hashtag student movements were not willing to keep. #RuReferenceList is a concrete example that illustrates the change in historical revolutionary praxis black women have been exhibiting in the fight for black emancipation. In short, we will hold black men accountable for their actions while we fight for black liberation. The conclusion of a Facebook status of a friend illustrates the point,

A second sentiment expressed by an audience member was that of courage. The question was asked, “Do we possess the same kind of courage that Mama Winnie had during apartheid?” Simply put, the world would not know the name Nelson Mandela if it were not for Winnie’s courage and perseverance in fighting the apartheid state. Winnie is the foundation upon which the Mandela name and legacy was built. During his exile and imprisonment, she would not allow the world to forget her husband and the other ANC cadres imprisoned on Robben Island. She is the one that had to deal with the daily oppression and terror of apartheid while raising her daughters in a simulacrum of life, dealing with regular arrests etc.  The film makes the case that without Winnie, Nelson Mandela would not have become the global symbol of black struggle against apartheid oppression. The ANC leaders in exile like O.R. Tambo did not foreground the imprisonment of ANC cadres like Mandela, but Winnie did.

The shaping of Winnie Mandela into the great sinner against which Mandela could emerge as the patron saint of the Rainbow Nation illustrates the effectiveness of captured narratives and erasure. A strong fearless, courageous woman leader like Winnie, for all intents and purposes, would have derailed the project of the Rainbow Nation. In the film’s telling, her politics would not have allowed Mandela to make compromises that would be detrimental to the people. Without Winnie to act as ‘the people’s anchor’ that could hold him accountable, it was easier for Mandela and the rest of the ANC leadership to acquiesce to the wishes of neoliberal (white and black) centrism that further drove the poverty, inequality, and unemployment that deepened after 1994.

The powerful role that Winnie played in the creation of the legend that is Mandela, in the fight for freedom of this country, was explicitly erased and not acknowledged. The creation of the ‘rainbow nation’ required the silence, marginalization and erasure of many black women, not just Mama Winnie. This rainbow nation will no longer be upheld and legitimized by the silence and erasure of black women.

It takes courage to be able to recognize and acknowledge your anger; it takes more courage to use that anger to challenge the system and speak truth to power to effect radical, revolutionary reconciliation. Radical and revolutionary reconciliation, in the words of Dr. Allan Boesak, seeks the transformation of persons and societies, their systems and structures, their politics and the intentions and workings of their policies. It seeks the transformation of the world.

Ashanti Kunene is an Intern for the Sustained Dialogues Programme at IJR

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