The Forgotten Black Women of apartheid South Africa

The Forgotten Black Women of Apartheid South Africa


In April 2017, I submitted my undergraduate research dissertation in History as part of my joint honours degree in History and International Relations. While taking the module Modern South Africa: Apartheid, African Liberation, and Democracy, I became fascinated by the role and the position of black South African women in the struggle against apartheid. Although the history of the continent has always interested me, the specific instance of the apartheid regime from 1948 to 1994 seemed particularly relevant to our current political and social climate. The simple fact that such a regime of oppression and segregation remained in place until the mid 1990s is shameful, and the fact that its effects and legacies are still prevalent today in South Africa highlights the relevance of this area of study. Furthermore, the liberation movements, such as the ANC, PAC, and UDF which emerged throughout this period not only helped to defeat apartheid, they also united and liberated African peoples from racial oppression. Although apartheid has often been studied through a race spectrum, it has only occasionally been examined through both gender and race combined. It was especially interesting to note that during the struggle, black women were not only forgotten, they were also silenced.

When watching excerpts of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), I realised that although the majority of people testifying were women, most spoke about their male family members, and not about their own suffering and experiences. The TRC was a court-like restorative body assembled in South Africa after the abolition of the apartheid regime, to which victims of gross human rights violations were encouraged to give statements about their experiences. The TRC has often been considered as a representation of national redemption, yet what does it express when women’s voices are only recorded when they predominantly describe male suffering? It therefore became clear that the history of South Africa’s fight for freedom would remain incomplete as long as black women were excluded by both their male counterparts, and western constructions of the struggle. As aptly noted by Nelson Mandela: “Freedom cannot be achieved unless the women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression”.  Accordingly, my dissertation entitled Black South African Women Fight for Liberation under Apartheid aimed at contributing to both a gendered and racial understanding of South Africa’s liberation. My intention was not only to highlight the position of black women in the liberation movements, but also to emphasise their roles in society more generally.

The most important thing I have learned through the writing process is that one’s arguments, one’s ideas and even the title of one’s essay evolve constantly. At first, I intended to highlight the contribution of black women to the national liberation movement; however, through the examination of both primary and secondary sources it became obvious that black women also fought for their own emancipation as women. Most secondary sources were useful in emphasizing the contribution of black women to the political sphere, but failed to acknowledge their efforts as mothers and providers. My research led me to discover the impact of black women’s creative expression through music, art and media. I was consequently able to conclude that through their maternal characteristics, political organisation, and creative expression, black women fought courageously against their oppressors both under colonialism, and patriarchy.

Emphasising the key role played by women in the liberation movement was not an easy process, as there is very little research on this topic. Accordingly, I had to be relatively imaginative in the presentation of my dissertation. Many of my initial hypotheses could not be tested, as I did not have suitable primary resources available to me. However, through perseverance and determination I was able to find ways around this challenge, and as a history student, I recognised the need to go beyond just reading academic papers and official documents, as very few of these discussed or focused upon black women. Accordingly, I chose to look at all forms of media used during apartheid as alternative sources of information. Although the apartheid state had a monopoly over information, and highly restricted access to media through censorship and subterfuge, it was through the many online archives such as the South African Historical Archive (SAHA) and Digital Innovation South Africa (DISA) that I was able to retrieve newspapers, newsletters, propaganda posters, photographs, and documentaries to build my bibliography. Furthermore, I realised that in order to highlight black women’s contributions to South African history, I needed to analyse and examine all kinds of sources, including song lyrics, paintings, and art projects. It was, however, from Peter Magubane’s photographs and recorded testimonies, that I was able to draw exciting conclusions. The photographs he took really encapsulated the determination and the consciousness of black women, which in turn played a vital role in the advancement of the liberation movements, leading ultimately to the abolition of apartheid.


Source: Magubane, P. and Lazar, C. (1993). Their fight for freedom. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

It is imperative to recognise the role of women in the liberation struggle in order to ensure that we not only have an accurate understanding of South African history, but so that black women today can recognise their strength and influence over their own country. Their sacrifices and courage are what sustained the liberation struggle, and inspired future generations. One of my most pertinent conclusions is perhaps that throughout the 1970s and 1980s the notions of intersectionality and feminism were already heavily articulated alongside the national liberation movement. The black women’s liberation movement was an obvious reaction to the strong adversity of the apartheid regime, creating the need for women to assert their identities as black South Africans, as well as women. Women understood from the beginning that without their consciousness and strength, their own position in society would have been at stake.

It is clear then that there is still much to be written on the contribution of women to liberation movements worldwide, and this dissertation is the beginning of future research into this area. Reading history has been for me an indispensable tool in order to acknowledge and understand the importance and impact of women, and more specifically black women, in history. I believe that by adopting such an approach to history, women can be reinserted back into the historical narrative, and will hopefully empower future societies.


Chloé RISMANN has just begun a master in Human Rights and Humanitarian Action at the Paris School of International Affairs (Sciences Po Paris). Prior to joining this institution, Chloé graduated with a First Class Honours degree in History and International Relations from the University of Dundee. After completing her masters, she intends to work in the field of gender equality in sub-Saharan Africa.