Paul Trewhela: Activist Academic Phyllis Ntantala was Surely the Greatest SA Feminist Intellectual
16 Aug 2016
By Paul Trewhela
Phyllis Ntantala, who died in the United States last week aged 96, was surely the greatest South African feminist intellectual of our lifetime.
Born in Dutywa, a daughter of Gqubeni on the Nqabarha River, a daughter of Lovedale College and of Fort Hare, a liberation struggle stalwart and international academic, she was also the wife to one of South Africa’s greatest black academics and scholars of his generation, Professor AC Jordan, and the mother of one of the most eminent political intellectuals of the subsequent generation, the former Culture Minister, Pallo Jordan.
As a member of the anti-Stalinist Non-European Unity Movement in the Cape, she challenged the curse of patriarchal slavishness with all her being, all her life.
With Phyllis Ntantala, the Eastern Cape straightens its spine, stands up, lifts its chin, and remembers its heritage as the cradle of intellectual freedom in southern Africa.
You can just see it in her portrait as a young woman on the updated cover of her autobiography, A Life’s Mosaic (published originally in the US in 1992, and republished in South Africa in an updated edition in 2009).
In the portrait she looks open-eyed straight into the face of the observer, her mouth set, unafraid.
What a portrait! What a woman!
She died, as she lived, and as she presents herself as author, under her maiden name. There she is, her own woman, second to none.
Her story, like its subject, is best told in her own words. In her essay “The widows of the reserves” published in South Africa in 1958, Ntantala spoke from what she knew from her own childhood, close at hand but not her own experience, writing about “those young women in the prime of early womanhood left to face life alone, burdened with the task of building a home and rearing a family doomed to nurse alone their sick babies, weep alone over their dead babies, dress and bury alone their corpses”.
This was “the daily lot of tens of thousands of African women whose husbands are torn away from them to go and work in the cities, mines and farms – husbands who because of the migratory labour system cannot take their wives with them and, because of the starvation wages they receive, are forced to remain in the work centres for long periods…”.
Any attempt to summarise Ntantala’s poignant account of the impact of South Africa’s urban and industrial growth over the past century and a half, and particularly within the apartheid framework, would be to sell her short.
“Widowhood – a life of void and loneliness; a period of tension, unbalance and strenuous adjustment. And what can it be to those thousands of African women – those adolescent girls married before they reach womanhood, thrown into a life of responsibility before they have completely passed from childhood to adulthood…?”
But the men too, she continues, become “strangers in a strange land, but equally strangers at home to their wives and children”.
For Ntantala principle was a primary imperative. A reason for exile: “Like [the Russian revolutionary, Leon] Trotsky, I did not leave home with the proverbial one-and-six in my pocket. I come from a family of the landed gentry in Transkei, the kulaks of that area. I could, like many others in my class, have chosen the path of comfort and safety, for even in apartheid South Africa, there is still that path for those who will collaborate.
“But I chose the path of struggle and uncertainty.”
On her return to the Eastern Cape in extreme old age, she experienced the truth of modern South Africa, as if she’d been an ordinary woman in Khayelitsha, or Duncan Village, or a hundred other places.
She told the modern story the way it is, just as she always told it, with deference towards none.
“Places of death, not life.” That is what she called the hospitals of the poor, of the unwanted, the disposable: South Africa’s millions living outside the safety net of private health insurance.
“The state of public hospitals in the Eastern Cape is horrific. And I understand that the conditions I encountered there also apply to similar hospitals in other parts of the country,” she wrote in an article under her maiden name in the Mail&Guardian in October 2006, when she was 86.
“My assessments are based both on personal experience as a patient at the Nelson Mandela Academic Hospital in Mthatha in June this year  and on two visits to Mjanyana TB Hospital in the Ngcobo district, as well on information gleaned in discussions with health workers in the province,” she wrote.
“Although I am a retired professor of English and history [at Wayne State University, in Detroit, Michigan], I also have experience in the health field, having been a certified caregiver in the states of New York and Michigan for 14 years until 2003.”
She then went on to lay bare the painful reality of the Eastern Cape health system.
“I was born and raised in the Eastern Cape. On a visit home I collapsed on the night of June 7 and was admitted as an emergency case to the intensive care unit at Nelson Mandela Hospital.
“There I was stripped and lay naked in bed under an obviously used sheet for two days until a member of my family managed to bring me some night clothes.
“In all my 80-plus years I have never felt as insulted as I did for those two days and nights lying naked in that bed.”
“Never felt as insulted” … this said by a woman from the Eastern Cape, during whose first seven decades of life apartheid bestrode the subcontinent like a Colossus, and whose son Pallo suffered a near-death experience and serious wounds at Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo on August 17 1982 when Ruth First – in the same room – opened a parcel bomb sent to her by the apartheid death squad, which killed her.
Through her words Phyllis Ntantala continues speaking to us as if today.
The hospital in Mthatha was a “modern, state-of-the-art facility, well designed and with the latest equipment.
“Unfortunately, however, some of the equipment malfunctions. Toilet tanks, for example…. Waste is not flushed away. Nobody seemed to know why this should be so, or why lights in the wards are dim or do not function at all, or why there are no lights or bells for patients to summon help.”
After two days she asked to be discharged. “I felt I was safer at home than in the hospital. I only hoped when I left that my already thrice-used sheets were sent to the laundry.”
More shocking revelations were to come. First, the article was not her first resort to protest.
“I relayed my experience and my findings, in writing, to both the national and provincial ministers of health and only resolved to go public when I did not even receive the courtesy of a reply.”
This was the mother of a cabinet minister in Thabo Mbeki’s government! Unforgivable. Yet the normal fate of nameless thousands, for whom this woman of letters now spoke about a hospital with the name “Nelson Mandela”….
Then she found even worse conditions when she later visited Mjanyana TB Hospital. “A place of death, not life.”
She later returned to the US.
But even in that distant land Ntantala, never forgot who she was or where she had come from.
Who else would have prefaced her life’s story like this: “It was one evening at the Lincoln Centre in New York. Pavarotti’s voice filled the auditorium with ‘Mama’, one of those arias he sings so well, and the audience, in appreciation, gave him a thunderous ovation. As he came back for yet another bow, my mind suddenly flashed back, and that other world to which I once belonged came into sharp focus – the bends of the Nqabarha River…
“I sat down, cupped my head in my hands and bowed my head, softly saying to myself: ‘How strange! Little do all these people know … I come from Gqubeni along the bends of the Nqabarha River. That’s where my roots are. That’s me!’”
For Ntantala to have died in the United States is to South Africa’s shame. Not just the shame of the old apartheid system but the shame of the supposedly new and free South Africa, in which her son served in government and helped negotiate the current Constitution.
Yet through A Life’s Mosaic she has bestowed upon us a great legacy.
It should be compulsory reading for the informal groups of high-achieving young women who maintain the best standards in the banks, public companies and other institutions in South Africa today.
The curse of patriarchal slavishness – never so brazen or shamefully coarse in public affairs as today, under President Jacob Zuma’s administration – withered under her gaze, and under her pen.
Nothing was more foreign to this woman than the culture of cadre deployment, the party list and slate politics of the so-called New South Africa, by which women with not a fraction of her qualities are catapulted into the highest offices (provided they shut their mouths or are praise singers of Number 1).
Phyllis Ntantala remains a beacon of courage, achievement, integrity and intellectual stature for South Africa’s women of today and tomorrow – the best of guides to a better future. It is time to reclaim that heritage.
Paul Trewhela is a former political prisoner and retired teacher
(Image courtesy of Ground Up)