They walked together
11 Aug 2019
At PEN South Africa we focus on the relationship between freedom and expression, believing that the one cannot exist fully without the other. We understand freedom of expression as the right to be able to write, think and exchange ideas, unhampered and un-harassed, a right that is, crucially, also about full and equal access. These rights are in almost every instance, gendered; as the PEN Women’s Manifesto states, “For women to have free speech, the right to read, the right to write, they need to have the right to roam physically, socially and intellectually. There are few social systems that do not regard with hostility a woman who walks by herself.”
Our Women’s Day issue features a range of brave, inspiring women who have worked hard to create change, to push back against precisely this hostility. In this newsletter you will find an interview with Zubeida Jaffer, the anti-apartheid journalist once imprisoned for her activism, a tribute to Toni Morrison – one of the greatest writers of our time – a statement condemning the recent sentencing of Dr Stella Nyanzi, interviews with Alison Lowry, Thabiso Mahlape and Zukiswa Wanner, and a feature on the Sunflower Library at Zonnebloem school. It’s a baggy, rangy issue that responds as much to unfolding events as it does to the significance of our national holiday.
In Jaffer’s interview she reflects on the profound trauma of her imprisonment and torture, but states that when she emerged from jail it was with a deepened commitment to freedom of expression, “My detention made me passionate for everyone’s right to express themselves freely” and that today, she is gratified to see how South African women “cower less and stand up to tell their stories.”
Our interviews with the Alison Lowry, Thabiso Mahlape and Zukiswa Wanner, detail their extraordinary, game-changing work in publishing, and the feature on the Sunflower Library at Zonnebloem School-one of the oldest, most storied schools in Cape Town- describes a space as special as it is important.
Our statement on the recent sentencing of Dr Stella Nyanzi, an act that we unequivocally condemn, can be found here.
And finally, we mourn the passing of a literary icon, the brilliant and irreplaceable Toni Morrison, the writer who left no mind unstirred or heart untouched. Morrison was a long-time PEN member and the vice president of PEN International and today, her words are with me, “The function of freedom is to free someone else.”
In thinking through this issue, I found myself looking again and again at that iconic 1956 photograph of Lillian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa and Sophia Williams marching on Pretoria, protesting the implementation of the Apartheid Pass Law on black African women. Chosen because they were activists and leaders, but also because they were representatives of different racial groups, they made a formidable, compelling quartet. As a girl I poured over this photograph, moved by the women’s courageous and deliberate performance of trans-racial solidarity, and amazed too, by those out of shot, the 20 000 women who had also marched-at great risk- and who later would stand in silent protest for thirty minutes before singing ‘wathint’ abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo, uza kufa! [When] you strike the women, you strike a rock, you will be crushed’.
I thought about the many photographs that followed this one, of women holding placards at meetings, making speeches at rallies, women arrested, women frightened or firm faced, women marked by pain but still full of non-negotiable resolve. I thought about the images of women wiping tear-gas from their children’s singed eyes, the ones of women tortured, women banned, women attending funerals, women being buried themselves. South Africa’s battle for freedom has always been defined, shaped, insisted upon by women; at every possible juncture women have demanded and fought for their liberty.
I looked at that 1956 photograph and I wondered – not without heartbreak – how those four women would have felt about our country today, how they would have negotiated the landscape of unimaginable violence women and girls find themselves in, what they might have thought about the endless reproductions of small and large-scale misogyny. I imagined that Ngoyi, Joseph, Moosa and Williams too would have been heartbroken, but I also found myself hoping that they might have taken comfort in the remarkable women-some of whom are featured in this issue- who work daily to shift that paradigm and empower girls and women.
I thought about those 20 000 marching women and was grateful that our foremothers had set such an extraordinary example. Each one of them, named or unnamed, known or unknown, celebrated or forgotten, a profile in courage.
A Happy Women’s Day to you all,
PEN SA President