Sokari Ekine on Nomboniso Gasa’s Women in South African History

January 13, 2024
4 mins read

An Examination of Women’s Struggle Over Three Centuries

Friday, August 24, 2007.

By Sokari Ekine

Women in South African History traces the lives of South African women from the mid 18th century to the present day South Africa.

It is divided into four parts: Women in the pre-colonial and pre-union periods; Women in early to mid-twentieth century South Africa; War: armed and mass struggle as gendered experiences; The 1990s and beyond: new identities, new victories and new struggles.

This book is a radical departure from the traditional history texts, in that it uses a feminist analysis rather than the “more acceptable gender analysis” in its approach by examining “the ways in which gender intersects with race, culture, class and other forms of identity and location in South African history“.

By including the present as part of history, the book shows how the past and present are inextricably linked and thus better examines women’s experiences over the past 300 years. The experiences of women’s struggle and their continuing hazardous journeys towards liberation are expressed through the dual metaphors of “they move boulders” – challenges; and “they cross rivers” – dangers.

Women in South African History goes far beyond the many well known events and periods by feminizing those events and periods where women’s participation has never been acknowledged.

Despite the scarcity of historical and biographical narratives, the contributing author, Pumla Dineo Gqola is still able to document the lives of some slave women and more importantly the ways in which they resisted and revolted against their enslavement and their central role “to the historical constitution of Afrikaner society“.

Other examples are women’s mass protests against the carrying of passes in Bloemfontein and Potchefstroom in 1913; women’s involvement in the trade union movement during the 1930s; the participation of women in the ANC underground and military wing in the 1950s; township uprisings in the Eastern Cape in the 1970s and 1980s; naked women protests against lack of housing in Soweto in 1990; migrant women in Johannesburg and women learning to live with HIV/AIDS in present day South Africa.

The book concludes with a powerful essay by Yvette Abrahams, who chronicles her experience of researching and writing on Sarah Bartman or  Saartjie Baartman (1789 – December 29, 1815)

Abrahams dug up the real Sarah Bartman and not the racialised, sexualised object constructed by white male fantasies …a “living specimen of barbaric savage races,” one, who according to Lindfors the author of Courting the Hottentot Venus was willing to collaborate in her own degradation in order to earn more money.

Abrahams tears some of these racist, sexist texts to pieces and leads us through to the convincing conclusion that Sarah Bartman was a slave – a Kohekohe slave woman.


  Jacket cover: Women in South African History. CD is also available with the book.

Abrahams does this by connecting Bartman’s own personal history to that of the Kohekohe. Born in the pre-colonial period of the 1780s, Sarah Bartman must have had a Khoekhoe name and the only way she could have lost that name at that time was through slavery.

Also, the only way for her to move from her home in the Western Cape to England was as a slave. Sarah Bartman lied that she willingly exhibited herself because she was a slave and knew very well that her words would not be believed over that of a white man and the consequences of her telling the truth would have been too horrible to contemplate such as life imprisonment and even more degradation and abuse.

Abrahams again makes the absolute convincing statement without any hesitation or qualification that the “abuse and degradation” of Sarah Bartman was rape. Rape not only of Sarah Bartman but of the whole Khoekhoe nation. The white male racist, sexist texts she quotes in her essay are a form of “surrogate violence” against African women, Black women, Kohekohe women and Sarah Bartman.

She asked: “Was it not rape of a symbolic sort to parade the degradation ad humiliation of Auntie Sarah before me? Was it not a sexually violent act which expressed male power and my vulnerability to pain?”

“Has not each male author I have brought before you been unable to resist the temptation of demonstrating their psychosexual power and auntie Sarah’s inability to resist?”

Abrahams emphasises that in the place of false witness it is time to speak the truth.

Sarah Bartman whose real name, real self was stolen like that of millions of other slaves and their descendants is dead and therefore can no longer feel the pain. But she (Abrahams) feels it – I feel it and Black women throughout the world feel it. Every racist, sexist, misogynist text by whiteness against Black women is felt by all of us. The symbolism of this sexual violence is explained by a more refined and broader definition of ‘rape’.

In reviewing this book, I chose to focus on Abrahams’ essay because the story of Sarah Bartman speaks to the book as a whole and speaks to me personally. It is both the beginning – pre-colonial and the present – continued racism but always resistance.

Sarah Bartman’s agency was expressed in her act of survival against all odds. For me Sarah Bartman as a Khoekhoe woman represents the loss that came with slavery and colonialism as well as the struggle for liberation and emancipation.

Women in South African History is a trans-disciplinary interrogation of events and periods in the history of South Africa from a feminist perspective. The narratives bring to life the daughters of Africa in their quest for emancipation, sometimes at great cost to themselves and their families, particularly their children.

But always there is an unflinching determination – choices are laid bare and the choice is still emancipation.

Women in South African History is published by HSRC Press.

Its principal author, Nomboniso Gasa works on gender policy analysis. She is a feminist and is passionate about women’s roles in history. Gasa has written and published on gender equality issues, African feminism and related issues.  She has also done work on political transition in Nigeria and edited Democracy in Nigeria: Continuing Dialogues for Nation-building.  Her current focus is on the Making of a Man in South Africa’s Xhosa society, which is a historic and feminist critique of cultural practice and its continued and changing meanings.

Nigerian feminist,  Sokari Ekine is arguably the best female writer in the “African” Blogosphere.  Educated in Nigeria and Britain, Ekine is a social justice activist and is founder and principle author of Black Looks blog.

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