The historian of South Africa on books she is reading for a new project on women and anti-apartheid activities in 1950s rural KwaZulu-Natal.
I thought extensively about Inkosi Mhlabunzima Maphumulo for my first book, To Swim with Crocodiles: Land, Violence, and Belonging in South Africa, 1800-1996 (Michigan State University Press and University of KwaZulu-Natal Press). As I consider the lives of several overlooked African women leaders for a new project on women and anti-apartheid activities in 1950s rural KwaZulu-Natal, I’ve been reading a lot of biographical work.
Sibongiseni Mkhize’s Principle and Pragmatism in the Liberation Struggle is a political biography of Selby Msimang. Born to land-owning farmers in Edendale, Msimang was a founding member of the African National Congress (ANC), an office-bearer in the multi-racial, anti-communist Liberal Party, and a founding member of the Zulu nationalist Inkatha Yenkululeko Yesizwe in the days it was still connected to the ANC. Mkhize’s focus on “principle and pragmatism” brings coherence to a political leader whose career spanned the 20th century and whose varied allegiances can at times appear erratic. Msimang remained dedicated to economic empowerment and the protection of black land owners; he was firmly anti-communist. The recent battles between the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal and the national ANC over the presidency hang over the book, as Mkhize shows when Msimang’s willingness to hang back enabled transformations in regional and national politics in 1951, making way for an ascendant Chief Albert Luthuli. As Luthuli expressed a willingness to work with communists, Msimang joined the Liberal Party and then, upon its disbandment (rather than defy new legislation against interracial politics), Inkatha. Mkhize’s biography stands out for its attention to a leader that lacks an “unbroken record of commitment to the ANC.”
South Africa’s HSRC Press Voices of Liberation series brings together analytical essays with the texts of important thinkers who shaped South Africa’s liberation struggle. Shireen Hassim’s Fatima Meer: A Free Mind became the second in the series on a woman. Hassim thus offers a resolutely political and intellectual biography of the scholar-activist who, when she was appointed in 1956, became the first black woman to hold an academic position at a white university in South Africa. Hassim shows Meer to be “driven by an activist sociology for a common society, by a rage against injustice and by a profound belief in the value and capacity for research to convince the powerful of the consequences of their choices.” The first woman to be banned, her political consciousness spread from Gandhism into non-racialism and Black Consciousness. Among other things, Meer thought deeply and published widely on Indians in a manner that embeds them in South Africa, rather than conceiving of them in liminal spaces. She established an independent publishing entity and research institutes to train black researchers and writers. She embraced biography herself, telling then suppressed stories of Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and Andrew Zondo, the Mkhonto we Sizwe soldier. This publication makes available some of the materials of Meer’s archive—from her published and unpublished research to speeches and her impressions of the US.
(I’m also excited about Bongani Nyoka’s discussion of the influences on and legacies of Archie Mafeje in the same series, but haven’t sat down with it yet).
Hassim’s study of Meer and Holly McGee’s Radical Antiapartheid Internationalism and Exile: The Life of Elizabeth Mafeking contribute to the increasing biographical work on women political actors in and around the Congress movement. In 1959, Elizabeth Mafeking captured the attention of the world, escaping apartheid South Africa without ten of her eleven children whom she would work to smuggle out to join her. Mafeking was the President of the African Food and Canning Workers’ Union and the National Vice President of the ANC’s Women League. She traveled the country organizing workers and in 1955 posed as a nursemaid to leave the country for the World Conference of Workers in Bulgaria, where she spoke out against apartheid. After touring collective farms in China and witnessing workers organizing in the Soviet Union, she returned home to aggressive state surveillance. The apartheid government named her “the most dangerous threat to native administration in the Cape” to justify her banishment 600 miles from her home. She escaped to a decolonizing Basutoland, where she unknowingly became the subject of a diplomatic quandary as the British considered the liability of South African refugees in Basutoland. Drawing on archives in South Africa, Lesotho, the United States, and recently declassified British Commonwealth Relations Office records as well as extensive oral histories with Mafeking’s family, McGee illuminates the life of Mafeking, from her trade unionism and self-imposed exile and back, considering how the union and women’s leader purposefully utilized motherhood as a political tool to undermine the state’s positioning of African motherhood as irrelevant. In her attention to letters and oral histories, McGee sensitively tells the story of a woman activist and her exiled family.
McGee situates Mafeking within international networks in which women promoted black nationalist causes—akin to the women of Keisha Blain’s award-winning Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom. Blain demonstrates the leading role of black nationalist women in the US, Jamaica, England, and West Africa in the era between the 1920s of Garvey and the Black Power movement of the 1960s. Blain pieces together the lives of women who did not leave archives, showing how the post-Garvey moment opened space for women to engage in black nationalist activism in new and innovative ways and on their own terms. Mittie Maude Lena Gordon, a Chicago Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) leader, launched the Peace Movement of Ethiopia, the largest black nationalist organization established by a woman in the US. Gordon and a number of other black nationalist women organized others in support of a back-to-Africa emigration project, maintaining a global racial consciousness and pursuing paradoxical but pragmatic alliances, such as with the white supremacist Senator Theodore Bilbo from Mississippi in support of the Greater Liberia Bill to fund emigration to Liberia. Blain analyzes these women’s principles and actions with great nuance, positioning them as proto-feminists who challenged patriarchal structures, but who were also complicit in promoting patriarchal visions of black liberation. They were committed to anti-colonialism and pan-Africanism yet subscribed to the belief that emigration would enable racial uplift on the continent. Notably, Blain brings African and African-based women, such as Adelaide Casely Hayford, into diasporic histories of Garveyism.