And she didn’t die: Lauretta Ngcobo and the political economy of women’s “vulnerability”
Lauretta Ngcobo, writer and feminist and South African icon, passed away earlier this month, aged 84. Dan Moshenberg reflects on her writings and life history.
On Tuesday, November 3, 2015, writer, novelist, essayist, teacher, activist, mentor, fierce and ferocious (and often very funny) feminist South African Lauretta Ngcobo died. In the past few days, many writers, and not only South African, have shared that it was reading Ngcobo’s work that led them to choose writing as a path and career. For what it’s worth, I have always directed those seeking insight into the years of anti-apartheid struggle to Lauretta Ngcobo’s And They Didn’t Die and Govan Mbeki’s The Peasants’ Revolt. In December 2012, in Africa Is a Country, Neelika Jayawardane named Prodigal Daughters: Stories of South African Women in Exile as a favourite book of the year.
The South African Sunday Times titled its obituary for Lauretta Ngcobo, “Lauretta Ngcobo: Writer and activist who gave vulnerable women a voice.” Lauretta Ngcobo knew better. She knew that women weren’t and aren’t vulnerable. Women are made vulnerable, by many forces. In Ngcobo’s works, State policy and patriarchal comrades colluded to oppress women, and then blame them, telling them their weakness and vulnerability had caused the oppression. Lauretta Ngcobo knew better.
Lauretta Ngcobo knew that vulnerability is neither status nor class nor caste nor rank nor state of being. Lauretta Ngcobo taught that vulnerability is never inevitable. Vulnerability is always a political and economic power relationship. Individuals and populations are designated and then produced, and reproduced, as vulnerable.
Ngcobo is often described as having opposed “both apartheid and Zulu traditions that limited women’s freedom and reinforced their oppression under apartheid”. While accurate as far as it goes, Ngcobo’s writing make it clear that she was a warrior for women’s emancipation and power as key to the emancipation of all of humanity. And that meant all women. Born in 1931 in Ixopo, in the sugarlands of KwaZulu-Natal, Ngcobo was well aware of the struggles taking place each second of each and every day. She knew of the struggles in the households and in the fields. She knew of the struggles among comrades, including the propensity to discount the worth of rural organisations, especially among the ANC and PAC in exile. She knew the difference between word and deed, and she knew the ravages of white supremacist patriarchy and of homegrown patriarchy, and she rejected both and each.
And she knew she was not alone. Lauretta Ngcobo’s writings and life history teach, and she was always teaching, that women’s solidarity is a tangible, material good, and that it is deep and powerful. She was not sanguine about the past or the future. In 2005, Ngcobo noted, “No matter what African women have done to fight side by side with African men in the liberation struggle, the tension between men and women remains the same, if not worse.” In her non-fiction prose as in her novels, Lauretta Ngcobo showed how “Black women’s associations made … collective rebellion possible.”
Writing of the Women’s March of 9 August 1956, Ngcobo recalled, “We, who were standing in the crowds, felt the waves of the voices in front and carried in another wave further down. (At the time, I was carrying my six-month-old son.) It was the most moving demonstration of dignity, unity and determination and has come to represent the courage and strength of South African women.”
Reflecting on the meaning of the life and life work of Lauretta Ngcobo, Angelo Fick concluded, “Lauretta Ngcobo’s passing has left a gap in South Africa’s culture of letters. It may take us some time to come to terms with the importance of her work and her life. Ngcobo’s work is indispensable for anyone interested to know how we were, and how we resisted, and how in that resistance, the lives and struggles of Black women cannot be forgotten or discounted.”
While her passing has left a gap, Lauretta Ngcobo’s life work has left a home for writers, activists, women, feminists, dreamers and builders.