Transcript: International Women's Day 2021 Panel

Released on March 26, 2021


Video, Audio and Text Transcript

Transcript of the video:

Amelle Zeroug (00:01:37):

Good evening. I'm Amelle Zeroug, an Associate Publisher at Just World Books, a small independent publishing company, and this International Women's Day, I'm honored to moderate this important conversation on the role of women in South Africa's anti-apartheid struggle and the transnational and transgenerational connections that can be drawn from their activism. Today, we will be centering our conversation around the heroines whose stories make up the book Women Surviving Apartheid's Prisons by South African journalist Shanthini Naidoo who is coming to us from Johannesburg. Thank you for being with us, Shanthini. Women's Surviving Apartheid's Prisons is a profile of four heroines of the South African anti-apartheid struggle and documents their significant contributions to a democratic South Africa and their resiliency in the face of incarceration and torture. Sadly, like many women who led and grew resistance movements, their stories of long gone untold. So that is why this International Women's Day I feel very humbled to be a part of this conversation on the contributions of these revolutionary women and the movements they have set in motion. If you're joining us from the DMV, you can pick up a copy either at the Busboys & Poets 14th & V or Takoma Park. Otherwise you can order a copy from Busboys and Poets on and thank you to Busboys and Poets for hosting this space and for creating a reflective and supportive atmosphere.

Also, with us is Dr. Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, a veteran of the U.S. Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. Zoharah is an assistant professor of religion at the university of Florida and has a long history in the area of civil rights, human rights and peace work as a college student at Spelman college. Zohraha was active with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and spent seven years working full-time on voter registration and desegregation activities during the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Later, she worked for 23 years on the staff of the American Friends Service Committee. It’s a pleasure to have you here with us Zoharah.

And also with us is long-time racial justice, labor and international activist Bill Fletcher, Jr. Bill is the former president of TransAfrica Forum, a senior scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies and has served in leadership positions with many prominent union and labor organizations, including the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union, and has authored and co-authored several books and we're very grateful to have you with us.

So, we are going to open this discussion by introducing you first to the four heroines that this book is centered around after which we'll move into a broader conversation on the role of women in liberation movements in the South African and international anti-apartheid movements and in the U.S. Civil Rights movement. And towards the end of tonight's event, we will be taking questions from the audience. So please submit them through the comments. So Shanthini, if you'd like to introduce us to our first heroine.

Shanthini Naidoo (00:04:57):

Well, it's wonderful to see this is a picture from 1969 and 1970, when I believe Joyce-Sikhakhane Rankin, who was a journalist at the time, and now retired and living in Johannesburg, was living into exile if I'm not mistaken. Joyce Sikhakhane-Rankin was, as I said, a journalist who was one of the women who was detained in this child with, along with Winnie Mandela and the three other remaining women who are still alive and who still live in South Africa. So, Joyce grew up in Soweto from, in a prominent ANC family. And she became involved in activism when she was very young probably as a, as a child. And she's an award-winning author and journalist, and she worked at the world newspaper time magazine and the Rand Daily Mail at the height of the resistance struggle. It was part of the reason that she was detained.

If I can quickly read an excerpt from Joyce's contribution to the story:

In the early hours of the morning in May 1969, not two weeks after her engagement was sealed, the Security Branch came for Joyce. Five armed officers stormed into her mother's home in Soweto and arrested her. The move, she believes, had everything to do with her upcoming marriage, which was in contravention of the Immorality Act, which prevented interracial marriage: “They said I was a terrorist, because as an investigative journalist for a Johannesburg morning daily newspaper, I endeavored to inform the world about the brutal effects of apartheid on the Black South African communities. After working hours, I had attended to the welfare and educational needs of political prisoners and their families. Both work has been done in the full glare of public scrutiny. Like jackals hunting at daybreak they had to claim a pound of flesh on those of us who are determined to expose the naked brutality of the apartheid system.”

Joyce knew that her journalism attracted attention, and that her missionary work collecting funds around the country was considered a crime, but not that it would be as unforgivable as the regime made it out to be. The 2 a.m. wake up was ‘rude and unpleasant’: “By pouncing on you in a deep sleep they meant to deprive you of a vital orderly function. They started the anxiety machine immediately and your trauma began at 2 am. As the five Special Branch officers, at gunpoint, whisked me away at dawn from my mother's house to the solitary cell via the death row cell and Pretoria Central, I was convinced that I would die in their hands leaving my three-year-old an orphan.”

Amelle Zeroug (00:08:17):

Thank you, Shanthini. And Zoharah could I ask you to introduce us to Rita Ndzanga?

Dr. Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons (00:08:25):

Yes, it's my pleasure. Rita Ndzanga and her family lived in Sophiatown which was a dynamic melting pot of race and ethnicities. The community celebrated Chinese New Year, the Hindu festival of Diwali as well as Christian holidays. Rita’s family was Anglican. The community was really idyllic and idealistic and obviously in a racist South African led government, it was too idealistic. In 1955, 2000 heavily armed police moved into Sophiatown and began separating and segregating the community into ethnic groups. The residents resisted, they protested, but it was to no avail. Sophiatown was flattened out and wiped off the Johannesburg map. And so it became a quite Afrikaans suburb. This really was the beginning of Rita’s understanding of the injustices of the South African system. She began her activism as a labor union organizer and doing that was enough to put you on state's surveillance list.

She and her husband moved to Soweto. She met Joyce Sikhakhane-Rankin and Winnie Mandela in Soweto, and they became actively involved in setting up a local ANC branch. She was arrested, and I want to read  her description of the arrest, just a brief part of that description:

            In the early hours of 12 May 1969, Rita and Lawrence were forced awake by banging on their doors and windows. With the police dogs, large Alsatians with gnashing teeth, and bright flashing lights through windows, the children were roused from sleep. The police proceeded, over several hours, to search the house with little regard for the terrified screams of the four Ndzanga children. In the end, they confiscated books, private letters, newspaper cuttings and photos which had nothing to do with politics, or if they were political, were not illegal. None of these items was ever returned. At the end of the search, Rita and Lawrence were taken to the Pretoria Central Prison.

            It wasn’t the first time they had been picked up. ‘I think on three or four occasions, myself and my husband had to leave small children here in the house, and did anyone think of my children, these children at that time? They did not.’ Leaving her children behind was what worried Ma Rita most.

            The couple was taken into detention and would remain in solitary confinement with no news from or about their children. Although the children were in safe hands later in the day, the image of them being left behind in the early hours of the morning haunted Ma Rita throughout detention, in nightmares and visions during interrogation. She recalls that specific moment in time even today as her memory chooses where to take her…

            Ma Rita was to remain in prison for six months before the court appearance in December. ‘When I left home, I left only with my skirt and the coat I had on, and a beret. I had nothing else. I stayed in prison for six months without any change of clothes.’

Just thinking about her young children being left behind as they were driven away in police vans. I salute Rita Ndzanga. Thank you.

Amelle Zeroug (00:12:40):

Thank you. And then we have Shanthie Naidoo who is of no relation to our author and who grew up near Johannesburg's inner city in a highly politicized family. In fact, it was said that the Naidoo children didn't play house, they played meetings. As a young mother, she was involved in coalition building within the anti-apartheid movement, and often went door to door, young child in hand bringing awareness to the different causes that she was organizing around. In 1960, she was served with a five-year banning order meant to severely restrict her movements. But despite this, she continued to work as a trade unionist and help distribute contraband materials up until her second arrest in 1969. And I have a short passage to read as well:

            The Security Branch came for her on 13th June 1969, a few weeks after she'd read about Winnie, Rita and Joyce's detention. ‘I was in bed, at home in Rockey Street... They came in and in front of my mother, said: “Pack your bags, we are detaining you under the Terrorism Act.”

            ‘I didn't think I was a terrorist. Then again your life is political activism and I knew that Joyce, Winnie, and Rita were detained a month or so before me. It was in the papers… We later found out they went to our neighbors... They saw who was coming and going to the house.’

            She wasn't told why she was being arrested, or given any notice on what was going to happen. ‘I packed a few things, grabbed an extra dress too, underwear. It was winter, I took my overcoat with me luckily... It was so cold on the cement floor. I eventually used it as a pillow.’

She was not afraid, but worried about her mother not knowing where she was headed. One could disappear in the cells without contact with the outside world.

            ‘Solitary confinement is terrible, terrible.’ Shanthie stresses the point by squeezing the tissue in her hands. ‘Sometimes I would think they had better interrogate me. At least there was contact. I didn't have anything to read or anything of the sort. So you exhaust yourself, you do your exercise. You can't sleep, so you want to make yourself really tired. I would march and march. And I would do my prayers in the morning.’ She is still a practicing Hindu.

            This was how Joyce, Nondwe, and Ma Rita knew Shantie was nearby. Joyce had chuckled when she told me: ‘She would make a noise, Shanthie, singing her prayers early, early in the morning. They (the wardens) would tell her to be quiet, but she didn't.’

And I, I was just so struck by the steadfastness she proved, of having already received threats from the apartheid regime, a banning order, harassment, and an arrest, and that she continued in her mobilizing, and wasn't in any way, intimidated, just such determination. Now Shanthini back to you.

Shanthini Naidoo (00:15:48):

One brave woman in this trial was Ma Nondwe Mankahla. Ma Nondwe grew up in the Southern part of South Africa called Port Elizabeth, which in the 1950s and 60s was a bustling hub of anti-apartheid activism. Then ANC leader Govan Mbeki known as Oom Gav lived and worked there as did the Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko.

            [Ma Nondwe] found full-time employment at the printing and publishing company that was producing the [pro-ANC newspapers] New Age, Fighting Talk and the Pondo Revolt. This was of course another illegal act under the apartheid laws…

            Subscribers to the newspaper were multiracial, across the city. ‘But they could not collect the paper because they did not want to be seen. What would happen is that I would be given the New Age paper and a list of people I should deliver them to quietly. Every week I would take the paper to town to people who were distributing it.’ The newspaper was also used as a messenger service between banned people. ‘There was a Chinese grocer who sold the paper for us, and an Indian man who had a barbershop who distributed from there. They were also ANC members. From the barbershop I would come back with a fruit parcel to give to Oom Gov [ANC leader Govan Mbeki]. It would be an apple or banana. But in this fruit, there was something hidden. I didn’t have a problem because I was just carrying a fruit basket and my papers so the police were not paying any attention to me.’

            As the newspapers were banned, others were created. Nondwe remained a messenger for ten years. ‘We carried on, focusing on the townships, playing hide-and-seek,’ she says.  ‘In 1962 Oom Gov and others disappeared. I was alone in the (ANC) office with Caleb Mayekiso and a few people from the Textile and Food and Canning Workers unions. There was a policeman who was watching us. He saw me on the bus one day and he said: “You are always hiding. Today, I am arresting you.” She wasn’t given a chance to go home, to collect clothing or tell her mother and children that she was being detained…

And of course, she went on to be detained for nearly two years.

Amelle Zeroug (00:18:25):

Thank you, Shanthini. I would love it if you could offer some insight into the origins of this project and, you know, the, the journey that you and this book have been on.

Shanthini Naidoo (00:18:35):

It's amazing. I'm actually, I'm so privileged to be here with all of you today, especially Bill and Dr. Simmons, you know, to, to have such stalwarts in your own activism in the U.S. speaking about the story, which was a really unknown story from 1969. And I came across it while I was reporting on Winnie Mandela's death. And of course, Winnie Mandela being an international figure, the wife of Nelson Mandela who played a central part in our struggle for democracy. What we didn't know though, was that she was surrounded by groups of women including this one, which were her friends and even those who were not known to her, but were still dedicated to the cause. Like Ma Nondwe, who lived in the Eastern Cape, which is on the other end of the country from Johannesburg.

So at the time of her passing, I had gone to the prison to visit herself to write a story about the, the experience there. And of course, the cell was demolished, and solitary confinement doesn't exist in South Africa really anymore. So at the same time I came across this trial of, it was called the trial of 22 in 1969, which was the trial that led to her detention. But I'd found that there were seven women in total in that trial. And two had passed on, the other four, we've just spoken about now and were very interesting. The when, when you Mandela died these women came forward to her funeral. They were interviewed briefly in, in media and Ma Rita spoke at the funeral. And I thought these were her friends and comrades. I wanted to know more about their prison experience.

What was it like, and, and also to work out what they'd been doing for in the last 50 years, because I had found them in, in around 2018. And it was interesting to me the way that firstly, Winnie Mandela was portrayed when she died and the way that the narrative changed around her death, you know, from reporting on, on her as a, you know, as a militant, as a person who'd fallen off the rails and, and so forth. And, and, and where they'd been crossing over of her actual story as a mother, as an activist, as you know, the wife of a leader who was in prison for nearly three decades, you know, Nelson Mandela was in prison for 27 years. And the impact that that had on her was almost overlooked. She was expected to be you know to continue as any regular person yet her, you know, it was a daily struggle for that long period.

So I was interested in the mental health aspects and particularly because mental health came into question around the time of her death as well. And we couldn't ask her these questions. So I wanted to ask these questions off the women in, in who were in the child with her, and it turned out that their stories were absolutely amazing, the impact on their, on their lives, on their children, the bravery you know, the ton, the exile, all of it was really, really just fascinating, which developed into a bigger body of work, my thesis at a university here in South Africa. And from there was, you know we knew we couldn't contain the story and I was approached to, to, to produce a book from their lives.

Amelle Zeroug (00:22:38):

Thank you. And so what is the current status of, of these women heroines of the South African freedom movement in this book and beyond?

Shanthini Naidoo (00:22:48):

Well, they were very quietly, even at the time that I met them, in retirement. You know, you wouldn't have known them if you passed them in the street. And this is the thing that I found so fascinating about them is that they were, they, they were really part of a very significant trial. If, just to give you some context, it was the trial that happened six years after the Rivonia trial, which was the, the big trial that put all the male leadership either into prison or in, in, into exile more or less. And Ma Nondwe talks about how she was left behind. There was a scaffolding of the movement that was left behind to continue with the work. And these were the women in it. They were part of the, the, the, the broader sort of community that was left behind to keep the struggle going, which was over a very, very long period. So I suppose their contribution, they felt to be so you know, selfless that they went about the, the rest of their lives very quietly and very, without fanfare and without people knowing about what they were doing. So I had to literally sit down and meet them for tea to, to see for them to share their story, which they, they still don't believe it's remarkable, but I'm hearing you all speak about it now. It really makes me realize how important the contribution was.

Amelle Zeroug (00:24:21):

Do you feel that this erasure is changing in South Africa as it kind of is in the U.S.?

Shanthini Naidoo (00:24:35):

I think absolutely. You know International Women's Day for instance, is such an important event around the world. You know, and this relates a lot to I'm sure to Bill’s work around unions and working women and, and, you know, looking at class struggles and how even today we have such a huge gap in unpaid work in the world. And I think the difference now is particularly with social media, and there's a, there's a feeling of activism again in the world. I, you, you guys have experienced it very much in the U.S. in the last few weeks, I would say. And I think it is correcting itself, but there's still a lot more to be done.

Amelle Zeroug (00:25:32):

Thank you. I I'd like to bring Zoharah into this. I was wondering if you could speak on your experiences as, as one of the few women project leaders when you were at involved in SNCC?

Dr. Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons (00:25:32):

Oh, thank you so much. Yes. I was one of three, I believe, women project directors in Mississippi during the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project and beyond so, you know, this was 1964. We still had a heavy emphasis on male leadership and it's only now, you know, in the last, I would say decade or less that we're hearing about a lot of our women leaders in my case I really found that I had to confront quite a bit of sexism. And one of the things that really became sort of a bulls-eye against me was that I had said and put forth the idea that women were not to be harassed on the project by male project members. And so you had to sign a document agreeing to that. And during the summer, you know, we had a lots of volunteers and there was grumbling, but they, they did it.

And most of them left at the end of the summer and left myself and two other women who had been volunteers, but who had decided like myself to stay at the end of the summer, because our work was far from completed and little did. I know, you know, that many of my male comrades had heard about this pledge not to engage in sexual harassment. So they said we're not going there to work with those women. You know, and they started calling us the Amazon Project. So, you know, clearly women have had to struggle very much like our sisters in South Africa against the racist systems that we're trying to overthrow. And we have the internal struggles we have had and continued to have in many places the struggle with our comrades who we have to convince that we are leaders and that we are able to direct projects and that we have every right to demand that we be treated with respect and not be sexually harassed. So I think things are changing. And of course we know now with the Black lives matter. And so many of our other organizations, women are in the leadership. We know their names, they're out front. So I'm so happy that things are changing from when I started out as a movement activist in the early sixties.

Amelle Zeroug (00:28:53):

Thank you. Thank you. I know you keep saying things are changing. Can you speak on how you felt or heard that change?

Dr. Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons (00:29:04):

Well, I mean, as a person who has been in the movement for 60 odd years, I'm still, you know, active and I'm playing more of a role of telling the younger activists a lot of the things that we did through the snake legacy project and through the national council of elders to organizations that are preserving the history of our struggles and sharing those with our younger activists. So can see what's going on, you know, prior to COVID, I was out there with them but now virtually we're still having meetings and all of that, and it's a very different landscape. I mean, you know we certainly had males in the leadership, they were the ones focused upon and that has changed and I'm glad to see it. And I think it's a very good thing. So I think it's, it's quite obvious you know, the voting rights the voting efforts in Georgia and in other places, you know Black women were in the forefront of getting out the vote Latin, Latino women, native American women. So, you know, we're women are largely responsible for the positive change that has happened here with the elections of 2020. Thank goodness.

Amelle Zeroug (00:30:42):

Yes, absolutely. And back to when you were first getting involved in SNCC, how was the cost of your participation different from that of your brothers in arms?

Dr. Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons (00:30:55):

Well, I certainly, you know, had to go up against a lot of opposition beginning in my own family. So I had no support from my parents, from my grandmother who was the principal parent in my life. They were absolutely adamant that I was not to get involved and they tried to do everything they could to prevent it. As a student at Spelman, you know, Spelman had a view that, you know, Spelman women are not to be marching and going to jail. And I was you know, punished for my activism and several times threatened with expulsion also threatened to have my full scholarship taken away, which would have been the end of any college for me at that point. So it was you know, there was a struggle for lots of bus to be involved. We were not seen as people who should be in the forefront of the movement at that time.

Shanthini Naidoo (00:32:13):

Wow. That's amazing to hear that it was a global experience, you know, and, and similar times what was going on in 1969 Bill maybe if you can share I know it was Woodstock in in the U.S. you guys must've been really busy. But what did, what were you hearing because one of the only newspaper reports on this was in the New York times apart from the UK legal representation documenting it, one of the only articles was in the New York times around the, the arrest and detention of the woman and the torture, which came afterwards

Bill Fletcher, Jr. (00:33:00):

Well, you know, in the U.S. at that time, the, you had to really dig to get good information, reliable information on what was going on in South Africa, except at the level of the noted heroes like Mandela. So we heard almost nothing about the struggles of women in South Africa or the women leaders. And this was, but this wasn't just unique to South Africa. If you look at most of the national liberation struggles that were going on at that time what was held in front of us were the various courageous men. And then every, so often you get a sense that it was more complicated. When I noticed things really changing was actually in the context of the Nicaraguan revolution when the role of women was much more public. I mean, in, in, in Vietnam, we knew that there were women's soldiers, but the, in the case of the Nicaraguan revolution, there was this different sort of sense of the role of women and the change that was underway in the United States, our movement has always been a movement that has needed and has had Black women at its core.

And, but up until relatively recently they were not treated as leaders as Dr. Simmons is talking about. You know, even when you'd have organizations that be majority women, there would be men that would be leading. And it wasn't just men that were advancing the men as leaders. There was this patriarchal hierarchy that was encouraged. And it was, it was very strong, ideological, current and, and had to be, had to be taken on. And we saw that in the Black Panther Party. One thing that a lot of people don't appreciate is that I think that Black women were the majority of party members, and they were certainly the key force in the party. But you, with rare exceptions, you associate the Black Panther Party with certain men that were leading. And, and so over the years we've been breaking with that, but there's also been pushback.

And, and I'm talking about now where you, you have, I don't know whether this is true in South Africa, but you have men that are arguing that they've been displaced. And I think that we saw some of this show up in this election the presidential election in terms of the men African-American men and Latino men not overwhelmingly, but that, that started switching towards Trump. And I think that it had to do with, there was a certain appeal to appeal from Trump's massaging, and this is going to be something that we're going to have to take up going forward.

Amelle Zeroug (00:36:38):

Thank you. And I'm really interested in what you said, Bill, about men assuming leadership, and I wonder Shanthini if, you can speak to, you know, what happened to these women in the first democratic South African government, you know, how, how are they included or excluded?

Shanthini Naidoo (00:36:58):

You know, we are yet to have a female president in South Africa, I think that's quite telling at the same time there was a really interesting thing that happened when Nelson Mandela was freed for instance, and with a number of the, the banned and exiled activists, is that the relationships didn't last and, you know Winnie and Nelson Mandela divorced shortly after he was released and he remarried later on. And in terms of government structures, they will, there still are many women. And you know, there is representation it's still in the minority. The ANC also had a women's league, which was really what all was changed phenomenon big to them split up, you know, the party along gender lines when it was exactly what you can see from the child which was definitely a very integrated movement at the time.

As much as it was still difficult for women to be involved. I mean, you know, there was, this was the time when people were getting used to women wearing trousers in around the world, I think maybe and definitely in South Africa and where women were very much seen as the, and, and things like that. But despite the contribution, and like I said, Winnie Mandela was seen as the mother of our nation. She was the face of the struggle movement in many ways while the exiles leaders were away. So you would have expected perhaps for her to play a more central role. And perhaps it was the personal circumstances. There was also, you know, like I said, some militant activity when the struggle became an arm struggle, and a lot of that might've influenced why she didn't play a bigger role. And I think it's representative again, off of many other women, but later on, she actually moved on a little bit from the ANC, which was her political home and, and, and almost created a more economic sort of a rebellion party, which is still in existence now in South Africa. So it tells you a little bit about how welcoming and how women were viewed even if they weren't activists by the people of South Africa and also about in the government structures.

Amelle Zeroug (00:39:55):

Thank you. Zoharah, I'm hoping you can maybe speak to how you first connected to the anti-apartheid solidarity movement here in the U.S.

Dr. Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons (00:40:08):

Well you know, those of us who were in SNCC, we were always very, very interested in the liberation movements. And when I went to work for the American friends service committee in 1971 it already had a major South African program. And Michael Simmons was the director of it for a number of years. We had Bill Sutherland who was based in Tanzania as our Southern Africa representative. And so we, you know, through being a staff person at AFSC, you know, we were constantly learning about what was happening on the ground. And one of the things that Bill Sutherland did was to arrange for speakers people in exile to come to the us and Michael would set up speaking tours across the country for them. So this is how I got involved, and we had a very active group in Philadelphia in the community primarily African-American people who were very involved in the anti-apartheid struggle you know, Black people could relate to what apartheid meant on the ground, because we had just recently been able to make Jim Crow illegal.

And while, you know, many Black people lived all over the country. Most of them had relatives who lived in the South. And so they had been home to visit grandmothers and aunts and uncles, and they knew how life was. So, you know, we were just outraged that in Africa in a majority African country you know, the white people had set themselves up to rule by the gun and basically to kill and torture Black people who fought for their human and civil rights. So, you know, it was just no question in my mind, and in many, many people's minds that we were going to put pressure on the United States government to put pressure on the South African government to change things.

Amelle Zeroug (00:42:57):

Thank you. And what were some highlights of your participation in the international solidarity movement?

Dr. Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons (00:43:06):

Well, you know, I was hoping that you were going to direct that to Bill who had so much more of a role nationally. And I did, you know, we, we certainly you know, demonstrated if there was going to be a demonstration. You know, as I said much of the work locally was, you know, raising funds. We had a number of South African exiles that lived in the Philadelphia area that we helped to support and arrange speaking engagements with them. And the like so, you know, letter writing petitions. These were the things that I was involved in with the local group, and then through AFSC certainly helping through what was called the Third World Coalition of the American Friends Service Committee. You know, sometimes we had to pressure AFSC to do more particularly with its New York office at the UN and its offices in Washington, DC the friends committee on national legislation.

So we were working on many because of the association there with the American Friends Service Committee. I think one of the great things that the project did was to gauge working class Black people in the struggle against apartheid. And, you know, a lot of people were somewhat surprised at the workers you know, in Shreveport Louisiana, and then Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the unionized Black workers. That was one of the groups that Michael Simmons focused on in his organizing the anti-apartheid tad work. And so this you know, it was easy to get Black people organized to put pressure on our government to stop supporting the apartheid government.

Amelle Zeroug (00:45:28):

Thank you. Bill can you speak to your work in the international solidarity movement?

Bill Fletcher, Jr. (00:45:31):

So I was a minor character. I was a foot soldier in the movement. I got involved as a kid essentially because in my family on both sides of my family, very progressive overall, and we'd have regular discussions and debates about world events and, and the issue of South Africa of the Portuguese colonies of what was then Rhodesia, et cetera. This was something that we were always talking about. And I think, you know, my personal evolution starts with reading the autobiography of Malcolm X but then being influenced by the Black Panther Party. And so it was in the Black Panther paper that many of us were able to learn much more about was what was going on in these different national liberation struggles, trying to figure out what to do about them.

However, was much more complicated. And, but in the 1970s, there were movements that started, that were focused on divestment divesting you know, companies and organizations divesting from various institutions that were doing business with the Portuguese or the South Africans or the Rhodesians et cetera. And I became engaged with that as well as doing a lot of educational work. One of the big controversies in the United States was how to relate to the multiple liberation organizations in South Africa. And there was a high degree of sectarianism that existed. Those of us that were close to the pan Africanist Congress were often chastised. Then you'd have the Azanian people's organization as well as the agency. And this made things very complicated in, in the eighties and early nineties. Then I got involved in the eighties in a lot of the labor work that was developing, and there were these sort of parallel movements in the labor and organized labor around the anti-apartheid struggle as well as around U.S. policy in the Central American Wars.

And there was a struggle to shift labor away from its sort of pro-U.S. foreign policy pro-CIA orientation. And I was a minor cog in that wheel. The after Nelson Mandela was freed, and apartheid started to collapse. There was a, a real challenge that we faced here about our, the relationship with the liberation movement in South Africa. And there was some, there were very significant problems that took place and that, that play themselves out in terms of the support movement here, feeling like they would kick the side by the ANC, Randall Robinson, who was my predecessor at TransAfrica and was an incredible leader and played a major role in the setting up of the free South Africa movement was treated very badly initially by the AFC, and you know, while the damage was repaired later, it's a phenomena that I've seen with a number of national relation movements that have won that they have pushed aside their supporters in the United States, and that leads to some levels of bitterness and cynicism. So I took over trans Africa after Randall Robinson, but it was a completely different strategic moment. And that would be a lot for another story. And we can do that in a different interview.

Amelle Zeroug (00:50:07):

Thank you. And I think we have a question from our audience that relates to what you've been talking about, Bill. How important was the divestment campaign against apartheid?

Bill Fletcher, Jr. (00:50:27):

It was a global campaign and it was a campaign that was that the ANC and that other liberation forces encouraged, you know and that becomes very, very important for people to get that that it wasn't us in the United States imposing our will on South Africans, a South African movement was saying, this is something that needs to be done, but it was not like you just turned on a light and it happened, this was a movement that had to be built over time. And there were counter forces, including in the Black movement around this. There were those that said that divestment and boycott was going to hurt the South African people. And this was something, Leon Sullivan was one of the architects of that view. And were basically looking for the South African economy to change and act better.

But then you had something that was even worse that appeared in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan became the president. And it turned out that there were the, there was a very right-wing religious movement within a section of Black America. That was anticommunist was pro-UNTA, the group in, in Angola, was very anti-ANC and anti-PAC. And these people appeared out of nowhere, like cockroaches in the middle of the night. And they, it was, it was completely surprising because, you know, there was just this general assumption that Black America was of course, going to be supportive of the right side in South Africa. And all of a sudden these people appear almost by magic and they weren't. And the thing to understand is that they weren't simply creatures of the CIA, this, there is a segment of Black America that is very right wing, and we often don't want to acknowledge that and struggle openly against it, but they appeared in the 1980s and they were trying to push back. They were defeated, but they're still there.

Shanthini Naidoo (00:52:46):

Wow. That's really fascinating. Thanks for sharing.

Amelle Zeroug (00:52:53):

In fact, I was wondering if you could speak a little bit more about how this international action against Apartheid was felt from within South Africa?

Shanthini Naidoo (00:53:01):

Well I wasn't there at the time, but obviously the sanctions and the pressure from outsides of Africa. I mean, if you think about the project, it was actually, it's a such a ridiculous notion. It's the same as thinking of some like how we almost regard slavery now it's so fundamentally against any form of human rights to live that way that the rest of the world had to shun this country and kind of isolated so that it would you know, to, to try and put this pressure on the government. So definitely the effects they, they were you know hiccups in the, depending on who was in government debt, equity ever stage, but, you know from the superpowers, from the movements outside, and also knowing that a lot of our exiled leaders were in, in central parts of the world, like, like London and New York and things like that definitely put pressure on the, on the, the South African government and together with our personal struggle movement that was going on here.

You know, it, like I said, it became an armed struggle. The country was on the, on the verge of there was civil war basically going on. And all of this collectively made the government at the time you realize that it wasn't sustainable, which is why they started the negotiations to, to release Nelson Mandela and they unbanned the ANC. So definitely it was a collective effort to highlight the ridiculousness of the apartheid movement and, and, you know, how it survived for such a long time is it's remarkable in itself, but all that work over and, and, you know, Bill called himself, a foot soldier, the women in the story are also all smaller parts of a really big movement that is made up of very ordinary people who, who, if they hadn't played their part, we wouldn't be here today talking about this. So it's definitely, you know, the foot soldiers who don't give up, even, even though the, the, the struggle is that long.

Amelle Zeroug (00:55:40):

Thank you. And speaking to the sacrifices of these women, has the South African government made any effort to support them physically, financially, emotionally given the suffering that they've undergone?

Shanthini Naidoo (00:55:57):

You know, this was an interesting thing to, to think about, even for me, while writing the book, because Women Surviving Apartheid’s Prisons, I think the biggest thing that I took away from this is that these women were absolutely humble, but also very disciplined, which I think Dr. Simmons and Bill will recognize from the activism of that time. There was no social media to talk about the exploits. There was, they had to operate a place of secrecy. So the less said the better. And they didn't expect anything afterwards. They were you know, a small sort of pension funds which were given to veterans. But they live very, very ordinary lives. These women, and many, many of the activists who were involved in the movement to who didn't, you know, end up working in government and things like that, although they were very involved in the unions and did continue to do some work around unions as well.

And Ma Rita is the only one of the four who worked in the South African government under several presidents. But at the same time, still lives in her humble home in Soweto, you know, never they were given certificates by the South African government. One of one of the awards, unfortunately spelled Nondwe’s name incorrectly, which really tells you about how they were recognized. So I really believe, you know, this is what's part of the reason for sharing the story was to, to recognize them and, and the others that are unnamed, whose names we don't see. And this brings you back to one of my past conversations when we talked about, you know, women's activism as, as women's work. Work, that is, that is, you know, sort of unpaid and silent, but absolutely crucial. And I wonder if Zoharah if you can speak to that a little bit, if that means anything to you.

Dr. Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons (00:58:06):

Oh, absolutely. You know, certainly women, as we have been saying throughout our conversation women have played such strategic roles in the town where I worked in Mississippi, in Laurel, Mississippi, which had no infrastructure, nothing. I arrived there with some names of people to knock on their doors to say, would you like to have a project here to work on voter registration, et cetera. And I looked up because one of the first doors I knocked on was this woman named me Berta Spinks. And you know, I was like 19 years old, had no idea how you ask somebody, can I move in with you? And, you know, your house may be bombed and your husband will probably lose his job, but nonetheless, would you take me in? And, you know, she looked at me and she said, are you a freedom rider?

And I said, yes, ma'am. And she said, I've been waiting on you all my life, come in. And she was a woman in her early fifties, and she was the backbone and the beginning of the movement there in Laurel, Mississippi, that was very successful, but she wanted no, you know, whenever I wanted her to speak or whatever her thing was on, no, no, no. She was a background person. And you know, there were many women like that in the movement and women have played and continue to play. I think now they are getting the recognition to some extent and are letting the world know that they are leaders and they have vision and that they are carrying these visions out. But as Bill noted, because of patriarchy, a lot of our women in the movements of the sixties they were kind of shy about being seen as leaders, even though that's exactly what they were.

Amelle Zeroug (01:00:22):

Thank you. I wonder if you want to queue in a little bit more here, Bill?

Bill Fletcher, Jr. (01:00:27):

No, I, I absolutely agree. And that there is this, this patriarchal view that plays itself out in a number of different ways, including who is supposed to be legitimately a leader. And, and so the, the tendency to look towards male religious figures, for example, as being the leaders of the community. And, and so we, we, we have this end up the sense of being reinforced time and again but bottom line is that it's been changing and it's been changing through a lot of struggle, some of which has been very painful within the movement. And because it, because you're really talking about altering roles changing assumptions and, and one of the things you can see internationally, and it was true in the United States is that during many struggles for independence and national liberation various sectors of the population were told to put their demands on hold until after national liberation.

So workers were told, well, you know, don't push too hard until we get rid of the Europeans. European women were told, you know, yeah, this issue of male supremacy is important, but we'll deal with it later. And I think that what we found is that you can't separate contradictions like that that they, they interact. And, and so this idea, putting certain things on home is sort of like holding a, trying to hold a bubble under water. It just, it won't work. And when it comes up, it comes up sometimes in the most inconvenient moments. So I think that this has resulted in many changes within the movements internationally. Unfortunately there's also been in part influenced by the growth of postmodernism, those that try to segment struggles and look at them all as very specific to a particular sector and that you can't arrive at any kind of universal principles.

And that includes, you know, when, when we're talking about how to support internationally struggles against patriarchy, and there are those that say, no, you shouldn't because if you're not South African, how dare you criticize the way women are treated in South Africa, or if you're not Iranian, how dare you criticize the way women are treated in Iran. And it comes down to only whales can critique Moby Dick. I mean, it's absolutely ridiculous. And so I think that there's an internationalism that that really is important and it makes us discussion today on international women's day. So vital.

Amelle Zeroug (01:03:48):

Yeah, absolutely. Thank you. And I think, I think there's some really interesting transnational links to be drawn between anti-racist and anti-colonial struggles. Some are quite painful. In her book, Shanthini describes apartheid agents as coming to South Africa, having practiced their interrogation techniques in Algeria previously. I wonder if, this is quite a personal personally motivated question, but what kind of links, or inspiration was drawn from the FLN struggle in Algeria to, to anyone?

Shanthini Naidoo (01:05:13):

So, the, you know, I think I have to frame it a little bit in terms of these, the main sort of tortures of the woman were security branch police officials who you know just brutal in there in the interrogation of, of women and men fairly gendered torture as well. And you can imagine what they are, it's detailed in the book and many activists we know lost their lives.

People were thrown from buildings while they interrogated. So the links to Algeria, I know it's very, very close to your heart, but the difficulty with that one is that the African apartheid government sent these security branch policemen to Algeria to be trained in interrogation techniques by the French who had obviously done the same to Algerians. And you know, they learned torture methods, which are detailed in the book, which, which they sort of interestingly it was between the two important trials that I mentioned. So while the Rivonia trialists had been already detained and you know, in on, on Robin Island, the famous melon prison here between the time of that imprisonment and the, the 1969 trial was when the security branch had to spend time in Algeria learning these torture techniques. And it was really to get information out of people.

You know, some of it was very the mental torture was, was almost worse than the physical torture as the woman would say. They were meant to stand on bricks for days on end, in fact, Shanthie Naidoo spent five days without sleep. And when she was hallucinating spoke about what had happened something which had jumped you know, she mentioned flying in and she actually, hadn't been on a, on an airplane at that time, but the security officers wrote it down as her statement to which they put before court. And, you know, this is when it was disputed. And you know, I think the interesting part of this, this whole story is that despite everything that had happened, despite the really planned and very you know intentional torture and, and interrogation of these women that they didn't ever let their comrades down, even though they didn't know them. So that Algerian connection is something that Shanthie Naidoo talks about in the book. And you know, even now at 85 years old still remembers how the, how brutal that, that time was. So I hope that helps.

Amelle Zeroug (01:08:10):

Yes. Thank you. Zoharah, I know that you were head of the Quaker delegation at the Fourth World Conference on women in Beijing. And I was wondering if maybe you could speak to some of the power of transnational women's solidarity?

Dr. Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons (01:08:26):

Oh, yes. That was an incredible gathering the NGO forum you know, and of course, many people who might have learned about what happened when all of the women from around the world convert, you know, the Chinese put us all out in a small town called Huairou, which was about 30 or 40 miles outside of Beijing. And they, you know, they were not happy that we were there, you know, they wanted to host the UN gathering, but they did not want the NGO gathering that came along with it. So, you know, to have 40,000 women from every continent from every country all of whom were activists in their local communities and all, and just in spite of the hardships that we faced physically due to the lack of accommodations you know, they were not really prepared for us.

And then we had terrible weather in spite of that. We gathered from, you know, and I just went around meeting women from everywhere, hearing their stories of the organizing that they were doing to change, to make life better for women in their particular part of the world. It was phenomenal. And then I also, of course, was the delegate to the, to the UN gathering in Beijing which was also, you know, inspiring and moving. And I know I came back feeling so enthused about the possibilities for the rights of women around the world. And all these years later, you know, we're still struggling. I mean, we still have the violence against women. We still have so many things that we're fighting against and fighting for, but that was an incredible experience to be a part of the UN Fourth Conference on Women in Beijing.

Amelle Zeroug (01:11:01):

Thank you so much. I think it's probably time for us to, to wrap it up here, but I want to thank you all for this really incredible conversation and, and for creating this very special space. Thank you, Shanthini, Bill and Zoharah for everything you've shared with us today. I'd also like to invite the audience to visit Just World Educational’s online learning hub on Women in the South African Struggle Against Apartheid, which features resources and videos, including an online reunion that was held with the four women of the book in November. And I'd like to remind everyone that Women's Surviving Apartheid’s Prisons is available for pickup from either the Busboys and Poets 14th and V or Tacoma Park or online at And thank you so much to Patrick and everyone at Busboys & Poets for creating this space for us. Thank you.

Speakers for the Session


H.E. Nomaindiya Mfeketo

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