In the early hours of a dry, dusty and cold ninth day of August 1956, more than 20 000 South African women of all colours, hues, religious affiliations and political orientation, marched on the Union Buildings in Pretoria – the administrative capital of the country, to demand what was rightfully theirs: their civil, political and human rights. For them complete and total race and gender equality was not a dream but “an idea whose time had come.” In those dark days of the full rage of Apartheid, that was a move so courageous, so fraught with all manner of possibilities for their own, and their families’ physical harm and banishment or exiling that it is almost impossible to imagine why they dared to do this. But they walked, took trains and buses and taxis to make this point – which we celebrate this day, August 9th and throughout this month as well. Having witnessed the legalized persecution, marginalization and denigration of black Africans, and their men and boys in particular, they told the then Prime Minister, J. G. Strijdom (and indirectly to Min. Hendrik Verwoerd who was in charge of the so-called Native Affairs department who made his famous De Wildt Speech with the refrain: “Waar staan die baas? Die baas staan op die kaffir se nek” a speech made half a kilometer from THS …to which African people responded: “ Nnandzi’ ndod’ e mnyama Verwoerd…passopa Verwoerd) in no uncertain terms and in words now known, heard and that resonate all over the world every month of August: “Wathint’ Abafazi, Wa thint’ Imbokodo, uzokufa.” (Loosely translated: Now you have struck the women; you have struck a rock…)
Almost two decades later in 1975, the Catholic Sisters of Mercy founded Tsogo High School (THS) in Mmakau, De-Wildt with the same spirit and ethos of that 1956 march; that all children, regardless of colour, gender, political or religious affiliation and inclination, have an inalienable right – a constitutional right even (at the time not viewed as such) to quality public education that prepares them fully for leadership in their country. After all, this (the March) took place just two years after the Bantu Education Act of 1954 was passed – a law so draconian but clear in its mission and intent – Keep the Black Child – the female African child especially – uneducated, under-educated and in the position of perennial misinformation and perpetual servitude. The position that the founders of THS took, in those days was unheard of, that black children and black little girls in particular, deserved to read, write and master subject areas like science, mathematics, accounting, history and geography and not just home economics and carpentry – was an anathema. They also understood that ‘when you educate the girl-child, you educate the nation.” So, that we have many black and female authors, business people and accounting specialists, politicians, nursing and medical practitioners, lawyers, educators, scientists of all kinds who received their formative and further education from the Sisters – is a testament to their abiding belief in the multiplicative power of an educated female person. As female Tsogo students, we never got the impression that any of us were inferior to the male students or to anyone of any other race, culture or national origin. It was expected, and almost demanded (although subtly and through gentle persuasion) that we give more than 100% to our studies and our processes of acquiring knowledge and skills. We never, as girl-students, thought we could not be doctors, lawyers, scientists, policy-makers and politicians in our country and beyond, in fact because Sister Majella was our mathematics teacher par excellence (at least for the class of ’86 – my class), and was so competent in this subject, we thought collectively, albeit sub-consciously, that girls were better at mathematics and science than boys. With a female Principal, Sr. Majella, a female Deputy Principal, Ms Letebele, and many amazing female and black educators (we called them teachers in those days), it was clear that we were expected to; as it was tacitly inculcated in us, that the leadership of South Africa and the African continent, in all fields, was on our shoulders as female products of this great high school.
When I reconnect with my co-alumni of 1986 and beyond, and read of the many and wonderful ways we are contributing to the reconstruction and renaissance of our country and continent and when I hear about the creative, thoughtful, innovative and amazing girl-children they are raising; I am NOT surprised…in fact, I expect this of all of us. If the scientist that discovers the real cure for cancer or the AIDS vaccine is a female THS alumni, if the constitutional lawyer who develops a viable and practical constitution for the African Union or draws up working articles for transforming the United Nations Security Council or the Breton Woods Institutions that are practicable and universally adopted is a female THS graduate, if the best small (and large) business entrepreneurs or a few Pulitzer and Nobel Prize laureates and winners are female THS alumni – I, will experience not even a moment of disbelief!.
What Tsogo as an institution of learning and it’s founders did in terms of gender equality and universal access to quality education, resonates so deep and widely in the country and the continent, that it makes sense that the African Union (AU) and the Pan African Women’s Organization (PAWO) have declared the decade 2010 to 2020 the Decade of African Women (in Africa and the Diaspora) with the theme: “From Commitment to Action: Taking Forward the African Women’s Decade: 2010-2020.” In her Opening Remarks, Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said: The simultaneous commemoration of the Pan African Women’s Day in the 53 countries of Africa, is a tribute to the dynamism of African Women, who have always played their part in liberating this Continent, by amongst others showing great courage and leadership. As African women, we should be proud of the reputation we hold worldwide, that of being committed to justice, freedom and peace. We are known for our sheer self determination, hard work and above all, our readiness to improving the living standards of our families, our children and our grand children.”
As a female alumni of the class of ’86; I applaud the AU and PAWO and an eternally grateful to the Catholic Sisters of Mercy that this decade is finally here and that I am well prepared for the challenges and joy it will bring and we live to see the dream come alive.
Happy Women’s Day and Women’s Month to my co-Class of ’86 alumni and all current and former THS students and teachers.
Botlhale Mabatshidi Nong; New York, NY, USA
Tsogo Class of 1986