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Profiles in diversity

women in the new South Africa

Patricia W. Romero

Publication Year: 1998

A revealing oral history collection, Profiles in Diversity contains in-depth interviews of twenty-six women in South Africa from different racial, class, and age backgrounds. Conducted in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Bloemfontein, Vryburg, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Grahamstown, Durban, and a rural section of Kwa-Zulu Natal, these life histories encompass diverse experiences ranging from a squatter in a township outside Cape Town to an ANC activist in Port Elizabeth, who lost three sons to the struggle for democracy and who herself was imprisoned several times during what many in South Africa now refer to as the "civil war."  
     Nearly all of these women describe their formative years spent growing up in South Africa's segregated society. Three young black students discuss the hardships they experienced in an unequal educational system as well as aspects of segregation in their childhood. They are joined in their memories and hopes for the future by two mature women -- one now a high court judge in Durban and the other a linguist at the University of South Africa in Pretoria -- both of whom studied at Harvard in the United States. Nancy Charton, the first woman ordained as an Anglican priest in South Africa, speaks about her past and what led her, in her early seventies, to a vocation in the church.  
      Three Afrikaner women, including one in her late twenties, speak about growing up in South Africa and articulate their concerns for a future that, in some respects, differs from the predictions of their English-speaking or black sisters. Two now- deceased members of the South African Communist Party provide disparate accounts of what led them to lives of active opposition to the discrimination that marked the lives of people of color, long before apartheid became embedded in South Africa's legal system. Also included is an account by Dr. Goonam, an Indian woman who grew up in relative comfort in the then province of Natal, while Ray Alexander discusses how she witnessed the tyranny visited on the Jews of her native Latvia before immigrating to the Cape.  

Published by: Michigan State University Press


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

ARRIVING IN JOHANNESBURG on a chilly winter day, I threw myself on the mercy of Professor Charles Van Onselen, director of the Institute for Advanced Social Research at the University of Witwatersrand. Dr. Van Onselen and his staff were immeasurably generous to me during my stay, including providing a visiting appointment at the institute. Ruth and Manley Kapelus, alerted in...

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pp. 1-5

As SOUTH AFRICA MARCHED down the road of democracy, I began to wonder about the women there. How did racial and ethnic differences affect their attitudes toward change in South Africa? Did young women feel more positive than the elderly? Did poor women expect largesse to spill from the pocketbooks of the new government, while the middle class and wealthy anticipated a...

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Part I: Things Have Changed

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pp. 7-30

IN DOWNTOWN JOHANNESBURG, an elderly white woman with a small poodle tucked under her arm boarded the city bus, bound for one of the suburbs. Taking an aisle seat, the woman carefully placed the animal on the seat beside her. Gradually the bus began to fill. Soon, a young black woman boarded. Forced to stand, she deposited a large box in front of the woman with the dog, but did not actually close her in.

Part II: The Afrikaners

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“The Covenant is written out of the history books”

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pp. 33-40

JOAN VILJOEN IS AN AFRIKANER who hails from the rural northern Transvaal. She is representative of the many Afrikaners who fear change, and who have few choices as to where they can go. The Afrikaners are not homogeneous in their outlook for the future within South Africa, however. They are roughly divided among the mostly younger and relatively affluent, who are willing to go along with democratic rule, and the people...

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“I was brought up to think like an Afrikaner”

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pp. 41-45

MRS. BOHYSEN, BORN IN PRETORIA, is of mixed Afrikaner-American descent. Her father attended Cornell University in New York, where he met and married her mother, who, upon receipt of her college degree, had gone to work for the American Historical Review, which was then housed at Cornell. They removed to South Africa in 1932. Louise was born shortly thereafter. "My father was a Transvaaler and a true Afrikaner, I would call him. My...

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“We must try and compliment one another”

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pp. 47-50

MINETTE IS OF THAT GROUP of young adult Afrikaners who are poised on the brink and are trying to cope with the social and political changes that swirl around them. Young, educated Afrikaner adults tend to be more liberal than the preceding generations. Even those with close ties to the old hard-liners have tended to disassociate themselves from apartheid. For instance, one of Henrik Verwoerd's grandsons and his...

Part III: The So-Called Coloureds

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“Just for one day I would like to say ‘we have got you now”’

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pp. 53-58

LILORNE IS AN ATTRACTIVE, slim school teacher in her late twenties. She was born into what was legally defined as the Coloured race in South Africa-and looks much as if her roots were in southern Europe. In recent years racial designations have been rejected by many of the younger so-called Coloureds, many of whom trace their descent from illicit and forced sex between those who came to be called Afrikaners...

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“The role of the civic associations is not to be discounted”

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pp. 59-65

AFTER THE AFRICAN NATIONAL CONGRESS and the Pan-Africanist Congress were banned in South Africa, protests against apartheid continued at the local level. In this connection, civic associations formed all over the country. In the Cape area, Zora Odendaal became an active member of the Woodstock Civic Association, and later was one of two people-the only woman-appointed...

Part IV: The Jewish Women

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“Do you belong to a union?”

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pp. 69-76

A LONGTIME ACTIVIST WITHIN South Africa's Communist Party (SACP), Ray Alexander is also known for her role in organizing the Food and Canning Workers' Union in the Western Cape. This frail woman in her eighties suffers from a heart problem. She is a gentle person whose bright, shining eyes offset the dull grayish pallor of her skin. For three hours this legendary figure talked,...

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“I never treat anyone with discourtesy”

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pp. 77-79

ONE MAY WONDER HOW the future in the new South Africa could be of much concern to Dorothy Wiener. This frail wisp of a woman lives in a seedy, run-down retirement hotel in Hill Brow, considered to be the most crime-ridden suburb in the country. Originally developed to contain the burgeoning lower middle class, Hill Brow is unique among the Johannesburg suburbs because it contains...

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“Dear Colleague, please come to a meeting”

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pp. 81-90

BROWDE IS A MEDICAL DOCTOR whose specialty is radiology oncology. Medicine is usually considered a full-time occupation, but the energetic doctor has managed to carry-on several careers simultaneously with her practice. For instance, she was the only member of the Progressive Party to serve on the Johannesburg City Council in the early to mid-1970s; and beyond her foray...

Part V: The African Women

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“At home we were very poor”

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pp. 93-95

CHUBBY, ROUND-FACED CAROL is a student in Johannesburg. She landed a scholarship that enabled her to undertake remedial study to qualify for university. The lack of educational preparation to which she alludes is all too common among blacks in South Africa. Carol is from a family that lives on the edge of poverty. Only one of her siblings works-and it is his responsibility to support those who remain at home.

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“That is the section for blacks”

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pp. 97-101

TALL, SLENDER, GOOD LOOKING, and in her mid-twenties, Nelly Mashishi was born in Pretoria. When she was but a small child the family moved to the Orange Free State, where she grew up. Seated on a bed in a nicely decorated but small bedroom, Nelly speaks seriously but rapidly about the events leading up to her first unsuccessful encounter with higher education at the racially mixed University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

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“I am going to be something one day”

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pp. 103-106

TOSSIE IS IN HER EARLY TWENTIES, a student in Johannesburg who hails from Guguletu Township some distance from Cape Town. It was in Guguletu that a young American woman was murdered in late August 1993, while she was returning three black men to their homes after a day of helping prepare blacks for their first experience in voting. Guguletu, however, is no different...

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“I never knew … I would be bullied by an eight-year-old”

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pp. 107-110

RUTH BHENGU IS AN investigative reporter and columnist for the Sowetan. The newspaper office is located near an industrial park on the outskirts of Johannesburg, a few miles from the township. In a borrowed office, Bhengu courteously sets the late visitor at ease. Accustomed to asking questions, Ruth seems less comfortable on the other side of the interviewing process. Before...

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“The future of South Africa is more than political parties”

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pp. 111-116

"I WAS BORN AND BRED in the Transkei and then 1 came here [to Johannesburg) after doing my public health nursing and became involved with family planning-with Planned Parenthood. That was in 1970, which means I am more than twenty-five years with the organization. And I was the first nurse to be full-time, otherwise the other members of the staff were part-time and I was the first, from age 25 and on."

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“I am a sort of inspiration to the kids”

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pp. 117-123

DUNGI, A VIVACIOUS, BROWN-SKINNED woman, is seated behind her desk in her office at the University of South Africa, which is located on a hilltop above Pretoria. Her short Afro haircut lends height to this otherwise small but lithe woman. Her bright eyes sparkle. She speaks softly, in measured tones, about growing up in the northern Transvaal, and later her experiences at Harvard...

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“1976 was bad for me”

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pp. 125-130

IN THE NEW BRIGHTON TOWNSHIP, outside Port Elizabeth, Jumartha Majola's modest middle-class home is separated from the squatter shacks in much the same way that whites are distant from these squalid reminders of apartheid. Spatial distance aside, Mrs. Majola is very much involved with the poor youths who dwell in New Brighton. Her husband was a well-known athlete, having...

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“So I lost three sons in the struggle”

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pp. 131-137

IVY MGCINA ALSO LIVES IN New Brighton Township. She has devoted her adult life to political activism. As testimony to her commitment is the fact that three of her four sons were killed during the years the ANC was banned. Two were in exile, where they served in the ANC military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe [MK]. A fourth son, who was also in exile, carries scars from...

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“I don’t want to get married again” and “He will take care of me forever”

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pp. 139-144

MANNENBERG TOWNSHIP LIES ON the Cape Flats, miles from the beautiful city of Cape Town, which is cushioned between oceans and towering mountains. The township stretches endlessly over the flat, sandy plains, which are dotted with tiny little matchbox houses. Endless rows of squatter shacks run parallel as far as the eyes can see. In these dwellings that resemble chicken sheds,...

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“My family convinced me to go into nursing”

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pp. 145-148

GUGU IS A NURSE WHO works with the Valley Trust in the Bothas Hills near KwaZulu/Natal's Valley of a Thousand Hills. The Valley Trust runs a variety of health and educational programs aimed at improving the quality of life and health of the surrounding community. The majority of those who dwell in and around the valley are Zulu women and children. Their men work in the...

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“Something to hold on to”

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pp. 149-156

CISKEI WAS ONE OF THE ten "homelands" established under apartheid. Not recognized by a single government outside of South Africa, this tiny pseudo nation could not have existed without heavy government subsidies. Many inhabitants of Ciskei are pensioners who have retired from jobs in the industrial parts of South Africa, or wives and children of men who live and work elsewhere...

Part VI: The English-Speaking White Women

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“I believe we need a whole new New Deal”

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pp. 159-164

THE SANCTIMONIOUS SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS that characterized the early Scottish missionaries in southern Africa is entirely missing from the persona of Sheena Duncan, a descendant of more recent arrivals from that austere part of the United Kingdom. For one thing, the towering but matronly woman in her mid-sixties chain-smokes. Duncan has close ties to organized religion. As a...

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“Feminism is still a discredited word”

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pp. 165-169

THIS FORMIDABLE SOCIOLOGY SCHOLAR is committed to the ANC and to a nonracial South Africa. Seated behind her cluttered desk at the University of Witwatersrand, Cock willingly talked about her scholarship, which she believes cannot be separated from her politics. Her first book bears out her conviction: Maids and Madams was a pioneering work on the interrelationships...

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“I went out and I was never allowed back”

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pp. 171-175

IN MOST DESCENDANTS OF PIONEERS, longevity of residence takes precedence over humble origins. This is the case with those South Africans who trace their descent back to the 1820 settlers-a group of mostly artisans who arrived in the Eastern Cape to take up farming on land provided by the English government that, they soon learned, would not support their numbers.

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“I am going to get trained”

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pp. 177-185

IN THE NEW SOUTH AFRICA changes are taking place not only on the political front, but within the Anglican Church as well. On 5 September 1992 Nancy Charton was the first South African woman ordained as an Anglican priest. This event, which occurred in Grahamstown, was the culmination of twenty-two years of preparation for the then seventy-two-year-old feminist. She was joined...

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“I am a third-generation South African”

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pp. 187-190

SANDY BISHOP IS ONE OF the many South African women who own and operate their own beauty salons. Hers is located in a posh suburb of Port Elizabeth, just across the road from a long open sandy beach, where the occasional whale pops up to dominate the otherwise stark landscape of the Indian Ocean. Port Elizabeth is the third-largest port in South Africa. The white suburbs feature...

Part VII: The Indian Women

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“How are we going to fight this government?”

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pp. 193-204

GOONAM NAIDOO WAS BORN in 1905, just three years after the Anglo-Boer War ended. She is a dark-complexioned banti rooster: tiny but nearly impenetrable. Most of the Tamil (a form of Hindu) community into which she was born were brought to South Africa from the Madras area of India to labor in the cane fields of Natal. They came as indentures for periods of five years' servitude...

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“I always said I was going to be a lawyer”

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pp. 205-219

JUDGE NAVI PILLAY LIVES in a large contemporary home nestled into the hills high above Durban. In her late-fifties, she could easily be taken for thirty. Dark, like almost all the Tamils, she is of medium height, and her weight is nicely proportioned over her body. A fashionable haircut frames her attractive face. She is westernized and sophisticated. She is also tough and committed...

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pp. 221-224

As WE CONCLUDE OUR JOURNEY through the profiles of the women in this volume, we find a thread of commonality that runs through almost of all their concerns for the future, and that is their focus on education. Most stress the need for the improvement and extension of education to the masses of the urban and rural underclass. This daunting task has been acknowledged by the current...


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pp. 225-226


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pp. 227-231

E-ISBN-13: 9780870139482
Print-ISBN-13: 9780870134470

Page Count: 231
Publication Year: 1998