A Feminist Revolt

With right-wing hysteria about the feminization of the military landing on our laptops recently, now is a good time to focus on issues dear to the hearts of actual feminists, namely, housing, health and education. These concerns were embraced, very strikingly, by feminists in apartheid South Africa. Toward the end of apartheid, many Black people were homeless and so constructed domiciles out of discarded wood and tin wherever they could. These shacks became communities. One such famous encampment is called Crossroads, on the edge of Cape Town. What caused Crossroads’ renown was the fierce political activism of the women who lived there, in their struggles against eviction, for education for their children and for surviving the male violence from the state and from gang members who slaughtered each other. This brutality drove many of the women and their families out of the encampment.

The story of this female struggle to preserve their neighborhood is told in a newly published graphic history, Crossroads, I Live Where I Like by Koni Benson (the title echoes Steve Biko’s newspaper column, “I Write What I Like”). The book “narrates the successful campaign to save this community of shack dwellers from imminent destruction,” according to the forward.  “Women have been on the front lines of modern enclosure.” This community, which still exists, was known in the 1970s and ‘80s as a place full of Transkei women. It grew from 20 shacks housing 100 people in February 1975 to between 4000 and 7000 people in 1017 shacks in April of that year. Despite eviction notices, progressive lawyers won a victory notable in a country where “apartheid bulldozers…forcibly ‘removed’ and relocated 3.8 million black people from their homes and neighborhoods between the 1960s and 1980s.”

Apartheid’s goal at that time was to keep black labor cheap and the cities white. As a result, by 1978, Crossroads was the “only remaining informal settlement for African people in the cape peninsula.” When the state moved to demolish it, the women’s committee defied the apartheid regime and defended Crossroads. These women literally had nowhere else to go. They had come there because “they fled the bulldozing of their homes in squatters’ camps; they were tired of concealing their illegal status in bachelor hotels; they were tired of being arrested for pass violations; they were evicted from ‘coloured neighborhoods;’ they came directly from the eastern cape; or because they had lost children to starvation in the Bantustans and had no intention of returning.”

Men did not easily accept female leadership. In fact, by the 1980s, Crossroads was renamed “the place of the fathers.” It took a while, over a decade, but the reconfiguration succeeded “from one symbolized by squatter women’s mobilization inspiring international anti-apartheid resistance campaigns to one of corrupt militarized control by vigilantes armed and empowered by the apartheid state.” Patronage and patriarchy, this book argues “were mixed into battle against the state” from 1980 onwards. Many women were expelled from Crossroads, especially those who had been leaders, “offices of progressive organizations…were bombed, over 45,000 people were detained without trial and numerous activists died under mysterious circumstances.” In 1985, state security started using death squads. Most destructive to people in Crossroads “were the counter-insurgency guerrilla warfare tactics developed in Algeria and modified in Vietnam and Colombia.”

But the women of Crossroads weren’t done. In the 1990s, while the famous Goldstone Commission pursued its inquiry into public violence under apartheid, the Mothers of Crossroads formed to focus attention on how force and inciting violence were being used for removals. This group prioritized peace. Part of their organizing impetus derived from so many youth being killed in the housing conflict and also from concerns about educating and feeding children. But in 1993, masked gunmen burst into one leader’s house, that of Joyce Ndinse, and killed her. This murder “deflated women’s mobilizing, as the price of standing out…was clearly very high.”

With their focus on health, welfare and education, these women of Crossroads adopted what I would call a realistic feminism, one that accepts the facts on the ground and deals with them. Those facts include the paramount reality that most women, at some point and usually for an extended period, are caregivers. This realistic feminism exerted itself at Crossroads in every way to improve the lot of caregivers, which of necessity implied ameliorating circumstances for those who received care. These women of Crossroads embraced this fight, which included challenging wanton male violence. In this they were the opposite of, how shall we say, patriarchal feminists – perhaps best embodied by a celebrity politician like Hillary Clinton who validates her feminism by how many scalps she collects. The more that belong to bigwigs she helped murder, like Mu’ammar Gaddafi, the better. These patriarchal feminists take it for granted that to break glass ceilings women must imitate men and adopt male values, even when those values are, objectively, perverted. The women of Crossroads never made such mistakes. They knew first-hand how toxic hyper-masculinity is. They had no desire to make themselves over in men’s images. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t want power.

This book argues that for most Black women in South Africa, the 1980s were indistinguishable from war. Things did not immediately improve with the 1994 end of apartheid. Indeed in 1997 at Crossroads, the Women’s Power Group (WPG) was founded. It focused on “housing, revamped service charges, missing housing funds, filth of schools and clinics, lack of crèches, inability of the state…to provide security at Crossroads.” The WPG organized a sit-in at the city council. In retaliation, some of the protester’s shacks were burnt down, family members were killed and the women had to run for their lives. Ten years after apartheid’s end, one of these women said: “I can’t say that I’m in ten years of freedom. I’m in ten years of struggle.”

Crossroads, I Live Where I Like portrays a unique feminist effort, whose leaders struggled for the basics of survival for their families and friends, for which some of them paid with their lives. The book excavates a buried era of feminist politics, otherwise nearly lost to history – as indeed so often is the fate of feminist leadership and revolt.

Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Busybody. She can be reached at her website.