A Tribute to Women of Courage

So often in life, women, especially working class and poor women are told not to speak but to listen, not to lead, but to follow.

History is the story of great men, written and taught by other learned men….. In this world, a review of women’s lives is not valuable enough to constitute history. (Pregs Govender)

August is the month of women; the remaining eleven months belong to all the great men of this beautiful country.

Just last year a book was launched about the lives of eight very ordinary women – Rachel Visser, Charlotte Petersen, Lizzie Phike, Florence De Villiers, Darlina Tyawana, Myrtle Witbooi, Pat van Vooren and Sarah Claasen.

The book entitled “Labour Pains for the Nation”, written by Rachel Vissser and published by Human Rights Media Centre, tells the story of these women who in their own unique way, have made a difference to the lives of many women without even realising it.

Cosatu in the Western Cape celebrated Women’s Day this year by inviting them to come and tell us about themselves.

Some women were crying, nodding their heads as these women spoke about their lives, an indication that they knew exactly what these women were talking about.

Women spend so much of their own time in the trade union; they lose out on seeing their children growing up. Many women lose out on having a stable relationship because men cannot or don’t want to accept the responsibilities that women have as shopstewards or leaders in their communities.

Most active and committed women or women in leadership positions are single. And if you could sit down with these women you would sometimes find that some of them are indeed lonely, because there’s no one to go home to.

Sometimes these are the reasons why women so easily fall for the advances of men in the trade union when they know in their heart that these men are not serious about them.

Trade unions often fail women for not providing the necessary support systems for them.

Even today women are still very much discriminated against, and sometimes the will from our male comrades to support them is just not there!Some feel there is no need to create an environment for women that would allow them to participate in the structures of the trade union and society.We often hear men saying, “You want to be treated equally, so that’s what you’ll get”.

There are still so many contradictions between our gender policies and the practices within our organisations.As we listen to these women, some asked one another, “Why is it so difficult to support one another.

Why is it easier to support men?”Some spoke about the “Pull Her Down Syndrome”. This behaviour especially plays itself out in times of elections, when the attacks on women get worse. Communities fail women and children because we don’t look out for one another.

Why does a person have to suffer in silence for fifty years? Is it because she knew that the neighbours would not assist but gossip?One women said “Lets stop gossiping about one another, but talk about what we want.”

Why is my child not your child any more? Are we not as guilty as those perpetrators when we turn a blind eye when we know a woman or a child is being abused next door?As we celebrate Women’s month we can only encourage women to support one another.

We should continuously remind ourselves about the 20 000 women who took on the Apartheid government and said 'enough is enough'. Our struggle did not end in 1994, in fact it started.

Our struggle did not end with the laws that protect women. It will only end when women, like the 20 000 women fifty years ago, support one another and stand up for their rights.“

Women’s liberation can be achieved only through the collective power of the working class. Only women and men workers acting together as part of a united revolutionary movement can destroy class society, and with it the oppression of women.”

A peak into the lives of just two of the eight womenDarlina Tyawana or mama Darlina as she is called, was born in Alice, a small town in the Ciskei. She was raised by her uncle and his wife.She worked as a domestic worker in Port Elizabeth and had three children by the time she was 30.

She never wanted to get married because she was scared she would be abused. She moved to the Western Cape and stayed in a shack in Phillipi.

She was supposed to get married in 1993, but broke up because of her political activities.In that period she started to mobilise the shack dwellers to occupy empty houses in Gugulethu and Tafelsig that were earmarked for coloured people.

Madiba sent Walter Sisulu, Pallo Jordan and Tony Yengeni to instruct them to vacate the houses. They had no houses and had to move from shack to shack.

They occupied the civic centre and the council offered them a package of R800 worth of building material to build themselves shacks.

At night they went back to the houses they had occupied and took out the windows and doors and put them in their shacks.It was only later that they got subsidies from the government.

They then joined the Homeless People‘s Federation (HPF) so that they could save to extend their house. The HPF was a women’s initiative which you could join by buying a savings book for R2.Mama Dalina became well known for occupying houses during the campaign called “Houses for All”.

Today Mama Dalina is still very busy in the community and housing business, from making bricks to training women in the technical aspects of the building world.

She has three children, two daughters and a son, who was killed in 2001 when he was only 25 years old.She never really had the opportunity to raise her own children; they stayed most of the time with their grandparents.

How many of us today still don’t have the opportunity to raise our own children, because of our Union activities?

Rachel Visser was a clothing worker who was first a shopsteward then became a Regional Organiser then the National Media officer of Sactwu.Rachel was working at Ensign in Atlantis when a man from Actwusa came to their gate and asked whether they wanted to join their Union.

After that a man from rival union GWUWP came and said they should not listen to that man and rather join them.They were not interested because their dominoes at lunch time were more important.

They worked under very bad conditions in the factory and workers were many a time told not to come back the next day.The official from GWUWP came back to their factory to elect shopstewards and she was elected.

The union was mostly white and didn’t deal with workers' issues properly and was called a “biscuit union’, because most of the time they had tea and biscuits with management. When Gawu was formed they joined.

Coloureds were the backbone of the clothing industry but they were very conservative. Many were not interested in politics and were scared of black people.

Rachel dealt with many cases of abuse in her factory because the majority of workers were women.She was also a founding member of Radio Atlantis.

She was the first women to be elected as a Regional Secretary of Sactwu.

She herself suffered abuse from an unfaithful husband. The last straw was when she came from a National Congress to find her husband and his pregnant girlfriend with his friends in their house.She left him to go and stay with her mother.

Her husband blamed his affairs with other women on her involvement in the union and politics and complained that she was never around.

In 2006 Rachel left Sactwu and took up an offer of the Human Rights Media Centre to write this book about eight women workers.


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