A Tale of [Revolutionary] Motherhood: A Feminist Critique on (Post-)Apartheid Epistemology


“Living life as Black women requires wisdom [,] because knowledge about the dynamics of intersecting oppression has been essential…”—Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought (257)

The oppressive intimacy of apartheid to Blacks is as close as the roof is to the to the walls of a house, sometimes just as clenched fists of an abusive man to a woman’s body– a compounded violence, an invalidated and silenced history and reality of a black mother in post-apartheid South Africa– often existing in the footnotes of androcratic accounts of apartheid history. There is a generation of women’s lived experiences which has been invalidated, erased and unacknowledged. A generation of women who became mothers at the heart of the apartheid regime and confronted the violence of the oppressive apartheid system in South Africa. This violence invaded their bodies in public spaces and in their homes. Women, like my grandmother, had to raise children dodging bullets in streets and in their homes—if not from the apartheid state police, it was from their own spouses. The neglect of these women’s memories, experiences and lived knowledge about defiance, strength and hope has not been centralized and validated as concrete knowledge. It does beg the question: why? Why are these experiences overlooked? Who has been articulating these experiences? How has this powerful history been subjugated? Why are women like Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, my grandmother, my mother and millions of poor Black women– who experienced the intimate violence of the system in their homes ignored?

The subjugation of revolutionary Black motherhood knowledge amidst an oppressive system, can be linked with separatism in the form of the apartheid system. At the crux of this system, therein lies the racial segregation laws– a separation of public amenities, land and resources[3]. The rigidity of this system thrived on the insistence on the binary: spaces for Blacks/Spaces for Whites, Blacks/Whites, Superior race/Inferior race, Civilized/Savage and Valid knowledge/ Native Knowledge. Although these public goods were denied to Blacks, politically elite Black men, however, managed to access those forbidden spaces in the plight to democratize South Africa. Because of this limited, but valid access, Black men have been key figures in the fight against apartheid. While Black men are the key figures, this centralization removes the importance of black women in the political public sphere. Yet, women are expected to laboriously contribute to the capitalistic public sphere. Paradoxically, Black men are domineering figures in the public and private/ domestic sphere.

Because of this compounded erasure and subordinate placement, the domestic sphere becomes a playground for the apartheid police regime and a violent space for black mothers due to domestic violence– a reality shaping girlhood, for their daughters– from their male partners. Because the investigation of the hegemonic “Black” experience under the system has been dominated by elite black men politicians, the “matrix of domination” regarding “work, family, sexual politics, motherhood, and political activism” as “paradigms” shaping womanhood are not accounted (Collins 251). I was raised by my mother and father. But my father was a bitter man. He was abusive. I watched him beat my mother to a pulp from as early as I can remember. I am the youngest of the three children born between my mother and father. As the last one, the last girl, education was hard (Motsoeneng). The value of centering black motherhood with a critique on the apartheid system, women like my mother locate themselves in relation to the systems in which they exist in. This location enables one to identity the roots and the process of their consciousness. It remains pivotal to understand that the role of motherhood has been greatly formed and violated by the patriarchal violence of the apartheid system and the relegation of black mother into the private sphere.

While black feminist knowledge, such as black revolutionary motherhood, remains on the margins, scholars such as Collins argue that higher education and news media have become potential activators in centering these relevant narratives. While these claims are valid, and are without great dispute, it ought to be acknowledged that within the greater framework of access, higher education in the global south, and media outlets, are controlled by dominant groups whose politics do not align with centering these narratives. If higher education becomes the central location to access this information, this contributes to use of academia as an elitist tool and perpetuating the information access gap. Given the existing constitutional framework in South Africa, which advocates for free basic education for all people, therein lies an opportunity to disperse this knowledge. This potential opening, however, provides an opportunity to localize and centralize this wealth of knowledge.

Revolutionary motherhood narratives during apartheid can become a useful historical lens in which male violence can be traced and understood. My mother cites that:

White people were killing everyone. And if you were a male child, in a home, it was worse. You were a threat and a target. You had to be killed or put in jail. We were exiled, basically. We struggled a lot there. We ate once a week but we worked in the fields (Motsoeneng 2017).

Although the protection of the Black male child was well meaning, it has contributed the institutionalization of Black male fragility. Because the apartheid regime perceived the Black male—especially young—as a threat to White male power, Black men were exiled by parents and political groups for their protection. Black mothers are domesticated, and expected to protect their children, they put more emphasis on the protection of the male child to avoid violence in their home from the system. (While that saved them from the brutal system, women like my grandmother continued to experience domestic violence.) Moreover, the androcentric accounts on apartheid does not provide a framework that locates the roots of Black male fragility protection. For example, when the President of South Africa, was charged with rape, the women’s league of the leading party blamed the victim and never supported the proven perpetrator. While simplistic and lazy perspectives have analyzed this as the league’s protection of Zuma for political gains, this groundbreaking epistemology understand this as a legacy and a burden left for black women—an internalized and maternalistic protection of Black male fragility.

The hegemonic Afro-androcratic accounts of the violence of the apartheid regime exists to reinforce male heroism. This positivist approach disregarding the use of Black men to frame the narrative aims to individualize oppression functions under the key tenets of capitalism and its dire focus on being self-serving. The material realities of black mothers as bearers of a colonial world above their shoulder—exiling their children to defy the system and surviving domestic violence, when shared violate and create a new path from existing forms of post-apartheid knowledge. However, path breaking scholars who create this new path using personal narratives  acknowledge the discomfort this confrontation causes for a larger South African mass—a fear to confront violent male narratives which decontextualize women’s lived experiences.


The Power of a Black Revolutionary Motherhood in Post-Apartheid South Africa

The liberal delusion that democratization equates decolonization minimizes Black feminist thought and the value of revolutionary Black motherhood with an apartheid understanding.  This epistemology warrants collective strength, enables a critical use of history to reshape Black womanhood and motherhood. The acknowledgement of this frame underscores the valuable notion that:

The historical conditions of Black woman’s work, both in Black civil society and in paid employment, fostered a series of experiences that when shared and passed on become the collective wisdom of a Black women’s stand point. (Collins 256)

For several black mothers, who live through the memories of their silenced and unacknowledged histories of their mothers, this framework could enable a better way to navigate different of systems that oppress women. Moreover, this knowledge affords women with the ability to articulate, compare and understand their own experiences in relation with their own mothers. My mother can never imagine a world in which her mother’s experience had no impact in her—the centering of this past gives these women a voice loud enough to shake their ancestor’s tombs.

More importantly, lived knowledge decolonizes the body when transferred from person to the other. To centralize this framework within the broader education framework begins a transformative way of decolonization. While Collins notes that Black feminist thought challenges the colonial tenets of formal education, formalizing this form of knowledge within the broader education structure provides an opportunity to reimagine decolonized education and sharing of narratives. This works builds up the to the key understanding of womanhood, the creation of a personalized one and appropriate use of history and accountability. The androcratic, Eurocentric and limited ways of creating and legitimizing knowledge disregard these lived nuances.


“My mother tells me that my grandmother was a superwoman. She often talks about her strength and determination before she tells me about her beauty. She tells me that her tongue was sharp that it made many nervous around her. I think about this woman a lot, my grandmother. Perhaps if I visit her grave, this last home she shares with my grandfather, I will feed off from that strength and defiant energy. Sometimes, I wonder, what if that strength was her pain? Then I remember– she was a disruptive woman, as my mother claims, and therefore, it had to be her strength. The same kind of strength in my mother’s tears and sharp silence. Sometimes I see it, when my little sisters question the unquestionable. Oh, what a lovely woman she must have been. She ought to be breaking the gates of heaven with that smile over us.”—Kabelo Motsoeneng, The World Inside My Home, 2016



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