Minister's Requiem for a Heroine Ellen Khuzwayo

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20 Apr 2006

On Wednesday, 19 April 2006, South Africa woke up to the sad news of the passing away of Mme Ellen Khuzwayo at the age of 91. Better known as an activist in the struggle against apartheid rule in South Africa, Khuzwayo was a champion of women’s rights in a repressive society. Her untimely death comes at the time when we were beginning to gear ourselves for the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the historic march by over 20 000 women on the Union Buildings.

MaKhuzwayo’s well-lived life epitomizes the courage and determination of the women of South Africa to emancipate themselves from the racial, class and gender shackles that characterized the repressive society we lived in. Her award-winning autobiography, Call Me Woman (1985), chronicles the agony of being a black woman during the decades when apartheid was at its worst but also the determination of a black woman to challenge that unjust social and political order. Her story is that of thousands of South African women whose stories might never be told. It reflects the suffering and triumph of black women under apartheid rule. She remained a source of inspiration for many of us for her selfless dedication to the advancement of the noble vision of fighting for a free South Africa.

Ellen Khuzwayo was born in Lesotho on 29 June 1914. She graduated from Lovedale College, Alice, in 1936 at the age of 22. It was her determination to succeed and commitment to serve her society that led her to returning to school at the age of 39, to complete a training programme at the Jan Hofmeyr School of Social Work and subsequently a degree in social work from the University of the Witwatersrand. She personally experienced the brutal realities of the oppressive state when a farm she had inherited from her grandparents was declared a “ black spot in a white area”, and seized by the apartheid government.

Ellen Khuzwayo’s career peaked during the darkest years of apartheid, when those who pursued the vision of a free South Africa were persecuted, jailed and tortured or brutally shot down by the security police. As the General Secretary for the Transvaal branch of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), Khuzwayo was at the forefront of the struggle for human rights. While holding this very challenging position, she maintained strong connections with her community, encouraging women to work together in self-help groups. She was the only woman in the Committee of Ten that was elected to study the role of members of the local councils who were cooperating with the apartheid regime after the 1976 Soweto Uprisings. Because of her involvement in these anti-apartheid activities, Khuzwayo was detained without trial at the Johannesburg Fort. She was later elected as the President for the Black Consumer’s Union and also served on the Executive Committee of the Urban Foundation. In 1994 she was elected a Member of Parliament after the first democratic elections in South Africa.

The nation has lost one of the outstanding figures of struggle for liberation. In this time of bereavement, may her family and friends derive solace from the fact that as tragic as her loss may be, Mme Ellen lived to witness the fruits of her struggle for freedom, a vision that she cherished throughout her adult life. She has left her imprint on the character of our country and earned an honourable place in the history of South Africa alongside the other great women and men of our land. The challenge that lies ahead of us is to ensure that her legacy of a free society lives on. As we advance the agenda of “Women Building a Better South Africa in a Better World” we dip our banners in her honour.

May her soul rest in peace.

Z. Pallo Jordan.