In May 1863, Eliza M. visited Cape Town, traveling by steamship from the South African port of East London. She was a young girl, Xhosa-speaking, mission-educated, and her first glimpse of city life came as Cape Town was celebrating a royal wedding in faraway England. The ocean had disconcerted her: “It was unpleasant when nothing appeared….” But as soon as she was on dry land, and the ground stopped heaving, she began to process and analyze for posterity a barrage of new impressions, with a sharp eye and a levelheaded precision that jaded modern travelers would envy. Table Mountain, she reported, is not like a table; all the same, that is its correct name. There were ox wagons, like at home: surprising, that. Everything was so cheap: three pairs of stockings for a shilling. The streets at night were lit up. There were strange trees and flowers, strange food: bananas, crawfish “frightful in appearance,” and chestnuts; of this item, she adds, on a practical note, “it is sweet and edible like the potato, you can boil it or roast it.” She saw canaries, and Newfoundland dogs, which she had heard about but never imagined she would meet in real life.

Eliza was working hard on behalf of the people at home, not just marveling at things but trying to grasp how they worked. She gives an account of the dyeing of clothes, and the workings of a steam engine: “The wheels run on metal…and when it is about to proceed it says ‘Sh!'”

For the first time she was meeting cultures very different from her own and that of the missionaries. The Malays, with their pointed hats and wooden shoes that clattered, were celebrating the end of Ramadan, and their houses were decorated with paper flowers. The pomp of a funeral, the ceremonial volley of shots fired by soldiers, flags fluttering in the wind, the “ancients hats” and gold coats worn by dignitaries in procession: these impressed her but not too much. “I do not say that those coats were really of gold, I say there was gold on some parts of them.”

Eliza’s account was published in the King William’s Town Gazette, a settler newspaper. Her readers liked it, we can suppose, because it made them smile to see their own city sophistication through the eyes of an upcountry black girl. For a reader today, it is full of jittery fascination of a different kind. Eliza spares comment, but only reports on the white men capering in blackface,

that thing that is said to be always done by white people in this month of May. They make themselves black people…a thing is made with evergreens, and a man is put inside it, and two people carry it, and another man carries a pan, and goes begging for money.

Here are the rituals of a very strange tribe, who play at “Punch & Judy, Spectre, Father of the Doomed Arm-chair,” and who have a special house in which they keep dead birds, elephants, lions, a skeleton which frightens her, and “figures of black people, as if they were alive.”

From this dusty long-ago museum, from the deck of the heaving steamship, Eliza’s voice carries to us clearly. Her powers of observation are humbling, along with the skeptical fidelity of her reportage, her desire to be precise. It was unusual for a black woman’s writing to find a public, and of course, she comes to us through a mediator. Who was it translated Eliza from the Xhosa—leaving us her voice, but taking away from her all but her forename and her initial? It was probably one of the missionaries for whom she had written her account, as a school exercise—one of the missionaries who, in the first place, would have substituted “Eliza” for some African name now forgotten.

Eliza speaks by permission of her translator, as do many of the women in this generous and searching volume. There are a few well-known names—Olive Schreiner from the nineteenth century, Lessing and Gordimer from the twentieth, and Winnie Mandela, whose reputation as an “icon for struggle” is left intact by the headnote that introduces a campaigning speech from 1975. There is a piece from Bessie Head, who died in 1986, after many years’ residence in Botswana; born in 1937 to a white mother and a black African father, fitting in nowhere and later, like her own mother, considered to be mad, she produced a body of perplexing and visionary work—novels, essays, short fiction. Her own life history, and the stories she created, raise fascinating questions about how cultural boundaries may be crossed, and about the cultural construction of madness and sanity. Bessie Head has been the subject of some scholarly work since her death,* but most of the work in this absorbing volume is from authors who have received far less attention or who are quite unfamiliar.


The extracts have been chosen and set in context by a dedicated editorial team who have cast their net over southern Africa, to encompass writing from Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, Lesotho, and Swaziland. They have included letters, law reports, wedding chants and praise songs, poems and prison diaries. They have drawn on twenty languages, on the utterances of more than a hundred and fifty years.

The economic and cultural dominance of South Africa means that it has generated more writing than other countries in the region, and that more of the writing has survived. But South Africa is linguistically plural; in 1960, the editors remind us, the South African Broadcasting Service used nine African languages, besides English and Afrikaans. Languages, of course, do not stop at artificial borders, and the editors suggest in their introduction that divisions among language groups and dialects may have been reinforced, even invented, by the white scholars who created their orthographies; since Europeans were keen on categorization, categories emerged. The editors go on to suggest that the early missionary-linguists may have translated gender-neutral terms as male, so producing a false impression of who led and who followed in African societies.

If this is wishful thinking—could anyone really know for sure?—it is the product of an intellectual embarrassment not easily resolved. This anthology is a feminist enterprise, informed by a wish to redescribe African culture through the experience of its women and thus to revise our perceptions of African history. But Western feminism sits uneasily in societies where racism—not just black/white, but among people of color—has dominated political life for so long, and multiple systems of oppression, racist and sexist both, have become entwined and parasitic on each other. In the face of colonialist oppression and the climate of shame it created, black women have often been reluctant to expose the abuses visited on them in their own communities.

The early missionaries saw African women as slaves to their menfolk; their reading of the situation was not subtle, but later generations must avoid a rereading which gives way to a kind of prelapsarian fantasy, a vision of an Africa in which sexism is simply a product of colonialist disruption, an imposition on a more blessed state of natural equality. It was the colonizers and their mission school educators who gave many African women a voice, even if it was in the English or German language.

They were keen on educating them, up to a point, because future mothers were seen as the best way to smuggle Jesus into the African family. Unfortunately, the education often did not go beyond that required by basic housework; it did not equip women to be other than a servant of a white family, or of their own family. It was the changes in African family life, following urbanization and the demand for male labor, which gave many of the women in these pages their reasons to mourn an earlier age, seen through a nostalgic haze. In Take Care of Your Children (1962), the first novel published in Zimbabwe by a black woman, Lassie Ndondo cast back to a precolonial age when there were violent cattle and slave raids among warring groups, but an abundance of natural resources. That was myth, and it could be a myth from anywhere in the world; once there was a golden age. Then comes recorded history:

The white man came with his way of life, his laws and taxes and changed the nation…. He came carrying a small flat piece of metal like a button without holes.

This piece of metal was a coin, and for these “men had to abandon their homes and families and go to the towns and mines to work and sweat for them.” The men go away and make the money, the women stay at home, grow the food, and raise the children, and their func-tion becomes subordinate; they are mere handmaidens to the servants of capitalism, their menfolk.

In South Africa, apartheid systematized the desolation of family break-up; as the cities and mines claimed the men, the women were confined to the Reserves in a sort of widowhood, eloquently described by Phyllis Ntantala in a piece written in 1958. Often the men return as corpses, “For the world of grinding machines has no use for men whose lungs are riddled with TB and Miner’s Phthisis.”

Ntantala, who was from the Transkei, was born in 1920 and university-educated. Hers was an eloquent and angry generation. Much younger women, going to school in the 1960s, were disadvantaged by the stultifying Bantu Education Act of 1953, designed to bring schools under the control of the Nationalist government, cut back English-language teaching in favor of Afrikaans, and implement a curriculum that fitted black Africans to be laborers and low-grade semiskilled workers rather than doctors and lawyers. It was a peculiarity of the Nationalist regime that it could reverse progress and reduce the chances of black people generation by generation. As protest against apartheid became systematized, it seemed helplessly to reflect the regressive trend; black women found that they were subordinates in their own struggle.


The editors are aware that campaigners for black rights and black pride sometimes showed antipathy to feminist aims. The Black Consciousness movement in South Africa sidelined women’s concerns, and stifled public criticism of black men; it relegated women to a passive, nurturing role, insofar as it acknowledged them at all, and the epic versions of black history it purveyed left African women silent and anonymous. While it is true that the ground-breaking black magazine Drum had women contributors during its heyday in the 1950s, it is also true, the editors say, that some of its “female” contributors were men. Fashions in outrage change, so what now seems a shocking piece of appropriation probably went unremarked at the time.

For real and accredited female journalists, life was challenging. Joyce Sikhakhane worked on the Rand Daily Mail in the mid-1960s, the first African woman to do so; as separate races were required to use separate facilities, she was allocated a whole toilet block to herself at the paper’s Johannesburg office. Way upcountry in the northern Transvaal, her professional status was invisible. Hot and tired, climbing out of a car to buy a cold drink, she failed to enter the wayside café by the (unmarked) door for blacks; she was felled by a blow from the bottle-wielding owner, and dumped outside to recover consciousness. Such stories of the viciousness and absurdity of apartheid are sadly commonplace, and it is to the editors’ credit that they have sought out writing that shows us the trickiness of the system as well as its brutality, and the calm cunning needed to survive it.

Maureen Kim Sing, writing in the Student Spectrum, a newsletter for Chinese students of the University of Cape Town in 1965, says the choices open to her Chinese community are “Resist…Escape…Adjust.” She sees the latter as a good option. “Here, most Chinese have their own homes, cars, and a large measure of security…. Second-class citizenship in SA may be a lot better than first-class citizenship elsewhere.” Society in the US and the UK is fiercely competitive, she warns, so stick by what you have and play the system softly. If not antagonized, the government will turn a blind eye to “trespassing” across the color bar; the Chinese community should not try to attract sympathetic press coverage, which only irritates the government. By seeking clarification of their ambiguous status, the Chinese may harm themselves. “Sit tight and wait” is her advice. But a year afterward, she herself emigrated; it was from Europe that she became active in anti-apartheid protest and radical causes.

In the apartheid years many nonwhite writers were forced underground or into exile, but the power of oral culture is difficult to subdue; through the 1970s the prayer meeting and the township funeral became the occasion for women’s voices to be heard, and the collection and recording of women’s life stories became in itself a political act. While in traditional societies the recitation of genealogies may have been a largely male task, it was often women who shaped the folk tales and proverbs that were readily adaptable to any didactic end, and could carry a covert message of recalcitrance and rebellion, of protest and mourning. Ancient forms take on new life. Gcina Mhlophe, a writer in English and Xhosa, shaped in 1989 a traditional praise poem adapted to modern times; her question “Who would I sing my praises to?” is answered by a litany of names of female liberators from apartheid. But her poem also acknowledges those without names, “the ones who sell oranges and potatoes…. The ones who scrub floors and polish executive desktops….”

Reclaiming the stories of the obscure has been an important part of the labors of the editors of this anthology. They aim at “documenting the history of self-conscious expression by African women” and so they have had to stretch their definitions beyond the written—which in itself raises a great many problems. For who is it that records, who transcribes, who translates and preserves? Not the women concerned; their words come to us selectively, and as they have been rendered. Impure traces are better than none at all; messages possibly mangled, from enslaved and scattered peoples, at least show that someone existed to send a message. The language of the /Xam bushpeople is now extinct, but here there is a fragment from 1874: ceremonies for ensuring the flow of waters, for protection against lightning. A medicine song from the Kalahari is collected in 1991, but was possibly heard once and once only, such is the mutability of oral “tradition”; the Ju/’hoan San woman who sings it, recollecting how she was entered by the spirit of a giraffe, almost breaks down partway through, touched by fear of mortality, by a sense of personal and cultural vulnerability: “My voice is gone and my eyes are split and I don’t know…I am going deaf…. The Giraffe dance has broken. It died with my husband’s death; it has grown small.”

But a warning against romanticizing the oral tradition comes from Yvonne Vera, the Zimbabwean writer and editor who, born in 1964, absorbed the influences of both her schoolteacher mother and her storytelling grandmother:

…Writing has created a free space for most women—much freer than speech. There is less interruption, less immediate and shocked reaction…. The book is bound, circulated, read. It retains its autonomy much more than a woman is allowed in the oral situation. Writing offers a moment of intervention.

Yvonne Vera also says, “There is no essential truth about being a female writer. The best writing comes from the boundaries, the ungendered spaces between male and female.” Just as the editors have to ask themselves what “writing” means, and stretch their definitions, so they have to examine what they mean by womanhood. What community of interest is there between the missionary wife and her convert washerwoman, between the modern white madam and her maid—or, if one considers modern South Africa, the black madam and her maid? What binds rural and urban, the hut-dweller and the beer hall entrepreneur, beyond the fact of what their genitalia look like? It is the black/white divide that the editors find easiest to illustrate. What they call “the discourse of rape” sets the tone. Through southern Africa it was domestic service, largely, that brought women to town. There they were servants to white women themselves placed in an ornamental role and cast as protectors of the undespoiled marital bed. Adultery with black servants did not count, the law looked the other way at what was less than consensual, and where black women paid in physical humiliation, white women paid in spiritual humiliation and the consciousness of being enmired in hypocrisy.

Only the fear of disease forms a bond that, on both sides, is resisted and denied. In this matter, “Truth and Reconciliation” are a long way off; just as they are in a Zimbabwe still scared by hideous violence; just as they are in the crime-ridden urban centers of South Africa itself. The editors include one piece of writing about AIDS, a description of the dying from the Botswana lawyer Unity Dow; it is pitched to arouse pity rather than indignation. The sexual politics of this epidemic will be the topic for African women of the future; in a few years, survivors will have to sharpen their pens.

It is hard to fault the scope of this anthology. You tend to feel that if what you were missing was extant and traceable, the editors and their associates would have tracked it down, so perhaps it is pointless to say that Asian women in southern Africa are not well represented. It would have been good to have extracts from some telling material which the editors refer to but don’t directly quote—the collection of letters published in 1987 as Not Either an Experimental Doll, edited by Shula Marks. Written between 1949 and 1951, the letters offer a glimpse of the gulf that opened between a Xhosa schoolgirl known as “Lily Moya,” her white woman patron, a Fabian socialist, and the Zulu social worker Sibusiswe Makhanya, who tried to help them understand each other.

These eloquent letters would have been worth the space: Lily’s plaintive, pious voice comes straight off the page, as does the voice of her benefactor, idealistic and ineffably ignorant. They are two lonely women: one English, elderly, in straitened circumstances, courteous and cold; one warmhearted and emotional, imploring a personal relationship which the times prohibit. Lily was a teenage runaway, fleeing an arranged marriage, desperate for education, for school fees, for a place in the world; Dr. Mabel Palmer tried to give her the chance she craved. But Lily fell foul of the school system, finally disappearing and suffering a psychotic breakdown. Dr. Palmer hoped Lily would become a writer, and so in a way she did. Her record of her life is detailed, angry, enduring, a testimony—like so much of the writing in this book—to complex abuses of power, power of men over women, white over black.

In an enterprise of this kind very little can be taken for granted or “taken as read.” The editors have wrestled with multiple contradictions. They have moved with tact and tolerance in the most fraught and ambiguous areas, where there is little consensus and often little kindness. The writer Miriam Tlali complained in 1980, “They say writers learn from their predecessors. When I searched frantically for mine there was nothing but a void.” One volume cannot fill it, but the editors have made a beginning, created a place where the voices of all sorts of African women can be heard. Some are urgent, powerful, and contemporary, some remote and small, fading into the wind with lost languages and vanished cultures; but even they can say, like the woman who sang the giraffe song, “I almost died but instead lived.”

This Issue

February 10, 2005