"You have to meet Kate," said my friend over coffee one morning. "She's tough but fascinating."
I'd read of Kate Ncisana's 1982 hunger strike and her long struggle for justice in the news archives. She seemed tough, yes. And outspoken, stalwart, defiant. My friend promised to put the two of us in touch, but I had to admit, the thought of interviewing Kate made me nervous.
One mid-week morning, I rang Kate's cellphone. She answered straight away but it took several minutes to make the connection back to our mutual friend, and Kate sounded gracious but guarded.
"I'd like to write about national Women's Day," I said, "and the strong women of South Africa."
"Women's Day?" she said. "Oh well! I can talk a loooong time about Women's Day."
I called her again that week to begin our interview, and phoned once more the week after.
She laughed when she answered for the third time. "You sure like Kate," she said.
It was true. I hadn't yet met her in person, but I already liked this woman a lot.
Women's Day, August 9, has been a South African public holiday since 1994 but the significance of the date extends back to 1956. On August 9 of that year, 20,000 women marched into Pretoria, to the seat of the oppressive, sometimes violent, pro-apartheid National Party. They stood in silent protest for thirty minutes, many carrying children on their back, and laid petitions of over 100,000 signatures at the Prime Minister's door.
These women were angry, very angry. They sang a song which has come to represent the might, even militancy, of South African women:
"Now that you have touched the women, you have struck a rock."
At the time, "touched the women" held specific meaning. The government had extended apartheid's pass laws to include not only black men but women as well. The law demanded that all black adults carry a document -- a reference book -- when they left designated black areas. Failure to produce proper documents on demand lead to harassment, fines and imprisonment.
As an instrument of segregation, pass laws and reference books, even in 1956, were protested by anti-apartheid activists of all races. But the extension to women "struck a rock." Reference books required an employer's signature, and thus restricted the mobility of non-working women and made finding work in urban areas very difficult. Furthermore, wives were unable to join their husbands at sites of employment (wives would need separate permission) and were left to parent alone. So, 20,000 women risked their safety -- and the safety of the infants on their back -- to make South Africa a fairer country.
Motherhood rouses political instincts. Ten years before I had children, I began a dissertation in environmental ethics. I threw myself into it, read and wrote seven days a week, gave community-hall and church-basement workshops, and (though in my thirties) even became an honorary member of those venerable activists, the Raging Grannies. While I wholly believed in my work, I realize only now, as my three children run through pesticide-laden grass and breathe gradually warming air, that my pre-parenting conviction remained partial. With motherhood, threats become visceral -- from the gut -- and the willingness to sacrifice soars.
Like many mothers, I like to think I'd give anything to ensure a safe and fair world for my children, and for my children's children. But I, thankfully, have never been pushed to the limit, never been forced to risk my life or livelihood. August 9 in South Africa commemorates women who have -- women who marched in 1956 and women like Kate Ncisana, willing to put themselves on the front lines for a better future.
During our third cellphone conversation, Kate and I arranged a place to meet: behind the Shoprite, near the bus station. Kate had just finished work and was about to start the long trek home but she would wait to talk to me.
"I'm wearing a blue jersey," Kate said, "and a burgundy skirt."
I found her easily, dressed as she'd described, plus the traditional headscarf worn by married Xhosa women. We sat on a bench, one of three arranged in a triangle, and Kate turned to give me her full attention.
"I was born in Cape Town," she began, 'but fought most of my life to stay here."
Kate's eyes, milky yet piercing, betray both her age and her indomitable spark. Barely a teen in 1956, she did not protest in Pretoria that year, but she sustained the struggle of women who had. Kate married young, an arranged marriage, and soon bore two children. Her husband worked in construction and lived in a hostel supplied by his employer. Because women and children were not allowed in the hostel, Kate squatted in a rough shack in the nearby township of Nyanga. But this too, she learned, was not allowed.
A black woman without secure employment or appropriate documents, Kate could not stay in her home or with her husband. She was deported to what is now the Eastern Cape, then a designated black "homeland," and her shack was bulldozed to the ground.
As Kate spoke outside the Shoprite that afternoon, the two benches facing us filled, emptied and filled again. Laid-back teenagers, mothers with babies to feed, women with groceries sat for a moment to hear Kate's monologue and to watch me -- now more enthralled than nervous - scribbling down her life.
'I can be very naughty," Kate continued with a sly smile.
Kate didn't stay in the Eastern Cape. She returned to fight. One Sunday in 1982, Kate and 53 other women and men filed into a central Cape Town church. They took seats in the pews and remained there -- without food -- for over three weeks. The demands of their hunger strike were modest, less than basic human rights: Housing that would not be bulldozed and a permit to stay in Cape Town.
Kate was nursing at the time of the strike so she brought her eight-month-old daughter with her. "There were many children in the church," Kate told me, "and three pregnant women." The children were fed by church volunteers, and the women bathed once a week. But only when one pregnant mother lost her baby, did the wider public, and hence the government, start to take notice. After 24 days, the hunger strikers won -- sort of. They gained permission to squat in another church in Nyanga, not yet a home but at least assurance that they would not be deported.
"Our hunger strike worked," Kate affirmed. "It worked."
She is clearly proud of her success and her sacrifice, but Kate did not resign in 1982. She fought another twenty years for decent housing, both for herself and for other families still living in shacks. Finally, her children grown and her husband gone, Kate moved into a small, government-built house.
At the Shoprite, Kate gathered her purse and rose from the bench. We'd been talking a long time and she'd soon miss her bus.
"But phone me again," she said, "and I will tell you how we fought for those houses. Oh, how we fought!"
With a wave of her hand and that persistent, slightly mischievous smile, Kate headed toward her bus, and I marveled at how she has maintained her generosity and good humor through so many years of adversity. Indeed, Kate Ncisana seems "a rock."
Pass laws were repealed in 1986 and apartheid ended in 1994. History credits the sustained protests of women with turning the tide toward freedom, and every August 9, South Africa pauses to thank them.