By Charlene Houston
Since 1994 the making of history in South Africa has increasingly shifted from the academy into the public domain. Many histories are being produced through biographies and autobiographies. These histories offer an opportunity to find out more about our past and what meaning the past has for our future.
There are countless versions of history yet to emerge, each of these revealing different perspectives, questioning our beliefs and building our knowledge. Each adding pieces to the puzzle of who we are - as individuals and as a nation - why we are and where we should or could be going.
The history of women in South Africa’s struggle against apartheid offers some valuable lessons. Even if women were not at the forefront of battles, many wives, mothers, sisters and daughters became solid pillars of support through their quiet and steady support of family members actively involved in ‘the struggle’.
Many women married to banned activists became the heads of their families. Those abroad were at the forefront of forging the exile community wherever they found themselves. Through discussions with Shirley Wessels, I got a perspective of such a woman.
Shirley Wessels is a quiet, unassuming, middle-aged South African woman living in London. She remembers her own experience of exile as she contemplates the recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa, her homeland. In the early 1960’s the South African government used a State of Emergency to crack down on political activity among black people. Political organisations were banned, Mandela and others sent to jail and critical voices were stifled. During this time, Shirley and her husband Dennis experienced police harassment. He was imprisoned and put on trial and then banned before they finally fled, seeking refuge in England.
The 1960s was a time of clandestine political activity. Activists were much fewer than in the late 1980s and therefore, more vulnerable. In the late 1950s the “congress movement” was not yet one non-racial body but consisted of various organisations working together. These included the ANC, the Coloured People’s Congress (CPC), the South African Indian Congress, the Transvaal Indian Congress and the Congress of Democrats (for white South Africans), the South African Communist Party and the South African Congress of Trade Unions.
Dennis was a member of the CPC, but the organisation had been banned along with several others and a number of laws were in place to curb activities that could be interpreted as anti-apartheid.
During this period Dennis was arrested and went on trial for working in the interest of a banned organization. Shirley recalls the great support they received from neighbours. Although they feared openly opposing the apartheid government, people wished them well and during Dennis’ trial they received gifts and prayers and even holy water for a court victory.
Dennis was placed under house arrest and Shirley held the family together and also had a job since Dennis could not leave home. Due to Dennis’ banning order, the family was isolated from friends and family. Their political activity was effectively limited since they were now marked.
Since they were unable to remain active in South Africa, the ANC (which had established headquarters in London) summoned them and several other banned activists to exile. Although she too was an activist, Shirley gave up her life in South Africa when she and Dennis decided to make the trip to a foreign country. With the help of other activists, they made secret plans for the trip.
Since Dennis was under house arrest he was not allowed to travel abroad. With the police watching their house all day, they needed to get Dennis out without being apprehended. Shirley explains that Dennis was not allowed out of the Wynberg magisterial district so he had to get permission to go to the dock on the day they left.
In those days travel abroad was by sea and Shirley recalls how terrified she was making her way to the docks with her little ones, hoping that Dennis would not get arrested along the way. She couldn’t bear the thought of leaving on the journey without him. After all, that would defeat the purpose completely.
As Shirley and her two small children, aged two and three, made their way to the docks she still didn’t know if her husband would be allowed to accompany them.
She was still waiting when an officer came and took her to customs where the security officers intimidated her with their questioning. It was only as she was leaving the office that they told her that her husband would be accompanying the family. Shirley said she could weep from the relief.
Unknown to the security officers, Shirley was hiding two letters in her underwear, which she had been asked to deliver to two brothers in exile in London – these turned out to be Thabo Mbeki and his brother.
To Shirley, that journey seemed to take forever and she couldn’t wait to feel the relief of going to London, a cosmopolitan city in a country where all people were equal. Shirley and her family had become refugees.
She was very disappointed in London. Although the government provided asylum for those fleeing apartheid rule and imprisonment, Shirley learnt that racism exists everywhere. The isolation that began with the house arrest continued in the new country as they tried to settle in. Shirley recalls trying to find a house for her family in a decent neighbourhood. Whenever the landlords saw her dark-skinned husband they realised it was a black family and would make some excuse to withdraw the house from the market.
Her priority was helping the children to adjust while Dennis was invited to speak regularly, as the solidarity movement in London grew. She recalls how other families in exile supported them and provided much needed emotional support. Shirley speaks warmly of Christmas times with Alex and Blanche la Gum and Reg and Hettie September, who were also from the CPC.
A quiet woman, she surprises with her feisty, activist nature, always wanting to put right a wrong. Her time as an exile is long past, but today, Shirley’s concern for the plight of prisoners and asylum seekers is no surprise. Born out of her and Dennis’ experience of prison and exile, she is constantly drawn to playing a role in these areas, fighting for justice and human rights to prevail, both in England and in South Africa.
Having experienced exile she is very sensitive to the needs of refugees from other countries. She understands that South Africans were able to continue anti-apartheid work abroad because of the help of other nations who gave them refuge.
Since Dennis’ spell in prison she is also very concerned, and actively involved in ensuring human rights for prisoners. She continues to participate in global campaigns for justice and peace.
Today Shirley is involved in monitoring the rights of prisoners and participates in campaigns supporting better conditions for refugees in England.
Shirley is one example of the many women who, because of their unassuming ways, manage to accomplish build and maintain a solid foundation on which others can stand.
On International Women’s Day let us celebrate the quiet strength of women all over the world who regularly commit acts of courage that are usually never acknowledged.
-- Charlene Houston is an activist, storyteller and public history scholar based in Cape Town. This article first appeared on the website of the South Africa Civil Society Information Service - SACSIS