By Barbara Boswell (@BobbiBoswell)
UCT’s African Gender Institute’s Dr Barbara Boswell reflects on the life and works of Lauretta Ngcobo, describing her work as “imagining women characters fully and gloriously human in their complexity” and “showed the world what it was like to be black and woman in apartheid South Africa.”
Lauretta Ngcobo’s death has robbed us of a significant literary talent, freedom fighter, and feminist voice.
Born in 1931 in Ixopo in the then Natal Province, Ngcobo was one of three pioneering black South African women writers – the first to publish novels in English from the particular vantage point of black women. Along with Bessie Head and Miriam Tlali, Ngcobo showed the world what it was like to be black and woman in apartheid South Africa.
Where Alan Paton’s Cry, The Beloved Country (1948) rendered African women “silent, with the patient suffering of black women, with the suffering of oxen, with the suffering of any that are mute,” Ngcobo, along imagined women characters fully and gloriously human in their complexity.
Her first novel, Cross of Gold, was published in England in 1981, after she had left South Africa as a member of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) for exile first in Swaziland, then Tanzania, and finally, England. Drawing on her experiences of harassment by the apartheid regime, the novel followed the fate of Mandla, a young political activist whose mother, Sindisiwe, dies in the novel’s first chapter.
Feminist critique that the novel’s only strong women character died too early, forced Ngcobo to reflect on the politics of representation in her work. In a conversation that we had in 2007, Ngcobo reflected that the decision to kill off the character was not intentionally taken:
“I wrote that chapter three times, and every time I came to a point where Sindisiwe was dying. My creativity just snowballed to that end and Sindisiwe died, and I didn’t try anything to save her. The third time she tried to die, she died.”
For Ngcobo, her view of this character’s life was limited by her socialization as a woman: “I had learned earlier that women didn’t count much. They hadn’t got an independent life of their own. When Sindisiwe dies, only her sons can live and go into the cities. Women remained in the rural areas.”
Stung by the criticism around Sindisiwe’s death, Ngcobo set out to write a second novel in which the women would not only survive, but be strong and powerful agents of history. The result was And They Didn’t Die (1990), a novel that has staked out a place as an African feminist classic alongside Buchi Emecheta’s The Joy’s of Motherhood (1979), Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions (1988), Bessie Head’s A Question of Power (1974) and Nawal El Sadaawi’s Woman at Point Zero (1975).
And They Didn’t Die is path-breaking in its portrayal of the experiences of a black woman that gives its main character, Jezile, an interiority and a voice rarely seen in South African literature before this novel’s publication. It is singular in highlighting the damaging, overlapping effects of apartheid and customary law on the lives of African women confined to apartheid Bantustans.
Ngcobo deftly illustrates the ways in which African women are positioned between these two oppressive systems, with devastating effects on their own and children’s lives. The women of the fictional Sigageni district are highly politicized and unlike Sindiswe in Cross of Gold, active. They defy both apartheid and customary laws, at the cost of being imprisoned by one system, and being ostracized by the other.
The main character, Jezile is a highly-conscious narrator, who succinctly analyses her situation as being “trapped between the impositions of customary law, state law and migratory practices.” Once able to identify the sources of her oppression, she is able to act strategically, in concert with other women, to resist and mitigate these oppressive forces. In portraying Jezile’s situation, Ngcobo offered an intersectional feminist analysis of African women’s lives, producing, in effect, a theory of liberation which denied the prioritising of racial liberation over gender liberation.
Writing the powerful character of Jezile became part of Ngcobo’s personal liberation. During our conversation, she reflected:
“I think my own liberation came through this book. Again, I don’t know the moment, but slowly, not only in fact by the time I get to Jezile and Jezile has to go into town, you know the different little steps she takes towards her freedom? There is a point where I think there is a freedom that she grabs for herself. I think that’s a snapping point perhaps not just for my character, but perhaps for me. Because by the time I came to the end of this book, I emerged a different woman.”
Ngcobo was also a cultural activist determined to nurture the talents of other marginalised women writers. In exile, she edited the collection of essays, Let it Be Told: Black Women Writers in Britain (1987), and upon her return to South Africa, Prodigal Daughters: Stories of Women in Exile (2012). She also authored the children’s book, Fikile Learns to Like Other People (1994).
Dr Barbara Boswell is a literary scholar based at the University of Cape Town’s African Gender Institute. Her research interests include black South African and African women’s fiction.