And she didn’t die: Lauretta Ngcobo and the political economy of women’s `vulnerability’

Lauretta Ngcobo

On Tuesday, November 3, 2015, writer, novelist, essayist, teacher, activist, mentor, fierce and ferocious (and often very funny) feminist South African Lauretta Ngcobo died. In the past few days, many writers, and not only South African, have shared that it was reading Ngcobo’s work that led them to choose writing as a path and career. For what it’s worth, I have always directed those seeking insight into the years of anti-apartheid struggle to Lauretta Ngcobo’s And They Didn’t Die and Govan Mbeki’s The Peasants’ Revolt. In December 2012, in Africa Is a Country, Neelika Jayawardane named Prodigal Daughters: Stories of South African Women in Exile as a favorite book of the year.

The South African Sunday Times titled its obituary for Lauretta Ngcobo, “Lauretta Ngcobo: Writer and activist who gave vulnerable women a voice.” Lauretta Ngcobo knew better. She knew that women weren’t and aren’t vulnerable. Women are made vulnerable, by many forces. In Ngcobo’s works, State policy and patriarchal comrades colluded to oppress women, and then blame, telling them their weakness and vulnerability had caused the oppression. Lauretta Ngcobo knew better.

Lauretta Ngcobo knew that vulnerability is neither status nor class nor caste nor rank nor state of being. Lauretta Ngcobo taught that vulnerability is never inevitable. Vulnerability is always a political and economic power relationship. Individuals and populations are designated and then produced, and reproduced, as vulnerable.

Ngcobo is often described as having opposed “both apartheid and Zulu traditions that limited women’s freedom and reinforced their oppression under apartheid”. While accurate as far as it goes, Ngcobo’s writing make it clear that she was a warrior for women’s emancipation and power as key to the emancipation of all of humanity. And that meant all women. Born in 1931 in Ixopo, in the sugarlands of KwaZulu-Natal, Ngcobo was well aware of the struggles taking place each second of each and every day. She knew of the struggles in the households and in the fields. She knew of the struggles among comrades, including the propensity to discount the worth of rural organizations, especially among the ANC and PAC in exile. She knew the difference between word and deed, and she knew the ravages of white supremacist patriarchy and of homegrown patriarchy, and she rejected both and each.

And she knew she was not alone. Lauretta Ngcobo’s writings and life history teach, and she was always teaching, that women’s solidarity is a tangible, material good, and that it is deep and powerful. She was not sanguine about the past or the future. In 2005, Ngcobo noted, “No matter what African women have done to fight side by side with African men in the liberation struggle, the tension between men and women remains the same, if not worse.” In her non-fiction prose as in her novels, Lauretta Ngcobo showed how “Black women’s associations made … collective rebellion possible.”

Writing of the Women’s March of 9 August 1956, Ngcobo recalled, “We, who were standing in the crowds, felt the waves of the voices in front and carried in another wave further down. (At the time, I was carrying my six-month-old son.) It was the most moving demonstration of dignity, unity and determination and has come to represent the courage and strength of South African women.”

Reflecting on the meaning of the life and life work of Lauretta Ngcobo, Angelo Fick concluded, “Lauretta Ngcobo’s passing has left a gap in South Africa’s culture of letters. It may take us some time to come to terms with the importance of her work and her life. Ngcobo’s work is indispensable for anyone interested to know how we were, and how we resisted, and how in that resistance, the lives and struggles of Black women cannot be forgotten or discounted.”

While her passing has left a gap, Lauretta Ngcobo’s life work has left a home for writers, activists, women, feminists, dreamers and builders.


(Photo Credit 1: The Journalist) (Image Credit 2: Publishers Weekly)

The political economy of vulnerable

Around the world, women, children, men, are humiliated and abused as a matter of public policy and widespread practices. When the practices are finally reported, the women, children, men are described as `vulnerable,’ as if vulnerability were a state of being. It’s not. Vulnerability is an active verb, as is violence.

In the past week, in the United States, reports have shown that pregnant school girls are kicked out of school or refused schooling. Why? Across the country, children living with disabilities, and especially Black children living with disabilities, suffer extraordinarily high school suspension rates. Why? In New York City, it has been `discovered’ that the stop-and-frisk practices that target Black communities are particularly humiliating for Black women. Why do these policies exist? To produce vulnerable populations and individuals.

I thought of these as I read about Happiness Mbedzi. Happiness Mbedzi lived in Diepsloot, a “sprawling informal settlement north of Johannesburg”. Sprawling … and notorious for its desperate conditions as well as innumerable popular mobilizations and organizing efforts. Diepsloot: water-less, info-less, service-less … but not without hope?

In Diepsloot, Happiness Mbedzi tried to maintain her household, herself, her husband, her son. To do so, she took on debts. The debts had crushing interest rates. Happiness took out more loans to pay for the interest on her earlier loans. Finally, she borrowed money from her young son, went to the shops, bought poison, and killed herself.

This is described as a tale of the `vulnerable.’ Happiness Mbedzi was not vulnerable. She was under attack. Local banks, community stokvels, neighbors are all reportedly charging predatory rates. How is it that stokvels, which traditionally supported women like Happiness Mbedzi, are now as predatory as the banks, at least in Diepsloot? How is it that no neighbors are around who would lend money to a neighbor woman in desperate straits?

For Happiness Mbedzi, as for young women students, the Black students living with disabilities, the Black women of New York, institutions ostensibly designed to assist and even improve one’s situation have been transformed into lethal weapons. Schools target particular young women. Schools target particular Black women and men. Police target Black women. The result? Targeted impoverishment that goes under the name of development and the common good. And those who are assaulted, who are wounded simply because of whom they are, they are then reported as being `vulnerable.’ It was destiny that struck them.

Vulnerability is not a status nor a class nor a caste nor a rank. It is not a state of being nor is it synonymous with weakness. And vulnerability is not inevitable. Vulnerability is a political and economic power relationship. Individuals and populations are designated and then produced, and reproduced, as vulnerable. Happiness Mbedzi was not vulnerable and she was not part of a `most vulnerable population’. She was turned into a `vulnerable woman’ by public policy and by State practices that have constructed Diepsloot as inevitably `vulnerable.’ It’s not.

(Photo Credit: Daily Maverick / Reuters)