Cape Town – South African Women in Dialogue (Sawid, an independent women’s platform), mourns the passing of human rights and gender activist Cecilie Lynette Palmer in her 74th year (on January 25), and honours the legacy she left behind of a life dedicated to human rights and social justice.
Her Struggle credentials saw her imprisoned in the Fort Prison, where the Commission of Gender Equality (CGE) is now housed, for four months in 1976, while she was pregnant.
Her daughter, Nadine Snyman, was born a month after she was released. Palmer’s own mother, Vesta Smith, also a veteran of the women’s movement, was detained in the same jail.
The year 1976 saw an intense police clampdown, and hours before being locked up, Cecilie Palmer found herself in John Vorster Square prison before an open window.
She was not sure if her life would end as did the lives of many other Struggle icons, pushed out of a window by the security police.
Her imprisonment, with other female Struggle icons such as Winnie Mandela, Fatima Meer, Sibongile Kubheka and Deborah Matshoba, was in a section of the women’s prison called “Fatima’s Yard”, brick holding cells separated from “Winnie’s Yard” by a wall.
While imprisoned, women prisoners successfully advocated for the release of child prisoners, and to be allowed underwear.
As Cecilie explained: “We forced them to give the ordinary prisoners panties.
“Prisoners in this jail were stripped naked after their sentences and left with none. We fought and threatened and soon they did get panties.”
Mam Cecilie Palmer will be remembered for her committed activism in pursuit of gender equality and women’s empowerment, and the many sacrifices she made in pursuit of democracy and social justice.
In 2016, the CGE afforded her the opportunity and platform to share her story of the experiences of ex-prisoners with women and school children as part of an inter-generational dialogue, so the sacrifices of South African women in pursuit of justice would not be forgotten.
She served in the United Democratic Front, the Federation of Transvaal Women, the Legal Resource Centre, and many other women’s organisations.
Before her arrest she was also active in the National Union of South African Students on the University of the Witwatersrand campus.
She had also been involved in the organising of a conference where intellectuals such as Mamphela Ramphele, Jakes Gerwel and Herbert Vilakazi spoke.
Cecilie Palmer also participated in the founding of the Women’s Institute for Leadership, Development and Democracy (WILDD) in 1994, which was widely consulted, with assistance from Oom Beyers Naude, and funded by Swedish women.
Florence Laag Brundell, an activist from Sweden, was also instrumental in the formation of WILDD.
Sawid was fortunate to have Cecilie Palmer as a keynote speaker at its July 2018 Gauteng Provincial Dialogue.
At the Dialogue she reminded participants of the selfless commitment of women activists of her generation, highlighting the fact that women of her generation did not need money to fight apartheid, but today many women do not move to activism if there is no money attached to the work to be done.
She noted that “the women’s movement has not been able to move forward and is not where it should be, even after many years of meetings and engagements; this is because women are fragmented along political lines, by religion, race and class”.
She suggested that unused factories in communities be used as rehabilitative and recreational spaces for youth, suggesting that medical doctors, counsellors, teachers and social workers in communities be invited to support such a project and find ways of making it a success.
Sawid expresses its heartfelt condolences to her family, colleagues and friends, and honours her legacy of resistance and committed service to the well-being of women and their families.
We have lost a giant in women’s activism who ran a very good race. Those who knew her have remarked, “When an elder dies, a library dies”.
Advocate Thuli Madonsela noted that she was “deeply saddened by the news of the passing of Cecilie Palmer”.
‘‘She was a pillar of strength for many women and communities who gave the Struggle their all but have since fallen by the wayside as the fruits of democracy are enjoyed.
“May her great soul rest in peace,” Madonsela said.
Palmer’s funeral service took place on Saturday at the St Andrew’s Catholic Church in Noordgesig at 10am.