June 29 marked the birthday of a brawny black South African woman, Nnoseng Ellen Kuzwayo, an anti-apartheid crusader described as an early leader of the struggle for African women’s rights.

Ma’K, as she was affectionately known among her peers, was an internationally recognised female revolutionary who inspired many community leaders of the time.

Former president Thabo Mbeki, in his oration during her funeral in 2006, said: “She has been everywhere; the child from Thaba Nchu grew into a giant who trekked through our country and all Africa and journeyed through the whole world, without the pass of indignity that brought 20000 women to the Union Buildings 50 years ago.”

Ma’K, who served in the ANC Youth League in 1946, was saluted by progressive forces as a gender activist who waged a struggle against apartheid and became feared by those upholding the oppressive system of the time.

Through her commitment, Ma’K, in advocating a better life for women, came to embody the spirit of the left’s crusade against the regime. Her fighting spirit was shaped by her background and her life experience.

Ma’K’s journey of life was not so different from that of many African females of the world who were made slaves in the land of their birth and forced to be resilient despite their circumstances.

Ma’K was born in Lesotho, but grew up on her grandfather’s farm in Thaba Nchu. Her mother died when she was 16; after this she committed herself to her studies. She graduated as a teacher at the age of 22 in 1936 from Fort Hare.

Later, aged 39, she pursued her studies in social work and this allowed her to contribute in advancing awareness of the plight of the youth, focusing on women and community work.

Like any journey of the struggle, Ma’K did not have it easy. In 1977, at the age of 63, she was detained for five months under the then Terrorism Act for an offence that was never specified.

During apartheid, blacks were continuously sent to prison for little or no reason, making it difficult to resist the regime. While it is well known that many black men were imprisoned and tortured by the government, women were also subjected to such oppression.

Ma’K formed part of the first crop of women leadership in the first democratic Parliament in 1994.

South Africa has since increased female representation in most strategic public areas of interest and continued in pursuing affirmation of women in positions of responsibility.

Another recent remarkable milestone on gender parity on the continent was when Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced a very radical reshuffle that saw women occupying 50% of the cabinet positions.

A few months ago, Zimbabweans also witnessed a new-look cabinet with President Mnangagwa appointing six female ministers.

Before them was Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, who made deliberate moves to ensure equal gender representation in his government.

* Khedama is a social commentator and communications practitioner based in Mangaung