Farida Khan, her son Aslam and the writer’s son Sebastian during the 1996 local government election campaign. The photo was taken at Busy Corner in Grassy Park. Picture: Reneva Fourie
Farida Khan, her son Aslam and the writer’s son Sebastian during the 1996 local government election campaign. The photo was taken at Busy Corner in Grassy Park. Picture: Reneva Fourie

South Africa needs the skills of the women who led resistance in the 1980s

By Opinion Time of article published Aug 10, 2020

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By Reneva Fourie

South Africa should not be struggling to overcome its current challenges of underdevelopment and corruption as there is an entire generation of remarkable women that is under-utilised.

The women that led anti-apartheid struggles inside the country during the 1980s are hardworking, selfless, highly knowledgeable and competent, with impeccable integrity. They possess a unique capacity to motivate and lead people because they acquired the skill by convincing many to risk their lives (and livelihoods) for a cause. Empowering others is inherent in this cohort of women; for having a second layer of leadership to replace them in the event of detention or death, was imperative.

As we celebrate the brave actions of women who on August 9, 1956, marched to the Union Buildings and demanded the abolishment of the Pass Laws, we honour too on this day, the women activists from the decades before, and from the decades thereafter.

I want to share some of the contributions made by women from my hometown, Grassy Park, to our fight against apartheid in the 1980s. I do so because younger women activists always challenge me about the lack of material on women activists from the 1980s.

Secondly, it is hoped that their rich experiences will motivate even more women of younger generations to become emboldened social activists.

And thirdly, but most importantly, I seek to highlight that South Africa does not have a shortage of women leaders. I focus only on my area, for if I were to focus on the Western Cape, or even just the Southern Suburbs Region, the stories would amount to volumes.

Grassy Park is a beautiful suburb in the Western Cape that is home to three scenic lakes - Princess Vlei, Zeekoe Vlei; and Rondevlei Nature Reserve. Now densely populated (and even viewed as mildly dangerous by some) the apartheid designated ‘coloured’ area, had a mixed class composition - the largest portion of whom were professionals.

Grassy Park has a rich history of anti-apartheid activity. Sam Kahn still resides there. Many known leaders from the area like Dr Neville Alexander and Imam Gassan Solomon have now passed. Other contemporary leaders who hail from the area include the first Director-General of Trade and Industry, Dr Alistair Ruiters; former Sactwu General Secretary and current Minister of Trade and Industry, Ebrahim Patel; and former Cosatu Deputy President and Minister of Human Settlements, Connie September. The area has produced too many leaders for me to list.

What is less known is that the leaders in Grassy Park during the 1980s were mostly women. And here I am not just referring to members of the local branch of the United Women’s Congress (UWCO). Women led in the branches of the student movement (Lotus River/ Grassy Park Students Action Committee-Logsac), the Cape Youth Congress (Cayco), the civic movement (Lotus River/ Grassy Park Residents Association-Logra), and the church youth movement (Inter-church Youth - ICY).

It was women who ran the Congress-aligned local Advice Office and it was a woman who led the local ANC underground cell.

In addition to political work, women activists ran soup kitchens, children’s groups, and adult literacy classes. Leadership extended beyond Grassy Park to include regional and provincial levels.

Experiences such as these enabled the development of extraordinary organisational, management and interpersonal skills among all activists from that era, which should be drawn upon, to get our country out of its current quagmire.

The powerful women activists from my hometown include Norma Gabriels; Lorna, Anthea and Beulah Houston; Aisha and Madeniyah Slamang; Cindy and Zenda Woodman, Fatima, Rabia and Suleila Ismail; Hilary Oostendorp; Blanche Paulse; Crystal and Dee Dicks; Carlette and Margo Johannissen; Marcella, Danielle and Celeste Naidoo and their mom, the late Willemina Naidoo; Farida Khan; Pamela Harris; Sherine Franz; Vanessa Calvert; Donna Miller; Carol-Anne Davids, Barenise Weeder, Chrissie Francis and the late Carmen Hefele. These women are all educated professionals who remain social activists, albeit in a far more subdued manner (or they apply their skills internationally).

Sure, the Peter Mokabas and Blade Nzimandes of this world have undoubtedly influenced me, but I cannot help but feel overwhelmingly blessed to have been surrounded by phenomenal women, all my life – in my family, in my community, and throughout my career.

I profile only Julie Jaffer, Ghairo Daniels, Sara Ryklief, Natalie McAskill and Charlene Houston. I thank them for permitting me to publish some of their stories; for the enormity of their contributions can never be captured in one short article. Reading their stories gives insight into our hidden history, and highlights that there are capable, ethical leaders who continue to serve.

Julie Jaffer

There are few people who are as deeply loved in Grassy Park as the ‘people’s doctor’, Dr Zuleiga (or Julie as she is fondly known) Jaffer. In addition to serving the community as a health practitioner; she treated our bruises after run-ins with the police and special branch; and was a pillar of reason in meetings of UWCO and, post-unbanning, meetings of the African National Congress and its Women’s League.

Her assertiveness emanated from her parents instilling a rejection of societal boundaries in her from an early age, emphasising that she should accept no label other than that of her being a human being. She became politically active as a 14-year old and underwent a gradual process of conscientisation until being recruited to do community work as a means to raise political awareness in the area.

Her determination to fight for a united, non-racial and non-sexist South Africa was deepened by the murder of Iman Haroon in detention, during her time as a university student and her experiences later, as an intern at Somerset Hospital during the 1976 uprisings. Organising in conditions of severe repression was dangerous, but she and her fellow intern, Sophie, started organising workers at Somerset Hospital and subsequently facilitated a successful march in solidarity with the students. She was also among the first who called for free healthcare for all and was one of the people who contributed to the formation of the UDF.

One of the earliest campaigns that Logra (led by Julie and others) mounted was the ‘Lower rates and rents’ Campaign, which combined different class issues. She recalls being scared at the goals of the campaign, but they did it anyway. One of the achievements was taking the officials of the Divisional Council on a tour of the area to see the poor conditions of people’s homes and the environment. It was the first time the authorities saw the area that they made decisions about.

Julie also had a wonderful way of organising women around issues that interested them and then using the event to create awareness around racial, sexual and class inequalities. Once our democratic government was in place, she contributed to building the local ANC branch and the Women’s League branch. More recently she was part of a small group of women deepening democracy through a loose network that brings decision-makers into closer connection with ordinary women, thereby contributing to the sharing of accurate information on service delivery.

Julie was also involved at St Luke’s Hospice until she took up a post at UCT teaching palliative medicine. At the same time, she hosted book readings promoting local authors, especially women. Donations collected at the events were used to upgrade communal areas at public hospitals. Julie and her team wanted these spaces to look as beautiful as private hospitals and give patients a more dignified experience. Later the funds were used to support the Grassy Park branch of St Luke's. Currently, Julie is considering new ways to address the very basic and urgent need for food security in the community.

Sahra Ryklief

Sahra Ryklief does not view herself as an activist but rather as an empowerer of activists. Indeed, while she was never at the forefront of resistance, her compassion, diligence, wise guidance and constant presence in every activity of resistance in the area of Grassy Park in the 1980s, and thereafter her services in the labour movement, have contributed to the building of many strong activists and leaders.

She is an autodidact and has a lasting love, respect and allegiance for informal learning spaces, individual and group, specifically public libraries (and more recently, online resources) and the learning which occurs in social, cultural and workplace associations. She worked as a public librarian for the first decade and a half of her working life, which got many a young person, including myself, to visit the library daily. She developed an internal training programme for rural and urban librarians, ran a youth drama group and halfway through her tenure as a municipal librarian became the trade union representative for the amenities and cemeteries sector of the municipal union.

She began working at the Trade Union Library in 1990 and spent the next 20 years doing information provision, research and education for trade unions and developing programmes, projects and publications for what is now the Labour Research Service. In 1996, she joined the Executive Committee of the International Federation of Worker Education Associations (IFWEA) and was elected General Secretary of IFWEA at the 20th General Conference held in Ahmedabad, India in 2007. She stood again for election at the 2011, 2015 and 2019 General Conferences. This will be her last term before retiring.

Sahra holds a Master of Arts degree in political science from the University of Liverpool and is an adjunct instructor for the Labor Studies and Employment Relations department of the School of Management and Labour Relations at Rutgers’ University, New Jersey, USA. She has produced research for the department and teaches a course for their labour studies degree on Social Movements, Social Change and Work.

Ghairo Daniels

No single event motivated Ghairo Daniels to become politically active, though singular events were key factors. The consciousness into which she was born, predisposed her to participate in correcting social injustice. She was aware of the inequalities and injustices between her mother and father; within her extended family; and within the community of District Six, before she could speak.

Forced removal from District Six to the barren Hanover Park on the Cape Flats, based on colour, made an enormous impact on her young mind. This became the transition point from a sad, frustrated child-observer of wrongs to an ardent and hardworking activist. Being teargassed and baton-charged and finding solace in St. George's Cathedral during 1976, then her later detention and torture under Section Six of the Terrorism Act, added fuel to fire. The experience of solitary confinement and interrogation in prison cells gave her an opportunity to understand the minds of the oppressors better. This, in turn, led to her belief that the organisation of groups of people acting in a rational, disciplined and consensual way was crucial in confronting oppression.

As a student activist in the Congress of South African Students (Cosas), the Azanian African Students Organisation (Azaso – the precursor to the current Sasco); in the Committee of 81, which spearheaded the 1980 student insurrection; and her continued community activism in Grassy Park/Lotus River, the area which she moved to in her later years, she gained awareness of her skills in coordination, administration and communication. She also possessed talent in seeing the macro-picture and translating this into feasible strategies, objectives and plans. Throughout her life as a political activist, as well as within her professional career, those were the skills most used, besides her inherent strong intuition.

As a young mother, it also saddened her that her young daughter was tagged along to all kinds of political meetings at all hours of the day and night. She was brought home from hospital into a house which harboured MK cadres and where they lived without electricity. Though, on the upside, her daughter could sing "The Internationale" at two years old.

Professionally, she worked in large national non-governmental organisations, notably SACHED Trust and Idasa, at the executive level, before joining Parliament post the 1994 elections to set up the Office of the Leader of Government Business, being instrumental in developing the legislative flow system and controlling the parliamentary programme. Serving the first Parliament under Madiba was both a privilege and a humbling experience. She left national Parliament both by default and divine design to commence an awesome journey of soul-searching. This included community work on farms in small towns, solitary meditation for a couple of months in the Knysna forest and her training as a healer, peace consultant and meditator.

Natalie McAskill

Natalie McAskill has been a life-long community activist. Her ambition has always just been to serve. She is committed to social justice and believed that apartheid was wrong. Accordingly, she sought to do her bit to get rid of it, using every platform that she could, focusing on media and campaigns to ensure that the voices of the marginalised were heard.

Preferring to remain in the background, she applied her astute mind and warm personality, to precisely assessing a situation and firmly guiding us on strategy, tactics and even self-correction during the most dangerous periods of our liberation struggle. Her quiet reserve was certainly not an indicator of weakness, for her courage in those times were immeasurable and her resolve as solid as steel.

Her principles unflinching and her course steadfast, she remains as committed to social development as she did in during the days of her fight against apartheid. Her interest remains communications and using the medium of film to empower young people, particularly those from low-income communities, to elevate their voices, tell their stories, and to let their needs be known. Environmental justice and food sovereignty are also among current her priorities.

Charlene Houston

Though not much older than us, Charlene Houston was the role model for every young militant activist who had the privilege of being in her presence. Having been taught to think critically, or as they said back then “think for yourself” from a young age; being exposed to the racism that emanated from a simple trip to Kalk Bay beach, labelled ‘non-white’, via St James beach, labelled ‘whites-only’, and inevitably being chased off; reading Anne Frank’s Diary; and accompanying her mom to meetings of the Garment Workers Union, formed the backdrop to the makings of a dynamic revolutionary.

Her boundless passion and energy to end injustice, inequality, racism and sexism, saw her initially becoming active in Cosas, raising awareness amongst students, arranging alternative education activities during the 1980s school boycotts, and organising solidarity campaigns around schools who had poor or no resources. She also facilitated the formation of a Cosatu local in support of workers fighting injustices and was active in the formation of the UDF.

Areas like Grassy Park were neglected by national and regional leaders who prioritised working-class areas with resources like pamphlets and the deployment of charismatic speakers. They mistakenly viewed the Grassy Park community as less likely to be mobilised because they were not as oppressed as those living in “council flats” or township hostels.

This led her to develop a range of community service programmes that filled the gap where local government was not delivering as a member of the Logra Advice office and the Logra civic association, an affiliate of the Cape Housing Action Committee (CAHAC). The programmes were designed to bring people together in groups to learn about rights and justice and to promote action in the form of projects or campaigns. Most of the activities were illegal even when they were not political.

In response to the state brutality that was unleashed with the State of Emergency, she joined uMkhonto weSizwe in 1985, at the age of 19. She operated in deep secrecy because she already had a public profile due to her political work in the community but coordinated a small group to continue mobilisation in schools, among youth and within the religious sector. She also led a women’s group which was the forerunner to the unbanning of the Women’s League and assisted in setting up ANC and Women’s League branches when the organisation was unbanned.

As the political atmosphere post-1990 was shifting dramatically, she immersed herself in transitional politics. She facilitated the establishment of the Western Cape Youth Forum which brought youth from the right and left of the political spectrum together to explore the future. As part of the secretariat at the Consultative Business Movement, she supported dialogues towards building social compacts post-apartheid. In 1994 she set up the Western Cape chapter of the independent observer network for our first democratic elections.

She also worked in the Western Cape Government, where she led some transformation initiatives in the museum sector. Of note is the development of the first provincial policy on sacred human remains held in museums. She also led the very first reburial of remains to happen in the country where remains from 3 museums were returned to associated indigenous communities and reburied in 2018.

Since then, various projects related to good governance and poverty alleviation strategies dominated her time. She has also developed her passion for storytelling into a skill of film making and is currently developing a documentary about Coline Williams with a grant from the National Film Foundation. She is also currently on the Human Remains Working Group of Iziko Museums of South Africa. Having been expelled from high school due to her political work, she has since completed her studies and is now a PhD student.


The few women profiled are just a sample of the innumerable competent women that exist in South Africa. The collective possesses knowledge and skills in public and corporate management, accounting, legal affairs, technological and natural sciences, and many more.

It should not be difficult to locate these skilled women activists from the 1980s; to compile a database of their competencies; and to deploy them once again to serve our country, this time for reconstruction rather than resistance.

It can be assured that they will serve as diligently and honestly today as they did back then, without costing us an arm and a leg.

* Reneva Fourie is an analyst specialising in governance, development and security and currently lives in Damascus, Syria.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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