Image: supplied.
Image: supplied.

Book extract: Mothers of the Nation - Manyano women in South Africa

Time of article published Oct 5, 2020

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By: Lihle Ngcobozi

The centrality of motherhood, ubufazi, and the traditional roles occupied by women shaped the ways in which women entered the political arena and their conception of identity struggles around gender and race.

Black women within the black church made use of their women and mother groups as an entry point for their political participation. Interrogating this is critical in destabilising rigid modes oftheorising black women’s reliance on motherhood and ubufazi as legitimate political identities.

With the change in South Africa’spolitical climate and the formalisation of apartheid rule, the Manyano began to transform and evolved intoa space that provided rural and urban women with the support they needed in order to deal with the challenges of routine apartheid violence.

The Manyano offered rural women supportin the psychological challenges they experienced as a result of the migrant labour system which saw families separated for long periods of time. This reconfiguration of the home – and of black communities at large – as sites of opposition to state oppression and ongoing violence saw the Manyano evolve from a strictly religious institution to one that focused on strategies to cope with the devastating results of apartheid rule.

It is in this context that black women’s use of the church as a space for political, social and economic mobilisation should be understood. Manyano meetings offered black women across the country ‘a mutual exploration of the practice of faith within the particular constraints of their lives’.

The Thursday meetings that are known as Manyano Day, which coincided with the day black domestic workers were generally off duty in urban areas, known as “Sheila’s Day”, offered black women a space to exchange prayer and “take turns to relate biblical texts directly to their lived reality and helped shape theologies of survival”. The extent to which Thursday became synonymous with Manyano Day was also articulated in the radio programmes, on stations such as Radio Xhosa and Radio Zulu (now Umhlobo Wenene andUkhozi FM).

Women church leaders led cross-denominational public sermons, and women were encouraged to call in and air their personal challenges, pray for others and request to be prayed for by other women. These radio programmes remain a prominent feature of many Manyano women’s lives and for those who continue to recognise Thursday as a day for women to unite in prayer and to listen to and share biblical teachings.

In South Africa today, Manyano Day is still a widely recognised meeting day for the Manyano in various parts of the country.

It is not restricted to Methodist Manyano women, but recognises the prayer efforts of the Manyano of variouschurch denominations.

It is interesting to note that the institution of the Manyano is not just a South African phenomenon; Ruwadzano, which is a Shona equivalent to the Manyano, have similar histories in which African women “viewed religion as a resource”.

The prominence of the black church in South Africa was not limited to life during apartheid. The transition to democracy, especially with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), saw the use of Christian motifs associated with forgiveness, healing, redemption and rituals of spiritual cleansing in orderto move away from ideas of vengeance, rage and hatred. These Christian motifs were championed by the TRC chairperson, Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

It is not surprising that the South African narrative of a “peaceful transition”, based on forgiveness and peace, is connected not only with the personality and heroism of Nelson Mandela, but also with individuals like Archbishop Tutu. It was, after all, Archbishop Tutu who labelled the citizens of the new South Africa “the rainbow children of God”, which came to be understood as “the rainbow nation”.

With the transition from apartheid to democracy in South Africa, the black citizenry were incorporated into the formal public sphere and attained their civil rights. However, the black church, and structures within it, continued to be spaces where those rights find expression. It still resonates with black women, and with the Manyano more specifically, as the space for the recognition and articulation of citizenship in South Africa.

Mothers of the Nation, Manyano Women in South Africa is published by Tafelberg, which is an imprint of NB Publishers, and retails for R250.

‘Whenever I see a Manyano woman, I see a woman who has the world in her hands and has the power to make things change because of the power that is prayer.’ – Stella Shumbe

Lihle Ngcobozi, herself the progeny of three generations of Manyano women, takes an original, fresh look at the meaning of the Manyano. Between male-dominated struggle narratives and Western feminist misreadings, this church based women’s organisation has become a mere footnote to history.

Long overlooked as the juggernaut of a black women’s organisation it has been and continues to be, the Manyano has immense historical and cultural meaning in black communities across the country. To this day, it is still evolving to meet the changing needs of black South Africans. Here, the Manyano women speak for themselves, in an African feminist meditation rendered by one of their own.

About the author:

Lihle Ngcobozi was born and grew up in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal. Through her grandmother’s involvement in the church and the Women’s Manyano, her childhood and young adult days were spent in church. She obtained her Master’s from Rhodes University and is currently a lecturer at the Wits School of Governance. She lives in Johannesburg.

The Saturday Star

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