South African women have taken on the overwhelming issues facing their country with good spirits and energy, often putting their lives on the line. Bryn Mawr alumnae who traveled to the country last October through the Among Women program met many of these remarkable people and have been galvanized to action themselves.
One of their visits was to the Baphumelele Education Center and Children's Home, where some 250 abandoned and orphaned children—from infants to 7-year-olds—live in cluster homes with caregivers.
"There's a huge problem with orphans now, most of whose parents have died of TB and HIV/AIDS-related diseases," said Mary Patterson McPherson, Ph.D. '69, who led the trip. "Infants and toddlers are left in plastic bags in the middle of highways, on railroad tracks, places where they will be killed because their families just can't cope anymore. But there are amazing women like Baphumelele founder Rosie Mashale who are gathering them up and trying to let people know that there are places to drop them off, where they'll be taken care of."
Trained as a primary school teacher, Mashale moved in 1985 to Cape Town's Khayelitsha Township, one of the most marginalized and poverty-stricken in South Africa. Being Sotho-speaking, she could not find a teaching job. One day, an infant was left on her doorstep; she took it in, and with the backing of local women, began looking after children who had been abandoned or whose parents were working in the city. When the HIV/AIDS pandemic hit Khayelitsha, she established Baphumelele (Xhosa for "progress") in 2001. There is also a school, a respite center for teens and parents with HIV/AIDS, a community kitchen, and a woodworking shop offering employment to men who turn out beach and deck chairs. "She had a project on every corner," McPherson said. "It was amazing."
"If I were to carry away a single memory it would be of the warmth and generosity of Rosie, her colleagues and her children," said Peggy Sarkela '74. "The kindness shown to us, strangers, and the care and attention Rosie and her helpers gave to children left at her door step were a constant lesson in ancient, Biblical hospitality."
Photo by Wendy M. Greenfield The trip was the second in the Among Women: An International Dialogue series, begun last year by Bryn Mawr and its sister women's colleges, Wellesley, Smith, Barnard and Mt. Holyoke, with a trip to Jordan. Offered to women from each college who had been on either the executive boards of their alumnae organizations or their boards of trustees, the trips combine exploration of the country with discussions and meetings with exceptional women in leadership positions in government, education, business, media and the arts. "The goal is for participants to come away with greater knowledge and deeper understanding of both local and global women's issues through substantive personal interactions," says Executive Director of the Alumnae Association Wendy M. Greenfield. "In keeping with the mission of our schools to encourage students' desire to make meaningful contributions to the world, the Among Women trips have been transformational for them as alumnae, inspiring them to stay involved and do something to help."
Outskirts of Cape Town.
Photo by Wendy M. Greenfield Susan Savage Speers '51 says, "We spent another memorable hour plus with 90-year-old Dame Helen Suzman, someone I've admired greatly for years. Twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, she was MP from 1953-1989. From 1961 on, hers was the lone dissident voice in Parliament, consistently opposing discriminatory legislation—all the apparatus of apartheid and gender discrimination—and for prison reform, making visits to Robben Island, the prison where Nelson Mandela spent nearly 20 years, now a museum. She described South Africa as a country going forward and backward, a country with enormous resources and with enormous problems.
"Not often in my life (I can only compare it to 1948 when Eleanor Roosevelt came to campus to receive the M. Carey Thomas Prize!) have I been privileged to sit in the presence of greatness. She told us, 'I'm not optimistic, but I am hopeful.' "
Like Suzman, Mayor of Capetown Helen Zille embraces the cause of opposition politics. Zille is leader of the Democratic Alliance. The African National Conference (ANC) holds nearly two-thirds majority. "South Africa has become a one-party dominant state," said Suzman. "The new system of proportional representation is not democratic."
Monkeybiz revives the ancient South African art-form of beading. Women in the townships of Cape Town are provided with glass beads and produce one-off creations. They are paid for each piece they produce, and since they work from home, can look after their families and avoid transport costs. (Find more information at www.monkeybiz.co.za.)
Photo by Wendy M. Greenfield As vice president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and its program officer for liberal arts colleges from 1997–2007, McPherson made five trips to South Africa with colleagues, starting in the late 1990s. "Our work involved helping the leading universities to diversify their faculties as they went post-apartheid from serving predominantly White student bodies to having 60 percent of their students men and women of color; strengthening library and IT operations; building institutional capacity; and supporting the scientific work done in the South African Park System," said McPherson, now executive officer of the American Philosophical Society. "As a result of these trips and the Foundation's wide ranging commitment to the development of the new South Africa, I had an opportunity to meet many of the people involved in the amazing transformation occurring and occurring peacefully in this very complex society."
Travelers also met with, among others, Cheryl de la Rey, deputy vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town; Pregs Govender, author, activist and former ANC member; Gil Marcus, former ANC member and chair of ABSA Bank, the first woman bank chairman in the country; and Mamphela Ramphele, former managing director of the World Bank and current chair of Circle Capital Ventures, a Cape Town-based Black Economic Empowerment Company.
Of the 26 five-college alumnae, the Bryn Mawr travelers were Speers, Jocelyn Fleming Gutchess '42, Sharon Werner '70, Sarkela, Beatrice Jones Hanks '71, Deborah Hicks Bailey '75, McPherson and Greenfield.
At Baphumelele, travelers donated hundreds of shoes to the children's home.
Photo by Wendy M. Greenfield
Before departing for South Africa, travelers met for an orientation session with Bryn Mawr Professor of Sociology Mary Johnson Osirim, whose extensive research includes gender and development in sub-Saharan Africa. (See page 20.) She has recently turned her attention to the establishment of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Zimbabwe and South Africa that are committed to creating social policies that eliminate all forms of violence against women. Osirim laid out issues that South Africa faces—HIV/AIDS, the effect of labor migration on families and households, and gender-based violence—and the country's long history of racial separation, beginning with the 1911 Mines and Works Act and the 1913 Native Lands Acts enacted by the British government. She was accompanied by her daughter, Yvonne, who spoke about her experience studying at the University of Cape Town.
Communicating daily on a listserv hosted by the Bryn Mawr Alumnae Association after returning, the travelers formed a steering committee to explore ways to help improve conditions in South Africa. In February, they decided to establish a library in a school in the Eastern Cape through Room to Read, an NGO founded by former Microsoft employee John Wood. They have set up a website: www.AmongWomenSouthAfrica.org.
Staff at Gold of Africa Museum and Restaurant.
Photo by Wendy M. Greenfield
A panel discussion for the community will be held at Bryn Mawr in December. Wellesley will sponsor the next trip—to India—in January 2009, and Mt. Holyoke to Cambodia in the spring of 2010. "These intensive, educational trips for alumnae are becoming increasingly popular at U.S. colleges and universities," said McPherson, "but we are still trying to find ways for the institutions themselves to be involved. There might be special admissions relationships, student internships or faculty exchanges. We might, for example, hold a conference here about teaching methods in math and science and invite other faculty from the area in South Africa."
"Before this trip I was ‘wading in the stream,' " said Jocelyn Fleming Gutchess '42. "I had visited other African countries and was generally interested in African problems but not really involved. Now I am totally immersed, certainly as far as South Africa is concerned. That is partly because the trip was such an incredible, supercharged learning experience and partly because of the dynamic of the group itself, stimulating and long lasting."
By Deborah Hicks Bailey '75
We saw vineyards and chefs and opposition leaders and centres for conflict resolution, university chancellors, faculty, students, artists and business leaders. We cooked South African dishes. We saw activists and MPs and penguins and orphans and townships, entrepreneurs and former political prisoners.
Reconciliation is a concept expressed by all, and apparently deeply understood: one generation must refuse to indulge in revenge but focus its prodigious energy on developing a common future, with love and heart and authenticity.
The intensity of the people we have met, and their laser focus on moving as fast as possible to secure the survival of their democratic process and to build a thriving country is striking. Every single person, lofty or lowly, that we have met, is powerfully articulate, with a clarity of mind and speech tempered by knowing the worst and believing the best.
In Diepsloot, we met a woman who was blind, and could not afford an operation to restore her sight. Her doctor asked her to come back in a month, to tell him what she would do with her talents were her sight restored.
She responded by using her experience of sexual abuse and domestic violence as a child to work ever since for the people of this township, for the child-headed households and the orphans, to get health programs and schools and gardens and clinics. She has delivered 500 babies in a trailer. Clearly her sight was restored, and she is relentless in pursuit of her vision.
The first thing our group of academics and attorneys, housewives and executives, authors and journalists all noted was the amazing openness. There seemed to be no subject that cannot be raised and discussed actively.
We met Dr. Merle Friedman (pictured right), who described herself as a South African of privilege, politically unaware until her kidnapping for ransom in 1982, which involved sexual violence and humiliation. Trained as a psychologist, Merle, blindfolded, used transactional analysis and talked her captor around to the point where he gave her back her clothes and released her. Later he was captured and extradited to the U.S. where he was tried on a prior murder charge.
Recovery from this event required her to dwell on trauma, and then to dedicate her efforts to working with victims of trauma, and she began to study traumatized systems and groups. This work led her to recognize the trauma of apartheid and to work actively in the negotiations to end it. She took a number of risks to report on the realities of the maltreatment and murder of Blacks. Recovery for traumatized, oppressed groups in her view requires acknowledgement that whatever it was did happen and that it was bad; a genuine apology though forgiveness can only come as a gift from the party wronged; and reparations.
South Africa has adopted a practice from Australia, called the Sorry Book, where people can write apologies in books kept in police stations or online, for all to see. She read us her very moving apology, with some difficulty given her tears and ours, and the two Black women members of our group spoke up immediately to say that never had they heard an apology from White people anywhere before. School children at Zizanani Women and Youth Project in Diepsloot.
Photo by Wendy M. Greenfield
At a conference titled "International Civic Engagement: NGO Work in the Global South" in late January, Professor of Sociology Mary Osirim argued that "the brunt of the current wave of globalization is really borne on the backs of women and children at the bottom."
Osirim explained how the structural adjustment programs imposed in more than 40 African countries by international financial institutions and hegemonic powers like the United States have exacerbated poverty, resulting in unemployment and in the removal of social services such as user fees for schools, and subsidies for housing, transportation and food. "Many men have lost formal sector jobs, and women have had to do more bargaining and trading," she said. "These are societies where men are expected to be the breadwinners and heads of the household even though women have been in the labor market for many years. The threat to the traditional male role, combined with unemployment against a backdrop of conflict—such as the massive struggle against apartheid—have all contributed to escalating violence against women."
Osirim referred to the "femocracy"—a term coined by Amina Mama, chair of gender studies at the African Gender Institute of the University of Cape Town—that has been created where women who are higher up on the socioeconomic scale by and large have been the principle beneficiaries of many of the activities of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Osirim discussed four NGOs, including Rape Crisis Cape Town "that really do seem to be reaching women at the bottom, that have taken a more comprehensive approach in terms of the provision of services, looking at the woman as an entire being and her position in a large society."
The conference was co-sponsored by the Katharine Houghton Hepburn Center and the Center for International Studies. Hepburn Fellow Cynthia Eyakuze '94, director of Public Health Watch, a project of the Open Society Institute, whose intensive career has been devoted to improving the sexual and reproductive health of young women and adolescents in Africa, discussed HIV/AIDS issues in sub-Saharan Africa. "Marriage is one of the biggest risk factors for HIV there," she said. "Between 80–90 percent of the HIV/AIDS infections are heterosexually transmitted. Traditional sociocultural norms in the region call for strict gender roles that often undermine a woman's ability to protect herself. Girls marry in their teens to men who are often 10 or more years older; they are expected to prove their fertility by becoming pregnant in the first year of marriage or even before. The age gap also limits girls' ability to resist unsafe sexual practices. Men are encouraged to prove their manhood by having multiple sexual partners before and after marriage, increasing their own risk of infection as well as their partners'." In South Africa, the government has been slow about providing antiretroviral drugs, especially to HIV-positive mothers to protect their babies.
Ample studies show that neither scare tactics nor abstinence-only programs, the main policy supported by the United States, are effective with teens, Eyakuze noted. What is effective is comprehensive sexual education. She urged students interested in working internationally to educate themselves first about U.S. foreign policies that affect the rest of the world.