The burden of black women

Johannesburg – Growing up, I was made to remember my grandmother as a coloured woman from the Eastern Cape who spoke isiXhosa.

Recently, my mother has been trying to connect with her maternal family and learn more about the circumstances that surrounded her killing.

When my mother was seven, my grandfather killed my grandmother by bludgeoning her to death against a tap in Katlehong where they lived.

Few things were said about my grandmother alongside those about how she died. For instance, that she was coloured and that coloured women are alcoholics, that she was unspeakably beautiful and had the audacity to know it, that she was considered a scandal in the family for being fair-skinned and conceited, and that she took out a life insurance policy before she was killed and nominated her children as beneficiaries.

“O batla chelete ea ka mme a ke ke a e fumane [he wants my money but he will never get it],” she would say about my grandfather to my mother and my mother’s sister, two of four children that survived their first year.

Near the end of 2020, my mother met my grandmother’s family in White City, Soweto, and again in Matatiele, Eastern Cape.

We learned that her father was coloured and that her mother was black. We learned that growing up, my grandmother attended an elite grammar school in Lesotho, where she learned to speak and write in English.

That opened her to a successful career at Ellerines head office. She was a favourite of her employer and earned well, more than what my grandfather was earning. She was highly skilled, beautiful, and a successful black woman under apartheid. Then the trouble started. For whatever reason, my grandfather insisted she leave her job and take up a lower-paying job. She obliged.

However, even here, her employers were impressed by her and she was promoted and given more responsibilities.

The word is that he hated how successful she was and was emasculated. That’s when the beatings started. She was being beaten on Fridays and Saturdays. She started drinking to numb her body in preparation to be beaten.

They say there were many meetings between the families to discuss the beatings, to end them. However, they continued.

And then, one evening, he killed her.

“Ka kopa o ba shebe bosiu bo bong, ke hloka ho bua le mme oa bona [please look after my children and take care of them, I want to go and have a word with their mother],” my grandfather asked his brother the night he killed her.

His brother obliged.

This story rends me, and I’ve struggled to know how to approach knowing it, fulfilling it.

It still feels like something is supposed to happen, something big and resolute and certain. And I don’t know what my responsibility is to it. It is my first reference point when I think about black womanhood, what can happen if this society decides that you are both a woman and black, what can be done to you. The specificity of that determination.

Mostly, I think about what my responsibilities to black women are, in particular in respect of the solidarity we share in anti-patriarchy consciousness and activism.

I think about how, in as much as racism and patriarchy are structures of oppression that we share, I am not a black woman as much as I am black and queer, how different we are.

I think about the rich tradition of feminist resistance to oppression and how little of it I know. I know this article is about her, the way grief never ends but changes, dissolves itself into the blood, spit and children. I know this piece is about me too.

Ultimately, I hope this thing becomes about you, the narratives you hold and speak about black women and the place in which you find yourself in relation to the oppression of black women.

There’s no beginning, middle or end, perhaps fitting considering the poly-centric and non-linear forces that manage and perpetuate the social construction of black women.

In this meditation are some sprawled thoughts on narratives, their evocativeness and power to govern the narrators and the narrated.

It is also a piece about solidarity among and similarities between black women and queers, the shame we recognise among one another, the oppression we’re able to perpetuate against each other.

By Kneo Mokgopa

Kneo Mokgopa

• Mokgopa is communications officer at Nelson Mandela Foundation.

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