A Thrice Told Tale: The founding of the Zenzele Women’s Association

As an anthropologist I am always in the business of gathering stories. And, as I have noted in an earlier post (The Danger of a Single Story), this often entails gathering multiple perspectives from people in different social positions in order to understand the full scope of an issue. In the mid-1990s I embarked on an ethnographic project in South Africa examining women’s interactions with one another across race and class divisions. I worked with various women’s groups – some were political, while others like the Federation for Women’s Institutes (FWI) and the Natal and KwaZulu Zenzele Women’s Association (NKZWA) were more focused on working within the social norms of South African society to support women, their families and communities. In the course of conducting interviews I stumbled into multiple, somewhat competing versions of the history of the formation of NKZWA, a black African women’s organization affiliated with FWI and the international Associated Country Women of the World (ACWW). The first version of this history that I heard ascribed credit to FWI, an exclusively white women’s organization, for the founding of NKZWA. In two alternate versions of this history senior members of the NKZWA credited greater agency to African women; they talked about this history in terms of conflict, compromise, and domination. These three competing histories were shaped by apartheid.

The first version I encountered claimed that the seed for the founding of NKZWA was first sown in 1974 at the Associated Countrywomen of the World Conference in Perth[1]. White women from FWI, South Africa were challenged by their international body to incorporate African, Coloured, and Asian women in their organizations. FWI delegates accepted the challenge; under the leadership of Joan Hulley, they returned to South Africa with the intent of facilitating the formation of separate affiliate organizations for each race group. The creation of separate groups was justified in terms of the constraints of apartheid legislation which prohibited people of different race groups meeting together. For some, this was considered necessary for survival in an increasingly repressive apartheid state, while others framed it as a strategy for circumventing the apartheid state’s surveillance and repression of African-led organizations. In 1977 the NKZWA was formally constituted and a Committee of African women was elected under the “guidance” of white FWI women. The focus of the NKZWA was on community development to improve the quality of life for rural African women. 

The original FWI newsletter report did not address the issue of race or apartheid in any direct way.  Rather, the effort was couched as white FWI women choosing to “share their talents with others” to help “rural women to improve their quality of life.”  The assumption being that the reader would know that these “others,” these “rural women” were Africans. White women were credited for their “hard work” and “vast voluntary undertaking” for the achievements of the NKZWA.

Isabel Didiza, a field worker for the Durban and District Zenzele Women’s Association, supported this history but directly addressed the issue of race in the South African context.  She told me that,

“After the ACWW conference … the theme was caring and sharing… the ACWW turned to the [white] South Africans and said ‘What about your neighbours? Where are the blacks?  You must care and share.’ So, they came back and had a meeting with some [African women] leaders of the community.  They came to the creche and asked for four women, ladies from Clermont (a black township near Pinetown), to teach other women” (September 1, 1994).

They taught the women to knit and crochet, to cultivate vegetables, and how to ensure good nutrition and health of their children.

A second, quite different, version of the history was related by Adele Khonyana, a founding member of NKZWA. Adele, a mission-educated African woman married to a Christian minister, spent much of her life teaching women in her community to cultivate the land and provide adequate nutrition for their children. “When I came to Natal, I used to go to the people and say, ‘Don’t sit on your hands, do something about yourselves. There is land here. Use the land to improve yourself”. Adele saw herself as someone who had the knowledge and skills to impart to other women. She taught women to bake, knit, and crochet, amongst other domestic skills. These skills came to her “because I was born in a Zenzele home.” Her mother had been a Zenzele field worker long before the founding of NKZWA.

Zenzele, in Xhosa, means “we do it ourselves” (March 3, 1994). According to Adele, Zenzele had its beginnings in the Transkei, then a Bantu Homeland. Zenzele was started by the Bhunga, a local body of African leaders under the control of the Cape provincial government that administered the region, largely responsible for agricultural development in the region. The agricultural advisors, abalimi, “used to come to these women who belonged to Zenzele and advised them in agriculture” (March 3, 1994). In 1974, Adele was approached by leaders of the FWI who heard about Zenzele, Transkei. They proposed training women to help African women.  Adele told the FWI leaders that she didn’t need training since “Zenzele is what I’ve been doing ever since I’ve grown up.” 

Adele’s version of the history suggested that African women, like her mother and later herself, had been doing the work of Zenzele – teaching women to grow foods successfully, prepare nutritious meals, and so forth – long before the white women of FWI became interested in such work.  However, she decided to engage with the FWI since she might expand her knowledge in primary health care. She started the first FWI affiliated NKZWA (Zenzele) clubs in 1975. Over time, she became frustrated working with white FWI women who “get all the money from our work, but they don’t do any of the work – they’ve never even been to any of the places where we work” (March 3, 1994). Furthermore, the FWI was constantly interfering with NKZWA presidential and committee member elections. She left NKZWA and continued the work she had always been doing in her community without the involvement of FWI.

The third version of this history was related by Pheona Pitso, a former president of NKZWA.  Like Adele, Pheona told me that Zenzele had existed in the Transkei before the creation of NKZWA. According to her, in 1973 a group of African women, primarily health care workers who were not involved with Zenzele, went to Ulundi (the administrative capital of KwaZulu) to demand equal rights for African women under Zulu law. When pressed to identify themselves by authorities in the capital one of the women who was familiar with Zenzele (Transkei), suggested they claim affiliation to this group. Fortuitously, not long after this march for African women’s rights, Dr. Molly Walker, a white doctor at King Edward Hospital in Durban, told a group of the health workers that FWI wanted to start a black African women’s organization to help the community. According to Pheona, a nurse at King Edward hospital, in the repressive climate of 1970s South Africa when people were being arrested for any kind of activism, the women who had marched to Ulundi viewed affiliation with the FWI a strategic move to avoid apartheid government scrutiny. Since FWI was a white, explicitly non-political women’s organization they believed the affiliation would protect them from arrest.

Like Adele, Pheona complained of white FWI women’s interference in the running of NKZWA. She told me that FWI applied to international aid agencies for funding on behalf of NKZWA, but never involved them in the process. FWI kept and administered the funds received in an FWI account. The NKZWA leadership had been in a long struggle with FWI to provide a detailed accounting of funds received and spent, and to allow NKZWA members to make their own decisions about the use and distribution of the funds. She too complained of FWI interference in NKZWA presidential elections. Those members of NKZWA who dared to challenge FWI women were marginalized; FWI would ensure that a Zenzele member who was more compliant with white women’s demands was elected to the presidency of NKZWA by making it clear that they would not work with NKZWA if one of the other African women leaders was elected. Pheona had herself remained an NKZWA member supported by white FWI women, but it was a constant struggle for her, and she continued to work on her own in her community. At times she drew a line on certain issues and did challenge white FWI members: “When the shoe is too tight then we just say ‘no’” (February 23, 1994). 

At first, I struggled with trying to ascertain which was the “true” version of this history. But as I wrote about these different versions I came to realize that all were equally true. Each version reflected the intentions and experiences of the different social actors refracted through the lens of apartheid which shed light onto racial power relations. The version recorded in the FWI newsletter cast white women “caring and sharing” erasing African women’s agency in community development long before FWI engagement. The oral history versions I gathered from African women leaders of NKZWA focused on their agency in supporting women in their communities. The third version of this history emphasized African women’s politically strategic association with white FWI women as a means of subverting and even challenging white power.

Whenever we seek to develop interventions and facilitate change in communities it is critical that we conduct exploratory research that engages with various social actors so that we can gather these multiple perspectives. We then need to work with communities to balance the different perspectives while finding ways to honor and even reconcile competing histories to meet the differential needs within communities and among the people.

[1] FWI Newsletter November 1978.

Note: Title invokes Margery Wolf’s “A Thrice Told Tale: Feminism, Postmodernism and Ethnographic Responsibility.” Stanford U. Press, 1992.