Lessons in leadership from amagqoboka, the brave women of Herschel

On this Mandela Day, JESSIE DUARTE argues that for decades, black women from all walks of life have played key roles in the fight against oppression and the struggle for freedom in South Africa. In many instances, they lined up against their oppressors with just sticks, songs and slogans. But most times, unity was the main weapon with which they confronted their enemy, usually white colonial authorities hell-bent on legislating them and their families into assuming lives of lesser human beings. 

This is a story about a group of women known as ‘amagqoboka’ (converts or dress women) who, in the 1920s, took on unscrupulous white shopkeepers in a tiny village in the Eastern Cape. After their actions, they were given another name: ‘Amafelandawonye’ (the die-hards)

For months, anger simmered and bubbled in the tiny Eastern Cape village of Herschel – until, in March 1922, matters, inevitably, came to a head. Herschel itself was the heart of a region with an intriguing ‘hidden’ history. And like all ‘hidden’ histories in South Africa, the participants were overwhelmingly black. What occurred in the village and surrounding areas was a flexing of community muscle never before witnessed in a rural area of South Africa: a boycott.

But it was no ordinary boycott.

It was, in fact, a show of strength in which the planners and participants were exclusively women. There were two key reasons for Herschel being ripe for the type of protest action that became a topic of discussion far beyond its confines.  The first was its location: close to the borders of the Orange Free State and present-day Lesotho, it had served as a safe haven and a new home for many disparate groupings of refugees of war and dispossession that had become such a common sight in the second half of the 1800s, in these and other areas outside the Eastern Cape.

The second reason was its history: precisely because many of these “refugees” formed far looser ties than the normally tighter formal groupings of African society, patriarchy was far less of an issue among those who had stayed to make the area their home. Women had a far bigger say in the running of households – and they took their duties seriously. Settling in quickly, residents of Herschel quickly began establishing a reputation for successful small-scale farming – when the rains played ball. 

When drought became an issue, a new factor in the form of a separate group of residents in the area – white traders – thrust themselves into the equation.  In time, these men became an increasingly bigger problem in the lives of the black people in the village and surrounding mission stations.

Because of their strong ties with the colonial administrators of the frontier regions – the magistrates, chief magistrates and missionaries – these traders were allowed to get away with practices that were either illegal, or which bordered on the illegal. For instance, in acts that today would see them charged with collusion, they practised systems that left Herschel’s small-time agriculturalists little choice but to sell their crops to them at ridiculously low prices.

To increase the anger of the locals, no hard cash was ever paid for the crops they sold.  Instead, payment centred on an “in lieu of cash” arrangement, a barter system that heavily favoured the white shopkeepers. But then, prior to the planting season, the issue was totally reversed. Traders had no qualms about taking full advantage of the monopoly they held on seeds. In a take it or leave it attitude, they charged exorbitant prices for seeds.

And what was more, they demanded payment in cash.

And so year after year, in a depressingly familiar scenario, the poor became poorer, and the rich – the traders – became richer … and increasingly heartless.  As indebtedness spread, the bell was rung for these same traders to put on a different cap, a cap that said: “labour recruiter”.

Like slaves, the men of Herschel were forced to leave the district for the far-off mines of Egoli – to sell their labour, to settle their debts.  At the same time, the rumblings of discontent began taking on the form of an earthquake. For, it was at this point that the women of the village began rolling up their sleeves and saying: “No more!”

When the correspondent for the Northern Post, a newspaper based 60km away in Aliwal North wrote about what was happening in Herschel, his tone was both arrogant and dismissive, not surprising when it involves black women taking control of their own destination in their own right. He described the boycott as “silly” and predicted it would soon collapse and that the protestors would be sorry, and that there would be painful repercussions for them. He wrote that the participants “would soon have to go down on their knees to beg the traders to give them grain ‘on tick’.”

But he was made to eat his words.

A few weeks after his initial report, he wrote another report – about a “serious problem”, which he said was gaining momentum. Even more interesting, though, was his description of the form the boycott was taking – and the broad identity of its participants. He seemed almost surprised that the organisers and participants in the protests were women. But more astonishing to him were the methods the women were prepared to adopt to make their point and win their battle.

“These natives”, he wrote, were setting up pickets near the shops of the white traders and, armed with sticks, they were either stopping prospective shoppers from entering the stores or confiscating the goods purchased by members of local communities.

Imvo Zabantsundu, the newspaper with a predominantly black African readership, took a far softer approach to the boycotters. “We have seen something that has never been seen before in Herschel,” its correspondent wrote. Imvo reported that all the women of the village, the amagqoboka had gone on a “big strike”.  

Outlining how the decision to boycott was arrived at, the newspaper said 3 000 women had met at a place called Sterkspruit, 29km away, to formulate their demands and to plan a course of action to ensure these would be met. Central to their plan was a boycott of white shops. They would stop buying from these establishments until they cut their prices and bought wheat from small-scale farmers at reasonable prices. Imvo wrote that the protestors could be very aggressive when anyone tried to cross their lines. Some, the newspaper reported, were even armed with sticks.

The traders, expecting the state to come to their assistance, at first took a hard line, refusing to drop prices – or to change the way they did business. Later, they claimed they could not drop prices because they were also battling to make ends meet.

But the women would not budge.

The magistrates, although firmly on the side of the traders, could only act if the law were broken. But there were slim pickings for them in this respect. Just three women were arrested and charged with confiscating goods of people who had crossed their picket lines. And although the women were sternly lectured for this type of behaviour, the protesters refused to be intimidated by threats of tough action against them if they broke the law. They knew that there was no law against passive resistance. Instead, they were quick to point out too that the “shopkeepers had big stomachs – and each one of them had a car”.

In the end, common sense prevailed in Herschel. The traders were eventually forced to drop their prices – and when they did, the victorious women of the village called a halt to their boycott. 

What are the lessons we can learn today from the women of Herschel, almost a century ago?  That nothing is impossible if we have the will to succeed. Women in South African over the decades have shown us that they are more than capable of just leading a village, or being CEO of a business. In SA today, we afford the girl child to dream that nothing is impossible, despite our societies misogynistic tendencies. Our struggle has produced great heroines, despite their burden of double oppression. 

As an ANC we will continue to advance the rights of women to lead our society, nothing must remain off limits to the desires of women to lead our society, from the shop floor, to the Union Building. 

Duarte is Deputy Secretary General of the ANC 

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