An interview with Gertrude Shope, a member of the ANC’s National Executive Committee and head of the ANC Women’s Section
Learn and Teach: Welcome home Ma-Shope! How do you feel to be back after such a long time in exile?
Shope: It is the most wonderful feeling in the world to be home! I am very excited! I never thought that I would be back so soon. You know, even though we were welcomed with warmth everywhere we went, it is not the same as being in your place of birth, in the country you love. Home is always “home sweet home”!
Before we ask you about your involvement in the ANC, can you tell us something about your youth?
Well, I was born on 15 August 1925 in Pimville. My father was sent to Zimbabwe to work when I was a young child and we all went with him. I went to school and did a teacher’s course there. When we came back to South Africa, I taught at Endaleni High School in Natal for a while and then I moved to Johannesburg where I taught domestic science at Pimville High. In 1954, I worked in the Occupational Therapy section of Coronation Hospital and later moved to the Johannesburg City Council. This was my last job before I left the country.
Why did you decide to leave South Africa?
Well, it was not an easy decision to leave although it was made easier because my husband, Mark Shope, had already gone into exile in 1963. He is a trade unionist with SACTU. We got married in 1957 while he was one of the accused in the famous Treason Trial. One Sunday in 1966, I packed our things and took all the children-we had three together and Mark had three from another marriage-and crossed the border into Botswana. We stayed there for a year and then went on to Zambia. Later, I joined my husband in Czechoslovakia where he was the coordinator of the World Federation of Trade Union English-speaking African countries.
Have your husband and children come back with you?
No, Mark is still in Lusaka. Some of the children are also in Zambia at school and others are working for the ANC in other countries. But don’t worry, I am used to being on my own!
Can you tell us how you became involved in the ANC? Was it because of your husband’s activities as a trade unionist?
It is impossible to live in South Africa and not see that apartheid stinks. The damage that apartheid has caused can be felt in the family, in the streets …. apartheid is everywhere. As a young child, I saw how our parents were arrested for not carrying their passes and how our mothers were forced to carry the evil books.
When we came back from Zimbabwe, I saw that nothing had changed and I started to get involved. I joined the ANC in 1954, before I got married. Another thing that inspired me to carry on the struggle was the women’s march to Pretoria in 1956 when 20 000 women protested against carrying passes.
Were you only active in the ANC or were you also involved in the ANC Women’s League?
I was active in both. Later, I joined the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) and was the Transvaal Secretary until I went into exile.
Can you tell us about your work in the ANC during the years you were in exile?
Well, I have already told you that I went to join my husband in Czechoslovakia. After I while, I returned by myself to Tanzania where I worked as Florence Mophosho’s secretary. Florence was the head of the Women’s Section and a member of the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the ANC. Two years later, I was sent to Lusaka. I worked for the head office of the ANC and in 1974 I was elected as one of the chief representatives of the ANC in Lusaka.
By that time, my husband had been transferred to Nigeria. I stayed with him · until 1981 when I was chosen to be the head of the Women’s Section. In the same year, I was appointed to serve on the NEC. Finally, at the 1985 Kwabe Conference, I was elected onto the NEC. I still hold the two positions.
What is the difference between the Women’s Section and the Women’s League?
The Women’s League was the name of the ANC’s women’s organisation until 1960 when the ANC was banned. At the time, the Women’s League was an affiliate of FEDSAW. When the ANC was banned, we continued to work as members of FEDSAW.
But those of us who were in exile wanted to carry on the work of the Women’s League. We started to have discussions about starting a women’s section. What prompted us was that many of our male comrades could not accept the contribution that women were making in the struggle. They still thought women were a side issue, without much importance. So we formed a new grouping called the ANC Women’s Section.
But now you have re-launched the ANC Women’s League. Why is that?
When the ANC was unbanned on February 2, a lot of exiles started to make plans to come home. Those in the Women’s Section felt the need to build a strong Women’s League inside the country. Already organisations in South Africa that are part of the MOM were discussing the possibility. Many of them have aligned themselves with the ANC and have adopted the Freedom Charter and the FEDSAW Women’s Charter.
Then, in April this year, a meeting was held in Lusaka between women in exile and those from inside to decide whether to go ahead and build the Women’s League. It was agreed that we should. Ten women were elected to serve on the Interim Leadership Core – five from exile and five from inside. Our aim is to prepare the ground for a strong mass-based Women’s League.
Some people say that they don’t see any need for women to organise separately because women are in all the structures, be they civic, youth, students, trade unions and so on. Others say that women are organising separately to revolt against men. Why is it important for women to organise separately?
Are there still people who think that way? I thought we had gone beyond that! But to answer your question: Yes, it is important for us to form women’s organisations that fight for women’s rights. Just look into most of our structures and you will see that it is men who hold all the leadership positions, not women. I think the time has come to change this situation.
But let me explain a bit more. All women in South Africa suffer a double oppression – as women and as workers. Black women suffer a further oppression, because of the colour of our skin. As women, we are looked down on and regarded as the servants of men. They see us as sex objects that they can play with and then throw away. We want men to know that we are their equals, we are human beings just like them.
The laws in South Africa give our men the right to keep what we earn and to do whatever they like with our property. We cannot take out a contract without our husbands’ signatures and we are not even allowed to make decisions about our children. This attitude must go!
But by saying this, we are not declaring war on men! We know that the society we live in has made men think that way. So men are also victims. Together, men and women must change their attitudes to each other.
Our second oppression is as workers. In the work-place, we are paid less just because we are women. When there are problems in the economy, we are the first to be fired. Thirdly, are also oppressed because we are black.
What are the plans of the Women’s League? Are you going to start any campaigns?
Our first plan is to start correcting the oppression of women in the home, at work, in our organisations and in all other places.
We also want to organise as many women as possible into the League. We hope to have half a million women by December 16 when the ANC will hold its National Conference.
We especially want to organise in the rural areas. Not enough work has been done there in the past. This was a big mistake and it must not happen again. We need to educate and develop the women in these areas. The young women should be encouraged and helped to go back to school. We will teach the older ones skills to help them to do things on their own. Women in the towns should be helped in the same way.
In October this year, the Women’s League will hold a conference in Kimberley. We will elect the national executive, draft the constitution and decide which issues to take to the national conference in December.
We will also decide what campaigns we should take up.
But perhaps I can say now that one campaign will be for the children of our country. We need a charter for our children because I believe that a nation that does not care about its children is doomed. History will never forgive us if we don’t look after our children’s rights.
We are also planning to have a Women’s Charter. We will go from door to door asking people what they want to put in the Women’s Charter, just like we did with the Freedom Charter in 1953. We will go to all women, not only those in the ANC.
Why do you need another charter when we already have FEDSAW’s Women’s Charter which was adopted in 1954? The ANC Women’s League was there when the Charter was adopted.
It is true that we were part of the launch of the FEDSAW Charter and the FEDSAW Charter is still an important and useful Charter. The ANC’s Constitutional Guidelines only speak about women’s issues in passing. Our Charter will spell out all the issues that affect women. In this way, women’s rights will be put high on the agenda for a new South Africa.
Lastly, Ma-Shope, do you have any message for the women of our country?
My message to women is that we should stand up for our rights. The time for women to be found in the kitchen only is long past. Let us, together with our menfolk, correct the wrongs and ills in our society.
This is the challenge facing us today. Join your organisations in your thousands for without you there is no revolution. The ANC Women’s League is for you. It is there to serve you and to be serviced by you!
appoint – when a group of people choose you to do something, but NOT by a vote elected – when a group of people choose you to do something by a vote minors – people under the age of eighteen. Minors need their parents permission to sign forms and so on. In South Africa, women are seen as minors and need their husband’s permission to sign forms or contracts doomed – when we say something is doomed, we mean it has no future