Kuzwayo, Ellen (1914—)

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Kuzwayo, Ellen (1914—)

Teacher, social worker, Soweto community organizer, and children's rights activist who published Call Me Woman—the first autobiography of a black South African woman—and was the first black to receive the prestigious Central News Agency (CNA) literary award. Name variations: Kuswayo. Pronunciation: koo-ZWY-o. Born Ellen Kate Merafe on June 29, 1914, on her grandfather's farm in Thaba'Nchu District, Orange Free State, South Africa; only daughter of Phillip Serasengwe (a businessman and civic leader in Johannesburg) and Emma Mutsi Makgothi Tsimatsima Merafe (a homemaker and farmer); homeschooled to Standard Four on her grandfather's farm; attended St. Paul's School in Thaba'Nchu, 1927, and St. Francis' College in Mariannhill, Natal, 1930; certified by Adams College in Durban as lower primary school teacher, 1933, and later as higher primary school teacher (highest certification that could be attained by a black at a teacher training college), 1935;additional education at Lovedale College in Cape Province, 1936; trained in social work at Jan Hofmeyr School of Social Work in Johannesburg (1953–55); awarded Diploma in Advanced Social Work Practice, University of Witwatersrand (1980); awarded Higher Diploma in Advanced Social Work Practice, University of Witwatersrand (1982); married Dr. Ernest Moloto, in 1941 (divorced 1947); married Godfrey Kuzwayo, in 1950 (died 1965); children: (first marriage) Matshwene Everington (b. 1942); Bakone Justice (b. 1944); (second marriage) Ndabezitha Godfrey (b. 1951).

Awards and honors:

named Woman of the Year by the Johannesburg newspaper The Star (1979); nominated again as Woman of the Year by The Star (1984); was first black writer to win the prestigious bronze medal Central News Agency (CNA) Prize for literary achievement in an English-language work, for her autobiographical Call Me Woman (1985); granted honorary doctorate in law, University of Witwatersrand (1987).

Birth parents divorced (1916) and raised on grandparents' (Jeremiah and Segogoane Makgothi) farm at Thaba Patchoa with mother, aunts and cousins; death of both grandparents (1920); mother remarried to Abel Tsimatsima (1921) and continued to live on the farm at Thaba Patchoa; half-sister Maria Dikeledi born (1922); mother died (1930); stepfather remarried to Blanche Dinaane Tsimatsima (1933); took first teaching post at Inanda Seminary in Natal (1937); suffered nervous breakdown and returned to live with stepfather and stepmother (1937); taught at St. Paul's School in Thaba'Nchu (1938); forced to leave home by stepmother, moved first to Johannesburg and then Heilbron (1938); married and lived in Rustenburg (1941); became seriously ill following miscarriage; marriage broke down and was forced to leave her sons and flee to Johannesburg to live with her birth father (1946); appointed secretary of Youth League of the African National Congress (1946); after long separation, divorced first husband (1947); taught at Orlando East in Soweto, South Africa (1947–53); played role of a Skokian (beer brewing) queen in film Cry the Beloved Country (1949–51); married second husband and settled in Kliptown (1950); left teaching for first post as a social worker with Johannesburg City Council (1956); worked with Southern African Association of Youth Clubs in Johannesburg (1957–62); made first trip overseas to London (1961); served as general secretary of YWCA in the rural Transvaal region, assisting poor Tsonga-speaking women and children who had been uprooted and resettled by the South African government (1964–76); made first trip to New York as representative of YWCA congress (1969); family farm at Thaba'Nchu dispossessed under Group Areas legislation (1974); appointed to faculty of School of Social Work, University of Witswatersrand (1976); elected only founding female member of Committee of Ten (community leaders elected during martial law of 1976) and founding board member of the Urban Foundation (1976); jailed for five months at Johannesburg Fort under the Terrorism Act but released without ever being charged (1977–78); appointed consultant to Zamani Soweto Sisters Council (umbrella body of Soweto women's self-help groups, 1978); appointed chair of Maggie Magaba Trust (1979); was subject of documentary film, Awake From Mourning (1981); appointed first president of Black Consumer Union (1984); was subject of another documentary film, Tsiamelo: A Place of Goodness (1985); at age 80, won a seat in the South African Parliament as an African National Congress (ANC) representative for Soweto (1994); appointed to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to investigate human rights abuses committed under the apartheid rule of the Nationalist Party (1995).


Call Me Woman (London: The Women's Press, 1985); Sit Down and Listen: Stories From South Africa (London: The Women's Press, 1990).

Ellen Kate Merafe Mokoena Cholofelo Motlalepule Nnoseng Moloto Kuzwayo is also known as Mama Soweto. The author of Call Me Woman—the first published autobiography of a black South African woman—answers to each of these names. Her birth parents chose the Christian name Ellen Kate, so that she might be baptized into the Christian Church and attend mission schools. Merafe is a family name from her mother's side, while Mokoena (crocodile) is her maternal clan name and family crest. Her mother gave her the endearing petname Cholofelo, which means "hope" in Setswana, Kuzwayo's first spoken language. Her maternal clan members also called her Motlalepule, a nickname meaning "the one who arrives on a rainy day." Rain is a blessing in the dry northern lands of South Africa, and Kuzwayo was born during a welcome downpour. As a young woman, Kuzwayo returned to her birth father's home and was given another name, Nnoseng, which translates as "give me water" but also implies that a woman's traditional role is to serve others in the home. Moloto and Kuzwayo are her married names and were passed on to her sons. Finally, Kuzwayo is affectionately referred to as Mama Soweto, an indication of the central role she has played for over four decades as a community developer in Soweto, a black township outside of Johannesburg, South Africa.

Each name carries a special significance and reveals part of Kuzwayo's life history; each name reflects the diverse responsibilities she fulfilled and the obstacles she conquered. But Kuzwayo is not alone in these achievements and struggles. The message of her powerful and profound autobiography, Call Me Woman, is that all black South African women answer to several different names, and these names reflect diverse personal histories and familial responsibilities as well as commonly won struggles. Call Me Woman may be the personal story of one extraordinary woman to educate herself and help others do the same, but it is also the story of Annie Silinga , Nthaelone Manthata , and Mamazana Desiree Finca Mkhele , women who faced similar obstacles but have yet to receive similar recognition. As Kuzwayo explained to Wendy Davies , a New African reporter, "the life of one black woman in South Africa depicts the life of another. We have all suffered injustice as women and as black women." Her eulogies of these "great mothers of South Africa" in Call Me Woman are offered in recognition of their contributions and achievements.

The life of Ellen Kuzwayo parallels the great transformation of rural, agrarian southern African society into the industrialized, modern nation-state of South Africa. In her memoir, Kuzwayo writes that as a child she moved "as freely on the farm as the birds in the air" and walked "single-file to the barn where they milked the cows in order to get our morning ration of fresh milk direct from the udder." As an adult, she survived five months of detention without charges in 1977–78 and struggled against the un-just apartheid laws of influx control which prohibited her third son, born outside of Johannesburg, from living with her in her home in Soweto, Johannesburg. At age 80, she won a seat in the South African Parliament as an African National Congress (ANC) representative for Soweto and in 1995 was appointed to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to investigate human rights abuses committed under the apartheid rule of the Nationalist Party. In her preface to Call Me Woman, South African novelist Nadine Gordimer wrote:

Ellen Kuzwayo is history in the person of one woman. … She represents … whole ness attained by the transitional woman. … She is not Westernized; she is one of those who have Africanized the Western concept of woman and in herself achieved a synthesis with meaning for all who experience cultural conflict.

Education and community service are the central themes in Kuzwayo's life and directly reflect her extraordinary childhood growing up on a fertile farm in the northern regions of South Africa. From 1875 to 1883, her maternal grandfather, Jeremiah Makoloi Makgothi, attended Lovedale College, a Church of Scotland Missionary Society school for the black community, and he later became headmaster of one of the first boarding schools in the area for African boys. In addition to his church duties as preacher and steward in the Wesleyan Methodist Church, he served as secretary of the Native National Congress (later the African National Congress or ANC). As a result of his influence, some of Kuzwayo's most treasured childhood memories are of lessons and camaraderie enjoyed in the church-schoolhouse her grandfather had built just a three-minute walk from their homestead. "The highlights of those early schooldays were action songs and physical exercises which I was good at and loved," she writes. "My cousins and I looked forward to the tasty sour porridge dishes brought by our schoolmates from the village; they in turn loved the butter and jam sandwiches which we exchanged for their porridge."

Later, her stepfather Abel Phogane Tsimatsima supported and encouraged her schooling. He was "a great reader," continues Kuzwayo, "never without The Friend, magazines and other periodicals such as The South African Outlook, The Farmers Weekly, The Government Gazette, The Homestead, and others. In these, he always marked out what he saw as important and actively encouraged me to read and try to understand the gist of some of the articles. … He patiently coaxed me into reading, even if it was just for reading's sake." In an interview with Cherry Clayton , Kuzwayo explained: "Very early in my life I read Mary O'Reilly, who used to write fiction. … Then later on I started reading for reading's sake. And I enjoyed it. … I also used to sit down and do alot of sketching. Mountain scenery and so on, but I threw everything away. … Then drawing fell away and I became more interested in language. I've always been able to speak—address meetings, large groups of people." While Kuzwayo's family actively nurtured her intellectual and religious education, they also showed her how to respect herself when others did not. Kuzwayo's grandmother was an outspoken woman who once replied to a white Afrikaner woman's request for assistance in finding a kitchen maid, "I am also looking for that type of person—can you help me?" Kuzwayo's mother taught her to always think of others less fortunate than herself, and often sent her out to the edge of the homestead to offer meals to itinerant migrants moving along the roads in search of employment. Writes Kuzwayo: "Much as I resented this, as a child in the family I carried out instructions. … To this day, working with peo ple, in particular women and young people, is a concern I cannot divorce myself from. I believe that I inherited my concern for people … from my parents."

At age 13, Kuzwayo left her beloved farm to continue her education and live with her mother's youngest sister, Blanche Dinaane Tsimatsima . This marked a new era in her life. "Being a pupil in a town school I felt different," she said. "I was a town girl and no longer a country girl." She attended St. Paul's Higher Primary School in Thaba'Nchu, where she faced competition from classmates who could show her up "as not so very intelligent as I believed myself to be at the farm school." In 1930, she left for boarding school at St. Francis' College in Natal Province which was unlike any of her previous educational experiences. The teachers were all white nuns, "rigid, cold and strict, dominating and disciplinarian," and Kuzwayo had difficulty understanding their English spoken with heavy German accents. Catholic ceremonies were confusing and the notion of confession conflicted with her Methodist upbringing. Although she excelled at her studies, Kuzwayo was unhappy and left for Adams College in Amanzimtoti, Natal Province, in 1932. She joined the debating society and traveled to other schools for competitions. "When the society was scheduled to compete with another college," she notes, "there would usually be several male students—and Ellen Merafe (Kuzwayo). The other girls did not seem to take an interest." By 1935, she had graduated from Adams College as a higher primary school teacher, the highest certification that could be attained by a black African at a teacher-training college.

After five years of intensive teacher's training, she felt confident about her ability to teach but was worried about the depth of her knowledge in such subjects as history, geography, and

biology. In 1936, she enrolled at Lovedale College, the institution which had trained so many of her own relatives, to fulfill the plea of her stepfather to continue her education to at least the level of a university junior degree. Kuzwayo did not immediately fulfill his request; instead, she dropped out of Lovedale in 1937 to accept her first teaching post at Inanda Seminary in Natal. Due to failing health, however, she left Inanda and transferred the next year to teach at St. Paul's School in her childhood town of Thaba'Nchu. But teaching was not totally satisfying, and she found herself increasingly involved in community activities and national politics. She attended the All-African Convention in 1937, an umbrella body for groups working to improve the standard of living in the black community in South Africa. She was attracted to the organization "partly because of a sensitivity to community issues brought about by my early childhood learning to accept people as people. I was also deeply affected by my early exposure at the All-African Convention, which brought me into direct contact with individuals and groups who made a lasting impact on my personal guidelines." They encouraged Kuzwayo to attend the first national conference of the National Council of African Women (NCAW) in 1937. There she was inspired by the words of Charlotte Manye Maxeke : "This work is not for yourselves—kill that spirit of 'self' and do not live above your people, but live with them." The following year, Kuzwayo was elected secretary of the local branch of the NCAW in Thaba'Nchu and worked with many different women in the community to develop their homemaking and administrative skills.

During the next decade, Kuzwayo's life changed direction several times. She married in 1941 and gave birth to two sons, but was soon estranged from her abusive husband. She divorced him in 1947 and lost custody of the children. Kuzwayo eased the pain of separation from her young sons with continued teaching, community youth group organization, and political work with the African National Congress (ANC) Youth League. She remarried in 1950 and gave birth to her third son in 1951. By 1952, however, another incident would change her life. She had become increasingly dissatisfied with the callous attitude of her headmaster towards the education of delinquent boys in a nearby reformatory school. Despite his warnings, Kuzwayo continued to teach the reformschool boys from the same lesson plans used for the other schoolboys. One afternoon, the headmaster was cornered by a reform-school boy, and Kuzwayo managed to defuse the conflict. "Everytime the Principal talks to us, he says we are criminals and murderers" the boy explained to her. "When you inflict corporal punishment on us for various offenses, we never fight back because you treat us as pupils." The incident convinced her that her calling was in social work, not teaching; in 1952, she resigned and "never looked back."

She attended Jan Hofmeyr School of Social Work from 1953 to 1955, excelled in her graduate work, and was appointed an instructor in physical education during her last year of studies. Her classmates and close friends included the future Winnie Mandela (Winnie Madikizela). Kuzwayo secured her first post as a social worker with the Johannesburg City Council in 1956 and devoted the next two decades of her life to serving the youth of Johannesburg through programs sponsored by the Southern African Association of Youth Clubs and the YWCA. This work culminated with a teaching appointment in the School of Social Work at the University of Witswatersrand in 1976.

Following the 1976 protest by youth in Soweto, a suburb of Johannesburg, against the marginalization of "Bantu" education for black South Africans, Kuzwayo's work became increasingly politicized. She was appointed a member of the Committee of Ten and a founding board member of the Urban Foundation. Her political activism resulted in a five-month detention in 1977–78; as was not uncommon, she was released from Johannesburg Fort without any charges. Near the end of her detention, she was called into the prison lieutenant's office. Kuzwayo quickly learned that her interrogator was Jimmy Kruger and realized that she "had been offered the chance of a life-time, that of a black woman in South Africa having an interview with the Minister of Justice and Prisons. It was without precedent, and one I intended using to the full. Our interview centered on the need for better communication between black people of South Africa and the Nationalist government." She concluded her prison conversation by declaring, "The day the government of this country agrees to sit round the table with the black people's own chosen leaders to learn about the political aspirations of that community, then and only then shall we all begin to see the dawn of a new day of anticipated peace and calm within the country." Much to her surprise, Kuzwayo was released within two weeks.

Kuzwayo's remarks to Kruger highlight her commitment to dialogue as a critical first step towards achieving peace and equality in South Africa. In an interview with Davies, she explained the goal of writing her autobiography: "Maybe I'm not given to taking a stone and throwing it at a person and this is how I throw my stones, through my book. I throw stones with my mouth. I stand up and I talk about things I don't like. … [M]y book is not a bomb. I'm trying to say 'Listen to what we are saying.'" In a 1989 video interview with Hilda Bernstein , Kuzwayo commented about the effect of decades of injustice and apartheid rule: "This is what the government of my country does not understand, that everytime you bash a person, instead of that person withdrawing, that person comes out and the anger in you does not give you an opportunity to retreat. I should have retreated by now. I keep on asking myself why am I doing this at my age? But on the other hand, how do I withdraw and retreat under the circumstances? And this is the plight of all black women. Once you start to commit yourself, you cannot turn back. You find yourself doing things that you never thought you could do. I never thought I could write a book or make a film. What I am saying to the government of South Africa is, do look at us as we are human beings, the color of our skin does not make us any less human than you." Kuzwayo's book inspires an audience far beyond the borders of the new South Africa to challenge sexism and racism wherever they exist.


Clayton, Cherry. "Interview with Ellen Kuzwayo," in Between the Lines. Edited by Craig MacKenzie and Cherry Clayton. Grahamstown, South Africa: National English Literary Museum, 1989, pp. 57–68.

Coullie, Judith L. "The Space Between the Frames: A New Discursive Practice in Ellen Kuzwayo's Call Me Woman," in South African Feminisms: Writing, Theory and Criticism, 1990–1994. Edited by M.J. Daymond. NY: Garland, 1996, pp. 131–153.

Davies, Wendy. "Not Weeping Behind the Door," in New African. Vol. 213, 1985, p. 42.

Kuzwayo, Ellen. Call Me Woman. London: The Women's Press, 1985.

——. "A Lone Persistent Voice," in Values Alive: A Tribute to Helen Suzman. Edited by Robin Lee. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 1990, pp. 217–221.

——. Sit Down and Listen: Stories From South Africa. London: The Women's Press, 1990.

Lipman, Beata. We Make Freedom: Women in South Africa. London: Pandora Press, 1984, pp. 18–23.

suggested reading:

Goodwin, June. Cry Amandla!: South African Women and the Question of Power. NY: Africana Publishing, 1984.

Lazar, Carol (photographs by Peter Magubane). Women of South Africa: Their Fight for Freedom. Boston: Bulfinch Press, 1993.

Walker, Cherryl. Women and Resistance in South Africa. London: Onyx Press, 1982.

related media:

Appeared as a Skokian Beer Brewing Queen in Cry the Beloved Country (100 min. film), directed by Zolton Korda, based on the novel by Alan Paton, 1951.

Awake from Mourning, Chris Austin, 1981. Chronicles the work of the Maggie Magaba trustees and the Zamani Soweto Sisters Council members in organizing literacy, self-help and crafts projects to improve the quality of life for black women in Soweto. Ellen Kuzwayo, Joyce Seroke , and others also speak about their experiences in detention.

Ellen Kuzwayo with Hilda Bernstein (45 min. video), Institute of Contemporary Arts Video (London) in conjunction with Trilion, 1989. Volume 23 in the series Anthony Roland Collection of Films on Art: Writers Talk, Ideas of Our Time, South African political activist Hilda Bernstein interviews Ellen Kuzwayo.

Tsiamelo: A Place of Goodness (58 min. film), directed by Betty Wolpert , produced by Ellen Kuzwayo, Wolpert, and Blanche Tsimatsima, London Contemporary Films, 1984. Available on video. This film examines Kuzwayo's life and the political and historical implications of the 1916 South African Land Act and the 1950 Group Areas Act which eventually dispossessed Kuzwayo of her family farm in 1974.

Kearsley Alison Stewart , Instructor, Department of Anthropology and Women's Studies Program, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia