New Books | Mothers of the Nation

Lihle Ngcobozi writes about how the Manyano, a spiritual and religious institution, became infused with the political agenda of black activism to agitate for the fall of apartheid.

This is a lightly edited excerpt from Lihle Ngcobozi’s Mothers of the Nation: Manyano Women in South Africa (Tafelberg, 2020). 

In South Africa, the Manyano have been widely recognised for their revivalist prayer meetings and spirituality. Being firstly “recognised in rural Natal, Transkei, and north-western Transvaal, these were the first meetings which formally structured the Manyano movement”.

With the influx of women migrants living in urban areas, the Manyano soon became a source of mutual support for women separated from their families. What was initially intended to be a space of support and prayer began to incorporate coping mechanisms for the economic and political burdens suffered by women, in both the rural and urban areas. The Manyano has since constituted an important part of the social history of black women’s economic, religious (and political) roles in South Africa. Through anti-colonial struggles, the civil rights movement in the United States of America, and the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, the church emerged as a site where black people mobilised and constructed political ideas in order to resist and overthrow colonial occupation, enslavement and, in South Africa, the apartheid regime.

Christian-inspired imagery and iconographies are everywhere on display in the black church, indicating the conceptual link between religious redemption and the eventual overthrow of the systemic forms of oppression that predominantly shaped the lives of subjugated black people across the globe. The black church, then, not only represents the fundamental belief in the redemption of black lives from state-sponsored tyranny, it also signals the ideological underpinnings of the liberatory ethic of equality and freedom.

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The liberatory ethic rooted in redemption was the foundation for the formation of a variety of political movements in both the United States and in South Africa. Further than this, Christian-influenced political liberatory ethics shaped the theological approaches within the black church. The intersection of theology and black liberation shaped the very nature of the struggle for liberation and political recognition.

In the South African context, Steve Biko argued that black theology was “a situational interpretation of Christianity”. He said: “It seeks to relate the present-day black man to God within the given context of the black man’s suffering and his attempts to get out of it.” Walshe goes further, stating that the “apartheid struggle in South Africa was theological, as well as it was political” as “generations of leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) drew on Christian values for the building of a broader political community”.

The banning of liberation movements such as the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) by the apartheid state in 1960 limited conventional spaces for political resistance. Inadvertently, it forced black people to subvert conventionally apolitical spaces, such as the church, for political ends. When the public sphere became constrained under the apartheid state’s strict security controls and its vigilant surveillance of traditional political spaces, the black church in South Africa became infused with broad-based political organising. It also offered an alternative to dominantly white religious spaces and gained traction when new converts realised that white churches were failing to denounce racism in ways that would contribute to the fall of the apartheid state. When white churches were clearly failing to live out Christian values of humanity and equality, disillusioned and cynical black Christian activists sought a different home – and the black church provided this. A spiritual and religious institution became infused with the political agenda of black activism and the agitation for the fall of the apartheid state.

At the peak of the state of emergency in the mid- to late 1980s, when state repression was at its most vicious and activists in townships were the most brutally targeted, the black church became involved in specific political action such as protesting restrictions around funerals and challenging the legitimacy of the apartheid state in all respects. Christian values of equality, freedom and peace intersected with African nationalism and its values, and thus consolidated a broader community base. The platform created by black theology, its liberatory ideals and the Christian values it espoused created a space in which black people could organise towards the realisation of freedom based on the fusion of activism and religion. It is within this historical context that the black church is understood to have formed part of a counterpublic space that was marginal but in opposition to the colonial white minority, which controlled the public sphere in all aspects of life.

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Although the black church was a body that agitated for the liberation of all black citizens through collaborative efforts with those inside and outside the church, the evolution of the church and its meaning for everyday life carries different implications for black women. Similar to many formal political movements and the historical development of such movements, black women’s participation and activities in the church, and how these evolved, need to be understood within the context of the historical development of the black church from the moment of missionary contact in South Africa. Context shows how this particular space was the conduit and then the springboard for the shaping of women’s political organising in South Africa.

It is important to recognise upfront that black women occupy the dominant space within the black church. Their emergence in the public sphere, in both overt and covert ways, was not in line with the gendered understanding of the public sphere, of who had access to it and what form their participation would take. How these concepts were applied in the formulation of black nationalist politics in South Africa with regard to women is not as widely understood or acknowledged as it should be. An initial reading of the black church in South Africa suggests that the participation of women was restricted to traditional roles of motherhood and ubufazi. This is superficial and incorrect, and it demands closer examination. The varied ways in which women in the church subverted traditional identities to shape and contribute to black liberation needs deeper evaluation and firmer recognition.

The nature of apartheid violence affected the black community in its most intimate space, the home, which, historically, has been understood as a “woman’s space”. In developing a reliance on the home as a place of resistance, black women were critical actors within the black counterpublic sphere. Spaces such as the church, house meetings, burial societies and stokvels transformed into solidarity networks where abafazi and mothers “developed collective consciousness that can be mobilised when the survival of communities is at stake”.

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