Jazile is the heroine of this historical novel, set in a rural area near Ixopo. Heroine is a word that is not often used these days. We speak of protagonists and narrators. Perhaps it is an archaic word as hero is now used for both genders. Nevertheless, I feel the need to reclaim it to describe Jezile. She is brave and principled; she fights for what she believes in; she is also sometimes timid and naive but she overcomes herself and struggles against great odds to survive. I greatly admire her and all the women she represents.
The novel is set mainly in the late 50s to early 60s; the time when black women were resisting being forced to use passes. Prior to the 50s, black women had not been required to carry a pass. Jezile lives in the Sabelweni Valley; she is married to Siyalo who works in Durban. He sends money home to her but they only see each other in the December holidays which makes it very difficult for her to fall pregnant. MaBiyela, her mother-in-law, puts immense pressure on her by making constant comments about her barrenness. Their relationship is very strained but there is nothing Jezile can do because the culture demands that she must do MaBiyela’s bidding. She has no idea how to handle this hostility so retreats into silence. She wants to go to Durban to be with Siyalo so that she can fall pregnant but for that she needs a pass. The women of the area have all agreed that they will not comply and will not apply for passes.
They have regular meetings and Nosizwe is the main spokesperson and ringleader. She is a doctor and is knowledgeable about the apartheid laws. She communicates all this to the women; how the system is designed to drive them further into poverty; how all the so-called Betterment Schemes do not help them at all; how the land and cattle issue is also designed to destroy them; how their own chiefs are being used against them to divide the communities. The inside story of the 1956 Women’s March is thrilling. The writer uses the speeches of Nosizwe and others to tell the history of the time. These speeches can be a little didactic and I could not help but wonder if the speeches would have been quite as formal and content-rich in reality. However this flaw is compensated by the atmosphere that is generated. The description of the women singing hymns passionately, praying together with emotion, all the while being watched by white policeman is powerful.
Jezile’s struggle continues through protests and prison, drought and despair. It epitomises that of all rural women as they fight the oppressive white government but are also incapacitated by the patriarchal culture. This renders them voiceless in different ways but does not weakens their resolve. Their imaginary lives are as real as the historical context in which the story is placed. Despite the grim reality of everyday life there are glorious moments of love and passion between Jezile and Siyalo. The solidarity between the women transports the reader into an energetic mass of singing and praying.
Anyone who wants to understand why the land issue today is still crying out to be resolved need look no further than this novel. The land that was essential to their livelihoods and way of life was grabbed by the implementation of unjust laws and the collusion of chiefs imposed on the communities. It is one thing to read this in a dry, dusty article but when brought to life through fiction, it cannot help but move the reader. In the same way, it is hard to read of the cruelty and inhumanity meted out to people by the apartheid police and officials but this is our tainted past. Not to be denied.