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Chanie Rosenberg

Hope of change

(October 1986)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 91, October 1986, pp. 31–32.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Where Sixpence Lives
Norma Kitson
Chatto and Windus £9.95

Working Women in South Africa
Lesley Lawson, for the Sached Trust
Pluto Press £5.95

NORMA KITSON identifies completely with the African National Congress. Its Freedom Charter ‘was the programme I dedicated my life to’, and she did so with great heroism.

Her husband, David Kitson, was put on the four-man National High Command of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the armed wing of the ANC, after the arrest of Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders in Rivonia in 1963. In June 1964 he was arrested and sentenced to 20 years in jail, all of which he served, bar a few months. A month later Norma, his wife, was detained, interrogated and tortured. She was only released after a month.

She had to leave South Africa with her two children some years later, and her son returned to visit his jailed father. He too was arrested, tortured and held for some days. Then her sister, who had helped her and visited David in prison, was murdered. She and her children continued the fight for the release of David Kitson and the other detainees relentlessly.

Her book is the story of her life from early childhood, her long fight for David’s release and their continuing fight against apartheid until the present. The early part is a fascinating, very authentic description of her life as a member of a well-to-do Jewish family in Durban. Her mother played rummy most afternoons and poker most nights. On one occasion she lost £1,000. The numerous African servants cooked, fed, dressed, and did everything else for her and her family.

‘Living in South Africa’, says Norma, ‘had poisoned her, had made her unable to take care of herself or of her children – had made her as dependent as a baby... She was part of a poisoned generation that could never envisage change of any kind.’ When Norma had to cope with living in England she says, ‘I had never operated in a kitchen. I didn’t even realise that water steamed when it boiled though I had read about it when I studied dialectical materialism.’ Yet the servants who did everything had to wear white gloves when waiting at table, so that their black hands would appear never to have touched the food or any vessel that contained it.

One of the servants had seen her husband and five children die, another saw her child, called Sixpence, perhaps once a year. Another feigned dumbness, Norma discovered, because he got the sack from every previous job when he proved too smart. ‘They feel too threatened,’ he remarked.

The first part of this book is well worth reading for its intimate observations of the dehumanising character of white life. This is well symbolised in a normal white housewife’s order from a butcher: ‘4 lbs chops, 4 lbs prime steak, 2 chickens, 2 lbs dogs’ meat, 2 lbs boys’ meat’!

Norma perceived all this and rebelled.

Working Women in South Africa tells of life in the country from the opposite end of the social spectrum, from the lowest of the low, the African woman, in a series of interviews recorded in the last two years, interspersed with facts and photos.

African women in South Africa carry perhaps a greater burden than women anywhere in the world, because of the grinding poverty and inhumanly long hours most work. These are common phenomena in many third world countries, but there, mutual aid in keeping alive is undertaken in large families living together.

Crushing constraints destroy this lifeline for most black women in South Africa. Influx control keeps millions of women and children cooped up in the Bantustans, while the men work in the white towns; or makes vast numbers illegal in the towns. Hence they are in and out of prison (16,532 women were arrested in 1982 for pass offences).

The Group Areas Act forces black workers to spend about four hours a day travelling to and from work in the white areas. A nursing assistant describes how she leaves home at 3.30 p.m. to get to work at 5.30, works till 6.30 a.m., and gets home at 8.30 a.m. – 17 hours. She then begins her own household chores, so sleep – if any – is two to three hours – none over the weekends because of the daytime noise of family and neighbours.

Many, who have their children in the ‘homelands’ looked after by a grandmother, see them a fortnight a year.

Influx control was abolished on 23 April 1986. Like all Botha’s ‘reforms’, the abolition is meaningless, as legal sojourn in the towns is now subject to residence in approved housing – and there is very little of this for blacks.

Even if there is a man in the family, the tradition of women carrying the burdens of children and household despite their long hours has not been overcome, and drinking is heavy. The result is that a number of the women interviewed talk of throwing out the institution of marriage. One says: ‘In Soweto marriage is no more.’ She wants her daughters to have their children and stay with her where they can all help one another. Another is frightened to take a runaway husband to court because it probably means jail, and then, ‘as soon as he comes back he might try and kill the children so that he doesn’t have to pay’.

Maternity is a nightmare. Women have in recent years been taken on in men’s heavy labouring jobs at much lower pay. Not covered by any regulations or benefits, subject to the sack if they have a child, they first have to hide their pregnancy – one woman strapped herself down so tightly that her baby was born dead at 8½ months. Then they have to carry on working till the last opportunity at often heavy work: the heavy steam pressing machine in a Johannesburg dry cleaners was known as ‘the abortion machine’.

To get or retain a job at all in these days of economic recession in South Africa many black women are forced to sleep with the man in charge.

With all the most unbelievably harsh conditions and constant harassment and bullying, black women’s pay is much below the pitifully low wages of African men, ranging from under £10 per month in rural work or about £15 per month for domestic workers (and rural and service work employed 81 per cent of African women in 1970) to £100 per month for most African women workers and £40 per week for a lucky few factory workers. By comparison the average, mainly male, metal workers earned about £47 per week. (Whites earn on average 11 times more than blacks.)

Through the horror stories the book gives hope of change. Trade union organisation has been getting stronger through the sheer determination of some women, sometimes at the cost of the sack, mostly at the cost of desperately needed sleep, to go to union meetings and build at the workplace. And victories have been won. Strong and carefully planned organisation in one factory got rid of a manager who forced women to have sex at lunchtime. Some firms have introduced maternity agreements. One is even progressing towards equal pay.

The book gives a graphic description of the frightful hardships of black women in South Africa and also shows the beginnings of the way out. However, it deals purely with the trade union struggle, and does not touch on the politics of the fight.

By contrast, Where Sixpence Lives deals extensively with the politics of the struggle, and completely misses out on workers’ organisation in trade unions and the workplace as an integral and potentially leading factor. The class struggle is not mentioned, even though Norma Kitson considers herself a Marxist. This says volumes about the policy of the South African Communist Party, to which both Norma and David belonged, and which is a major political influence in the ANC.

The ANC’s Freedom Charter omits any mention of the leading role South Africa’s powerful black working class must play if its toiling masses are to be liberated and move towards socialism, which alone can end their oppression and exploitation.

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Last updated: 29 October 2019