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The Human Rights Media Centre

On Women’s Day, the Human Rights Media Centre (HRMC) celebrated its 10th Anniversary at the Slave Church in Cape Town. Founded in 2000 by Shirley Gunn, the HRMC’s mission is to “advance an awareness and activism about human rights through the documentation and disseminating oral histories through a variety of media forms and social interventions.” The HRMC used the occasion to good effect to share information about its inspiring programmes and projects. It was an uplifting, joyful and deeply moving afternoon.

The old church, once the gathering place of slaves, now a museum, bustled with activity as women took their places, spilling over the pews into the space beyond while Tina Schouw performed her sometimes rousing sometimes soulful songs, singing about women, urging us all to celebrate. Singer and poet Malika Ndlovu bubbling with joy announced that she’d just become a grand-mother before her opening performance.

Shirley Gunn after welcomed the audience and with great pride before introduced the women who told their stories, showcasing the HRMC’s various products. Seated in a row facing the audience and in front of a colourful painted banner some of the women smiled, others looked a little nervous. They looked like ordinary women, but they had extraordinary stories to tell.

Marilyn Saffer spoke from the heart sharing her story of a marriage, the struggle she shared with her husband to build a home for her children, and the pain of his unfaithfulness; the subsequent divorce and her battle to extract maintenance for her children from her ex-husband. She told of ongoing and often fruitless court appearances and the anger she feels because he still occupies the home they once shared, but with another woman. Marilyn’s story “Turning Points” appears in For our children: Thirteen women tell their stories, published in 2002.

Epiphane Limanyande shared her poems sharing her story in a different form and celebrating women and their lives with the audience.

 

 

 

There was hardly a dry eye as Priscilla Chisanhanyo told her story. She described how her normal happy childhood in Burundi was shattered by the outbreak of violence between Hutu’s and Tsutsi’s who had once lived peacefully side by side. She told of the horror of friends killing each other, of fathers killing their children because they looked too much like one of the other group. She told of how when the violence flared up again in the 1990s she fled with her husband, moving to the Congo and how with two small children, and pregnant with a third she made her way to South Africa after her husband was killed in the DRC. She spoke of the pain of being an outsider, even though she called South Africa home. I’d noticed Priscilla before she spoke, with her face beautifully made up and in a sparkly outfit she was an arresting sight, but her story had us all riveted. You can read Priscilla’s story “No time to bury the dead, no time to cry” in Torn apart: Thirteen refugees tell their stories, published in 2003.

 


Florence de Villiers, a feisty senior citizen spoke with evangelical fervour of her work with the Christian Institute and of how she launched the Domestic Workers Association (DWA) using her severance pay once it was closed down. She spoke of the terrible conditions in which people lived and worked and the subsequent formation of the South African Domestic Workers Union (SADWU)which joined other unions in a groundswell of mass mobilisation in the 1980s. She told of the battles she’d fought on behalf of the workers. I remembered the protest marches and imagined Florence marching resolutely to parliament. She must have been an intimidating force!  Read about Florence and her work in “Away with Slavery” in Labour Pains for the Nation, published in 2007

 

 

 

Aloma Matthews and her daughter Irma Titus, participants in an intergenerational life story project about South African women activists shared their stories with us. Both spoke of a life on the Cape Flats, of households headed by strong women and of men who were generally a disappointment, if they were there at all. Aloma looked drawn, and as she spoke I was acutely aware of the the burden of pain she carried, the difficult life journey she’s travelled. But she made us all laugh with her when told that when being treated in a mental institution for post-traumatic stress after being gang-raped as a teenager she was told by a social worker that he knew to some people who were ‘madder than she was’ and introduced her to the Bonteheuvel Youth Movement. From then on the struggle became her life, a life she shared with her two other strong women; her mother and her daughter! Read Aloma’s story “Dark, light and shades of grey” in Knocking on ... mothers and daughters in struggle in South Africa, published in 2008

Irma Titus, Aloma’s daughter glowed with pride as she spoke about her mother and expressed her gratitude to her for all she had done, both as a mother and an activist. Irma’s had her own battles. She’s had four kidney transplants, but she didn’t even mention that, speaking with bitterness about growing up in an area where women didn’t need men, and children didn’t need fathers, of how she’s always been surrounded by strong women. Irma works at the HRMC now.  Read her story “Towards my memoirs” in Knocking on ... mothers and daughters in struggle in South Africa, published in 2008.

Read Shirley Gunn’s piece, written for the Archival Platform on the intergenerational project

Vuyiswa Kama spoke of growing up ‘different’, of always attributing her problems, even her two failed marriages to her skin colour – she suffers from the condition known as Albinism and has a very pale skin and blonde hair and very weak eyesight. She shared little of the pain of her life with us, choosing instead to tell us how she had grown to love the body that God had given her, to lve the once hated skin, to celebrate the fact that she was, after all, beautiful! Read more about Vuyiswa’s experiences in “Dare to dream” in Looking Inside: Five South African Stories of people living with Albinism, published in 2010.

Carmenita van Harte spoke briefly about the Cape Flats Youth Project, and her rebelious teenage years, giving us a foretaste of what’s to come later this year. The profucts of this project, life size body-maps that tell the stories of the participants in this project are on display at the Slave Church.

 

The afternoon ended with input from ‘three wise women’ Mary Burton, Matilda Smith and Mary Tal who responded to the stories we’d heard, speaking for all in the audience as they congratulated the HRMC, and spoke of being moved, inspired and uplifted by the stories that this remarkable group of women shared with us.

I drove home, my head filled with the stories, feeling humbled by what I’d heard, but proud to be a South African women, to share a space and a time with women who had travelled long and difficult paths and still found the strength and the will to share these with us. The HRMC is a remarkable organisation, and its creating an archive that will make these stories available for all, for posterity. We all know the ‘grand narrative’ of our times, but it’s the ‘little stories’ the lived experiences of the ordinary people doing extraordinary things with their lives that give it depth and texture. I congratulate the HRMC on their 10th Anniversary, may they grow from strength to strength.

Vist the HRMC website to learn more about these projects and to purchase the books mentioned here.

Jo-Anne Duggan
August 2010

 

 

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