Women in the 1980s and 1990s

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Township Madonnas and the World Wide Web

It was the reign of the Madonna of the Townships. It was the heyday of the South African alternative music revolution. It was the era of the release of our late great Madiba.

In this, the fourth feature in our series on Women through the Decades, we look at women in a time of music, politics, AIDS and the Internet.

The sixties-born South African kids were in their teens and twenties in the state of emergency eighties. Those fuelled with a hunger for freedom, flung open the doors of their unclaimed future and told the story of their lives through the music of the decade.

Down the dusty stairwell of an alternative, early 1980s rock club called Jamesons in Joburg’s inner city, young women dressed in leathers, bovver boots and Afro-punk outfits threw consequence to the night as they lost themselves to the music of The Cherry Faced Lurchers.

It felt chaotic but that forged forth

Young men did the same, but unraveling was expected of them. Young women, on the other hand, were still expected to hold back, look good and be unavailable. But that was akin to asking warriors to control their emotions during battle. They couldn’t and they wouldn’t. And though it felt chaotic, they forged forth, some fatally and some triumphantly.

On stage, lead singer of The Cherry Faced Lurchers, James Phillips, growled out their signature tune ‘Do the Lurch’, followed by their anti-apartheid theme song ‘Shot Down’, while the police circled in the streets above. These were the kind of songs said to turn people into communists; these were the songs the SABC refused to play or defaced the track if it appeared on any of the records they received.

South Africa was imploding

South Africa was imploding. The soldiers on both sides were fighting and the townships were in flames. Protest meetings, music concerts on university campuses and parties in the suburbs, where black and white gathered, turned into battlegrounds. Tear gas was thrown into crowded rooms where people were often doing nothing more dangerous than dancing, and men and women were treated with equal disrespect as they were sjambokked, shot at and dragged into police vans.

The swart gevaar

All the while, an ageing PW Botha wagged his finger and warned about the swart gevaar. While many white South Africans believed him, there was a strong anti-apartheid league of politically and creatively minded white South Africans who did not.

One of the greatest comings together of white and black South Africans in the eighties was the 1983 launch of the United Democratic Front (UDF), a mass democratic movement against apartheid, comprising political groups, women’s groups, men, students, trade unions, sporting and religious groups.

The unique, cross-cultural creative mood of the times

Politics was the focus of the era, but the many political portraits of the last days of apartheid, tend to neglect the unique, cross-cultural creative output of the times. 

The early eighties saw the rise of immense musical talent locally, including the Princess of Africa, Yvonne Chaka Chaka with hit after hit, including ‘I’m in Love with a DJ’, ‘I Cry for Freedom’ and ‘Umqombothi’.

A national icon, Madiba called her “dear daughter” and recounted how her music motivated millions of women on our continent and sustained him and others on Robben Island.

She remains a world-famous musician today who champions the fight against malaria in Africa and has met and mingled with the who’s who of the world, including the Queen of England. Through all this, the person she most admires is her mother, Sophie Machaka. A domestic worker, she brought up Chaka Chaka and her sisters on a salary of R40 a month.

A turning point for the world

The early 1980s also saw the rise of a deadly new disease that would change the lives of people the world over. The disease was called AIDS.

In retrospect, people may have been dying from HIV/AIDS since the 1950s, but it was not until June 5, 1981 when it was reported in the medical literature, that it was recognised as a distinct syndrome. This date is now regarded as the unofficial start of the pandemic that has led to the deaths well over 36 million deaths worldwide.

Women have been affected by HIV/AIDS since the outset, and South Africa displays the fastest rate of HIV infection in the world. Approximately 6-million people in South Africa today are HIV positive and about 1.5-million are on Antiretroviral Drugs or ARVs. The ARV breakthrough started in 1996. Leading South African scientists today are now working on a possible vaccine.

We believe an HIV vaccine is possible

“While ARVs help to save lives they do not solve the problem of halting infection, which is what a vaccine would do. Now more than ever, we believe an HIV vaccine is possible,” says Professor Lynn Morris, who is based at the School of Pathology in the Wits University Faculty of Health Sciences and heads up the Virology Laboratory in the Centre for HIV and STIs, National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

Millions of HIV/AIDS survivors are able to live quality lives thanks to the research of leading scientists, many of whom are South African.

All-South African hit ‘Jabulani’

A survivor of a different kind is another South African musical icon who rose to prominence in the eighties, PJ Powers, named Thandeka by her vast township fan base. Her all-South African hit Jabulani was released in 1984 and was an instant hit with black and white South Africans alike. In 1985 it was on Springbok Radio’s Top 20 for nine weeks. It’s one of those songs that eternally inhabit our minds.

In her new book ‘Here I am’, she speaks of the immense internal battle she waged with herself, despite her incredible career.

Developing a more positive self-image

Powers says she only started developing a more positive image of herself when her career took off in the townships in the eighties. She had grappled with her weight and self-image since she was a schoolgirl in white South African society where big, tall girls were shunned.

“I was accepted by the black community where my weight wasn’t an issue. I’m enormously grateful for the confidence it gave me,” she recalls. She also speaks about her alcoholism and her journey back to herself. In a song titled Only Place I Can Go To on her latest album Destiny, she sings:

My mother always asked me, why I’s the girl who had to play with fire.

?Always pushed the boundaries, told the so called honest people they were liars.?

When I opened end up my tear-filled eyes they had turned their backs,

So the only place I could turn to, was me.


The Madonna of the townships

The eighties further welcomed the glittering rise of African Pop Queen, Brenda Fassie, another favourite of Madiba

Alluring and power-packed with one of the best voices Africa has ever produced, Fassie was hailed the Madonna of the Townships by Time Magazine, and affectionately called Mabrr by her fans.

In 1983, Brenda Fassie and Big Dudes – a Soweto township group – released her biggest hit ‘Weekend Special’, followed by ‘Black President’, which was banned in South Africa at the time. The ultimate on-stage provocateur, years before Madiba’s release, Fassie sang:

Let us rejoice for our president
Let us sing for our president
Let us pray for our president
Let us sing, let us dance
For Madiba, Madiba's freedom

I will die for my president
I will sing for my president
I will stand and say
Viva, viva, viva, viva, viva, viva my president

A reflection of highly unstable times

As strong and gutsy as she was, she was also a reflection of the highly unstable times. Unable to steer a course of balance in her world, she became addicted to cocaine and was in out of rehabilitation clinics, many, many times. She died in hospital in May 2004 at the age of 39, following an overdose. Visitors to the hospital included Madiba, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Thabo Mbeki.

Another striking symbol of the times, Madikizela-Mandela was a young social worker when she met Madiba in 1957. They married a year later and had two daughters, Zenani and Zindzi. The girls were three and four years old when their father was jailed for 27 years. It was unimaginably hard on Madikizela-Mandela who was exiled to the town of Brandford in the Free State for several years, and only saw her husband when she was permitted to visit him on Robben Island.

Plummeted from grace

The strain, combined with her gigantic political credentials, did not make for a constructive mix in the hands of Madikizela-Mandela who plummeted from grace in the eighties.

She publicly endorsed the practice of burning people alive, using tyres and petrol, known as ‘necklacing’: “With our boxes of matches and our necklaces we shall liberate this country,” she said. She was subsequently implicated in the kidnapping of several youths and the murder of Stompie Seipei in 1989.

In 1991 she was acquitted of all charges but the kidnapping. Her six-year jail sentence was reduced to a fine on appeal. Many South Africans were outraged that justice was not served. What is unquestionable is that she ruined the greatest opportunity of partnering Madiba through the years.

The tide turned

The tide turned for South Africa when Madiba was released in 1990 and became our first democratic President in 1994. That same year, women won 80 of the 400 seats in the National Assembly and Frene Ginwala was elected Speaker of the National Assembly.

Two of the key goals of the mid-1990s – eliminating violence against women and children, and improving educational opportunities for women – only received rhetorical support at the time. Educational opportunities for women have marginally improved over the past 20 years but violence remains a key social scourge.

The enigmatic Rodriguez and ‘I wonder’

Back to the music environment, the nineties saw the enigmatic Rodriguez performing live in South Africa. As the world now knows, thanks to the riveting 2012 documentary Searching for Sugar Man, Rodriguez had been idolised in South Africa, but ignored at home in the United States.

Tens of thousands of South Africans had made an unofficial anthem of Rodriguez’ ‘I wonder’ ever since it was released in 1970. Everyone knew the words and belted them out in jubilant defiance of the sexually repressed order of the day.

In 1998, during his tour of South Africa, he walked onto the South African stage and started singing I Wonder.

I wonder how many times you've been had

And I wonder how many plans have gone bad

I wonder how many times you had sex

I wonder do you know who'll be next

I wonder l wonder wonder I do

The crowd erupted. Everyone jumped to their feet at venues around the country and sang along with as much enthusiasm as the day South Africa won the Rugby World Cup.

Dead Men Don’t Tour

Backing him was the South African band Big Sky, including band member Tonia Selley, one of South Africa’s unsung musical talents. She also directed the first documentary on Rodriguez in 1998, titled ‘Dead Men Don’t Tour’. The title was based on the widespread rumours that Rodriguez was dead.

Arno Carstens, lead singer of the Springbok Nude Girls, stood transfixed at the base of the stage watching Rodriguez perform. Printed on his T-shirt was ‘Dead people are cool!’

And cool Rodriguez was, and remains: “Thank you to the fans,” he said. “It's an honor and a pleasure to be heard.”


The emergence of the Internet

Being heard took on a whole new meaning with the emergence of commercial Internet Service Providers in the late 1980s.

Since then the growth of the Internet, email, skyping, video conferencing, discussion forums, blogging, social networking and online shopping for anything and everything has had a revolutionary impact on communication, culture and commerce.


Millions have no access

What we often forget is that millions of people in South Africa, including vast numbers of rural women, still have no access to computers or the Internet.

Addressing this is the Siyakhula Living Lab Project, led by Rhodes University’s Telkom Centre of Excellence in the Computer Science Department. It is partnering with the rural Dwesa community on the Eastern Cape’s Wild Coast to develop information and communication technology (ICT) skills.

“More than 60% of the South African population has no access to the internet or any knowledge of how ICT can enhance their lives. Some can do the basics on cellphones, but that is not enough,” explains the Head of the Centre of Excellence at Rhodes, Professor Alfredo Terzoli.

“Our biggest drive is to create effective and sustainable access to ICT in marginalised rural and peri-urban communities. It brings a sense of being part of the world to people in remote rural areas, people who too often live with a sense that life happens elsewhere.”

As part of this project, students work with people in the community who wants to learn ICT skills, as well as with with learners from 17 schools in the greater Dwesa area.


A young woman named Pinky Mcinga

Apart from the learners, rural women of all ages have responded to the opportunity with huge enthusiasm and determination to learn. One of several success stories is a young woman named Pinky Mcinga who was a teenager growing up in Dwesa in the nineties.

She was without any prospects until the Siyakhula Living Lab came to her community in 2006.

We’re hopping out of the nineties for a moment, but her remarkable story started in the nineties while she was at school. Her saving grace, she says, is that she has always loved reading and finding out new things. “Even if I saw a newspaper lying in the road I would pick it up, grab my dictionary and look up the words I didn’t understand.”

The Siyakhula Living Lab opened many windows for her, and also for thousands of Dwesa learners and women in the community

Mcinga’s story has been made into an SABC2 documentary called ‘Pinky and the Computer’ to inspire other young people from rural areas. She has since moved to Grahamstown and became a member of a software development team hosted by Rhodes University that specialises in software suitable for rural areas. At the same time she is studying to be a social worker through Unisa.

The now generation of women

Mcinga is one of the now generation of South African women who are emerging from all quarters. This is the era of the citizen journalist and women the world over are using the Internet to share what is happening in their daily lives.

We’re going to see much more of this from the digital natives and the mobile re-generation, as Bill Gates calls all those born after 1995 in the digital era.

And most of all, we look forward to seeing all those teens and twenty-something-year-old South African women who were born in the nineties, show us what 21st century global women can be.

By Heather Dugmore