Three Generations of Sorrow for Black South African Women

By Elizabeth Levitan Spaid. Elizabeth Levitan Spaid is on the Monitor . | The Christian Science Monitor, April 25, 1994 | Go to article overview

Three Generations of Sorrow for Black South African Women


Elizabeth Levitan Spaid. Elizabeth Levitan Spaid is on the Monitor ., The Christian Science Monitor


WHEN Mark Mathabane was reunited with his grandmother, mother, and sister nine years after he left South Africa for the United States, he learned shocking and inspirational stories about their lives, which had remained hidden to him while he was growing up.

These stories, he realized, were not only about the women in his family. They also mirrored the lives of millions of black South African women who have suffered untold oppression under traditional attitudes toward women, intensified by apartheid.

In "African Women: Three Generations," Mathabane, the author of several books including "Kaffir Boy," a novel about his coming of age under apartheid, and "Love in Black and White," the story he wrote with his wife about their interracial marriage, tells the saga of Granny, his grandmother; Geli, his mother; and Florah, his sister.

Related in the womens' own words, the stories include accounts of being sold at a young age to older men for marriage, being physically abused by husbands and boyfriends, living in one-room shacks in slums, and toiling to preserve their dignity in a culture where the subjugation and degradation of women is deeply rooted. It is the kind of book that is difficult to put down, because the women bring the reader into their world quickly, candidly, and vividly.

Granny's story begins when she is sold to a man for lobola (bride price). After having several children with her, he leaves for work in the city, takes another wife, and stops sending money. With no means to support herself and her children, she travels to Alexandra, a township of Johannesburg, to try to eke out a living.

When her daughter Geli turns 17, Granny refuses to let her marry the man she loves. She picks an older man with the hope that he will be faithful, because he has already "sown his wild oats."

"I don't want you to end up like me," Granny tells her. "I married your father when he was too young. He grew tired of me and left me for another woman. And look what a miserable life I've led ever since."

Geli's arranged marriage to Jackson proves to be a union of hardship. He spends most of his meager wages on gambling and drinking, leaving the family with little money for food. …

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