Academic journal article African Studies Review

Zenzele: African Women's Self-Help Organizations in South Africa, 1927-1998

Academic journal article African Studies Review

Zenzele: African Women's Self-Help Organizations in South Africa, 1927-1998

Article excerpt

Abstract:

The Zenzele clubs of the Eastern Cape of South Africa, which date from the late 1920s, were founded by mission-educated African women who sought to improve the lives of rural African women by enhancing their subsistence farming and cooking skills and educating them about household cleanliness, basic child care, and health care. Unlike associations for African women in British colonial Africa, Zenzele clubs did not evolve into political organizations. In the white-run segregated and apartheid states that persisted through 1994, Zenzele women did not engage in direct political action; rather, they sought to unite African women across class and ethnic lines and focused their efforts on community development.

Résumé: Les clubs Zenzele du cap oriental de l'Afrique du Sud datent des années 1920 lorsqu'ils ont été fondés par des Africaines éduquées par des missionnaires dont le but était d'améliorer la condition des femmes africaines en milieu rural en perfectionnant leurs compétences dans le domaine de l'agriculture de subsistance et de la cuisine, et en leur donnant une formation sur l'hygiène domestique, les rudiments de la puériculture et la santé. Contrairement aux associations pour Africaines au temps de l'Afrique coloniale britannique, les clubs Zensele ne se sont pas transformées en organisations politiques. Dans les états dominés par l'Apartheid et la ségrégation raciale, sous la domination blanche, qui ont persisté jusqu'en 1994, les femmes Zenzele ne se sont pas engagées directement dans l'activisme politique. Elles ont plutôt cherché à unifier les Africaines au-delà des barrières sociales et ethniques et ont concentré leurs efforts sur le développement des communautés.

THE AFRICAN WOMEN'S Self-Improvement Association and the Bantu Women's Home Improvement Association were founded in the eastern Cape Province of South Africa in the 1920s and 1930s by Christian, mission-educated black women who sought to improve the lives of rural African women. Both organizations downplayed class and ethnic differences among their largely, but not exclusively, Xhosa-speaking membership. Both associations also eschewed political activism, though the politics of the segregated state could not but intrude on members' lives.1 Over the course of seventy years, from the 1920s through the 1990s, the women of Zenzele (as the associations came to be called) negotiated class, ethnicity, and tentatively, politics, in an effort to to help rural African women help themselves.

Clubs that offered training to African women began appearing in British colonial Africa in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Women's voluntary associations were established in Uganda in 1894; the wives of missionaries founded the Protestant Mother's Union in 1906 and invited African women to join in 1908. In the 1940s, African women took the lead in the club movement and came to see the clubs as a way to participate in community and later national development (Tripp 2000:34-35). By the late 1950s, the Uganda Council of Women included African, Asian, and European women, though until 1965 members tended to be formally educated and English-speaking (Tripp 2000:38). In Tanganyika, the women's club movement dated from the 1950s, and as in the Ugandan case, European women-often social welfare officers working for the colonial state-founded the clubs. As Susan Geiger notes, despite colonial administrators' efforts "to counter women's politicization" by diverting their attention to domestic concerns like "homecraft, child care and home hygiene," club women nevertheless became increasingly active in the Tanganyikan African National Union (Geiger 1997:43,109-11). In Southern Rhodesia in the 1950s, European women founded the Federation of African Women's Clubs (FACW), though this time they sought to teach "housewifery and mother craft skills to rural women" (Ranchod-Nilsson 1992:203). The Southern Rhodesian clubs had the unintended consequence of raising "African women's consciousness about the injustices they all suffered," and by the mid-1970s, African club women were shunning racial cooperation in the FACW and instead supporting the liberation movements fighting to replace the white minority state and establish Zimbabwe (Ranchod-Nilsson 1992:211-12). …

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