Lauretta Ngcobo’s death in November 2015 robbed South Africa and the African continent of a significant literary talent, freedom fighter, and feminist voice. Born in 1931 in Ixopo in the then Natal Province, South Africa Ngcobo was one of three pioneering black South African women writers – the first to publish novels in English from the particular vantage point of black women. Along with Bessie Head and Miriam Tlali, Ngcobo showed the world, through her fiction, what it was like to be black and woman in apartheid South Africa.
Where Alan Paton’s Cry, The Beloved Country (1948) rendered African women “silent, with the patient suffering of black women, with the suffering of oxen, with the suffering of any that are mute,” Ngcobo imagined women characters fully and gloriously human in their complexity.
Her first novel, Cross of Gold, was published in England in 1981, after she had left South Africa as a member of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) for exile first in Swaziland, then Tanzania, and finally, England. Drawing on her experiences of harassment by the apartheid regime, the novel followed the fate of Mandla, a young political activist whose mother, Sindisiwe, dies in the novel’s first chapter.
Feminist critique that the novel’s only strong women character died too early, forced Ngcobo to reflect on the politics of representation in her work. Stung by the criticism around Sindisiwe’s death, Ngcobo set out to write a second novel in which the women would not only survive, but be strong and powerful agents of history. The result was And They Didn’t Die (1990), a novel that has staked out a place as an African feminist classic alongside Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood (1979), Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions (1988), Bessie Head’s A Question of Power (1974) and Nawal El Sadaawi’s Woman at Point Zero (1975).
And They Didn’t Die is path-breaking in its portrayal of the experiences of a black woman that gives its main character, Jezile, an interiority and a voice rarely seen in South African literature before this novel’s publication. It is singular in highlighting the damaging, overlapping intersectional effects of apartheid and customary law on the lives of African women confined to apartheid Bantustans. In this novel, Ngcobo deftly illustrates the ways in which African women are positioned between these two oppressive systems, with devastating effects on their own and children’s lives.
Ngcobo was also a cultural activist determined to nurture the talents of other marginalised women writers. In exile, she edited the collection of essays, Let it Be Told: Black Women Writers in Britain (1987), and upon her return to South Africa, Prodigal Daughters: Stories of Women in Exile (2012). She also authored the children’s book, Fikile Learns to Like Other People (1994).
This new addition to the Voices of Liberation, Lauretta Ngcobo: Writing as the practice of freedom, serves as of a mapping of Ngcobo’s life, as well as some of her key texts. It is divided into three broad categories: 1) Her Life, 2) Her Words, and 3) Her Legacy.
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