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A Review of Ellen Kuzwayo’s Call Me Woman

I am amazed when I observe the power, strength and self confidence that are born of involvement in work on behalf of one’s hard pressed people.

PAGE 253


Ellen Kuzwayo was born Ellen Kate Cholofelo Nnoseng Motlalepule Serasangwe on 29 June 1914. She grew up in the country but found herself constantly moving between city and country due to the circumstances of life. A teacher (this was her first qualification and she practiced as one for most of her life), social worker (a selfless woman who answered the call to serve her community even before she decided to go back to school in her sixties to earn a higher qualification in social work at Wits), mother (loved by three boys), wife, writer (she has three published books) and a feminist fighter (she looked out for, upheld and was a source of inspiration to the women in Soweto), political activist (in the 1960s she was president of the African National Congress Youth League and she was elected as a member of parliament in 1994) and an all round human being. She found herself active in so many spheres of life which really kept her busy. With her many achievements and struggles, the book is divided into three parts (Soweto, My Road To Soweto, Patterns Behind the Struggle) and eighteen chapters. The Introduction by Sindiwe Magona (2018) is insightful, the preface by Nadine Gordimer (1985) gives an acute historical context to which this book is set and the foreword by Bessie Head (1985) is cogent. The two things that stand out for me in this text are the state of the community structure and the education system.

1. Community

This is not just a personal story but it is also a memory of her family and community, a tracing of the roots of present day traumas and problems while suggesting potions for healing. What appeared to be insuperable problems then, remain as deep thorns yet to be removed from the lives of black South Africans now. Kuzwayo is generous with her testimony of life in Soweto (a black township) which appears to be a snapshot of all the black townships across South Africa. She does not mince her words to describe the reality that South Africa is made up of at least two social systems, ‘Poverty on this scale coexists with a white standard of living that is among the highest in the world’(page 9). A snapshot that leads one to believe that there is no way a Black person can genuinely win in life if the systems remain in place.

I learned a lot from Kuzwayo’s appraisal of the link between poverty and crime. She gives credit where it is due and raises valid concerns too. She traces the principal legislation that affected the black community and major events from about 1910 to 1994. Yes, we all know that the rainbow has been painted for the nation but the effects of apartheid remain stark, thorny and dim. Perhaps, we can see the beautiful colours of the rainbow but can we feel it? There is no rainbow in schools, in the workplace, no sign of the sun when it comes to property acquisition and apartheid zoning. Colouring rainbows against the 1913 Native Land Act, whose effects stand rudely and sneer at the black South African who still stands dispossessed of land which is not only ‘the land’ to a black African because it stands for so many things. I agree with what Kuzwayo says on page 21 about the law and some of its effects, ‘Legislation which separated communities, categorizes huge numbers of people as underdogs and dispossesses citizens has terrible effects on the mores and values of the disadvantaged communities.’ Among other things, it is also against this backdrop that the high crime rate is set. Kuzwayo bemoans institutionalized crime and its effects against black South Africans. She asks ‘when crimes are committed through legislation, who can bring the criminal to justice?’ Who will look out for the South African who has already been deemed a write off by the system, the one who has been set up by a history of booby traps everywhere they are supposed to move? Who? One would have to read the book to understand the history of use and abuse of alcohol in townships.

2. Education

A passionate teacher herself and an advocate for change in the education system on so so many levels, she writes passionately about education in this text. Her recollection of June 16 1976 is plaintive and lucid. The reasons behind the students’ march still directly stare at present day South Africa. Kuzwayo recalls the discriminatory system of education provided for black South Africans over time, changing names with no effective change in the system. Native Education Department, Bantu Education, Department of Education and Training. On page 11 Ellen’s anger is palpable, ‘The only thing that has remained constant is the government’s determination to provide nothing that could rightfully be called national education.’ The department now bears a different name, true there are some gains yet there are still some thorny issues which remain to be addressed such as financing, language, overcrowding, appearance politics, etc. It is clear however, that one thing has not changed, the discrimination, a long standing problem that will not be done away with cosmetic changes but a real uprooting of apartheid legacies. How can it be a ‘National’ if it does not echo all the people in the nation and cater to their needs. Perhaps, this is the real picture of the ‘National’ that exists in and outside of the classroom. This book has me questioning when radical restructuring will be enforced?

So many South African writers have written and questioned the discrimination that continues to be perpetuated in South African schools. As it was then so it is now. Some of the writers who have written about this whom I have reviewed are Koleka Putuma (you can read my review of her book Collective Amnesiahere) and and Keletso Mopai (you can read my review of her book If You Keep Digginghere). The problem is real and needs to be urgently addressed. Kuzwayo asks, ‘Why should they not be allowed to learn with the minimum of difficulty and frustration?’ Even today, that question still stands demanding to be answered. Kuzwayo talks about institutionalized violence in page 46, how it is used ‘to provoke in the black community bitterness, fear, hatred, despair and at times, retaliatory violence,’ like what happened in 1976. In a few weeks South Africa will be commemorating the 1976 massacres and it is true that the suffering, the individual and collective torments of that period have persisted.

In this republication the publisher retained the integrity of the original material which I liked. This has to be one of the best autobiographies I have read because it was highly engaging and it left me with new found knowledge. In addition, it created a sense of awareness and understanding of the history of the life of a black person in South Africa. While the text was written in 1985, I am inclined to think that the more things change the more they remain the same especially in relation to the condition of the black person. Kuzwayo writes about so many other important things such as the prison system, the church and the black woman, celebration of the black woman, the immense pressures of life (for herself and her community) and the joys of family. Ellen Kuzwayo died in 2006 at the age of 91. I highly recommend this book!


Book Details

Title: Call Me Woman

Author: Ellen Kuzwayo

Genre: Autobiography

Pages: 306

Publisher: Picador Africa (3rd Edition, 2018)

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