Women Forgotten In The Shadow Of History: Urbania Bebe Mothopeng

In a 3-part series, we bring you excerpts from a transcript of an interview with Mme Mothopeng filmed by Azania Komitee and Cineclub Vrijheidsfilms

Urbania Bebe Mothopeng: musician, conductor, teacher, social worker, family planning adviser, political activist PAC, first president African Women’s Organisation of the PAC, ex-political prisoner, wife of late Zeph Mothopeng, PAC leader.

In june 1986 Azania Komitee and Cineclub Vrijheidsfilms filmed an interview with Mme Mothopeng in Paris. It was during the International Conference for sanctions against South Africa. The film was never finalized because later that year the director of Cineclub suddenly died. This is an unedited transcript of the raw material of the recorded interview. It was never published.


Mme Mothopeng: Im Abebe Mothopeng, the wife of the banned Pan Africanist Congress. I come from Orlando East in Johannesburg, and I am President of the newly elected African Women’s Organisation….that was launched early in April 1986. This is a very, very new organisation and it may look a little bit different from the other women’s organisations, that it emphasises African….unlike the other organisations that have nothing to do with colour or creed. But Im not trying to solicit racism. Im just trying to say, our interests ay differ a little from other people, our goals may not be the same.

Our objectives are among others, to rally the women around, try and show them, educate them on – not necessarily political issues – but it will come into the picture later on, this way..into issues like: fear. Our womenfolk fear a lot. The police can harass us, the police can mislead us, the police can force us to say things that normally we would not say, just because they do not understand either the language or the every set-up itself. So that basically we have to show them that fear must not be the objective, we must learn to understand, and to do things.

We also want to educate our women so that they can face issues today, and at all times of course, they can face issues. In the past it has been men doing things for us, telling us what to do, and putting us back in the kitchen. But today we feel time has come that we must walk abreast with men, perhaps even go a little bit further because we do not come to fight, we cannot fight like men.

Wives, they are facing wars, wives they are facing animals in the hunting processes, wives, they are in the farms looking after animals and other things.

We can be looking after the home fires, we can be looking after the children, and we can be discussing educational matters with our children.

I dare say African women for a long time have had no contact with our children. Well, I suppose it is outside our norms, we always leave these things to grannies, we leave them to fathers, but now, as I say, times have changed; fathers are nowhere to be found. The fathers are in gaols, the fathers are dead and so on.

For a very long time I have not taken part in women’s organisations because I had always felt they were political, and because I was an old-fashioned teacher and I knew that I have to make a vow I shall not be involved in politics as it is…so now that thing for years kept me outside the picture of what women were doing. I was always involved with the kids. I think up to today I’m still involved with teenagers.

About The African Women’s Organisation of the PAC

I’ll just say when we inaugurated this movement we had a roll of about 500 women coming from various parts of the country like in Cape, Northern Transvaal and other places. We all felt we had an aim – we all felt we had a need – and we have to put in our lot in, too. So we decided that we will do the best we could, bring ourselves together, bring the children together, and everybody, and just find out exactly why it is that we cannot live at peace with the other sector of the community, and so that is just what we have been trying to do.

The women who belong to our association, and will continue to come I think, will be the women who are in the very lower income group, women who are not working, women who are really not educated…as we know how housing is in our country…women who come from shacks and so on. Because these are the women who know the difficulties, these are the women who need help…but as I say, we are not looking at the colour of it at all. Other women, belonging perhaps….Coloureds, Asians, Whites…anybody…if they feel they wanted to join us…they were able to come, provided they could answer one or two questions:

What we would do.…I could say: “I live in this kind of a structure, and so are most of us. Now, you come from uptown. Now in order that you can feel exactly what we feel, are you prepared to give up all what you have, to come and live among us and understand exactly what we understand?” Our struggle for a better life: we want to work, eat, clothe and have homes like everybody. But now we know those people will not come, therefore we know automatically they fall out because of that, but should they say “Yes”, then OK.

On the contribution of women to the liberation struggle

Well, we have this project for instance…to liberate one of our kind…that is Theresa. Never in the history of South Africa (I mean Africans) have we ever heard of a woman sentenced to death, and we feel so degraded..and we are doing all we can to come together and see…and see what we can do to help Theresa. But as I say, our organisation is so young that we hardly have fare to go to the nearest lawyer and to communicate with the lawyer because everything is money. But we have sent a delegation to Theresa’s home and we have met Theresa’s mother…and we tried to show her how sympathetic we were and how much we were trying to do. So I think in the end women will play an active role in the liberation system of the country. [Theresa Ramashamole was was one of six people falsely accused of complicity in the murder of a Lekoa councillor and Deputy Mayor of Sharpeville, Kuzwayo Jacob Dlamini on the fateful day, 4 September 1984 during the 1984 Uprising against rent increases. They were to be known as the Sharpeville 6. At the time, Theresa was the first woman in South Africa to be condemned to death for a politically motivated offence. All six of the group were convicted of this murder in December 1985, were sentenced to death for being associated with the crowd on the first day of the Vaal Uprising despite there being no evidence against them. At the time of her arrest, Theresa was 24 years old]

Our womenfolk are divided into three groups in our country. We have the women living and working in towns, we have the women just staying at home and not working, we have women in the countryside. Now, the women who are the hardest hit are the women who stay home and are not working. Some of them have to be there because their husbands are migrant workers – they’ve left one place or another to come to work in the mines.

Then we have those (women) who actually work in towns. We have professional women and we have just the ordinary women. Now the professional women of course can look after themselves, even though most of them are particularly on the nursing side; most of them are not married, they prefer to be single – yes – but then we have those who come from the countryside, or who live in the country….Well, these women are far from civilization…they are not working, they have no means of living except on their farms…now those are the women we want to reach-out to…and introduce or suggest some projects to….in various ways…they are very good at handwork…some of them just need proper guidance, and then they can sell their goods and make a living through their products.

About Mme Mothopeng

I was born and bred in Johannesburg, South Africa from a very humble family. My parents were not educated. My father was a policeman working right in Johannesburg and my mother was working doing domestic work. I was very unfortunate that at the age of five I lost my father…abandoning my poor mother with three children, but, as I say, my mother was a hard worker. She continued working until I passed Standard Seven. I had to go to college and went and qualified as a teacher.

The kind of job my mother did was such that she did not have to stay there. She came in and out three times a week and the rest of the week she had to do washing. In those days we had to fetch washing from town and did the washing in the township. She augmented that by selling liquor and that is the kind of life I was brought up in, but of course it did not sort of influence my life and other children’s life. We all went to school but most unfortunately my brother died earlier and only two of us were left.

Among other things, my hobbies shall I say, I love music and I want to say that even today I am in a very musical family… I have produced a musical family. My husband met me the first time – singing a solo – that’s where he met me for the first time. He was a high school student….and we had to wait until he completed his education and we married in 1941.

Life After Marriage

I continued my teaching career and I don’t think I stayed long enough with my husband. I have always stayed without my husband, because when I married my husband actually, I knew he was a man who was interested in doing things and he saw that the country was at fault, and he thought he was going to get it straight. I always listened to him, but eventually when I understood and got to realise that he was a member of a political party I didn’t know whether I liked it or I did not like it, because we had taken a vow as teachers, see – he was a high school teacher himself.

I didn’t know how I felt because he had taken a vow he was going to stay out of politics you see; as I say these were old-fashioned things, so I don’t know….Then of course I always lived in fear that we would lose our jobs..but all the same I gave him the go-ahead. I looked after the children, I brought up the four children, and before long he was expelled from the high school for the same politics as I thought he would and I had to work alone.

I think it that was before 1960, it was. It was long before 1960. I remember he had to go to the Free State to go and seek employment there – he worked as a teacher there. Left there too, cos of politics.

In next series on Mme Mothopeng’s interview, we look at the political life of the Mothopengs past Free State

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