Ellen Kuzwayo 1994


Ellen Kate Kuzwayo, who has been described as "history in the person of one woman", grew up in the security of a traditional country life in the district of Thaba 'Nchu in the Orange Free State. She was educated in church schools and qualified as a teacher at Adams College, Durban, and Lovedale College. During her teaching career from 1937 to 1953 she taught at various schools in Natal, the Orange Free State and Transvaal, ending with seven years at Orlando East.

It was during this period that she began developing on various fronts as a "transitional woman" moving from her rural background to the urban environment of Johannesburg. After an unhappy marriage, during which two sons were born, she broke with rural African tradition by getting divorced. This was also a time of growing politicization for her: she became secretary of the ANC Youth League, was involved in the film Cry the Beloved Country and in 1953 left the teaching profession in protest against the disruption of the education system. Her marriage to Godfrey Kuzwayo was followed in 1951 by the birth of a third son, Godfrey.

Her full integration into urban life took place during the course of a second career which was to establish her as an outstanding community worker and leader amongst her people. From 1953 to 1955 she trained as a social worker at the Jan Hofmeyr School of Social Work, after which she worked with the youth in her community in the PWV area till 1963. From 1964 to 1976 she worked with women and the youth as General Secretary of the Transvaal region of the YWCA. In 1976 she accepted a post in the School of Social Work, University of the Witwatersrand, where she obtained the Higher Diploma in Social Work Practice in 1982, at an age when most people have retired, and was also awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Law in 1987.

In 1985 she was to launch the career which made South Africa and the world sit up and take notice - that of writer and historian of her people. Her autobiography, Call Me Woman, won the prestigious CNA Prize in South Africa - the first time it had been won by a black writer - and was translated into six European languages. It was described as "quirky, breathless, haphazard, witty and deeply appealing, characterised by restless benevolence and undaunted humanity". It also managed "to cross the effective barriers to communication set up by apartheid" and did so "by being frank, introspective and informed, by devoting itself to those grassroots issues that are the daily concern of most women's lives, as well as to the broader challenges, especially those of organising community resources to improve the quality of the lives of women and their families."

Her second book, Sil Down and Listen, appeared in 1990, presenting in her distinctive voice a series of stories from her rich personal experience as community leader, social worker, teacher and black woman in South Africa. Although they illustrate the complex life of contemporary black South Africa through the traditional form of story-telling, they are not traditional parables - they illustrate clearly and simply the con­sequences of racism and the legal apparatus that enforced it.

Not despite, but because of the diversity of her interests and careers, Ellen Kuzwayo has remained in touch with all sections of her community, both in a supporting and participatory capacity. She was there to support her son, Justice Bakone, during his persecution for involvement in the black consciousness movement, as well as his friends Steve Biko and Barney Pityana; in 1976 she became a founder board member of the Urban Foundation; with the other nine members of the Committee of Ten who, following the Soweto unrest in 1976 were working on a blue-print for the running and administration of Soweto, she was detained for five months in 1977 without being charged; in 1978 she was appointed consultant to Zamani Soweto Sisters Council (the umbrella body of Soweto women's self-help groups); in 1979 she was appointed Chairman of the Maggie Magaba Trust; in 1984 she was appointed the first Presi­dent of the Black Consumer Union; in 1993 she was appointed as member of Eskom's governing Electricity Council; she has also been appointed as first Chairperson of the newly contemplated Community Bank, established to serve the financial needs of the low-income groups from all communities, but in particular those of the black rural and urban communities.

Despite harsh government measures affecting her and her people over the years, her voice never becomes bitter. Her Africanization of the Western concept of woman has "achieved a synthesis with meaning for all who experience cultural conflict" and in this way she has created a space for all people, but especially for women, to define themselves anew in a changed and changing South Africa.

She embodies a combination of personal courage and creativity, a commitment to the development of the community in social, economic and political terms, as well as a sensitivity to the transitional character of her times, that elevates her to the kind of leader that is indispensable for our country.

In the light of the impressive list of her astonishingly diverse activities, her pioneering work in many fields and her achievements over more than six decades, together with their far-reaching influence, it is indeed a privilege for the Senate and Council of the University of Port Elizabeth to confer the degree of Doctor Philosophiae, honoris causa, upon ELLEN KATE KUZWAYO.