It is no secret that women are the forgotten heroes of our past. Women have routinely been written out of history: Black Consciousness activist Nikiwe Deborah Matshoba is no exception. 

Growing up, my mother always talked of the women who had birthed South Africa’s democracy through their commitment to the liberation struggle.

I used to nod dutifully as she recalled, often with tears in her eyes, the sacrifices and pain endured by the women who inspired her, who taught her how to fight and how to love.

After all, love is the mark of a true revolutionary.

The Black Consciousness Movement is a well-known aspect of South African history. However, the names associated with the struggle for freedom are those of men, undeniably great, but by no means alone in their endeavors. I never questioned this, because ultimately, how can we remember those who we have never known? 

I learned about Steve Biko’s BCM in school and lamented the past imprisonment of my childhood hero, Nelson Mandela. But it was only at home that the women who fought for our freedom featured. Unfortunately, I was guilty of that tragic belief held by many young people: that my mother was not more knowledgeable than the teachers designated to educate me.

If we look to the women whom history has passed over, we can find strength in their resilience and hope in their courage.

I regret my arrogance and inattention to this day. 

A true freedom fighter, Nikiwe Deborah Matshoba is celebrated for her critical and endless role in South Africa’s struggle for liberation and equality. Born in 1950 in Krugersdorp, Matshoba went on to play an instrumental role in the demise of the apartheid regime. 

Matshoba followed in her mother’s footsteps, joining the South African Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) when she was fresh out of high school. At only 20 years old, she was sent to Ghana to represent the organization at its 1971 world congress.  

A year previously, Matshoba had joined the ranks of the South African Students Organization (SASO). She gained wide respect when later nominated as SASO’s Literacy Trainer, teaching the necessity of cognitive liberation using the Paulo Freire Method. 

Black Consciousness taught love and self-worth, strength and dignity. It was the movement which enabled a national understanding of the oppression that had allowed the white minority to sustain an apartheid state. Matshoba played an integral role in progressing the BCM. She advocated for the psychological and physical liberation of the oppressed, enabling conscientization of the reality in which Black communities existed. 

Matshoba was well-known for her radical politics and unfailing resolve in the pursuit of justice. She was quick to challenge ideas that undermined the core principles of Black Consciousness and equality. 

During her testimony at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in July 1997, Matshoba recounted her past as a BCM activist and executive member of SASO. She spoke of her brutal encounters with apartheid security police, detailing the inconceivable torture and psychological abuse she was subject to. 

A poster for 1976 Soweto Uprising in South Africa
[Image description: A red and black poster with a crowd of protesters and the words “June 16 Mass Action for People’s Power”.] via South African History Archives.
Matshoba was first arrested in June of 1976 for her involvement in the Soweto Uprising and held in the infamous John Vorster Prison in Johannesburg.

Whilst imprisoned Matshoba joined forces with many other liberation activists, including veterans Winnie Madikizela Mandela and Fatima Meer. Despite their incarceration these activists continued to organize the revolution, protesting from within and conscientizing Black wardresses. 

Six weeks after her release Matshoba was arrested again, this time under Section Six of the Terrorism Act.

A week into her detainment she was taken from her cell and her ankle manacled to a large iron ball. She stood like this for several days. A policeman gave her a pen and told her to write a statement, detailing her personal history and involvement in SASO. She wrote only on herself. The officers repeatedly tore up her statement, forcing her to rewrite it each time.

On the third day her leg began to swell and she became delirious. Still, she persisted in her refusal to betray the movement. She was beaten, strangled and had her head slammed against a wall repeatedly. This continued for over a week. She was not allowed to sit. It became evident that Matshoba would not decry her fellow freedom fighters, or the cause to which she had pledged her loyalty. 

Matshoba was tortured, but she never gave up.

Physically weak, severely traumatized and denied her asthma medication, security police hoped that she would die as a result of her conditionShe was transferred to a detention facility where she recovered, aided by a sympathetic policeman who smuggled in her medication. 

Matshoba was then moved between several other detention centers, spending a total of 18 months in solitary confinement. 

In 1978 she was told she was being released, but upon arriving home was instead arrested and imprisoned for a further six months. On the day she was eventually freed she was served with a five-year banning order, effective immediately. During this period she was confined to a single magisterial district; her marriage did not survive. 

Unlike those who narrate history, Matshoba was acutely aware of the critical role that women play in times of revolution. She was known for fiercely rejecting her male-counterparts views on gender and continually refused their asserted authority.

She firmly believed that “a nation’s political maturity is measured by the political awareness of women.” 

There is a war of gender-based violence currently being waged on South African women. But if we look to the women whom history has passed over, we can find strength in their resilience and hope in their courage. These are the women who got us to where we stand today.

Matshoba stood for the liberation of her country, literally. It is our duty to rewrite her into history. 

As a South African woman, I take great comfort in knowing that liberation is in my country’s blood. It is our legacy.

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  • Lilly Quin

    "Lilly Quin is a writer, journalist and community organizer based in South Africa. She is committed to using her writing to promote social justice and engagement, aiming to aid progress and social change. Lilly is an avid believer in the power of critical thinking, charm and wit, hoping to one day have the charisma of Samual L. Jackson when eating a burger."