Book Review: Guerrillas and Combative Mothers: Women and the Armed Struggle in South Africa, by Siphokazi Magadla, Pietermaritzburg, University of KwaZulu Natal Press (9781869145163), 2023, 222 pp.; Oxon, Routledge (R255, 9781032597249), 2024, 248 pp.

The book Guerrillas and Combative Mothers: Women and the Armed Struggle in South Africa by Siphokazi Magadla delves into the life histories of 40 women who were involved in the armed struggle for liberation in South Africa from 1961 to 1994. It examines the experiences of female guerrilla fighters and mothers who took up arms against apartheid, highlighting their resilience, courage, and contributions to the fight for freedom. It also sheds light on how these women navigated the intricacies of war, motherhood, and activism, challenging traditional gender roles and leaving a lasting impact on South African history. These women were members of Poqo, the military wing of the Pan-African Congress, Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the African National Congress and township-based self-defence units.

The study highlights the significant and often overlooked contributions of women to South Africa’s liberation struggle, showcasing their actions, commitment, and beliefs in the fight for freedom and emancipation. Siphokazi Magadla, the author, employs an African feminist framework to emphasize the central role of African women in the armed struggle, aiming to reintegrate them into the broader national liberation narrative.

In the introduction, the quote, “Our Lips Are No Longer Sealed”, captures the reader’s attention from the outset and promises a profound journey of discovery and reflection. It evokes a sense of empowerment, signalling a departure from silence and submission towards a bold assertion of agency and voice. By framing the introduction around the imagery of unsealed lips, the author not only highlights the act of speaking out but also emphasizes the importance of listening—to voices that have been historically side-lined, to stories that have been obscured by dominant narratives, and to truths that challenge our preconceptions. Moreover, the introduction points to the transformative potential of storytelling, suggesting that by breaking the silence, we can catalyze change and forge connections across time and space. It serves as a compelling invitation to engage with the complexities of resistance, resilience, and remembrance, setting the stage for an exploration of the intersections between gender, activism, and liberation struggles in South Africa. The book brings forth methodological perspectives on narrative interviewing and memory. Narrative interviews offer unique perspectives by focusing on stories of experience, with participants called upon to narrate their life experiences and historical events they took part in (see p.21). Throughout the book, the author guides the reader through the participants’ narrations and experiences to an extent where the reader becomes part of the study.

The book centres on women’s agency, commitment, beliefs, and actions in the armed struggle against apartheid. The inclusion of “combative mothers” in the title suggests a focus on gender dynamics within liberation movements in Africa. The title of “combative mothers” also acknowledges the complex identities of these women. Many of these mothers fought due to the brutalities of apartheid, targeting their families and communities. By highlighting “combative mothers,” the book sheds light on the unique form of activism undertaken by South African women who were fighters and mothers. Women combatants’ activism encompassed not just political struggles but also efforts to protect their needs amidst conflict – conditions in the camps compelled women to require MK to be responsive to women’s specific needs; ‘Our feminism was built in this situation…leadership, reproductive access, and sexual violence” (p.75-77). Understanding how motherhood intersects with armed struggles offers insights into the diverse nature of resistance and the sacrifices made by women in the pursuit of freedom.

Siphokazi Magadla also challenges traditional narratives of the South African anti-apartheid struggle, which often centred on men’s experiences in armed wings of liberation movements such as Umkhonto we Sizwe. She focuses on the lived experiences of women who participated in various forms of armed resistance, highlighting their motivations for joining, political awakenings, responses to state violence, and a desire to fight for a free South Africa (see p.83). The author does not just focus on the fight and motivations for joining the struggle; she also explores how these women navigated life in post-apartheid South Africa, addressing the challenges and opportunities they faced.

The book also analyses issues on the intersectionality of gender and activism. How can we see the experiences of combative mothers intersecting with broader gender dynamics within liberation movements, both historically and in contemporary contexts? In chapter four, the book’s relevance extends beyond historical analysis, resonating with contemporary discussions on gender, activism, and social justice. In a world still grappling with issues of inequality, discrimination, and violence, the stories of these women guerrillas and combative mothers serve as an inspiration and a call to action (see p.155-156). They remind us of the ongoing struggle for justice and the importance of recognizing the agency and contributions of marginalized groups.

Guerrillas and Combative Mothers book fills a significant gap in the literature on South African history and gender studies. By focusing on women’s experiences, it provides a more complete understanding of the South African struggle against apartheid – a crucial corrective to the historical record. The stories shared in this book compel us to reckon with the complexities of history and embrace the diversity of voices and experiences that have shaped South Africa’s past and present. Further, Guerrillas and Combative Mothers has underscored the enduring relevance of these narratives in our contemporary world. As we confront ongoing struggles for justice, equality, and human rights, the lessons gleaned from these stories resonate powerfully (see p.186-187). They remind us that the fight for liberation is ongoing, and that it requires not only collective action, but also a deep commitment to amplifying the voices of those whose stories have been marginalized

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