Amplifying the voices of women struggle heroes

17 December 2020 | Story Nadia Krige. Photo Supplied. Read time 8 min.

A researcher at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) College of Music and UCT Libraries Special Collections have joined forces to build a rare collection of filmed oral testimonies, music and personal documents by former female political prisoners and prison guards. The Malibongwe Women’s Archive project will communicate a hitherto unseen female perspective on the struggle against both racial discrimination and the oppression of women during the anti-apartheid struggle (1948–1994) and has just been awarded funding from the Carl Schlettwein Foundation to launch.

“This cultural-heritage preservation project will provide a new perspective on the standard liberation struggle narrative by embracing gender issues that have been historically overlooked,” says Dr Janie Cole, a research officer and associate lecturer at the UCT College of Music who is spearheading the project.

The goal of the project is to collect interviews, original music tracks and items for a personal archive (photos, diaries, letters, etc) that will chart the active role of women against apartheid.

The Malibongwe Women’s Archive comes as an outflow of Cole’s ongoing research exploring the critical role music played as a force of resistance, protest and survival in apartheid prisons. This has also underpinned her work as founder of the Music Beyond Borders platform for cultural heritage preservation, and signalling the importance and power of survivor and perpetrator testimony for creating a compelling voice for raising awareness and education.


“This is an endangered body of knowledge that must be preserved before these struggle veterans pass away.”

As the most notorious apartheid prison, Robben Island was the obvious place to begin her research by interviewing former political prisoners. Cole’s fieldwork soon took her to other infamous prisons, including Number 4 prison at the Old Fort in Johannesburg,

“[This is] where I was confronted with the stark reality of the role of women in the struggle and their dehumanising prison experiences, whose history has been overlooked and differed sharply to a male-centered struggle world,” Cole explains. “Hence the idea for building the Malibongwe Women’s Archive was sparked.”

What makes this project particularly poignant is that time is very much of the essence, as apartheid struggle heroes are a dying breed. Many surviving former political prisoners, who speak to their prison experiences in the 1960s and 1970s, are now in their 70s and 80s and will only be available for interviews for a limited time.

“This is an endangered body of knowledge that must be preserved before these struggle veterans pass away,” says Cole. “None of this would be possible without the unwavering support of these incredible individuals with whom I have been working for several years: my biggest sense of responsibility in terms of ethics of representation and positionality is that the project will do justice to the women’s stories, their music and an untold side of the complex struggle history of this country.”

A lack of representation in reconciliation

Another crucial aspect of the project is the fact that it will not only acknowledge, but also highlight the gendered nature of the women’s experiences, something that has been largely overlooked in the greater apartheid struggle narrative.

While the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) played an important cathartic role in transitioning from the apartheid state to a young democracy between 1996 and 1998, it has been widely criticised for its failure to substantially address human rights violations with a gendered nature that took place during the apartheid years.


“By exposing the history of societal violence against women in the past, we can shine a light on the gender-based violence today which plagues our societies, especially in South Africa. These women must be heard and preserved.”

Cole explains that the TRC’s problematic engagement with gender resulted in a missed opportunity to capture a more precise picture of the apartheid era, specifically women’s testimonies and human rights violations relating to gender-based violence that underlay structures of state violence.

“By exposing the history of societal violence against women in the past, we can shine a light on the gender-based violence today which plagues our societies, especially in South Africa. These women must be heard and preserved,” she says.

Significance for the future

Apart from its cultural, historical and political significance, the Malibongwe Women’s Archive is set to be an educational treasure chest for future generations.

“[It] opens up all kinds of exciting possibilities in education and curriculum development,” says Cole. “Particularly aligned in the wider academic context of decolonisation efforts in historical musicology, ethnomusicology and African studies, as well as in UCT archival collections.”

With the necessary groundwork being laid, the 12-month project will kick off in January 2021. This will include interviewing participants, gathering additional material and building the archive. The scope of the work is also ideal for capacity building at UCT, as it will present an opportunity to involve students and train them in methodologies for interviewing, oral history documenting and ethical practices.

Cole will work closely with UCT Libraries’ Michal Singer, principal archivist of the Special Collections Department and Niklas Zimmer, manager of the Digital Library Services, to create this valuable collection. The materials of the Malibongwe Women’s Archive will be made available through a fully‐catalogued collection deposited at UCT’s Special Collections and a curated online exhibition and educational website. 

Part of a bigger picture

As Cole and her colleagues prepare to embark on this invaluable project, they have their sights firmly set on an even wider horizon: The Ubuntu Prison Archive: Testimonies and Music from South Africa’s Apartheid Prisons.

Along with the Malibongwe Women’s Archive, Cole hopes to include archives featuring, among other groups, the testimonies and music of former political prisoners on Robben Island as well as testimonies by former white political prisoners.

“Crimes against humanity must be documented and a collective memory must be preserved,” concludes Cole. “We can make a difference through testimony – an act of resistance in itself – to engage universal themes of tolerance, diversity, and justice to prevent history from repeating itself.”

To find out more about Cole’s work, visit the Music Beyond Borders website.

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