“Wherever I’ve been, I’ve been appointed to be a leader”

Rebecca Davis
Nomarussia Bonase was born in 1966 in Apartheid South Africa. Early on, her struggle for equal rights begins. Later she joins the Khulumani Support Group founded by women. A portrait of the winner of the Anne-Klein-Women’s-Award 2017.

Nomarussia Bonase was not yet even born when she first experienced the effects of gender violence. The year was 1966 in Apartheid South Africa. Her father was a mineworker outside Johannesburg. Due to laws restricting the movement of black people, her pregnant mother stayed hidden in a farmworker’s house while visiting him. That night, state police raided the farm in search of people violating pass laws.

“They found her pregnant,” Bonase relates now. “They raped her and left her bleeding.” Her father arrived at 6am, and managed to persuade someone to take her mother to nearby Baragwanath Hospital. Bonase was born premature, but alive.

“That was the first time I started to survive,” Bonase says.

Now 50 years old, Bonase has not just survived, but fought at every step. She was given a name common among anti-Apartheid activists: ‘Nomarussia’, a female name which paid tribute to the support of Russia in training military combatants from South Africa to fight Apartheid. Her father would say: “Nomarussia means ‘no more oppression’.”

Bonase’s struggle began at four years old. The inferior Bantu Education system for black South Africans dictated that education should begin at seven. Four-year-old Bonase was having none of it. She cried every day until her father relented and allowed her to follow older students to school.

At age eight, Bonase started to understand a little of what was happening around her. “I was questioning: what is happening to us? Why is everyone running? Why are people beaten by white police?” She realized something early: “The anger of knowing I had to fight”.

Bonase’s father feared for his already politically-conscious child. “You are going to die,” he said. He took her from Johannesburg to the rural Eastern Cape, where he knew that she would have a better chance at completing her education without facing grave danger.


“I did not want the boys to overtake me”

Bonase, a precocious learner, passed two classes per year. “I did not want the boys to overtake me,” she says. They never did. In high school, her political activity became formalized. It was Nomarussia who would be sent to the principal with letters of demands. It was Nomarussia organizing boycotts and galvanizing her fellow pupils into action.

She dreamed of higher education, but her parents had no money for university. Returning to Johannesburg after high school, Bonase found employment in a transport company. She had not left her political ideals behind, quickly becoming the first woman in the company to be a shop steward after organizing workers into a union.

“Wherever I’ve been, I’ve been appointed to be a leader,” Bonase says. “I don’t know what they see in me.” She is a woman of genuine humility. Even from the outside, however, it is clear what others perceive: a core of steely strength, matched with unshakeable commitment to her ideals.

These ideals carry at their heart one belief: that women deserve to be treated as equal to men. As illustration, she tells the harrowing story of learning of the death of her brother in 1993 – a victim of the pre-democracy political violence scarring the mining towns of Johannesburg.

“I saw him on TV. I saw him being shot at. I thought he was just shot, and would be taken to the hospital. Then I received a call that he might be in the mortuary,” she remembers.

In accordance with African culture, women were not permitted to search the mortuaries for family members. That was the job of men. After two weeks of no answers as to whether her brother was in the mortuary, however, Bonase had had enough. She was a 27 year-old woman, and when she arrived outside the mortuary, she was greeted with disbelief.

“They said: ‘You cannot face what is happening here,’” Bonase says. “I said: ‘I have to try’.”

Bonase searched through decaying corpses piled in stacks outside the mortuary, with hosepipes occasionally used to cool them. She saw the bodies of small children; women; soldiers. She identified her brother by his foot. Officials were disbelieving, but she insisted it was his foot. She was right.

“If I could not manage to have the courage to look for him there, my family would still talk about ‘the disappeared person’,” she says. “People were being put in mass graves because they could not be identified.”


The fate of women in view

As one of countless black South Africans who had suffered the loss of family members in the violence before the transition to democracy, Bonase was anxiously optimistic about the advent of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – the body established in 1996 to help South Africans process the horror of Apartheid. The realization that the TRC would be fallible was what led her to join the female-launched Khulumani Support Group. Khulumani means “speak out”.

“The TRC failed women because rape was not even considered,” Bonase says. Sexual violence was not one of the aspects focused on by the commission.

“There was silence on that. Women were seen as people supposed to cry for men, for sons, for husbands. Not about them or their daughters being victimized themselves.”

The other respect in which the TRC failed was in the fact that it made recommendations to the government which were effectively ignored. As national organizer of Khulumani, Bonase has led incessant attempts to compel the South African government to comply with these recommendations: to supply proper financial compensation to individuals affected by Apartheid; to provide sustainable support to the communities impacted; and to allow for sufficient symbolic commemoration for the pain of Apartheid and those who suffered through it.

The fact that the government has not adequately addressed these issues, Bonase says, has had far-reaching consequences.

The massacre at Marikana mine in 2012, at which 34 striking miners were shot dead by police, is one of those effects. The student fees protests which brought South African universities to a standstill over the past two years is another, Bonase suggests.

But one constant factor throughout has been the work of Khulumani, led by Bonase, to support in particular the women affected by these issues. The group has represented the widows of the slain Marikana mineworkers, for instance, at points when they were unable to speak for themselves.

“We travelled to the Farlam Commission [the government commission of inquiry into the Marikana massacre] to play our role doing counselling, speaking to the women there while they were crying, unable to be healed,” Bonase says. Workshops and art therapy sessions were subsequently organized with the women to allow them to express the trauma of what they had been through. Khulumani helped the widows to understand the exploitative mining process and to ask for their human rights from the mining companies involved.


Fearless and with a long breath

When you ask Bonase’s colleagues to describe her, the adjective that recurs again and again is “fearless”.

“She is unstoppable when she believes in her actions,” says Ntombi Nyathi, who has worked with Bonase at the Grail Centre in Kleinmond. She recalls Bonase taking a transformation training course with her some years ago.

“Her husband passed on during the first phase of the course. Nomarussia returned to the second phase and completed the course successfully. It is courageous for a widow to take such actions in Africa, because they are supposed to be in mourning for a year. But for her, life had to go on.” Bonase has three daughters and one son – named Khulumani.

Nyathi also remembers Bonase taking on racism in small-town South Africa and winning.

“Nomarussia and her classmates had gone shopping after lunch in Kleinmond. This is a village where racism is more alive in people’s practices than anyone could ever imagine,” she says. Bonase asked to use the toilet, and was informed by shop staff that she was not permitted to.

“Nomarussia shouted: ‘My people, in this place they want our money but we cannot even use their toilets. Put your stuff back on the shelves. Let us get out of here. This shop is not for South Africans!’” When staff witnessed the large group walking out, a key for the toilets miraculously materialized. A store policy change followed directly after.

Bonase’s Khulumani colleague Marjorie Jobson describes her as “my greatest teacher, support, colleague and advisor”.

Jobson elaborates: “Nomarussia is a person with a deep sense of justice and a belief that the struggle for justice will eventually be vindicated. A person who models possibilities for a gender-equal future, who inspires men to take stands to make a world safe for men and women and young people. A person who listens with an intensity that unlocks people’s capacity to find their voices.”


Nomarussia gives help and understanding

Today, half of Bonase’s house is devoted to the work of Khulumani. Women constantly enter in search of advice, support and fellowship.

“I say that Khulumani is in my womb, because women are always coming in and out of it,” Bonase laughs. And not just women: she also leads a men’s forum in Khulumani, where she says she is not seen as a woman but someone fighting for all rights equally.

Bonase has been asked to serve as a ward councillor for a political party, and rejected it on the grounds that she prefers to serve all in need of help, regardless of political affiliation.

“I will do this work until I die,” she says. “We will transform this country for the better.”


This article by Rebecca Davis first appeared on the Heinrich Böll Foundation website on 17 January 2017.