Constance Boniswa Tshabalala, the daughter of Sienah and Joseph Mothlale, was born on the 19thof July 1961 in Bloemfontein – 49 days after South Africa became a republic outside the British Commonwealth. At the age of one and a half years, she went to live with her grandparents, Michael and Mary Mothlale, and her brother in Elsies River, Cape Town.
According to a University of Cape Town survey, despite Elsies River’s listing as a health black spot in 1942, nothing much was done to improve the living conditions of its residents in the six years before,as well as decades after, the introduction of apartheid in 1948. Following the passing of the Group Areas Act in 1950, which reserved certain areas for white people only, the area was declared Coloureds-only and soon experienced a significant influx of people forced to move from other formally mixed-raced neighbourhoods. This turned an already “crowded township into an overfilled ghetto” and resulted in a rapidly increasing crime rate and lawlessness. By 1970, the area had 90 000 residents.
Thus when Constance Tshabalala joined her grandparents and brother during the course of 1963, the area was in a state of flux with Coloureds from other areas moving in and Africans under threat of the law, moving out. By the 1980s, the Mothlale family, being a Sesotho-speaking African family, had to relocate to Gugulethu Township on the outskirts of the City of Cape Town. Established in 1958, specifically for Africans, the area had no proper street names but sections or divisions designated as ‘Native Yard’ in line with the racial terminology of the time. The Mothlale family’s new and official address was listed as Gugulethu N.Y. 50, number 6. These designations and the lack of proper street names remained throughout the apartheid-era until National Reconciliation Day 2004, when a public call for alternative names was made.The public participation process subsequently proposed that the existing access route be renamed Mkhanyisi Maphuma Street after a former member of the African National Congress’ military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe’s June 16 Detachment. Constance, therefore, grew up in a politically-charged environment with an early exposure to the harsh realities of apartheid within the City of Cape Town.
After settling in Cape Town, Connie enrolled at Lehlohonolo Primary School, a new school located in N.Y. 137, where her educational journeystarted and where she remained until she completed her Standard Six year. Thereafter she enrolled at Fezeka High School in Gugulethu, a school founded in 1966. A photograph indicated that she was a member of the school’s drum majorettes in 1974. This meant that Constance’s formal education must have started at Moshoeshoe Primary in 1966, the period during which issues about the continuation of Sesotho as a language of instruction was at the forefront. Fezeka High in turn became an active participant of the 1976 uprising against Bantu Education and the use of Afrikaans as a language of instruction.
As a township child, one of the first things that she witnessed concerning the workings of apartheid and which ignited her spirit of defiance against the system, was the working conditions that her grandmother was subjected to. Constance, indeed, noted that she became politically aware around the age of 9 years. This awareness grew stronger during her high school years, mainly as a result of her experiences during holidays when she accompanied her grandmother to work as a domestic servant:
“It was during school holidays, I would accompany my grandmother to her workplace to assist her. When we entered in the morning we would find that she had two slices of bread put out for her and she was going to have it with tea, one tea bag. My grandmother had to share those two slices of bread that had butter and jam with her and they would work until they had to clock out in the afternoon”.
The white middle-class household of the apartheid era, noted Ginsburg, beyond being a “home for Whites and a place of employment for Africans”, was also a site where “a mixture of distrust, distaste, fear, unease and compassion”, prevailed. Furthermore, it was a space in which certain social conventions or devices were in place to help ensure social distance between employer and worker and to “control how Africans comported themselves in and with the house itself”. The “food-convention”, as related by Constance, is therefore part of the “house rules” and a “set of understandings passed from parents to children, neighbour to neighbour, and through the occasional advice column in the ladies’ section of the newspaper, regarding the appropriate behavior of one’s domestic workers.”
Living in Gugulethu N.Y. 50 no 6, Constance shared her experiences with her fellow students at high school.
“I saw it that it was unjustified and I called my fellow learners, I explained to them about the treatment that our mothers are subjected to.Jeffrey Mangputa said to me: “You know what Connie; this must come to an end, this thing that is happening”.
These injustices set her on a path to almost full-time activism as a high school learner at a time when the youth of the country were increasingly beginning to lead the domestic struggle against apartheid. As a youth activist she participated in numerous protest campaigns, and experienced life-on-the-run, being sold-out by informers, and witnessed petrol-bombings and necklacing.
A radical girl among boys, she soon attracted the attention of the security police and as a result suffered detention without trial, torture, assault and deprivation. Upon her release, she relocated to Bloemfontein where she resumed her political activities and even attempted to go into exile. Throughout the 1980s and into the 90s, despite police intimidation, and the possibility of renewed detention, she remained intimately involved in the freedom struggle. Looking back today, as a single mother following the passing of her husband, she continues to struggle for freedom from poverty and unemployment.
Babalo Ndenze, “Gugulethu; Where the streets have new names”, Independent-on-Line, 16 December 2004. Accessed 3 October 2019.
Bulelani Phillip, “Gugulethu’s NY streets will be no more” Independent-on-Line, 3 December 2004. Available from https://www.iol.co.za/news/south-africa/gugulethus-ny-streets-will-be-no-more-228609. Accessed 2 October 2019.
Oral Interview: Constance Tshabalala, Batho, Bloemfontein, 13 May 2019
G.F.R. Ellis and D. Erlank, 1983, “A Quality of Life and Basic Needs Measurement System with application to Elsies River”, Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU), UCT; p.18.
Ginsburg, Rebecca. “Serving apartheid? Domestic workers and the racial geographies of white suburban households, Johannesburg, South Africa, 1960s-1970s.” Historical geography 27 (1999): 56 -7.
Lehlohonolo Primary School History. Available from http://www.lehlohonolops.wcape.school.za/history.htm (Accessed 4 October 2019).
Obituary: Funeral Service of Major –General (Retired) Mxolisi Edward Petane, October 2017. Available from https://legalbrief.co.za/media/filestore/2017/10/Tribute.pdf. Accessed 2 October 2019.