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Commemorative Landscapes/Practices and Women’s Political Activism

Echoing global gender inequities, the contributions of South African women to the dismantling of the apartheid state remain insufficiently recognized to this day. This has serious consequences not only for the memorialization of anti-apartheid activists but also for the visibility of contemporary dissidents, as became apparent in the marginalization of female student activists during the FeesMustFall-movement of 2015/16 (Naidoo 2018). In the context of this contested political landscape, my paper focuses on the life of Nokuthula Simelane, a member of uMkontho weSizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress, who was abducted by apartheid security police in 1983 and whose fate remains unclear since the perpetrators, rather than disclosing the circumstances of her abduction when testifying before the TRC, resorted to racialized and misogynist language to disparage the young female activist, while some fellow ANC members trivialized her role in the liberation movement. With an emphasis on feminist practices of memorialization (Mahali and Matete 2022), I address the decades-long efforts of Nokuthula’s sister and mother to render Nokuthula’s activism publicly visible and legible. I argue that their efforts offer empirical and theoretical grounds on which to reconsider 1) the contributions of women to the “infrastructure of resistance” (Cock 1991; Gasa 2007) 2) the failure of democratic state institutions (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, National Prosecuting Authority) to address the intersectional experiences of female activists, and 3) the collaborative design of alternative practices of commemoration that counter dominant discourses of betrayal and reconciliation.

Proposals are welcome on African and/or African diasporic commemorative practices of women’s political activism.

If interested, please email your paper proposal to marie-kruger@uiowa.edu by February 27.