Photo: Valentina Nicol

Nonhlanhla Skosana: “The moment I became an activist”

  • Nonhlanhla Skosana

As a politically active teenager in the height of mass resistance against apartheid in the late eighties, and now the manager for Sonke’s Community Education and Mobilisation Unit in Gauteng, Nonhlanhla Skosana talks about growing up with brothers in Tembisa, and her passion for gender justice.

It was a time when there were riots in the townships and students were taken out of their classrooms to join protests. It was 1986 and I was attending Tembisa high school. We threw stones at the police and sometimes there would be tear gas. It was fun in the beginning, but leaders in our school briefed us about what was happening in the country and why we’re doing this. There were people involved in politics at school like uBhekhi Khumalo who became the spokesperson to president Mbekhi. I learned why we need to fight, why we need to take action towards changing the environment we find ourselves in, living as black people in the townships.

I was also involved in a very political church – my pastor helped activists leave the country, he really used the church as a cover up for the ANC guys. I remember one time when we saw these big police cars – we call them hippos – come into our church where there was a community meeting, and the pastor took out his bible and pretended it was a prayer service. He also took me with him when he went to meet with anti-apartheid activists like Beyers Naude, for me to greet them and see that there are white people involved in the struggle. The church was educating citizens about what was happening around the country. So it’s in those kinds of spaces where I got conscientised.

As a child, I had a very lovely life, but in my activities, I was more on the boys’ side in terms of gender stereotypes. I grew up in Tembisa in a family of eight children; I’ve got three elder sisters and I’m the seventh child, between boys. I was comfortable in that space. My mother was a single parent and we had equality at home. She was this strong and opinionated person who could make decisions and speak her mind, and it didn’t matter whether you were man or a woman. During those days most women didn’t drive cars but my mother could drive and run her businesses. I had an opportunity to be treated equally with boys. We all shared a bicycle and I took turns on it along with my brothers, I played games with them, soccer and other games and we visited other townships close by – all things that other young girls were not allowed to do. But my brothers were always around me so I was comfortable, and accepted in a way.

So, for me, gender justice means equality among human beings. It is important that I must be seen as a human being first rather than a woman. I think that the fact that as a young person I was never treated like other women, but like a human being, even in spaces of leadership and meeting people. And that is my wish: people all over the world seeing each other from that perspective. Gender justice is about people – mostly women – being able to exercise their rights, able to be themselves and be the best of what they are. I believe in a space where each person can contribute to the growth of their community, to the growth of their country, and to the growth of the economy of the country. When you don’t even have the opportunity to use the potential you have as a human being, and you are being discriminated against, and sidelined, there’s no justice. You need to be able to be yourself irrespective of what you want to do and where.

I had this passion to get engaged in the taxi industry because of the experiences that we have as women, the stories that we hear and the women who call Sonke to report. The Safe Ride campaign is the highlight of my year. I remember one colleague who came to work one day so angry, she was so upset, because these taxi drivers had just harassed her sexually, she said it was because she was wearing a tight dress. She was so disturbed, and from that day I thought we really need to do something. This was not the only case of harassment.  For me it got to a point where I felt that we cannot keep quiet, so the Safe Ride campaign began. We’ve been engaging with senior management of the South African National Taxi Council (SANTACO) and getting buy-in from other men involved, like taxi drivers, to involve them in launching this campaign. We’ve just launched a video about a woman who was raped by a taxi driver. We got involved in her case and we’re still involved. So for me this campaign is the highlight. I would like to see it growing and reaching the whole of South Africa as well as out of this country. What I think will work to create safe space for women in public transport is to engage men and change their attitudes.

I am grateful to be who I am, and also to have found myself in spaces that developed me so that I can make an impact in my community. I am grateful that I was in a family with boys, and for the kind of church I attended. A lot of patriarchy is written in the religion but I was lucky enough to be in the right church. I am also grateful to find myself at Sonke. Sonke, I always say, talks to my being, talks to who I am and grants me an opportunity and a platform to engage with men. I am able to engage with them at the level where I don’t feel inferior, and they also don’t have the power to make me feel inferior because I’m associated with this organisation. It’s a nice part of the work that I’m doing. I’m grateful to know that I’m changing the mindsets of young men in the community for the betterment of the life of women. Every time people ask me why I work with Sonke, I say it’s because I’m a feminist and I believe that women are the beneficiaries of the work I’m doing. It’s not really men. Because I know if I’ve engaged with this man, I’m helping create an environment where women will be able to be themselves and to exercise their rights.

My greatest motivation is when I see women finding a space where they feel they are being listened to and understood, with people supporting them in fighting their struggles in terms of being abused or sexually abused. The woman who appears in the video who was raped by a taxi driver, yoh, now she’s so sure about herself. She’s sure about what she wants, and she can say, “I want this, and I want this man to be in jail.” We are around her, informing her of her rights and how her rights can be exercised, and supporting her in whatever decisions she makes in terms of fighting for her rights. I’m motivated by the positiveness that comes out of a struggle. This woman was assaulted and raped but she is managing to go beyond that because she knows that there are people who believe in her and are fighting with her.