What I learned when my mother said: 'I’m tired. I’m not going to cook anymore.'


In newly-released Feminism Is, a mix of South African feminists explore their often vastly different experiences and perspectives in accessible and engaging voices.

Feminism Is touches on issues as wide-ranging as motherhood, anger, sex, race, inclusions and exclusions, the noisy protest and the quiet struggle. It will challenge your thinking and inspire you to action, reaffirming the urgent necessity of feminism in South Africa today. Here's an excerpt from the collection written by Ferial Haffajee.

This excerpt from Feminism Is was published with permission from NB publishers and is available from all leading bookstores.

Feminism and family

I miss her koeksusters. Spicy with cinnamon and nutmeg. Brown. Soft. Dipped and rolled in coconut. I look for my mother’s koeksusters all over town.

But they can deceive, these Malay delights that various shops in Mayfair try... and fail at.

I buy what she pronounces to be ‘dood-gooiers’ – things that can kill if thrown at you. Heavy and dry imitations.

The restaurant Roasted Coriander in Greenside used to sell a version that passed her muster, and so, in the middle of the chic Banting area, I placed a standing order. High carb. High fat.

My mom no longer makes koeksusters, nor her legendary mock cheesecake.

‘I’ve been cooking for seventy years. I’m tired. I’m not going to cook anymore.’

Not the Indonesian-inspired nasi goreng with noodles and chicken, with a spice mix cooked to perfection.

Not the cashew-nut soup, green with coriander and nutty – a delight that took hours to get right. Or the mince pilau or lightly crumbed steak fillets. Or her shelled garlic prawns and spiced rice. Nor her light layered rotis.

I could cry. So could my family.

I think it’s because of the age-related memory loss that set in almost a decade ago. Her memory of recipes went, and so she stopped cooking.
Now I’m not so sure. One day, in a rare moment of candour, my mom said: ‘I’m tired of cooking.’

To which I replied ‘ What?’ in less than faint panic.

‘I’ve been cooking for seventy years. I’m tired. I’m not going to cook anymore.’

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The feminist in me gets that; the koeksuster-loving daughter, who has often enjoyed love expressed as food, is somewhat dumbstruck. And hungry.

My mother is eighty-six years old, and while my godmother tries to push her to cook, believing that it will preserve her memory, I don’t.

So we go out a lot.

One day we go to 44 Stanley Avenue in Milpark, Johannesburg. It is the uber-hipster centre created out of an old bakery and various dilapidated buildings in what used to be a light-manufacturing hub of western Johannesburg.

Years ago while editing the Mail & Guardian, we moved into The Media Mill next door while the area was being regenerated. All exposed brick and high windows. It was avant-garde and open plan.

As a then young editor, the nights were long and the job tough as nails.

Deadline nights on a Wednesday were an unrelenting grind, as I felt I had so much to prove and get right. Wednesday is Big Night at a Friday weekly publication.

As I take my mom to 44 Stanley, which hadn’t been built when we first moved in to the area, memories flood back of her and my dad dropping into the office on many of those nights, a basket packed full with little plates and packets of love.

To explain my solitary self to myself, I sometimes haul out a grainy black-and-white image my brother shot of me, aged five, on our balcony in Bosmont, where I grew up.

It was a long day for a clothing worker, one that started at around 5 am and ended seventeen hours later.

I am alone and look pensive and nervous, casting an eye out over a piece of open ground to the station up the hill.

Bosmont was a smarter coloured group area in the buffer that apartheid’s master planners erected between Soweto and the white suburbs to the southwestern edge of Johannesburg.

It had owner-built, stand-alone houses of some individuality.

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We lived at the arse-end of Bosmont, across the road from Newclare with its rows of regimented council flats and a station crossing from Westbury, the gangland capable of giving Chicago’s South Side a run for its money.

Westbury had flats and matchbox houses where gangs called the Fast Guns and the Spaldings ruled the roost.

The flats are called La Fiesta – which means the party never stops – and are named after a fish and chips shop beneath.

As I’ve perused that photograph over the years and scoured myself of apartheid’s scars, I’ve come to understand the pensive five-year-old in the black-and-white photograph.

Only much later did I come to read of the triple burden or oppression of being born black, a woman, and working class in apartheid South Africa.

I was standing sentry, watching for my mother walking down from the station, across the field and up fifty-six steps to our flat.

It was a long day for a clothing worker, one that started at around 5 am and ended seventeen hours later.

She would take off her smart work clothes, don a pink gingham apron and get into a kitchen that couldn’t have measured more than two by four metres squared to prepare supper.

Then dishes, then packing away the laundry, then doing her books (she was a meticulous keeper of notes detailing her spending) and preparing for the next day.

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Only much later did I come to read of the triple burden or oppression of being born black, a woman, and working class in apartheid South Africa.

It refers to the unending day of the working-class woman, caught in the bind of apartheid capitalism’s cruel structure of low wages, apartheid group areas that required extended commutes to work and back, and patriarchy.

When I did become aware of it, the concept jumped from the page like an old friend.

I had watched Ayesha’s life and understood the feminist analysis of the triple burden intimately.

And so, when my mom told me that she was tired of cooking and was therefore giving it up, I got that too.

My freedom has meant her freedom.

Because liberation from apartheid loosened the apartheid job market, I was able to become what I desired, to emerge from the working class into the middle class and become a journalist.

She had dreamed of being an accountant or a doctor, and had the acumen to do either, but the three systems as experienced by our family did not allow it.

And so my mother no longer cooks, and we can afford to go out to eat because my purse is filled with freedom.

It is her way (and mine) of undoing the triple bind.

I will consider that work done when she stops ordering the cheapest thing on the menu and insisting on taking anything left over (and I mean anything) in a doggie bag.

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I didn’t learn my feminism out of a textbook.

I appreciate Gloria Steinem, Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer, but my feminist role models were closer to home.

Lilian Ngoyi, Frene Ginwala, Winnie Mandela, Helen Joseph, Charlotte Maxeke, Lydia Kompe, Aninka Claassens, Pregs Govender, Miriam Makeba . . . the women who helped shape South Africa are my sheroes.

As I grew up, I didn’t know how to assess life except to know that it didn’t fit right. My mother worked too hard.

School wasn’t answering all the questions I had about why this was so.

I didn’t know what to do with the abiding sadness that sets itself over a home when there is simply insufficient everything: money, time, dreams, and hopes.

Image credit: Gallo images

I was drawn to politics, like many, because of an abiding need to understand and replace an unjust system with a more just one.

In our area, activists like Jessie Duarte (now ANC Deputy Secretary-general) worked to make life better.

With the extended Dangor family and with her husband, John, they ran programmes to oppose the Group Areas legislation, to fight for local rights and to mobilise against the tricameral parliament, an attempt to reform apartheid by bringing in compradors from the Indian and coloured communities.

Women like Duarte, like Elaine and Jennifer Mohamed, were the first symbols of feminist resistance I learnt from.

They opened up networks into the internal organisations aligned to the United Democratic Front, which worked specifically on women’s rights.

Primarily, this was the Federation of South African Women, an umbrella for diverse community groups of women organising to oppose apartheid in all its manifestations: wages and working conditions; rents; rates and taxes; transport costs.

Now, the contours of my world began to grow more understandable as I learnt from photocopied pamphlets and books one could access via community circles or at meetings addressed by local leaders.

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I understood how working-class lives were choreographed by a system that required you to remain in your station to keep grand apartheid in place.

Apartheid and patriarchy were always twins: the system could not survive without black women, who served as an army of domestic labour in the urban areas and as the bulwark of rural Bantustans when the men left to serve the mines, and later the industrial base.

Mothers and fathers like mine were the fodder of a clothing industry that survived and thrived in a high-tariff and isolated apartheid economy.
Learning about this did not happen via textbooks, but came from the world of community activism taught by local leaders who organised us at school, or street by street.

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