a Story of unsung heroines..


I am a woman


Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.

[Maya Angelou]


When you meet Senthamani Govender, also known as Salatchi, and affectionately known to us as Granny, you are immediately drawn to her. Granny, who was 87 on her last birthday, is the epitome of strength and grace. She is composed and focussed, with a remarkable memory of her young days, which she recalls with spirit.

Granny is among the many ordinary women of indentured stock who were born in South Africa, and who struggled against odds to establish a life for themselves and their families in this country. Her life is a remarkable story of endurance and strength. in the building of this country. We need to remember that so much of our history is also shaped by women and men whose names never get into the history books.

Listening to Granny’s story, I realize that here is a woman who moved six times in her lifetime. She settled into and adapted to a new home, only to move, for one reason or another, to a new place of abode. Her relocations were due to personal circumstance as much as to the vicissitudes of fortune and government policy. In her life, we see played out the wider general story of South Africa – land of both discrimination and of opportunity. Her story shows that the personal and private is always entrammelled in the wider public domain. Indeed, her story – of settling down in a home, dismantling it or being separated from it, and establishing a new home, of constantly making new beginnings – is a perennial, universal one. Her story of loss and restoration echoes in the lives of countless human beings, especially those dispersed across continents, settling in a land of adoption. Yet it is in the particularities of each story, especially those of individual women such as Granny, that we appreciate the contradictions and pressures played out in a single life.




Beneath the colouring of desire

In the enemy’s eye

A scatter of worlds and broken wishes

In Shiva’s unending dance.”             [Itwaru, In Carter and Torabully 2002:38]

Granny was born on 29th November 1923 in Nonoti Park, in the Natal North Coast, and her birth was registered 9 days later, on 8th December 1923. Records reveal that the day of the week on which she was born was a Thursday, already suggesting that as “Thursday’s child”, “she had far to go”.
Kandasami Sami Gounden

Granny hails from indentured stock, her father coming from India to work on the tea estates in the Natal Colony at the turn of the 20th century. His name was Kandasami Sami Gounden [Colonial Born Number 92720]. He arrived in Durban in April 1902 at the age of 25, from the village of Kolapaloor in the District of North Arcot in Madras, India. Kandasami came on the ship Umlazi XV11.

His employer was William R Hindson, who owned Clifton Tea Estate, in Nonoti, in the Stanger area. This was one of the places to which many sugar cane and tea labourers went when they came from India. On Granny’s birth certificate, her father’s occupation is listed as “labourer”. She recalls that he also worked as a chauffeur for a white farmer at Nonoti, who was referred to as Ignis. The father would occasionally ride a horse, given to him by his employer, and he would travel around the Estate supervising the workers. The photograph above portrays a person of strong will and determination, living on harsh soil, as the hardy cacti in the background would suggest. It also suggests strong individuality, and contradicts the white, colonial practice of referring to all Indians derogatively and anonymously as “Sammy” or “Mary”, according to gender. Granny points out that there were also sugar cane plantations, on which Africans and Indians worked together, and there was much mutual tolerance and respect between the two groups of labourers.

The meeting and interaction of peoples from diverse backgrounds in the same colonial space is a feature of plantation history, even while a chasm existed between employer and employee. Meera Kosambi, drawing from Mary Louise Pratt and Indira Ghose, speaks of the “notion of the ‘contact zone’ – the social space where disparate cultures meet, clash and grapple with each other, often in highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination, like colonialism” [Kosambi 2003:5]. This was true of the Hindson Estate as it was of similar estates elsewhere. William Robert Hindson was born in Cumberland in 1852 and developed his skills as a “tea-taster” from an early age. He came to South Africa in 1879, and amassed a considerable fortune through his work as an accountant and financial agent on the diamond mines in Kimberley. He purchased the Clifton Estate in the Kearsney District, a property of 350 acres. By 1892 the Estate had expanded to cover 4000 acres, and the commercial department was managed by Kenneth A Brown. The brand of tea that was produced here was “Natalinda”, and even secured a gold medal in South Africa in 1905 [3 years after Granny’s father and a year after Granny’s mother arrived in Natal from India]. The Estate had advanced technology for its time, and was able to show an impressive turnover of   tea. So phenomenal was the growth in general, that in 1902 19,000 coolies were applied for from the Immigration Department, as coolie labour was deemed indispensable to the development of the tea industry [See Twentieth Century Impressions 1906:320]. It is important to note the contribution of Granny’s parents, and so many others, to making this enterprise profitable.

What follows is a selection of photographs of the Clifton Tea Estate, taken from Twentieth Century Impressions of Natal : Its People, Commerce, Industries, and Resources [1906], reflecting the Estate during the time when Granny’s father worked there.

clifton tea estate


Indians picking the leaf

clifton tea factory

managing directors house

Granny’s mother, Alamelu Vythilingam [Colonial Born Number 104770], came to work on the same farm two years later, in 1904. Alamelu, who was 22 years old when she came from India, hailed from Tanjore, in the district of Nagapur, Madras. She came on the ship Umlazi XXII. She also went to work at Hindson Tea Estates, and it is clear that that is where Alamelu and Kandasami met, and later married. Granny does not know if they were still indentured at this time, and whether they required permission to marry. By 1906, Granny’s father and mother were among the 500 Indian workers on this highly successful tea Estate, with 4 “European” officers [see Twentieth Century Impressions 1906:318].

Who were Alamelu and Kandasami? Why did they leave India? What were they like? What was their long transoceanic voyage from India like? How did they feel about crossing the kala pani? What were their experiences on the Tea Estate in this outpost in Natal? Did they have families they left behind in India? What were their difficulties on the Estate? Did they long for their homeland? What trauma of indentured exile did they experience? Did they want to go back to India? How did their sense of identity change with time? How did memory [of India] and experience [of the Colony] coalesce? What were the specific things, real and imagined, that they brought in their gunny sacks? How different or similar were their experiences, compared to those of the other coolies? As girmityas, what coercion did they experience, what resistance did they display? How did they cope with some of the challenges of their new life given that a “new vocabulary had to be learnt, an unfamiliar geography explored, a new terrain mastered, new pragmatic social relationships established” [Lal 2004:26]? These and many more questions are not answered by the standardized, monochromatic “Ship’s List” that was completed for each immigrant, and which is our only link in many instances to that past. There is much in the past of Granny’s parents that is a blank page. At a time when sheer survival preoccupied the immigrants, and when there was no valuing of one’s life and story, or when one did not have the resources to record one’s story, this is understandable.

Granny was born into a world [in 1923], when indentured labour had ended 9 years before in South Africa, and 3 years before it was concluded in the rest of the British Empire. However, the colonial government in South Africa was set on a course of racial discrimination, which would continue for the better part of the 20th Century. Gandhi had returned to India, and had begun a ‘non-cooperation movement” to oppose the South African government’s policies. The resistance movement slowly gained momentum after the formation of the South Africa Native Council in 1914 [later the African National Congress]. Indentured families, like those of Granny’s, who did not return to India, were slowly finding their footing in the Colony, and were turning towards other forms of occupation.

Granny had two brothers and two sisters – Perumal, Soobramoney, Mariamma, and Veeramma – and was the youngest in the family. Granny was raised with her siblings, and has many wonderful memories of growing up in Nonoti Park, in the North Coast. The family was close-knit, and enjoyed a wonderful sense of community life among fellow labourers.

They had a large, rambling farmhouse, made of wood and iron. She recalls a farmyard with an abundance of fruit and vegetables. This seems in clear contrast to the barracks-style houses that many labourers were consigned to on the plantations. Her descriptions suggest a carefree life, simple, but full of bounty; it belies the obvious difficulties that they would have also endured. Her father worked hard and was a great provider for the family. He was promoted to the rank of sirdar, and enjoyed a position of responsibility and privilege. It seemed quite common to elevate workers to the status of “sirdar”, so that they would exercise control over their compatriots.

As was customary at the time, the boys in the household were sent to school, and Granny did not receive any formal schooling. It seems that she became literate through contact with others. Granny, as she grew up, like so many other underprivileged women, was to learn much in the school of life, absorbing a lively Hindu faith from her parents, becoming fluent in Tamil and English, and coping with the changing demands of a changing life that would span the socio-historical spectrum of the 20th Century [and early decades of the 21st Century]. Granny says that there was no time to read, nor was there available reading material when she was growing up. It was “work, work, work, all the time”.

Sadly, her mother died when she was only 8 months old, and she has no memories of her. Why did her mother die, and at a relatively young age? Granny was told that her mother became ill from the time she [Granny] was born. Her father, Kandasami, remarried some four and a half years after her mother passed away, and it was at this time that Granny went away from Nonoti to Durban. She lived with her step-grandmother, in a place called “Popatlall’s Yard”, in Umgeni Road, Durban. She also remembers that her elder brother, Perumal, took great care of her as she was growing up. Granny continued to live with her stepmother’s mother, who played a strong nurturing role in her life, up to the age of 12.

After a while the rest of her family, except her brother Perumal, also relocated to Magazine Barracks. When her father’s employer in Nonoti died, her father lost most of the privileges he enjoyed on the farm. He decided to move from Nonoti, and seek new employment in the city. He became an overseer for a garden services company in Bulwer Park. He acquired a house in Magazine Barracks, since he worked for the Durban Corporation. Granny then moved to live with him and her stepmother.

When Granny was around six and a half years old, her father and stepmother had a daughter, who was named Parvathi. She remembers Parvathi well, and enjoyed a close relationship with her, up to the time of her passing away. Sadly, Parvati died in her 50s.

Granny moved from Umgeni Road to Magazine Barracks in the mid 1930’s, which marked a new beginning for her. Magazine Barracks was originally used to store magazine powder, and the suburb given to Durban Municipal employees from 1887. Like District Six, Cato Manor, Fietas, Soweto, Sophiatown, and many other places, Magazine Barracks came to personify segregated living in the socio-cultural imaginary, and occupies an important place in the iconography of memory in South Africa. Rather than erasing these spaces, we need to appreciate their place in the historical, political and cultural geography of South Africa [see Dlamini 2009:163].

Granny was exposed to the vibrant community life here, and she remembers that it was here that she entered puberty. Different from Nonoti, but nonetheless appealing in its own way, life in Magazine Barracks allowed her to enjoy a happy adolescence. She played with dolls and on the swings, enjoyed skipping and “three tins”, and remembers the community dances. The Diwali season was especially joyous and unforgettable as there was so much activity. Among the personalities who made an impression on her was Pushpa Murugan, the well-known writer and community worker from Magazine Barracks. Murugan’s memoir, Lotus Blooms on the Eastern Vlei is a description of life in Magazine Barracks, also know as the Eastern Vlei. Also prominent was Sam Ramsamy and his family, and “Bull” Murugan, the linguist. The Magazine Barracks Temple was the centre of much community activity, and Granny also remembers “Archary’s Shop” in Somtseu Road. She would go to the shop regularly to buy bread for the family. She recalls the police station next to the shop, as well as the school.

It is common cause that Indian girls at this time were not encouraged to pursue formal schooling. Those who did were more the exception than the rule, and usually came from the elite and middle class Indian families rather than from the working class. Many educationalists and political figures, such as Dr Gonam, actively fought against the prejudice that kept Indian girls away from school [see Gonam 1990].


After her 16th birthday, Granny was introduced to Nallathambi Gounden, who lived in Westbrook, near Mt Edgecombe. Nallathambi seemed promising. At 25, he was already a sirdar working for the consortium, Natal Estates.

In terms of their family histories, the couple had much in common. Muthu Gounden [CB Number 117370], the father of Nallathambi, came from India on the S S Pongola in 1905. He came from the village of Ponmarampatty from the District of Salem, in Tamilnadu in South India. His ship arrived in Durban two days before Christmas, on 23 December. He was accompanied by his brother Erusayi Velliah Gounden, and they were sent to work on the Umhloti Vallley Central Sugar Mill. It seems that Nallathambi was born in 1914. Details of his background and that of his family before he met Granny are sparse.

ships list
The Ship’s List – Information on Nallathambi’s Father
Senthamani and Nallathambi married at a temple in Westbrook around 1939, surrounded by a happy family of uncles, aunts, sisters and brothers, and friends, as the photograph below shows. Her father, Kandasami, in his colonial-style hat, to the right in the photograph, was especially proud. The young bride looked demure, in a mauve cotton sari, and the bridegroom stood tall in a white cotton suit.

The couple lived in Westbrook, where Asothiamma, her eldest child, was born. A second child, a boy, died in infancy. The family moved to Magazine Barracks, and it was here that her other children, Savithree, Vigie and Devan, were born. Nallathambi worked for the Durban Corporation, in Congella, earning 4 pounds [eight rand] a month. Both parents worked hard to consolidate their family and give their children a good start in life. Through their judicious endeavours, they were able to obtain a piece of land in Avoca while they were still in Westbrook. [Although Granny’s married surname was Gounden, she went by the name Govender.]

Granny recalls a highlight of those years, when she joined the large crowds to see the British Royal Family, when King George and his wife Queen Elizabeth, with their daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret, came to Durban [in 1947]. She can still picture the royal parade on the beachfront, and especially remembers the open car. This gathering was considered one of the largest of South African Indians, where 65,000 attended [Vahed, Desai and Waetjen 2010:182]. Granny also remembers the time of the 1949 Riots in Durban, although she did not experience any immediate and direct violence at Magazine Barracks.

family portrait
The Family – Granny with husband, and children, Asothi, Savy, Vigie and Devan

The studio photograph above gives a perspective different from that of the couple on their wedding day. The husband and wife here look more self-assured and settled, surrounded by their well-groomed children.

Unfortunately, Nallathambi died in May 1961 in an accident at work. He was only 47 years old at the time when he was struck by a heavy iron, resulting in his tragic and untimely death. Granny points out that no proper compensation was received by the family, and she was paid a mere 40 pounds [79 Rand at the time].

With four teenage children to support and raise, Granny, at the age of 37, refused to succumb to penury, and left home for the first time to find work. At the time of her husband’s death, the marriage plans for her eldest daughter, Asothie, were already being considered, and she was determined to see them through. She found a job at Brighton Beach, where she worked as a cleaner and assistant at the swimming pool. She earned a mere pittance of 9 pounds [the equivalent of 18 Rand a month at that time], and it is surprising that she was able to raise her children single-handedly on this wage. She still ran the home, and was gradually assisted by her daughters. There was also a period when she worked the afternoon to late evening shift at the swimming pool, coping with the use of public transport and other inconveniences. She worked for over 25 years, up to her retirement at the age of 62. Many Black women like Granny found unskilled work in the public sector such as cleaning, which was an extension of their domestic life, in order to earn a living. Thus women like Granny operated in a restricted public space, unlike women of the professional classes. It is also necessary to appreciate that much of this women’s work, both at home and in the workplace, was undervalued and underpaid [see Naidu 2009].

She saw her family gradually increase, and made provisions that both her daughters and son attend school. She achieved much, in that she educated her children, inculcated in them the values of the Hindu faith, saw them married and setting up their own homes and families, and continued to support the growing families emotionally. The bashful bride of yesteryear gave way to provider and head of the family, and was hardly cast in the image of the reclusive, traditional, Hindu widow. Due to circumstances, Granny grew to play a pivotal role as mother and, later, grandmother, assuming the role of benevolent matriarch with ease. She remains a crucial link in the family, connecting both past and present generations, and in the wider society, between the plantation economy of the early indentured labourers and the modern nation.

From Magazine Barracks, around 1964-65, Granny moved to Chatsworth. This relocation was due to Group Areas legislation, when thousands of Indians were forced to leave their homes in places like Magazine Barracks and Cato Manor. The Group Areas Act, promulgated in 1950, ensured that the different race groups lived separately, and much has been written to depict the trauma and loss caused by this internal uprooting. Granny missed Magazine Barracks greatly, but slowly adjusted to the new home and its surroundings, and recalls the new community she then embraced in Chatsworth, Among her neighbours was the David family, who were Christians.

Granny’s new home, HOUSE 301, ROAD 242, became the hub of much family activity. Although the practice of naming homes in this anonymous way became the signature of living in Chatsworth and many other Black locations in apartheid South Africa, it is remarkable how the occupants resisted such depersonalization and imbued their lives and living with distinctiveness and individuality. Although Indian indentured labourers had been in the country for a hundred years at this time, they still did not enjoy the rights and privileges of a democratic society. After 1948 there were intentions to repatriate Indians to India, and it was in 1961 that Indians were recognized as South Africans, though not afforded full citizenry. The Tricameral Parliament introduced in the 1980’s was an attempt, like the Bantustan policy, of divide and rule in South Africa.

Alongside this political uncertainty, Granny experienced personal highlights in her life. She witnessed the marriages of her daughters and son, and watched with approval as her children set up their own homes and establish their own nuclear families. She experienced a family tragedy again, when she sustained the loss of one of her daughters, Savy, some eight years ago. She took great pride in the arrival of her grandchildren, and occupied an honoured place in her extended family. Granny is remembered by the grand-children for her generosity. She would regularly arrive on Fridays bearing gifts, which included cakes and sweets. Mags and Logan, her grandchildren, recall that they would eagerly run to meet her at the bus stop, to help her with her parcels.

Jacob Dlamini, in his autobiographical book on growing up in the South African township of Katlehong, Native Nostalgia [2009], makes the important point that the dominance of the master narrative of struggle history in South Africa makes us forget the way ordinary people lived under apartheid. Hr encourages us to recall the richness and “complexity of life among black South Africans, that not even colonialism and apartheid at their worst could destroy” [2009:18-19].

So many women, like Granny, effaced their own personal ambitions and aspirations and saw their mission as one of caring and providing for their families, spending their lives producing future generations who would take their place as worthy citizens of this country. This is a thread that runs through the lives of Black women in general in South Africa, and the stories of these women must also be celebrated. Feminists have engaged in much excavatory work to foreground the lives of women, whether well-known or obscure. Writing on the heroism of women [often undervalued in relation to that of men], Miriam Polster has rightly pointed out that “women’s quiet but profoundly courageous acts simply go unremarked, submerged in a subsidiary world of attachment and service” [1992:9].

In arguing in this way I am not condoning the structures and systems of oppression, and suggesting that if some people, like Granny, tried to shake off the victim image, then those who did/do not are somehow deficient. In The Souls of Black Folk, the African-American writer, Du Bois, criticized the spurious notion “that oppressed groups are presented as a problems rather than the systems that have oppressed them”. Fanon had also criticized the tendency “to hold those who suffer to be responsible for that suffering due to their own biological or cultural failings [see Pithouse 2009:143/163].

Granny lived in the Chatsworth home for a good 15 years, and then moved to Avoca, around 1980. This was the property that Nallathambi had helped to secure years earlier. The Avoca home was developed by her son, Devan, and herself. She resides there now, with her son, and daughter-in-law, Indra. She says that she stills misses the community spirit of Chatsworth, and finds that life in Avoca tends to be impersonal.

Another highlight of her life was a trip she made to India and the Far East in 1985. She certainly enjoyed visiting the land of her parents, but observes that the Tamil she heard in Madras was quite different to the version she spoke in South Africa. She also felt indisputably that she belonged to South Africa rather than to India.

At present she has three surviving children, 13 grandchildren, and 19 great grand- children. It is interesting to note that among her grandchildren are teachers, accountants, doctors and academics, and other professionals. The majority reside in South Africa, and a few members of the family have emigrated overseas.

granny and family
Granny at the centre of the Family

granny with daughter
Granny with Asothie [daughter], Mags [grand-daughter] and Verushka [great-grand-daughter] and Rishane [great-grandson]
granny in later years
Granny with Devan [son] and Indra [daughter-in-law], and great-grandchildren [Krishnie’s children, Kryshanthi and Neshwin, and Logan’s daughter, Mira ]
granny with asothie
Granny with Asothie [daughter], Mags [grand-daughter], Verushka and Mira [great grand-daughters]
Granny with Logan

Grandchildren: (13 grandchildren): Mogiveny Rajkoomar  (Govender); Dinagren Govender; Kubaren Govender; Kanagaren Govender; Kamalasan Govender; Sathieseelan Govender; Prenisha Govender; Krishnee Govender; Desigan Govender; Kuben Govender; Sathasivan Perumal; Jeevarathanam Govender; Ravi Govender

Great grandchildren  (18 great grandchildren): Rishane Rajkoomar; Verushka Rajkoomar; Saiuri Govender; Serena Govender; Hlandi Govender; Neelachal Govender; Mira Govender; Prashav Govender; Divyesh Govender; Dhiyaru Govender; Theeyash Govender; Kryshanthi Govender; Neshwin Govender; Lashriya Govender; Shrihaha Govender; Morgan Govender; Keetan Govender; Tarick Govender; Seth Dhruv Govender


Granny’s story must also be seen against the backdrop of history. When Granny’s father and mother arrived in South Africa in the early years of the 20th Century, the Indian indentured labourers had already been in South Africa for over 40 years, having first arrived in 1860. Thanks to the hard work of the labourers, sugar and tea cultivation did much to improve the economy of the Colony. The succeeding generations built on this legacy, and helped to consolidate the life of the Colony. Women, as the example of Granny indicates, worked in both domestic and public domains, contributing to the stability of family life, the maintenance of civic life, and the perpetuation of religious and cultural traditions. Jon Soske, drawing from Partha Chatterjee, argues that “nationalist ideology invested the home and family with a special function: to preserve the inner ‘spiritual’ values of the nation, the cultural traditions that defined the separate identity of the colonized” [Soske 2010:207]. This is especially true of diasporic and immigrant women and their descendants, and oppressed dis-enfranchised women in their own country [as we see with Jacob’s Dlamini’s own mother raising her family in apartheid Katlehong] who felt the burden of maintaining stability in the “inner sanctum” of the home in a foreign land.

It is also vitally important to give critical consideration to the way women’s experiences of the physical spaces of houses and memories of home are linked to the development of the national imaginary [see Burton 2003]. Black women’s experiences in South Africa in particular, given the apartheid history of internal movement, dislocation and re-location, as exemplified in some respects in Granny’s life, needs to be explored more closely.

The early labourers experienced discrimination and hostility; Gandhi, who was in the country at the time Granny’s parents first arrived in the country, started his Satyagraha Campaigns. The recorded history of this period shows many indignities that Indian immigrants were subjected to and the anti-Indian legislation that was promulgated.

Granny’s story must also be seen against the dominant historiography of the past century [and even into the 21st Century]. The way people’s lives were deemed history-making or newsworthy or not is controlled by a number of influences and assumptions. Political activism or educational and cultural accomplishments assured selected Indian women a revered, iconic place, and the “little women” were erased. Class played an important role in this politics of recognition. Fame may be also enjoyed for “achievements” such as winning beauty contests or engaging in daring feats such as riding the “wall of death” [see Naidoo 2008; Vahed, Desai and Waetjen 2010; Rajab 2011]. Ironically, in the new democracy, there is a new silencing of people like Granny, who are cast in the role of liminal spectator. Yet the challenge is to resist hegemonic formations such as these and develop a subaltern historiography, where the lives of those relegated to the margins are explored. Afterall it was the unknown masses in the mass democratic movements in South Africa across the 20th Century who played anonymous, but pivotal [or different] roles in political struggles [alongside the Gandhis, Mandelas and Tambos and Sisulus].

People like Granny are an important living and breathing archive that cannot be ignored. It is also necessary to explore how they script their lives, the way history, power and subalternity coalesce in their self-fashioning, that makes them narrate their lives in particular ways.

During the rest of the 20th century, South Africans of all race groups faced difficulties and challenges caused directly by apartheid legislation. Among these struggles was the fight for land and for homes, education, and political rights. Granny tried hard to send both son and daughters to school, but regrets that she could not afford tertiary education for them. While the century saw some of the most oppressive laws and practices in history, it also saw remarkable resistance. This resistance took the form of the formal opposition of the broad liberation front. It also saw the formation of strong community efforts for social upliftment and the sheer will and determination of countless ordinary individuals who struggled, survived, and succeeded, in spite of apartheid. Granny did not participate in any political activism directly, but was aware of the many struggles being waged around her. Her story, like that of so many women, may be seen as a counter-narrative [or parallel narrative] of women’s active participation in the liberation struggle in general and the Passive Resistance movements in particular. Yet, it is, arguably, no less valuable.

Indeed, Granny’s story is shaped by the forces of history, as well as the personal agency that she herself displayed in her life. Her story is a testimony of faith and belief in oneself, in one’s dignity and intrinsic self-worth, in spite of systemic attempts to undermine this. When reading oppressed women’s stories, postcolonial feminists have drawn our attention to the multiple pressures on women’s lives, and their resilience in overcoming the adversities of their lives. At a time when women were “doubly othered” – as woman and as colonized person – we need to “capture what is at stake in the practices of the self or agency in the contested margins of patriarchy, empire, and nation” [Tharu and Lalita 1991:xvii]. We must also not forget the existence of the hierarchies of caste [not to speak of class] that were inserted into South African Indian living. Indeed, Granny’s story reveals the over-riding compulsion to live life, not unaccommodated and bereft, but with beauty and truth, integrity and resilience. It is the story of so many women who have dedicated their lives to “the making of a habitable world” [Tharu and Lalita: 1991: 36].

We need to appreciate that there are many faces of the Indian [or Black] woman, as I capture in my poem, “I am Woman”, across the historical span of the 20th Century, from indentured days to the present time. Many were not political or regarded as feminist; many were not professional women with formal training. Women of indentured stock, of the first generation, were largely labourers, and combined manual work in the public space with their domestic duties. The second generation, such as Granny, lived very much in the footsteps of their mothers and grandmothers. Women like Granny straddled the traditional and the modern, and paved the way for the generations of women who took their place unambiguously in the public domain. It certainly does not help to develop a linear narrative of women’s experiences and development, and it is more helpful to consider the temporal and spatial differences.

Invariably, the political intersected with the personal, and their lives reflected this directly or indirectly. The tendency to speak of “Indian Identity” in mono-cultural [or even multi-cultural terms], or any other identity for that matter, ignores the “complexities in the cultural fabric that must be recognized if we are to approach the elusive nature of an identity that emerges in the margin, and understand the tension between public and private realities that undergirds women’s lives” [Tharu and Lalita 1991:xix] at different times in history. Undoubtedly, for many women, especially our mothers and grandmothers, selfhood and subjectivity were shaped by and negotiated within an unquestioned patriarchal mould. But this does not deny the independence that was constantly struggled over and achieved.

Senthamani Govender joined the winding queues to cast her vote in 1994 in the first democratic elections in the land of her birth. She was 71 at the time, and now remarks that she has not missed voting on successive election days. At the age of 87, she remains a very serene woman, thankful for a blessed life. Her name, which she noticed is pronounced “Shanthamani” in India, means peace and calm. Her hope for the future is that there will be peace and calm, and that the country and the rest of the world will be free from fear.


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In Jacklin, Heather and Peter Vale [eds]. Re-imagining the Social in South Africa – Critique, Theory and Post-Apartheid Society. University of KwaZulu-Natal Press:Scottsville, pp.141-176.

Polster, Miriam F. 1992. Eve’s Daughters – The Forbidden Heroism of Women. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Soske, Jon. 2010. “Navigating Difference :Gender, Miscegenation and Indian Domestic Space in Twentieth-Century Durban.”

In Gupta, Pamila, Isabel Hoymeyr and Michael Pearson [eds]. Eyes across the Water – Navigating the Indian Ocean. Unisa Press:Pretoria, pp. 197-219.

Tharu, Susie and K. Lalita. [eds]. 1991. Women Writing in India 600BC to the Present.

Vol, 1:600 BC to the Early 20th Century. Feminist Press: New York.

Twentieth Century Impressions of Natal: Its People, Commerce, Industries, and Resources. 1906. Natal:Lloyd’s Greater Britain Publishing Company,

Rajab, Devi. 2011. Women – South Africans of Indian Origin.Jacana: Johannesburg.

Vahed, Goolam, Ashwin Desai, and Thembisa Waetjen. 2010. Many Lives – 150 Years of being Indian in South Africa. Shuter and Shooter:Pietermaritzburg.

Written by Dr Devarakshanam [Betty] Govinden, with information gleaned in conversation with Granny, Senthamani Govender. One of Granny’s grandsons, Kanagren [Logan] Govender, is Betty’s son-in-law, and Mira Grace and Seth Dhruv [Logan’s children, and Granny’s great-grand-children] are Betty’s grandchildren. The archival assistance of Prof Goolam Vahed and the editorial and critical advice of the late Prof Margaret Lenta are gratefully acknowledged.]


Written By Dr Betty Govinden (Author; Academic; Lecturer at UKZN, Research Staff Member);

Books: ‘Sister outsiders’A Time of Memory: Reflections on Recent South African Writings


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