What’s it really like to be a woman in South Africa?
Inspired by Women’s Day, Sam Rawson shares how meeting a homeless mother in a parking lot challenged her understanding.
I’ll never forget the night I met Ayanda*. I was rushing back to my car across the grocery store parking lot when she called to me. It was dark, cold, and I was alone. All my instincts told me to put my head down and get in my car. But then I heard another cry – this time the desperate cry of a baby – and I stopped.
She came over to me with a bundle in her arms, and asked if I had any money for her and her baby. By now I was thinking, “Oh dear, why on earth did I stop?!” But I could see her belongings piled up against the wall behind her and something compelled me to not brush her off.
I asked her what her name was and where they were staying. She pointed to the nearby canal and told me they slept under the bridge. Her baby was only three months old. Feeling overwhelmed and helpless, I offered to buy her a meal and some baby supplies.
Over the course of the next few months, I got to know Ayanda’s story a bit better as I tried to help her in various ways. But it wasn’t easy. She told me differing versions of her life story that didn’t match up.
And then there was the phone call from the police station to tell me she’d been arrested and put in jail for the night with her baby – and could I bring her supper?
And then there was the time she ran across a busy street – dodging cars with her baby strapped to her back – just to avoid me because she’d been drinking.
And then there were also her repeated attempts to get me to take care of her baby for her. Me – a single girl of 24 at the time!
The initial compassion I’d felt for her in that dark parking lot began to ebb. And then sputter. And then all but die away.
Why I am telling you this story? It sounds pretty hopeless, right?
My purpose was to write a blog post celebrating Women’s Day, but as I sat in front of my computer, I kept thinking of Ayanda.
Both Ayanda and I share something very basic in common. We are both women. We were both born and raised in the same country, but our stories couldn’t be more different.
At the age of 15, I was at a good school, loved and encouraged by my family and given numerous opportunities to grow my skills and talents. But by 15, Ayanda had already dropped out of school and run away from home.
When I turned 21, I was studying at university, living in a digs with my friends, and enjoying the carefree life of a student. By 21, Ayanda had been hardened by years of living on the streets and was already living a life patterned by abuse and addiction.
The sad reality is that women in South Africa are not all born equal. The latest Census 2011 results shows that 12% of black women (aged 20) have had no schooling – zero! – as opposed to 0.6% of white women. The results also show that black women have the highest unemployment rate in the country, with 41% of black women and 24% of coloured women unemployed. This statistic is 6.9% for white women.**
As women, I think we can sometimes be quick to judge one another. I know I certainly judged Ayanda when she made decisions I saw as being irresponsible for a mother. I saw the addiction, the manipulation, and what seemed to be unwillingness on her part to change.
Why did she return to the streets after we’d found her permanent shelter? Why did she put her baby son in danger when she could protect him? Why did she not see what her addiction was doing to herself and her baby?
I buried my judgement behind questions like these, safe in the knowledge that I would never make those mistakes in my own life.
And yet, as I’ve reflected, I’ve realised that my questions, though well-meaning, were not the right ones. There are bigger, more uncomfortable questions about Ayanda’s story which I neglected to ask.
Why was she forced onto the streets as a teenager? Why was she robbed of her education? Did anyone fight for her rights as a child?
These are just a few of the many unasked questions which litter our South African context, in the same way that they do Ayanda’s story. They’re questions which I didn’t think to ask, because they weren’t relevant in my own life. And yet, for Ayanda, to not ask them would be to misunderstand her situation as a woman entirely.
Until we can begin to grapple with these bigger issues, we may end up judging those around us too quickly and hardening our hearts, when they should be softened to the core.
In Ayanda’s case, it eventually became necessary to get social services involved for the well-being of her baby. Even though I believed it was necessary, it was still heart-breaking to watch her hand over her child into a stranger’s care.
Afterwards, she still clung to the empty bag in which she’d kept his clothes, bottles and nappies. I believe that, in her own way, and with the cards stacked against her, she’d tried to be a good mother.
How should we celebrate Women’s Day when being a woman in South Africa can look so different depending on which side of the socio-economic divide you’re born?
I’m challenging myself to judge less, and listen and love more, knowing that each woman has a very unique story to tell.
Here are some practical ways you can celebrate Women’s Day in the months ahead:
1. Drop off receiving blankets and new-born clothing for mothers at Mowbray Maternity Hospital
4. How much do you really know about the lives of the women around you? Your domestic worker, for example? Or the cleaner at your office? Why not offer to make them a cup of tea and spend some time listening to their story?
Do you have any other ideas?
– Sam works part-time for Common Good, offering communications support. Her and her husband, Jonothan, are members of the Common Ground BoschPM congregation.
* Name changed