In post apartheid South Africa, women's narratives remained on the margin of public memory spaces. This project attempts to address this imbalance.

This project is a partnership between the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) and the Human Rights Media Centre (HRMC) with two media outcomes, a book and an exhibition. Funding was received by Atlantic Philanthropies. In 2007, CSVR approached the HRMC to co-ordinate the project with the objective to record the life stories of mothers from different race, class and geographic region, who have played significant roles in the struggle to end apartheid, and those of their daughters who are older than 18 years and who were born during apartheid. Over four months the interviews were conducted by Sinazo Krwala and Shirley Gunn in Johannesburg and Cape Town respectively. Regional and national workshops were held to involve the 12 contributors in all decisions relating to the project.

The 12 women also contributed one artefact of historical significance for them to a traveling exhibition curated in an old trunk.

Knocking on
Back row: Aloma Matthews, Noluphiwo Kama, Bontle Mpakanyane, Judy Seidman. Middle row: Sindiswa Nunu, Mmule Mosupye-Mpakanyane, Jessica Sherman, Shahida Issel. Front row: Leila Issel-Davids, Irma Titus, Annie Neo Parsons, Zandi Sherman.

Book: Knocking on ... mothers and daughters in struggle in South Africa
... is a collection of stories by six activists and their daughters born during apartheid. This project, which draws on women’s stories across two generations, is an initiative that seeks to address the exclusion of women’s stories from the broader South African apartheid narrative. The stories stimulate a gendered reflection on how mothers’ and daughters’ lives impact, influence and educate each other, provoking a process of inquiry for readers.
Knockin on

  • Preface – Debra Shultz (ICTJ)
  • Introduction – Shirley Gunn (HRMC) and Sinazo
    Krwala (CSVR)
  • It’s my time – Shahida Issel
  • I am my father’s child – Leila Issel-Davids
  • I sang my way into the struggle – Jessica Sherman
  • Just the two of us – Zandi Sherman
  • Still struggling for our human rights – Sindiswa Nunu
  • My life then and now – Noluphiwo Kama
  • I no longer feared death – Mmule Mosupye-Mpakanyane
  • Nothing was too big or small for my mom – Bontle Mpakanyane
  • Dark, light and shades of grey – Aloma Matthews
  • Towards my memoirs – Irma Titus
  • Drawn lines – Judy Ann Seidman
  • A luta continua – Annie Neo Parsons
  • Afterword – Fiona Ross (UCT)


The grand narrative of South Africa as the ‘rainbow nation’ is in fact black, white and tones of grey which these mothers’ and daughters’ stories so colourfully convey. Knocking on … mothers and daughters in struggle in South Africa is not an end in itself but a stimulus to lively discussion in educational settings and to many more women writing their autobiographies and sharing their life stories.

Shirley Gunn, Director of the Human Rights Media Centre

Freedom is an effort that continues through the generations. Future generations may be better able to make sense of our political goals and commitments, our relationships and their consequences. Valuing the work of freedom is a collective enterprise that endures through time. The stories point to what women’s political activism has accomplished and they beg the question of what remains undone.

Fiona Ross, Social Anthropology Department, University of Cape Town

Women’s history has shown us time and time again that if women do not take the time to document their struggles for change, they pass into oblivion and we learn nothing and have to start all over again. What can we learn from these women activists? How to sustain a movement. How to combine multiple roles. How to transmit values. How to stay rooted in the community. How to stay accountable to one’s values.

Dr Debra Schultz, Gender Justice Program, International Centre for Transitional Justice

Cape Times Book Review, 6 March 2009, "Inspiring reminder of how women of courage shaped the future of the country" by Eva Hunter

Book Launches
Cape Town

16 December 2008, Mowbray Town Hall

The keynote speaker was Fiona Ross of the Social Anthropology Department at the University of Cape Town. The oldest mother, Mmule Mosupye-Mpakanyane, and the youngest daughter, Zandi Sherman, spoke on behalf of the mothers and daughters.

Download Fiona Ross' speach
a luta continua banner
Guests gathering at the Mowbray Town Hall in Cape Town

7 March 2009, Women's Jail Atrium, Constitutional Hill, Johannesburg

The keynote speaker was Sheila Meintjes of the Political Science Department at Wits University. Once again the oldest mother, Mmule Mosupye-Mpakanyane, and the youngest daughter, Zandi Sherman, spoke on behalf of the mothers and daughters.

Download Sheila Meintjies' speach
a luta continua banner
Women's Jail Atrium, Constitutional Hill,


The 12 women contributed one artifact of historical significance for them to a travelling exhibition curated in an old trunk. This was shown at both launches in Cape Town and Johannesburg and each contributor spoke briefly on the significance of their object.

The travelling suitcase exhibition

ONE LINE TWO LINE by Jessica Sherman

My artifact is a t-shirt, a beautiful pale blue t-shirt with the words, “One line, Two line” which was a song we used to sing in the struggle which came from the MK camps. It has rows of jiving women, men and workers printed on it. And it has also got a row of Mandela’s in boxing gear. It was very radical in those days to wear the t-shirt. Where ever we went to a rally we would wear a special t-shirt which identified why we were there. This particular t-shirt is the only one that I have left. And now I don’t have it left because apparently it belongs to this travelling exhibition. The person who produced it is Maurice Smithers; he is mentioned in my story.

Booboo by Zandi Sherman

My artifact is a drawing of my cat, Booboo. Honestly I chose it because it represents everything that was good about my childhood. I used to spend a lot of time drawing pictures, I loved drawing as a child, and I specially loved drawing animals. My cat Booboo was very close to me, I spent a lot of time with him. The drawing has been up on the kitchen wall in my house my whole life. As Mom said, no longer, as it now is part of the travelling exhibition.

A gift to console me by Mmule Mosupye-Mpakanyane

This wooden, hand-carved bowl was a gift from Thabo, my son, in the early 1980s to console me over the problems I had with the security police. Thabo lived in Durban at the time and when he heard of the problems and that Bontle had been being arrested, he visited us and gave me the bowl as a present. I am going to keep it till my old age because it is an unusual creation and with it in the travelling museum, as I call it, it will be able to see more days. It is very interesting because when we talk about times that were very tough we know what happened, but the people who read about these things might not appreciate them as deeply as we do because it is almost etched into our being.

My dompas by Bontle Mpakanyane

This is my old dompas. After completing matric I enrolled as a guinea-pig on a Witz secretarial course at Senate House. I recall that I had to quickly apply for this Section 10(1a) passbook because I lived in Benoni and I had to come into Johannesburg. So the travelling and working in Johannesburg meant that I had to produce this dompas to avoid being accosted by the police at Park Station who were waiting there to check the Black passengers dompasse. It is burnt, and further destroyed by water from the fire brigade. It got burnt when our Wattville home was bombed in 1986 during the struggle days. On both the occasions when we were bombed I was a victim and got hurt. This dompas is the evidence.

Hung up because of poverty by Aloma Matthews

My ballet shoes reflect my happy childhood and poverty which I have not yet escaped. My mother was widowed at the age of 27; there was no father to fear. Nothing was impossible for us. I regard myself as one of the luckiest children to grow up in the township. I started ballet at the age of seven. It was not easy because I had to travel to ballet classes in Sunnyside as there were no classes in Bonteheuwel. I remember when I had to stop dancing and hang up my shoes. Before exams and Eisteddfods we had extra classes at night. After the classes everyone left in their cars, but my mother and I would stand stranded at the bus stop. I experience the same problem with my eight year old son who is doing gymnastics. He has to go out of Hanover Park to the white areas to do gymnastics. Like my mother, I don’t have a car and recently after classes at night everyone left and we were stranded at the bus stop. We had to walk to where my daughter lived because there was no transport.

Music unites by Irma Titus

My artifact is my old, dog-eared New Apostolic Church hymn collection. When I was four years old I was diagnosed with a life threatening kidney disease. Ever since I have had a rough path with my health, but it has always been my faith that has kept me going. If you look at the front page there are two stickers that read: Visitor Civic Centre City of Cape Town. I got these stickers when I was a representative of the Junior City Council. So my liberal views and my staunch religious views are intertwined. While the New Apostolic church made the public decision to remain apolitical, they were educating their members through music which united the congregants, black and white. I put this treasure in the exhibition to acknowledge the role faith-based organisations played in the struggle.

Making do with what we had by Sindiswa Nunu

I have made a mealie cob doll, a reminder of my childhood and of my grandmother, a responsible woman who knew how to take care of a child. She lived in Tsolo in the Eastern Cape and looked after me after my father died. I loved playing dolls made from mealie cobs, which my grandmother made clothes for. I became a woman who was irresponsible because I never took care of my own children, as I was in and out of jail. I have been a woman who has taken care of politics, fighting for a democracy that is for the other people who have left me behind. My grandmother made a mealie cob doll for me so I could be comforted, but I did not do the same for my children. Fortunately for me, my child at the age of nine years was a mother to my children. She walks in my footstep fighting for liberation. As much as we say we have fought for democracy we still have to struggle for real democracy. Lets us vote, maybe at the end of the tunnel there will be a light.

As brilliant as ever by Noluphiwo Kama

I put these educational items in the exhibition because my school days then were not so easy. They symbolise how important education is. They say that education is very important to every child - every child has the right to education. So I put these in the exhibition hoping that one day I will have the chance to study further and finish up my schooling.

Reflections by Shahida Issel

My life with Johnny is a hell of a love story. What women do for love is incredible. He said that if I wanted to live with him I must live a simple life. He felt I did not need a mirror and I surrendered. He never wanted me to wear make-up. I had to be plain Jane. I had very long hair and I could only wear it in plaits. For five years when he was banned and we lived in Elsies River I lived without a mirror. I had surrendered to this man completely.

My purple life by Leila Issel -Davids

These lovely medals were given to my Dad, Johnny Issel, about two years ago after he had had a stroke and came back to Cape Town. He refused to accept this award given to him by Ebrahim Rasool, then premier of the Western Cape, and when parliament phoned to ask who would be receiving the award on his behalf I decided to take a stand. I am Leila. This is what I deserve. They represent validity to the past.


I was involved in the Medu Art Ensemble in Gaborone. This poster was conceived collectively by us in 1982. We had a long discussion about why we wanted to celebrate women and we argued about the original drawing. There were comments like, ‘You can’t see she’s a woman’ and the ‘hand is too big’ but we decided to use it. I was working on the poster at home. Annie was three and was very bored with me working on the stencil and when I stopped to feed Semane, her baby sister, Annie decided to help. She took the knife and cut the next letter, the second h, from the stencil. I was furious at first, but after I realised she had not destroyed it, and that the wiggly lines were easily corrected, I was really impressed. This poster has this personal touch with the shaky line my daughter drew in shaping history.

Myra the bee by Annie Neo Parsons

When Semane, my little sister, and I we were very young we lived in Botswana. The security forces were targeting Mom so my parents separated when I was three and a half. We kept our toys and stuff at Dad’s house because for security reasons mom moved a lot. The security forces finally cottoned on that my parents were separated and in 1985 they decided that the best way to target Mom was to firebomb the room where my sister and I lived. We lost most of our precious possessions, but Myra the bee and my teddy bear is what was left. Myra is still with me after everything that happened. She is special to me because she reminds me that I had a good childhood.