We extend a word of revolutionary solidarity to her immediate family, and all those for whom this loss leaves an unbearable scar. We say to you, Thuthuzelekani.

Phyllis Ntantala, who left this earth on the early morning of the 18th July aged 96 will forever be remembered, honoured and loved for her sterling work of activism in the women’s movement. She leaves us with a rich herstory of Feminist activism, a life of service to the movements for liberation and a life that is material testament to the feminist maxim – “the personal is political”.

She has been celebrated throughout the world as a leading scholar, feminist and activist. She forms part of a great generation of women who dared to speak out about gendered oppression that is racialized and determined also through class by colonialism, apartheid and pointed out the betrayal by liberation movements, who still today, fail to acknowledge the multidimensional nature of women’s oppression.

We are particularly reminded at this juncture of her words to us:

“Black women, especially the African women, are the victims of threefold oppression. One dimension of this is the traditions and mores of their own communities. It is our fear of addressing these retrograde customs and traditions which lies at the root of people’s opposition to the issues of women’s emancipation. It is clear that this is a responsibility we can no longer shirk. Doubtless such an exercise will encounter resistance. But, as is the case with all new ideas, those who have been brought up with the old feel uncertain and threatened by this process. If these ideas have any value, they will in the end win converts and become generally accepted in our ranks. What is absolutely impermissible is that we censor or outlaw radical ideas merely because they cause some of us discomfort. Within our Black communities, it is patriarchal attitudes and institutions that oppress and degrade our women. It is high time we had the courage to grasp the nettle and subject all these to withering criticism. The ones best suited to the task are the women from the communities in question. -Phyllis Ntantala-Jordan, “Black Womanhood and National Liberation”, Sechaba, December 1984.

This mission remains relevant today, as she departed on the day when the international community opened the International Aids Conference in Durban South Africa.

Her words carry us at Oxfam SA, and echo in our hearts as we struggle for responses to the Aids epidemic, which has the profile and face of a Black woman. Yet the global agenda and responses emanating from it are determined primarily by scientists, academics and communities not grounded in the reality of the effects and terror of this disease on our continent and world.

We remember her support and encouragement to the struggles of organisations like the Treatment Action Campaign at the height of Mbeki AIDS denialism. Once more, this woman spoke out against her own political party as it failed to deliver on constitutional promises for a lived reality of freedom.

Her thinking guides those who resist patriarchal oppression often masked as tradition, culture and “the way things are”, connecting this oppression to its structural drivers. Her work remains a rock on which we can anchor our thinking on an inclusive and intersectional view of struggle and freedom.

As we mourn and celebrate this life, we re-dedicate ourselves to the memory of all Black feminist ancestors. Reclaiming memory is affirming dignity, working against the kinds of colonial dispossession that the failure to value especially Black women’s contributions perpetuates.

At Oxfam SA we will continue to document the stories and lives of Women. We will continue to ensure that the ways of knowing that are determined through lived realities and experiences of women are premised. We use this moment to reflect on the big and broad shoulders of women who have come before us. We honour the Women who fought and those who continue to fight for a lived freedom from violence and poverty, from the bondages of a capitalist economic system that is tearing people and communities apart.

Oxfam South Africa will co-host a reading and reflection session on some of the works of Mam-Phyllis as part of our August month activities, where women will reflect on the lived realities of their struggle against patriarchy, poverty and abuse.

We believe mam-Phyllis’ work and views should be cultivated in the current generation of leaders to ensure black women’s struggles find expression in the everyday discourse and government policies.

Robala ka Kgotso Phylis. Umzamo omhle uwuzamile.

For queries and interview, kindly contact:

Isaac Mangena, Oxfam South Africa, Senior Media and Communication Manager on 0718848273