Lauretta Gladys Nozizwe Duyu Ngcobo (née Gwina) was born in the southern-most part of KwaZulu Natal in 1931. She was the first girl in a family of four. Her mother, Rosa Fisekile Cele, had a difficult time with the birth. Lauretta wrote,
On the night of the second day, my grandfather, who knew the white doctor personally, had managed to persuade him to venture into the black reserve, by night, to save the life of his elder daughter and her unborn child. And so he did.1
Lauretta was born into a family of storytellers, growing up in a rural setting where she valued her exposure to oral literary traditions. Commenting on how poetry informed all occasions she said,
It was performed to honour kings, to welcome newly born babies, and to rock them to their sleep. It is sung at weddings, at funerals and at war. It even heralds peace.2
She recalled her mother relenting in family arguments and reciting poetry at the doorway of the ‘great house’, ‘the maternal family line first, followed by the paternal line’ until the grandmother nodded her head and the argument was over.3
Lauretta’s mother would tell her African folk stories. Her great-grandmother narrated episodes of Zulu history. She composed poetry about her painful life as the least-loved wife of her husband’s four wives. She also created poetry for each child in the family including Lauretta who used to cry as a baby. ‘Apparently I had a very sharp voice . . . My poetry imitates the honey bird which is very insistent.’ 4
When Lauretta was seven years old her father, Simon Shukwana Gwina, died. Both he and Lauretta’s mother were teachers. Lauretta’s mother became the sole breadwinner in the family. Despite the difficulties, she was determined that all her children would be educated regardless of their gender.
The public openly condemned us, girls, who ‘demanded’ the same privileges as boys. In a family where mother had never made us aware of the preferences, the remarks were not only hurtful, but created a throbbing consciousness of one’s burdensome value.5
Lauretta went to primary school in Webbstown and Nokweja. In 1944 she was at a boarding school run by American missionaries in Dumisa and then in 1946 she went to Inanda Seminary. At home, she had gained a knowledge and interest in English literature and history from her mother.
My mother got me interested in her favourite writer, Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables. Her stories became my favourites too. From her I learned about Henry the Eighth. I was very fond of Thomas Hardy and his stories of rural England and I liked Charles Dickens.6
She enjoyed school but began to sense a ‘silent disapproval of the barefoot life-style and art that was part of my whole way of life’, that ‘the borrowed culture of city girls’ was the dominant ethos, that she was caught in a ‘tug of warring cultures’. She described how she felt a ‘disfigurement of outlook, a mutilation within’, a conflict that had ‘persisted even against the most arduous efforts to strike a balance’.7
In 1950 Lauretta attended the University of Fort Hare and obtained a BA in Psychology, and Zulu Language and Literature. She also studied for a postgraduate University Education Diploma. Fort Hare had a ‘ratio of thirty-five women students to five hundred men in those days. In some classes the preference given to male students was disarming.’ 8
Her first job as a teacher was in Pietermaritzburg in 1954. One year later she took up a position as a scientific research assistant for the CSIR. In 1957 she married Abednego Ngcobo and in 1960 went back to teaching in Durban. Lauretta always enjoyed writing and wrote a number of articles and books which she discarded or burned mainly because of an assumption that nobody would be interested in reading anything she had to say, ‘not the men’ and not the ‘white people’. She stated,
I don’t think I know why I write, I just know I must. I scribble a lot that I know will never be read by anyone, for since I was a little girl by conditioning, I never expected anyone to read anything that I wrote, outside my classroom assignments. I feel the need to communicate with myself. It is a duty to myself. Yet, by its very nature, writing is an outgoing channel of communication, no matter how private.9
She saw the Bantu Education Act of 1953 as the greatest limitation on Black writing in South Africa. ‘Cut off from the mainstream of world literature ‘which could otherwise act as a model and an inspiration. I have shared these limitations with all Black South Africans whether male or female.’10
Lauretta’s husband was imprisoned in 1960 for his political activities in the PAC and the Sharpeville uprising. In 1963 she was forced to leave South Africa.
I learned that there was a plan to have me arrested. It was the month of May. I had to escape and leave my two children with my mother. I decided to leave at once: the next day, at five in the morning, the police burst into my house to get me. I made it by the skin of my teeth.11
She spent the first six years of her exile in Swaziland and Zambia where she worked as a teacher. Her children were later able to join her in Swaziland. The family moved to England in 1969 and Lauretta began teaching in London at Tufnell Park Primary School. She then taught at Lark Hall Infant School where she became Deputy and then acting Head. She also began to write, spending ‘hours pinning my episodes together at the seams. I cannot think of a more time-consuming way to write . . . I had no time limit to my expression and no deadlines to meet.’ 12
In 1987, her novel, Cross of Gold, was published and suddenly time became very important. She was invited to talk and write essays on a wide range of subjects,
I had to read a lot more widely. This factual diet does little for my creativity – especially considering how limited time is between my teaching job, my ‘factual’ reading and speechifying and creativity. What I need as a writer, more than anything, is time.13
Cross of Gold is told from the perspective of a young, male activist, Mandla. The women characters are silent and isolated. The only active, strong woman, Sindisiwe, dies in the first chapter of the book. She is shot by the South African border police while trying to flee apartheid South Africa into Botswana. Reflecting on the many questions that came from women readers, Lauretta realised that although she was actively occupied with gender issues in her life, ‘it hadn’t occurred to me that the book was not about me, was not about Sindisiwe, it was about a man!’14 She felt that this was a product of her socialisation and began to think of her construction as a rural, black South African woman growing up with the migrant labour system and the absence of men. ‘I was brought up by women. They were strong, independent and silent . . . it was inescapable that I should turn out very much like them: fertile and rich from within but silent or barren from without.’15
Lauretta edited a collection of essays, stories and poems, Let It Be Told: Black Women Writers in Britain, published in 1987. The book aims to ’embody a largeness and a continuity’ extending beyond conventional race and gender stereotypes.16 She included a detailed introduction, an essay on her life and writing and an extract from Cross of Gold. In 1990, she published her second novel, And They Didn’t Die. Lauretta said,
I hadn’t written about women successfully, but at the same time I knew all about women. As I had shared so much of their pain, it could be that that was one of the reasons why I could write a different story in And They Didn’t Die.17
She presents active women characters and portrays the solidarity and strength that binds rural Black South African women. It is through the life of Jezile, a young rural woman, that we are made aware of women’s experiences under apartheid and the migrant labour system. Traditional Zulu power structures, especially that of the mother-in-law, and patriarchy are also problematised in what is a tragic yet tender tale of deep love, human strength and resilience. Her children’s story, Fiki Learns to Like Other People, published in 1993, is based in Southern Africa and aimed primarily at children learning English as a second language.
Lauretta taught Black Women’s Literature on a part-time basis in the Department of Extra-Mural Studies at the University of London. She lectured in Britain, the United States, Italy, Holland, Sweden, South Africa, Botswana and in Zimbabwe where she spoke on the problems of women in publishing at the International Book Fair. She published various essays under the name of Nomzamo. Her article, ‘Four Women Writers in Africa’, was published in South African Outlook in 1984. ‘Black African Women Writers’ was published in Cambridge Journal of Education in the same year. She wrote,
In our modern world, when women assert their right to self-determination and self-definition, it has become urgent for the African woman to write, to reverse the long-established opinions and beliefs that are prevalent today. It has become imperative for our schools to approach African women with enlightened curiosity. It is in the classrooms of our changing world that people must learn about the African women from the authentic voices of the African women themselves.18
In 1985 Kunapipi published ‘The African Woman Writer’, a speech given by Lauretta at the African Writers’ Conference in London in 1984, and an essay entitled ‘My Life and Writing’. ‘The Plight of Exiles’ appeared in African Concord and in 1990 ‘Black, Female, British and Free’ was published in For a Change. For many years Lauretta was president of ATCAL, the Association for the Teaching of Caribbean, African and Associated Asian Literatures. She said, ‘We sought to persuade the Department of Education and Science through the inspectorate, to introduce into the various syllabi some text books from these rich literature sources.’19 She was also a founding member of the African women’s organisation, Akina Mama Wa Afrika which produced the journal, African Woman.
Lauretta felt strongly that ‘African writing should draw more from the African traditions of oral culture. I have not done much myself in this way but I feel it ought to be the way my writing goes’.20 She would like to write fictional works based on the lives of some of Southern Africa’s women leaders and spiritualists. After thirty years in exile, she returned to South Africa. She worked in education, and served on the KwaZulu-Natal provincial legislature until 2008. It was in this year that she was awarded the Order of Ikhamanga by the South African government in recognition of her literary achievements. She edited an anthology of exiled South African women writers, Prodigal Daughters published in 2012. Lauretta Ngcobo died in Johannesburg on the 3rd November 2015. She is one of South Africa’s literary pioneers. A writer who fought tirelessly to give voice to her people, to Africans, to people of the African diaspora, to Black women. She specifically represented the experiences, resistance and power of Black, South African women.
Hamba Kahle Mme Lauretta Ngcobo
1 ‘My Life and My Writing’. Kunapipi, Special Double Issue Colonial and Post-Colonial Women’s Writing, 7, 2 &3, 1985, p.83 Lauretta Ngcobo has published two articles entitled ‘My Life and My Writing’. One published in Kunapipi and republished in A Double Colonization: Colonial and Post-Colonial Women’s Writing, eds. K. Petersen and A. Rutherford. Oxford: Dangaroo Press. 1986 and another published in Let It Be Told, ed. Lauretta Ngcobo, London: Virago. 1988. The two articles are different.
2 ibid p.84
4 Interview with Lauretta Ngcobo’ by Anissa Talahite, Journal of Gender Studies, 1,3 1992, p.317
5 ‘My Life and My Writing’, Kunapipi, p.85
6 Letter from Lauretta Ngcobo to Gaele Sobott, June, 1993
7 ‘My Life and Writing’, Kunapipi, p.85
9 ‘My Life and Writing’. Let It Be Told. ed. Lauretta Ngcobo. London:Virago, 1988, p.134
10 ibid. p.135
11 Interview with Lauretta Ngcobo by ltala Vivan, August, 1980, Between The Lines II. eds. Eva Hunter and Craig Mackenzie, Grahamstown: NELM, 1993, p.99
12 ‘My Life and Writing’, Let It Be Told, p.139
14 ‘Interview with Lauretta Ngcobo’ by Anissa Talahite, p.317
15 ibid. p.317
16 lntroduction to Let It Be Told, p.l
17 ‘Interview with Lauretta Ngcobo’ by Anissa Talahite, p.318
18 ‘Black African Women Writers’, Cambridge Journal of Education, 14, 3, 1984, p.17
19 Letter, June 1993
Cross of Gold, London: Longman, 1981
Let it Be Told: Black Women Writers in Britain, ed. Lauretta Ngcobo, London: Pluto, 1987
And They Didn’t Die, London:Virago, 1990; Johannesburg: Skotaville, 1991; New York:
George Braziller Publishers, 1991
Fiki Learns to Like Other People, London: Macmillan, 1993
Prodigal Daughters, University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2012
‘Four Women Writers in Africa’, South African Outlook, May, 1984, p.16
‘Black African Women Writers’, Cambridge Journal of Education, 14,3 1984, p.17
‘The Plight of Exiles’, African Concord, May, 1987, p.32
‘The African Woman Writer’ and ‘My Life and Writing’, Kunapipi, Special Double Issue
Colonial and Post-Colonial Women’s Writing, 7, 2 & 3 1985 pp.83-86; A Double Colonization: Colonial and Post-Colonial Women’s Writing, eds. Petersen & Rutherford, Oxford: Dangaroo, 1986
‘Impressions and Thoughts on the Options of South African Women’, Kunapipi, Double Issue New Art and Literature From South Africa, 13, 1&2 1991, pp.165-169
Introduction to Like A House On Fire: Contemporary Women’s Writing, Art and Photography, Johannesburg: COSAW, 1994
This is an edited version of an entry written in 1994 for Wozanazo : A Bio-bibliographical Survey of Twentieth-Century Black South African Women Writers (University of Hull)
In Memory of Lauretta Ngcobo by Gaele Sobott is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.