The heroic struggles of black women

Jameson Gilbert Coka (1910–1960s?) was a journalist whose columns in the mid-1930s introduced an African American audience to the plight of black South Africans. Born on a white farm near Vryheid in KwaZulu-Natal, his father was a sharecropper who moved his family into Vryheid when the white farmer demanded the labour of one of his sons. An avid reader of books and newspapers, Jameson was so inspired by the message of uplift of the African American educator Booker T. Washington that he decided to ‘be instrumental in uplifting Africans to a position they formerly occupied during the heyday of Egypt, Ethiopia, Timbuctoo and Prester John’ (Coka, 1936a). Showing exceptional promise as a student, he was awarded a bursary to attend one of the premier African schools, Amanzimtoti Institute (Adams College), where he received a junior certificate. After returning as a teacher to Vryheid, he was drawn into the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (ICU) in 1927, which, with a membership of around 100,000, was then the largest black organisation in South Africa and was mobilising black workers all over the country. He attended local and national meetings and eventually became its assistant district secretary for the East Rand. However, within a few years, the ICU went into a steep decline because of leadership rivalries and the administrative misuse of funds, and Coka found different work as an interpreter-clerk at Grey’s Hospital in Durban. Coka’s ICU experience seasoned him politically for his initial ventures into journalism in the late 1920s. He contributed columns to the ICU newspaper The Workers’ Herald and to Abantu-Batho’s successor, Ikwezi le Afrika, run by Pixley Seme, a lawyer and African National Congress (ANC) leader. Coka began selling issues of Ikwezi on the streets of Johannesburg, but after reporting on a conference of the Natal ANC, he was promoted to overseeing other newsagents for the paper and reporting on Transvaal news. He found it ‘adventuresome to go from town to town in the Reef canvassing for the support of a newspaper. I learnt that, all things equal, the contents of a journal are its decisive factor’ (Coka, 1936a). Once Ikwezi folded after a few years, Coka struggled to find outlets for his pieces. He ‘bombarded several newspapers’ with articles and endured a stream of rejection slips. But then the Sunday Times began printing his submissions. That brought in some income, but not, as Coka noted, at the same rate as a white journalist earned. ‘No African receives the usual journalistic rates. He is paid “as a native”. The white press was almost inaccessible to an African writer unless he happened to share anti-Africanism. It would rather publish third-rate stuff from white contributors than from Africans’ (Coka, 1936a). Coka was candid about the barriers he faced as a black journalist. ‘To be a free-lance journalist in South Africa is no joke, especially when one has woolly hair. He gets no access to newspaper files, public archives, museums and public libraries’ (Coka, 1936a).

After joining the Communist Party, he wrote for its newspaper, the South African Worker, for a while, but he was expelled from the Party as a ‘reformist’ during its fierce internal ideological battles in the mid-1930s. Living in Western Native Township, he then established his own newspaper, the African Liberator, which featured a Pan-African tone and ran regular features on the Italian invasion of Ethiopia that had a special appeal to an African readership. Although he admitted that his newspaper was ‘leading a dog and cat existence’, he expressed hope ‘that in time it will stand on its legs’ (Coka, 1936a). However, his newspaper lasted but one year. Since his exposure to Marcus Garvey’s Pan-African ideas as a youngster, Coka had expressed an interested in establishing international ties ‘among Negroes all the world over’. He found an avenue for accomplishing this through Claude Barnett’s Associated Negro Press (ANP), a Chicago-based news service begun in 1919 that serviced African American newspapers several times a week with news features and columns (Coka, 1936b). Barnett wrote Coka: ‘We will be glad to have you … discussing those situations regarding our brethren in South Africa which you think should be known by the Negroes of America’ (Barnett, 1936). In 1934 and 1936 Coka contributed 16 columns on such varied topics as black South African urban life, the African press, white missionaries and black churches, an African dramatic society and the disenfranchisement of African politically. Given their own struggles with Jim Crow America, African American readers readily identified with the oppression black South Africans were experiencing with white supremacy. Coka’s ‘How African women make a living’ was one of several of his columns that focused on the challenges African women faced living in the Witwatersrand. Since the First World War, African women had been streaming from black reserves into the urban areas despite government policy that did not accept Africans as permanent urban residents (Wells, 1993). They often came alone because their husbands had abandoned them when they migrated to the urban areas and started second families. Coka captured the vulnerability of these women whose employment opportunities were severely constricted. They became mainstays in white homes as domestic servants replacing African men who were moving into industry. Living in rooms in the back yards of white homes or spending long hours going back and forth to their own homes in the townships, domestic servants were exploited and were very vulnerable to the sexual advances of men – both their white male employers and young and old African men. African women also earned extra money money by washing and ironing clothes for whites, hawking food, and illegally home brewing beer. For many African women beer brewing was an independent but risky source of income since white municipal officials, aiming to gain a monopoly over beer to generate revenue to pay for white administration in the locations, unleashed the police with their pick-up vans to arrest women brewers.


Coka, Gilbert. 1936a. ‘The story of Gilbert Coka, of the Zulu tribe of South Africa’, in Margery Perham (ed), Ten Africans: A Collection of Life Stories. London: Faber. Coka, Gilbert. 1936b. ‘Letter to Claude Barnett, 1 February 1936.’ Claude Barnett Papers, Chicago Historical Society, Chicago. Horne, Gerald. 2017. Rise and Fall of the Associated Negro Press: Claude Barnett’s Pan African News and the Jim Crow Paradox. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. Well, Julia. 1993. We Now Demand! The History of Women’s Resistance to Pass Laws in South Africa. Johannesburg: Wits University Press.

How African Women Make Their Living
Jameson Coka, Capitol Plaindealer (Topeka, Kansas), 22 November 1936

It is easy for African women to get into employment. It is hard for them to get a living wage. The difficulties of making a living wage are so great that maternal love overcomes repugnance to work inadequately paid so that the mother may at least have a few cents for her off-spring. And the field of Negro women is restricted. Women usually get into domestic service for Europeans where they are employed in various capacities – house-wives, childnurses, and cooking. This is fairly easy because every European, no matter how poor, requires a black servant. There is so much poverty among Negroes, that they take any crumbs which fall from the masters’ table. Women are compelled to increase the family income by going out to work. Husbands do not earn sufficiently to keep families. Fathers neglect the education of their children through poverty and sometimes owing to a hope that when they go to work at an early age and bring home some money they are better assets than when after college training they are thrown into the streets.

Women employed in domestic service sometimes live in their employer’s premises. These are often at the back yard in close proximity to lavatories. They are not encouraged to have visitors. Sometimes even husbands are prohibited from seeing their wives. Morally this is bad, for it leads them into all sorts of temptations. Single girls living in that way are constantly exposed to the ravishes of unprincipled young and old men who are slaves to their beastly lusts. Brought up with no principles, pursuing no high ideals, they become moral wrecks. They get into the habit of illicit cohabitation with men. In many instances degraded and lascivious Europeans molest them and at times mislead the gullible. Living in employers’ premises exposes our women to sundry evils. It is martyrdom for those who live in segregated ghettoes to arrive and leave their working places in time. First they travel long distances by bus, tram or train if fares are available. If not, they have to walk. In any case stations and tram and bus termini are often far from their working places. They dissipate energy in walking to their destinations. They have to start work at 4am. Engaged in all the multifarious household drudgeries they have half an hour for breakfast and one hour for rest. They are obliged to work until 8pm. And after that they have to return to their homes. Thus they have little time to attend to their families. Their young children are often left to the care of others hardly older. Girls often dislike to return to their homes. Fatigued and weary – hard worked and with little opportunity of recreation they become narrow in outlook, cramped in development, sensual in self-expression and thus become easy victims. They have neither regular working hours nor a standard wage. They accept what employers are prepared to give. They have no conception of organisation and are victimised and exploited to their master’s satisfaction without let or hindrance. The average wage of a domestic servant is $6 per month. Washing and ironing for Europeans provide many Negroes with livelihoods. Every hour of the day they are seen with huge bundles of dirty linen from town and as often with big bundles of clean and ironed clothes. Women of all ages, young girls hardly in their teens and old matrons all carry the eternal washing. Europeans find it cheaper to have it thus done than to send it to laundries.