Written by Siliziwe Mapalala
With it being Womxn’s Month, it only made sense that the topic for this month is resilience. Let me tell you a little secret about me, the word ‘resilience’ is a trigger word for me.
I come from a toxic work environment where to succeed I perpetuated the ‘strong black womxn’ trope. One may ask, “What is wrong with being a ‘strong black womxn?” At face value, nothing at all. But looking at this trope through the lens of our history, you realise that it places an unnecessary burden on womxn of colour to behave in a particular way, and if we deviate from the trope we are vilified. I was expected to work harder and not complain. I ensured that I contributed extra (termed as value add) to promote the business as though it were my own. I assimilated to the corporate colour which in South Africa is very white, and all the while never show emotion (except for enthusiasm) lest I be painted as unstable.
Everything I have described was deemed as me showing resilience. If I stepped out of line, called out unfair treatment or highlighted that the spaces I occupied were not safe for people of colour – these actions would be policed as misconduct. My character would be painted as weak, troublesome, and not having the resilience to make it in a high-performance environment.
It is this environment that has warped my perspective on what resilience is, so this is a good time as any to do some reflection on the word and hopefully dismantle some of the trauma I associate with it. So let us define what resilience means, how South Africans have demonstrated this quality, and proceed to rebrand what the word means to us.
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, one meaning of resilience is the ability of a substance to return to its usual shape after being bent, stretched, or pressed. The Merriam-Webster defines resilience as an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune and change. The approximately 20 000 womxn who marched to the Union Buildings on 9th August 1956 can be said to have demonstrated resilience. Black (all who were not seen as white in Apartheid South Africa) womxn already faced the adversity in the regime, and they were facing amendments to the Urban Areas Act which would affect stricter rules around the carrying of passes. They chose to speak out in a non-violent manner, marching to the Union Buildings with a signed petition, and protesting silently before singing out ‘Wathint’Abafazi Wathint’imbokodo.’
To have resilience is not to remain in toxic environments, nor keeping silent in the face of abuse. It is not being ‘a strong black womxn’ and accepting oppression. It is the exact opposite; it is being brave enough to leave a toxic environment even when you are not sure how the cards may be dealt. It is speaking up against mistreatment of the self and others, and it is remodelling what strength is by looking at the 20 000 womxn who marched on 9th August 1956 fighting against oppression and not accepting it.
As mentioned above, resilience is the ability of a substance to return to its usual shape after being bent, stretched, or pressed. On 9th August, womxn chanted ‘you strike a womxn, you strike a rock’, and a rock does not lose its shape even when it is struck. This is the resilience I wish to uphold. Happy Womxn’s month, let us honour the womxn by being the champions in our lives and in the lives of those around us.