Today is National Women’s Day in South Africa.  It marks the day in 1956 when 20,000 women from across the colour bar descended on the Union Buildings in Pretoria. They marched in opposition to the dreaded apartheid pass laws.

For me the day has deep personal significance.  It was the day that one of my dearest friends, Feroza Adam, died from a car accident in 1994 just before her 33rd birthday.

An improbable friendship

To the casual observer, we had a highly improbable friendship.

In January 1989 when I emigrated from America to South Africa, it was an international pariah. Back then I didn’t begin to understand South Africa’s complex layers.  I believed that I could best learn about South Africa from the perspectives of its women.  From the get-go I met with women’s groups around the country – from the resistance organisation the Black Sash and the political ANC Women’s League who were fighting for freedom and democracy; to conservative Afrikaans women’s organisations dedicated to preserving the status quo.  And many which were somewhere in between, but all were concerned with women’s issues.  At a meeting of wealthy English speaking farmers’ wives in Nelspruit I was served tea with pink cotton napkins by a black waiter who wore white gloves. In Soweto I met with churchwomen who served tea in a chipped tin cup.

It was in this context that I was invited to attend South Africa’s first women’s conference that brought together women from right across the political spectrum in the then so-called independent homeland of Bophuthatswana. Sponsored by IDASA (Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa) and held at a hotel outside of Mafeking, this conference would have been illegal in South Africa as the state of emergency was in full force.

We were assigned roommates.  Mine was a large and fierce Xhosa activist from the Eastern Cape who told me that she hated Americans, although I was the first one that she’d actually met.  I couldn’t blame her, really.  Consecutive American administrations had supported successive apartheid governments. I apologised.

The 200 delegates were divided into groups with a facilitator who carried a box of tissues. Each woman told her story. One was an Afrikaans mother whose son, a member of the security force, had been killed in a township; another was a Zulu woman whose son had been killed by the security forces while in detention; one was a posh red-headed English-South African who headed a businesswomen’s association; another was a leader in the trade union movement for domestic women.

And then there was Feroza. She started by saying she’d been hiding in a white woman’s house from the security police for the past five months.  She told how she had grown up in the Indian township of Lenasia, became an activist as a student, trained as a teacher, and had joined FEDSAW, the Federation of South African Women.  I remember being transfixed as she told about her days in jail, being beaten by the security police, and her fear of dogs. More than once she had been attacked by police dogs and had the scars to prove it. The ANC had sent her to Moscow during the winter for training.  She had secretly gone to Lusaka to meet with the ANC leadership in exile. Feroza was engaging, brave, passionate and loud.  She had unruly long black wavy hair, wore dangling earrings and smoked Camel filters when no one was looking.

I told my story of growing up in suburban California, of Gloria Steinem (whom they had never heard of) being my role model, travelling on my own around the world and emigrating to South Africa. Surely they wondered where the organisers found me. My life seemed unconnected and purposeless in comparison. I wondered what I stood for.  I felt ashamed.

We used those tissues that weekend.  It was an extraordinary once-in-a-lifetime experience for us all. We said our good-byes. This conference changed my life. It was my own personal rubicon.

The ANC is unbanned

In February 1990 the ANC was unbanned. Nelson Mandela was released from prison. I was there when he made his first speech from Cape Town’s City Hall. Later that year I moved from leafy Cape Town to energetic Johannesburg.  One afternoon I walked into a meeting about the formation of a national women’s coalition. There was no mistaking that infectious laugh. It was Feroza. We hugged. Despite being a brilliant activist and freedom fighter, she didn’t drive, so after the meeting I took her home.  She claimed that she was always too busy to take driving lessons. That night in her flat we talked for hours. It was the first of many long conversations about feminism, political activism, the ANC, America and dating. We were both single. As a friend, she was a master’s class.

The winds of change were blowing at hurricane force in South Africa!  Feroza and I attended women’s conferences, rallies, and marches. If my learning curve had been any steeper, I’d have fallen over. We travelled around the country with me behind the wheel. I often played a Peter, Paul and Mferoza adamary cassette and specifically the song If I Had a Hammer, which annoyed her.  It sort of became our theme song.  Over the 1992 Christmas break, we drove to Cape Town for three weeks.  On New Years’ Eve we stopped by a party she’d been invited to and we met a man named Rory Stear and left.

By then I was an executive with a large banking group. Feroza, given her fierce intelligence coupled with her charismatic personality, was appointed to the ANC’s public relations department helping to shape its new public image under Ahmed Kathrada.   On a sunny Saturday afternoon in April 1993 she called me in tears to tell me that Chris Hani had been killed.  We spoke for two hours.  Was the country now going to slide into civil war as so many had predicted?  In April of 1994 she invited me to the ANC’s victory celebrations at the Carlton Hotel (above). Not unsurprisingly, I was the only one from the bank there. 

In June 1993, here we are at Nelson Mandela’s 75th birthday party. She gifted me not with just a place at the table next to him, but with a ringside seat to history.

The phone call

SCAN0073I’ll never forget being in my Johannesburg office on a Monday morning on 8 August 1994 and receiving a call that Feroza was in critical condition at Groote Schuur Hospital.  Now a member of Parliament, but still a learner driver, she had driven a rental car the wrong way onto a freeway exit.  I flew to Cape Town immediately, not knowing that it was to say good-bye.  She was unconscious and doctors discovered bleeding on her brain. As I walked out of her hospital room, Winnie Mandela was on her way in. She passed away that night.  The next morning I flew back to Johannesburg on the same plane as her coffin. According to Muslim rites, Feroza was buried that afternoon. It so happens that 9 August is National Women’s Day in South Africa.

On the night of 28 April 1995, a day before my wedding to Rory Stear, a dozen of my girlfriends sat around my dining room table.  We raised our glasses in a toast to Feroza, our absent friend.  I walked into the bedroom to get something and If I Had a Hammer came on the radio.  Trust me.  It’s not a song South African DJs commonly play.  I believed that it was Feroza’s way of letting me know she was with me.

During our all too brief time together, I learned more about the struggles of South African and African women than I ever could or would have otherwise. Most people at the time were cautiously suspicious of Americans, especially a woman on her own. I had the privilege of meeting countless self-effacing, incredible and courageous women of conviction because of her.  I had always considered myself a feminist, but I never understood the issues that poor women face.  Feroza helped give context and a deeper meaning to my life and helped shape what would eventually become my life’s work.

It wasn’t always an easy friendship, but it was one that I”ll forever treasure. I still miss her and feel a profound sadness when I think about her. I reckon that she would be happy to know that she be forever remembered on National Women’s Day.