This article was written by Carly Spagnola and forms part of the SAHO and Southern Methodist University partnership project

Since the beginning of the struggle of apartheid in 1948, women were at the forefront of resisting the government and fighting their actions. Over the next four decades, women continued to fight for their rights not just against the restrictions of apartheid but also for their rights as women. SPEAK magazine was started in 1982 as a platform for women to voice their opinions and concerns about the future of women’s rights in South Africa. The magazine brought together women from different communities facing the same issues to realize that they were not alone. In a letter written to the editors of SPEAK, a woman from the Philippines says that the magazine shares ‘the real life stories of so-called ‘ordinary’ women. As their stories get printed and known, one realizes that they are not ordinary at all’ (SPEAK 51). Because of the community that the magazine provided, women were able to share their personal and political lives with women that they knew were behind their cause and their demands. Throughout the years of apartheid, SPEAK magazine allowed women all over the South Africa to organise and fight against oppression in personal lives, the workplace, and in politics.

In 1982 women’s rights activists were scattered around the nation independently fighting for their rights without the support of the women around the country. Activists and founders of SPEAK magazine, Sandy Africa, Monica Algulhas, Sheila Jalobe, Gugu Mji, Pregs Govender, Vanessa Taylor, Karen Hurt, Shamim Meer and Jane Quinn, realized that what women needed in order to demand a change was support from those who were fighting for the same rights around the country. With the legalization of trade unions the 1980s, women realised that in order to create change there must be a motivated and passionate force behind the movement. The founders of SPEAK magazine saw the opportunity to allow women to freely speak about women oppression in health, work and politics. Both men and women read the magazine and were able to write to the editors with any questions or comments about articles as well as health questions. As women’s rights organisations grew, so did the magazine. By the 1990s they were openly taking sides on political issues and discussing the future of women’s rights in the country. SPEAK’s influence grew as it began to send subscriptions to individuals who were not a part of the organisations they were sending the magazine to originally. When SPEAK’s last issue was published in 1994, the magazine had made its way to races and genders around the country.

SPEAK’s ability to reach women who lacked the sex education that they rightfully deserved set the magazine apart from anything published during it’s time. In order to fight the absence of sex education for women around the nation, SPEAK was incredibly vocal about understanding menstrual cycles, pregnancy prevention and even abortion laws.SPEAK knew that many women had questions about these issues and felt it was their job to answer these questions through education and open conversation. In the June 1988 issue, SPEAK defines what a period is and why each menstrual cycle is different. Not only do they underline the ways in which a period can change from month to month, but they also ‘share the ways in which women said they cope with their period pains’ (SPEAK 8). In the same issue, they outlined and charted the different kinds of contraceptives that women had access to during that time. The magazine opened the door for SPEAK readers to better understand their own bodies and safer practices. The magazine also gave women confidence to demand ‘safer forms of contraception for women’ (SPEAK 8). Men who read the magazine occasionally responded to articles saying that they were inappropriate, but SPEAK stood by their decision to talk about women’s issues and respectively told these men that they would continue to educate. By 1990, SPEAK had published multiple articles that gave a detailed description of birth control and how it prevents pregnancy as well as other more progressive ways to avoid pregnancy (SPEAK 33). Because SPEAK was able to successfully ride the line of appropriate material, the writers realized they could use their earned reputation to revolutionize the South Africa’s new constitution.

Because of SPEAK’s credible reputation and fearless progressive thinking, abortion, one of the most controversial topics worldwide, was covered extensively. The issues of pregnancy and abortion were already heated debates around the globe, but they were especially important for South African women because in 1993 the new constitution was in the process of being created. Due to their ability to educate so many women, the writers at SPEAK felt that the magazine should be used to create political support for abortion rights. SPEAK wrote an article highlighting both sides of the pro-choice and anti-abortion groups to make sure that women received all the information necessary to make an informed decision about their stance on abortion laws. The platform that many anti-abortion groups used at the time was that those who are pro-abortion are trying to reduce the black population and that ‘the average black woman is not interested in killing her baby’ (SPEAK 51). In the article, SPEAK openly disagrees with the reasoning behind the anti-abortion groups in South Africa saying that the ‘argument makes no sense in the light of the huge number of illegal abortions that women in this country obtain every year’ (SPEAK 51). According to statistics, there were approximately two hundred thousand illegal abortions taking place in South Africa each year. SPEAK politically took a side on the topic of abortion demanding that ‘women must campaign to make sure it is the wishes of women that count when laws on abortion are made’ (SPEAK 51). SPEAK’s mission was to empower women to demand change in their lives; by educating women on issues such as pregnancy, prevention and abortion, they were able to give them the tools, information and confidence in order to do so.

Because of the lack of support and confidence that women needed to vocalize the problem of rape and sexual assault, SPEAK made it an issue to talk about in almost every issue. Because of SPEAK’s ability to reach such a large group of people, the writers knew they could bring about change in the way both women and men thought about rape. In February 1990 the magazine covered the Soweto march against rape. One of the organisers of the march said they put it together because ‘one day in church at a prayer, one woman stood up and prayed for her granddaughter who had been raped. Another woman stood up and prayed for someone she knew who had been raped. Then another, and another, and another. Then we realized that this was an issue we had to take up. These rapes must stop’ (SPEAK 29). This march against rape had gained much popularity because it was one of the first protests against rape in the country. During the march, women vocalized that ‘violence against women is linked to the struggle for liberation from racism, oppression and exploitation in this country”¦ It has become a weapon of those who have power and those who do not have it. The liberation of women is fundamental to the liberation of all oppressed in South Africa’ (SPEAK 29). Rape and sexual assault is an issue that SPEAK did not take lightly. Personal stories magnified just how important it was to ‘Break the Silence’ and take a stand against the casualty that came with rape cases in South Africa (SPEAK 55). In order to allow women to find a way out of abusive relationships and unsafe situations, SPEAK highlighted organisations such as Women Against Women Abuse (WAWA) as well as hotlines that a reader could call if she feels that she is in a harmful situation. The magazine gave women hope that they can change their circumstances and that there are people around them that will support their decision to leave. SPEAK was not only trying to reach adults but also young girls. Culturally sexual assault had been a topic that was not talked about in households, yet it was happening in so many. By bringing light to this issue, SPEAK was able to give the confidence that both mothers and daughters needed to stand up for themselves in these horrific situations.

In order for women to understand that other women were in the same situation and that were ways out, SPEAK vocalized the issues of not only sexual abuse but also physical abuse. In an interview done with an abuse victim and an organisation called People Opposed to Women Abuse (POWA) in 1988, the writers of the magazine ‘felt angry because this beating of women is hidden away. It is a hidden crime. [They] felt angry because it is an accepted crime’ (SPEAK 19). The SPEAK team asked themselves: ‘Isn’t it time that women broke the silence about this crime?’ (SPEAK 19). SPEAK decided to ask the community what their stance was on domestic abuse and what they found was that many women consider violence, although wrong, simply a part of life. In an interview during the investigation a woman said, ‘this is normal in our lives. People think there is something wrong with women rather than with the husband. That is why most of us stand it’ (SPEAK 20). The article sensitively conveyed the common perception that abused women were to blame. Over the next six years, the magazine made it increasingly clear that they would advocate for women to get out of abusive relationships and get the help they need to start a new and healthier life. SPEAK, along with many women in the country, knew that they could not stand for domestic abuse any longer. In one of the last issues of the magazine published in 1994, abuse was still a major topic for the writers of SPEAK. In an interview that SPEAK did with the founder of Agisanang Domestic Abuse Prevention and Training (ADAPT), Mmatshilo Motsei said that traditionally men and priests have used scripture to validate violence but ‘those priests do not mention that in the same chapter they quote, there is a request for men to respect and love women as they would love their own bodies’ (SPEAK 55). Tradition and religion has played a major role in allowing violence to continue in homes and SPEAK makes it clear that the women of South Africa are demanding a change. Throughout the magazine’s many issues, SPEAK continued to demand that women organise around the issue and make demands for change.

Women and labour had been an issue in South Africa long before the start of SPEAK magazine. Since the development of trade unions, women had been struggling to have a say anything that went on in the trade unions. Their voices were neglected and they were expected to wait on the men rather than participate in the union meetings. In 1983 at a Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU) workshop, a conference organiser, Grace Monumadi ‘called for a woman’s group within FOSATU as a place where women worker’s and organisers can gain more confidence’ (Meer, pg. 41). Because of its reach, SPEAK had the ability to advocate for participation in these women’s groups. In the third issue of SPEAK, the writers interviewed women working at Carnation Foods and their experiences with the trade unions. As the women became more involved in the unions as well as public service work they ‘won higher wages and better overtime rates for all workers, ten public holidays a year, and five months of maternity leave’ (SPEAK 13). Because women were becoming more confident about their ability to demand change, they were able to improve their circumstances. In 1984 SPEAK interviewed the Commercial Catering and Allied Worker’s Union (CCAWUSA), one of the most progressive trade unions of the time where women were given up to ‘twelve months of maternity leave and [were] assured of a job on the same salary scale when they come back’. Because of increasing leadership of women within the union, they were able to demand change in their circumstances. The magazine highlighted that the women shop stewards made sure that workers did not ‘have choose between a baby and your job’ (SPEAK 6). It was clear throughout the article that if women had not fought for their right to maternity leave, the subject would be dropped off the agenda and forgotten. Because SPEAK was illuminating the work that women were doing in order to create change, women were becoming more involved in decision making processes and demands were being met around the nation.

Maternity leave was not the only issue that women were fighting for; demanding better wages and working conditions was a constant struggle for women in the unions and in domestic work. In 1985, SPEAK interviewed the street-sweepers in KwaMashu. These women had been working in terrible conditions with low wages for years and had decided they needed a change. One woman described the inequalities between men and women on the job by saying that when men were in this job ‘they were paid R200 a month. Women started at R43 a month- and now it is only women who sweep the streets’ (SPEAK 9). These women demanded higher wages because they were receiving almost one fourth of the pay that men received when they were working the job. Not only was the pay horrible, but when women started to take on the role of street sweepers, they were told ‘the job was for one to two hours”¦ But the job [was] from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., five days a week’ (SPEAK 9). SPEAK highlighted these statistics to show that women’s rights were being robbed from them without any concern from union leaders. In order to make a change, these women ‘decided to go to the union. Others were afraid. After we went to the union it wrote to Port Natal and wages were put up for the first time”¦ When the other women saw those who went to the union still had their jobs they were no longer afraid’ (SPEAK 9). In the interview, the women illustrate how South African women can fight oppression in their profession and create change without the help of a man. SPEAK was a revolutionary tool for union workers to come together around the country and demand change.

SPEAK not only focused on union workers but also domestic workers who were in desperate need of better work conditions. In an article titled ‘Domestic Work is Slavery’ SPEAK talked to two women who had been working as a domestic workers for fifty years. One of the women, Elsie Mbatha said that there is ‘no rest, day and night. At night you must come sit in with their children and you get no pay for this’ and if you are a part-time worker, ‘you come in once or twice a week and you have to do the whole month’s job in a short time”¦ Instead of sitting down to eat your lunch you’re rushing to finish this job’ (SPEAK 10). The magazine illustrated how black South African women were being exploited in the workplace and that this was unacceptable. By sharing real stories about women working in these conditions, other around the nation came together to fight the issue as well. SPEAK was bringing together women from all different backgrounds through a common goal: a demand for women’s rights.

In the book, Women Speak: Reflections on our Struggles, founding SPEAK member, Shamim Meer writes about the motivation the nine women had to create a magazine that would bring women together to make change in their communities and the nation. By demanding improvement in both their personal and professional lives, they were sparking an activism that could not be ignored both in their own homes and politically. Meer says that through promoting activism, ‘we attempted to link local community struggles with the struggle against the apartheid state’ (Meer 13). As the magazine continued to grow so did their ability to link those two struggles together. The nation’s unrest with apartheid and women’s rights went hand in hand. By the 1990s, ‘almost every political organization resisting apartheid had a women’s wing””a women’s organization which was separate but at the same time part of the organisation’ (Meer 119). SPEAK frequently focused on organisations such as the Natal Organization of Women (NOW), United Women’s Congress (UWC), the ANC women’s league (ANCWL) and the Federation of Transvaal Women (FEDTW) in order to educate women on what feminist activists were doing around the nation. In 1984, SPEAK interviewed the newly created NOW asking them what they wished to accomplish through the organization. The women said that NOW ‘aims to work toward the removal of all laws and customs that act against women. Immediately NOW aims to organise women around issues that affect their daily lives’ (SPEAK 7). In 1987, SPEAK covered the launch of the UDF Women’s Congress which was created in order to ‘teach men and women in the UDF about women’s oppression, increase women’s skills and confidence in their organization, do away will all forms of discrimination based on sex [and] talk about women’s problems in all UDF meeting and organisations’ (SPEAK 15). As the magazine spread the word about these new organisations taking a stand against sexism in politics, women gained the confidence to fight for what they believed in. In 1990, SPEAK magazine covered the Malibongwe Conference which was the first conference to bring together women from all over the world to fight for equal rights. Leaders in women’s organisations around the country were able to come together with women in exile to speak about the oppression of women in South Africa. Women came together ‘to make sure that women’s issues [were] taken seriously and that women’s freedom [was] a part of the struggle for national liberation’ (SPEAK 27). As the struggle for women’s representation in politics progressed, so did political parties. In 1991, the ANCWL was unbanned in 450 of the 655 branches of the ANC. SPEAK interviewed the secretary general of the Woman’s League who felt that the role of the league was to ‘put pressure on the national leadership to make sure that the new constitution ensures the emancipation of women. This is where the ANC Women’s League campaign for a charter for women’s rights comes in’ (SPEAK 36). From 1990 to 1994, SPEAK magazine advertised to women the organisations that were coming together to move politics toward gender equality in all aspects of a woman’s life. In doing this, conversation sparked over the way that women should enter politics.

When Mandela was released from prison in 1990, women were just beginning their climb up the ladder of political control. Apartheid was over, yet the fight for women’s rights was not. As a female member of the new parliament put it in an interview with SPEAK, ‘now as never before women must work together to maintain the gains made in the fight for equal rights”¦ Women have to make sure the laws work for them on a day-to-day basis. Women must be encouraged to claim their rightful place in society’ (SPEAK 62). As the new constitution was being formed, women were fighting to have a say in what went into it. Women needed to make sure that political parties in the new South Africa were going to implement the Women’s Charter into their proposed constitutions. The problem with this plan was that organisations around the nation came from all different socio-economic, political and racial organisations . Coming together for a common goal was a lot easier said than done. Within the women’s rights community, there was controversy over whether or not organisations should turn to politics in order to make change in their communities. Because the women who were elected into parliament were tied to their party’s beliefs, activists did not know if anything would actually change through political jurisdiction (SPEAK 67). In the last issue published by SPEAK, the writers outlined the arguments for both sides of the issue. Debbie Bonnin, a sociologist and editor of a women and gender journal believed that women ‘should form a national independent movement which will put the interests of women first, as opposed to the interests of political parties, churches, unions or civics’ (SPEAK 67). Because there are so many topics that need to be addressed in parliament, some activists were worried that topics like abortion, violence and domestic rights would be pushed aside. Others argued, ‘political parties can raise the issues in parliament. Women need a platform where it will be easy for them to raise their issues’ (SPEAK 67). One of the biggest arguments against organizing outside of parliament was that ‘women are divided by race, class, urban and rural experience, religion, language, culture. These differences could limit what an independent women’s movement can achieve’ (SPEAK 67). In the article, defenders of the independent women’s organization claimed that with the issue of divisions will not be a problem because ‘the movement will be looking at the problems of all women’ (SPEAK 67). SPEAK highlighted both sides of the argument in a way that would spark conversation and create movement within the community.

SPEAK’sability to reach an audience that was desperate for change is something in itself. The spread of women receiving the magazine went from a group of small women’s organisations to rural communities and even to men who were genuinely interested in the demands that women were making in the male dominated society. Because the magazine shared stories from all over South Africa, women were able to see that their problems were not just few and far between; these issues were happening everywhere no matter the race, color or economic status of the individual. SPEAK’s influence over the organisation of women’s movements showed just how much women were capable of. Because SPEAK was published during the writing of country’s recreation of the constitution, the magazine highlighted that gender is not only a social issue but it was a political one. The only way to spark a lasting change in women’s rights is to intertwine the issue with political reform SPEAK magazine gave women of South Africa the confidence to make a change and demand a women’s rights revolution in their society and in their new constitution.


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SPEAK Collective. (May 1988) “Our Men Must Stop Beating Us” SPEAK 19. Available at [Accessed December 2nd, 2014].| SPEAK Collective. (August 1988) “Breaking the Silence” SPEAK 20. Available at [Accessed December 2nd, 2014].| SPEAK Collective. (1990) “Malibongwe Conference- South African Women Unite For a Non Sexist Post Apartheid South Africa” SPEAK 27. Available at [Accessed December 2nd, 2014].| SPEAK Collective. (1990). “No to Rape- Soweto Women March Against Rape” SPEAK 29. Available at [Accessed December 2nd, 2014].| SPEAK Collective. (1991) “A Long and Difficult Road- Building the ANC Women’s League” SPEAK 33. Available at [Accessed December 2nd, 2014].| SPEAK Collective. “We’ve Got the Future Looking At Us” SPEAK 36. Available at [Accessed December 2nd, 2014].| SPEAK Collective. (July 1993) “Abortion: A Woman’s Choice” SPEAK 51. Available at [Accessed December 2nd, 2014].| SPEAK Collective. (July 1994) “Women Fight On” Nozizwe Madlala SPEAK 62. Available at [Accessed December 2nd, 2014].| Telela, Rosalee. “Alone in their Silence- Not Any More” SPEAK 55. Available at [Accessed December 2nd, 2014].| Telela, Rosalee. (December 1994). January 1995)“Should the Sisters do it for Themselves?” SPEAK 67. Available at [Accessed December 2nd, 2014].| Tunney, E., (2013). “Realizing Women’s Human Rights in South Africa” Available at [Accessed October 30, 2014].

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