Connie Manse Ngcaba’s book, the story of her life titled May I Have This Dance, is a stirring and inspirational read. This book demonstrates again the contribution by many ordinary people to the overthrow of the apartheid regime. By ‘ordinary’ I mean those who aren’t recognisable as the big names of the struggle or the transition and people who have not occupied top posts in the ANC and other liberation movements.
May I Have This Dance describes facets of life in the Eastern Cape under apartheid. The book remains compelling because Connie’s telling is granular and particular. In that tough social milieu, Connie plugged away at her desired career in nursing and at her ambitions to have a family. Along the way she endured many obstacles and not a few setbacks. Her life as a child was hard. After her father died, she was sent as a young girl to stay with an aunt, Mamkhulu. Life there was rule-driven, and the children toiled to help the aunt run the many activities on her smallholding. Children had to fetch water, gather eggs, take the sheep out for grazing, milk cows, pound maize and help with kitchen work.
For Connie, the crunch — in terms of pricks of awareness — came when she entered nursing studies and the profession. It was a rough ride without a safety belt. She encountered racism by members of the white management team; she also encountered systemic discrimination in the differential treatment of white and black patients and the subjugation of black nurses. She became outspoken, which triggered further unjust treatment against her. He outspokenness was born out of a natural sense of what was right and what was wrong.
A strong thread through the book is the love story of Connie and Sol. He, the handsome dancing instructor that caught that attention of many other nurses, deepened her political understanding — only for Connie to later become the more active, outspoken and persecuted of the pair. Her sons also become active and suffered detention without trial during one of the bitter states of emergency in the eighties. The book relates how one of her sons, Andile, crossed the border to join MK; he later returned to become director-general of the Department of Communications in the democratic government.
Connie comes across as a stoic and austere person. In pursuit of her goals (being successful at community work, nursing and building the family unit), there was hardly a time in her adult life when she wasn’t hardworking and focused. In this regard, she remained true to the values she learned at an early age from Mamkhulu’s farm. Despite her rugged determination and intimidating seriousness, she did take pleasure in dancing, time with family and making friends.
People like Connie carried the struggle forward through small acts of organizing and resistance. The cumulative effect of such actions taken by hundreds of thousands of people made apartheid unworkable and contributed in no small way to the downfall of the Botha and de Klerk regimes. At the same time, most of these grassroots stalwarts remain unsung, their stories present within but largely submerged beneath, the broad narrative. In particular, the voices of women are insufficiently heard and their actions in fighting apartheid inadequately acknowledged. I trust many will read Connie’s book and, of those, a good number of people would be inspired to write their own stories (autobiography, testimony or even just the snippets that form part of ‘life-writing’) of survival, activism and organizing for justice in South Africa.