Rita Edwards: an ordinary person; an extraordinary activist

by Jun 4, 2009All Articles

(25 March 1950 – 20 May 2009)

In a society dominated by materialism and where public figures are motivated by huge salary packages, Rita Edwards stood out as an exception.

She was a product of the anti-apartheid movement, a fighter and activist who dedicated her life to the struggle of the working class and rural poor. But she was not from the mainstream of the anti-apartheid movement. Her values and formative years were shaped by the philosophies of Steve Biko, Amilcar Cabral, Marx and Trotsky.
In the cantankerous atmosphere of Western Cape left politics, Rita located her views amongst those who argued that apartheid and capitalism were umbillically linked. Apartheid facilitated the accumulation of super-profits through the bantustans and migrant labour system, and the coloured labour preference policy was part of the divide and rule strategy. Thus the ideas of Black Consciousness, with its call for the oppressed to unite  as blacks and to reject apartheid nomenclature, were so attractive to her.

She was extremely open to ideas and fought fiercely against sectarian approaches, even amongst her own comrades. She described herself as a life-long student.

Although she was active in student politics at the University of the Western Cape, her formative activist years were in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Her capacity to combine intellectualism with activism meant she played a leading role in shaping Grassroots, a community newspaper that voiced the community struggles against apartheid.

She was also a leading figure in the early civic movements where she took up local struggles for basic services, access to electricity, housing, etc. She was co-founder of the Cape Areas Housing Action Committee (CAHAC),  the Lotus River Grassy Park Residents Association (LOGRA).and the Lotus River Tenants Association (LTA).

She was a committed feminist and socialist, which brought her into the centre of the debates that led to the split in the anti-apartheid movement. The Cape Action League and then the Workers Organisation for Socialist Action became her political home; this was in contrast to comrades who formed the UDF and built the ANC. Notwithstanding their differences, Rita had an amazing capacity to be unwavering in her convictions yet able to relate to and work with comrades from opposing political tendencies.

At the height of the political upheavals, she moved to KZN, where her commitment to non-sectarian left politics served her well. Despite working full-time for the Trust for Community Outreach and Education (TCOE), a land rights NGO, she found time to establish the Pietermaritzburg Community Arts Project as a means of supporting youth fleeing the Inkatha-initiated violence.

Her work in TCOE exposed her to another reality of South African life: the grinding poverty of the rural villages in the Eastern Cape, Free State, KZN and Limpopo. Working with IsiZulu-, IsiXhosa-, Sesotho-, Sepedi-, Afrikaans- and Setswana-speaking communities and staff had a lasting impression on her life,  strengthening her resolve to contribute to building popular, non-sectarian organisations and movements that put women in leadership.

It was this journey that took her back to the Western Cape to work with an NGO called Women on Farms and establish Sikhula Sonke, a vibrant trade union of women farmworkers. . She also co-founded the New Women’s Movement, a grassroots popular women’s organisation located in the townships and peri-urban areas of the Western Cape.

Throughout her life she combined  service to the poor with  activism  critical of the status quo, whilst continuing to contribute to a body of work based on creating feminist alternatives. Much of her writings focused on the intersection between race, class and gender and her theories on the triple oppression of black women guided her activism.

Rita was born in Ottery, Cape Town on 25 March 1950, the third child of nine children. Her political convictions were honed by her parents, who embraced ideals of social justice and raised their children to stand up for their convictions.

This was the basis for Rita’s conviction that the personal was, and is, political. For her, the beliefs you espoused needed to be matched by your deeds. Hers was a commitment to a simple and modest life. She spurned several offers to enter higher office in government or the private sector,  preferring to spend her time with ordinary women in the New Women’s Movement and with farmworkers. And in the final month of her life, aware that her body was robbing her of time to live out her life’s ambition of creating another world, these women comforted her and eased the pain that came not from the cancer she suffered but from the knowledge of her imminent death.

Those of us who worked and lived alongside her knew her as a strong-willed, determined fighter with a gentle and caring approach – as someone said on hearing of her death, ‘a lady activist’. These characteristics were her trademarks throughout her life.

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