Dora Tamana: A heritage of caring and stamina
Dora Tamana was a Cape Town based anti-apartheid activist and feminist. While there is a lack of historical materials about her life, Mama Dora as she was affectionately referred to, was a significant figure within the anti-apartheid movement.
In 1921, Dora Ntloko and her family were members of the Israelite Church and were present in Ntabelanga at what became the Bulhoek Massacre. John Tamana was one of the many people wounded during the massacre and Dora helped carry him to safety. In 1923, Dora and John got married and in 1930 the couple moved to Cape Town. They hoped to build a better life away from the daily hardships of their village and start afresh after suffering a number of personal tragedies. Cape Town turned out to be another harsh environment, where just surviving was a constant struggle.
They moved houses a number of times, even briefly living in the historic District Six. Eventually, in 1939, the family moved to Blaauwvlei, part of which is now Retreat. Dora built a shack and painted it white, hopeful about the prospect of setting down roots in the area. It became the starting point of her journey as a lifelong activist and leader. When she looked around her community and saw the conditions people were living in, she began thinking about the general state of black people’s lives in South Africa. She felt moved to be part of providing solutions. Dora got her family involved with the Cape Flats Distress Association (CAFDA) and was on the executive. Her son helped start a vegetable garden at CAFDA whilst she and her uncle supplied milk to the area. Seeing how improved nutrition positively impacted the children in the district pleased her.
In her lifetime, Dora took up many leadership roles. She started a creche in Blaauwvlei after hearing about the childcare centres in Communist Russia. She cooked for the African School Feeding Scheme and was part of a sewing group for the Blaauwvlei community. During the food shortages in the period of World War II, Dora was elected to the executive of the Women’s Food Committee. She was respected in her community and people often came to her for advice as she was a wise and proactive leader.
Dora was a founding member of the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) and was elected its first National Secretary in 1954. In 1955, Dora Tamana and Lilian Ngoyi, as FEDSAW leaders, were the first women in the anti-apartheid struggle to travel internationally and campaign for South Africa’s exclusion from international affairs. This was during a time when black South African movements were heavily monitored and restricted, yet through their temerity and ingenuity, these two fierce women made a way.
Mama Dora was also instrumental in the organisation of the 1956 Women’s March in Pretoria. At a women’s meeting in the 1980s, when she was still active in the liberation struggle, she said to the young women present: ‘I opened the door for you, you must go through’. Dora remained politically active into her eighties, even as her health declined her passion for a free, fair and equal South Africa remained fervent.
Dora Tamana has been honoured with a road and recreational park in Cape Town named after her. Let us continue to honour her life and role in the realisation of a democratic South Africa by remembering her many bold and brave contributions.