King Lewanika and Suffragettes

King Lewanika of Barotseland died in February 1916. This led to a series of articles in the Cape Times, one being the front page of The Weekly Cape Times and Farmers’ Record, 18 February 1916.

The short article concludes: ‘It is also to be noted that Lewanika long ago settled the Suffragette question by a stroke of genius. It was ordained that once a year on one day, the head woman be permitted, in the presence of other women, to have full and free licence to criticise the Council of the nation without check or interruption. It is said that the head woman exercised this right with immense satisfaction, and that her criticism of the men was complete and scorching. In witnessing the discomfiture of the men on that glorious day the women forgot their wrongs and their rights.’

I wonder what the Suffragettes made of this? It would be interesting to know if the head woman gathered the views from a range of other women or if she only spoke for herself.

The power of the female voice as expressed in the article resonated with Ian Hamilton’s statement about women being powerful before they put themselves on the pedestal, and also Louis Botha’s attempts to find a way out for the Boer rebels who were being pressured by their wives to make a stand against the government in 1914. He resorted to offering options – imprisonment or government service leaving the men to decide which was the lesser of the two ‘evils’.

Given the general shortcomings in our democratic processes today, I wonder if our forebears did not miss a trick back in the day when women were demanding a greater say. Is there a clue in these past experiences to help give all marginalised a greater voice while preventing new discriminations? Democracy has never been for everyone, even in its first formation it was discriminatory and promoting one group above another does not solve the equality dilemma. Perhaps we can take something from the implied messages of these few instances commenting on the power of women before they were permitted to enter the Councils of men, and design a system that works for all, irrespective of gender or background. I keep dreaming…