From Pocahontas to Thandi Modise: ‘Good girls go to Heaven. Bad girls go everywhere.’

For this 9 August Women’s Day celebration in South Africa, I look at the role of women in international politics. I invoke the images of Pocahontas and Thandi Modise. In doing so I re-visit the invocation of Pocohantas by Cynthia Enloe in “Bananas, beaches and bases: making feminist sense of International Politics” (1990), where she argues that “paying serious attention to women can expose how much power it takes to maintain the international political system in its present form.” I connect this image of Pocahontas to Thandi Modise who is the current Deputy Secretary General of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), current Premier of North West province and a former commander of the military wing Mkhonto WeSizwe (MK). In doing so, I seek to illustrate Enloe’s argument that “in many societies being feminine has been defined as sticking to home. Masculinity, by contrast, has been the passport for travel.” Enloe argues that popular slogans such as “Good girls go to Heaven. Bad girls go everywhere” reveal “how relations between governments depend not only on capital and weaponry, but also on the control of women” whose “sticking to home” ensures that women are invisible in the arrangement of our international politics. Thus both Pocahontas and Modise are seen to challenge these notions of femininity and masculinity in assuming their place in our international imagination.

As the story goes, Pocahontas was the “Powhantan princess who saved Captain John Smith from execution at Jamestown and so cleared the way for English colonization of America…she later married one of the colonial settlers and travelled to London, as if confirming that the colonial enterprise was indeed a civilizing mission” (Enloe 1990: XVII-1). Enloe asserts that an unserious examination of the story of Pocahontas can lead many to believe “the convenient myth that local women are likely to be charmed by their own people’s conquerors.” Pocahontas’ legacy tells us that women are easily manipulated and thus untrustworthy in circumstances of conflict. Based on this, the story of the dual battle against apartheid and against sexism are linked to our understanding “insofar as ideas about what it means to be a ‘respectable’ woman or an ‘honorable’ man have been shaped by colonizing policies, trading strategies and military doctrines” (Enloe 1990).

Born in Vryburg in then Bophuthatswana Thandi Modise joined the ANC in 1976 at 17 years of age. She received military training in Tanzania and Angola where she was one of 30 women out of a total of 500 trainees where she first became political commissar and then commander. She returned to South Africa in 1978 as an operative pointing out strategic targets for MK. She was arrested from 1979 to 1988. At the time of her arrest she was four months pregnant, and later gave birth to a daughter at Kroonstad Prison where she served.  Modise was first woman in South Africa to be jailed for military activities.

I met Thandi Modise in 2010 while at the Institute for Security Studies where she became part of the documentary I co-produced, “If extraordinary had a face: women in the security sector in South Africa” celebrating South African women in the military and police.  Modise was one of the women profiled for her role in MK and her role in transforming the South African National Defence Force as the Chairperson for the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Defence and the Joint Standing Committee on Defence from 1998-2004. In the documentary similarly to the profile done by Robyn Curnow (2000) “Thandi Modise, a woman in war”, she recalls how in the trenches in the Nova-Katenga camps in Angola,  the women MK soldiers were forced to dig the trenches while the men sat aside telling them that “you want equality, this is equality”. The women MK soldiers had the extra task of proving themselves as “full comrades not just she- comrades,” Modise recalls.

She argues that there is a perception that when women take up arms in defense of their country there is something psychologically wrong with them.  She states that, “it is something that concerns me in the ANC that people who are known to be MK, women who have been to jail, somehow, it’s almost that something happened to our brains and we cannot be trusted with responsibilities. That is my impression. It doesn’t matter how good we can be”. She then asserts that in reality “it is precisely because you appreciate the softer things that you want to take steps that will prevent those softer things from being taken away.” This is the reason women in the ANC and women in other liberation struggles joined the fight against colonial subjugation.

I conclude by arguing that perhaps this is why Pocahontas is still so fascinating to us five centuries later. This story of this young woman who chose to leave with the Englishmen was a direct challenge to these notions of femininity and masculinity that are at the core of the structure of power in international politics which still rest on popular assumptions of who should stick to home and who has the right to travel and defend one’s country. I argue that our international politics continues to be arranged in this gendered manner that continues to keep women in the domestic ‘the home’ while men continue to define our international life. But what Thandi Modise and Pocahontas have in common is fighting for the right to ‘leave home.’ That is leaving home either in search of adventure or on behalf of one’s country.

Siphokazi Magadla

Siphokazi Magadla is a Lecturer and PhD student with the Department for Political and International Studies at Rhodes University, South Africa. She is a Fulbright scholar holding a Master’s degree in International Affairs from Ohio University, USA. She was previously named one of the Mail and Guardian’s Top 200 Young South Africans.

One Response to From Pocahontas to Thandi Modise: ‘Good girls go to Heaven. Bad girls go everywhere.’

Leave a reply