The Sunday Times’s decision to commemorate Olive Schreiner’s contribution to the women’s suffrage movement required a different approach from the "event-linked-to-a-location" yardstick that we set for ourselves in choosing most of our other sites and stories, writes SUE VALENTINE
THE Sunday Times Heritage Project believes that while Olive Schreiner’s contribution as one of South Africa’s finest writers is widely acknowledged, far less well known is her participation in the suffragette movement.
We think that her prescience about universal suffrage is to be lauded as well as clear evidence that the Women’s Enfranchisement League — of which she was a member for several years — was active in the Kalk Bay and Muizenberg area.
Both WP Schreiner (Olive’s brother) and her husband, Samuel Cronwright-Schreiner, are on record as presiding over Women’s Enfranchisement League meetings in the area.
What led us to the Kalk Bay location was our discovery that a meeting of the Women’s Enfranchisement League was held at the English Church Schoolroom, which used to stand opposite the Anglican Church in Kalk Bay. There is nothing to mark the demise of this old stone building, which is now a parking lot.
Our reference for the site was found in an old annual report of the League, which reported that on March 26, 1913 a public meeting of the league was arranged by Miss Olive Schreiner (we believe this was Olive’s niece, daughter of WP Schreiner) and addressed by Mr Patrick Duncan.
Despite being unable to confirm Olive Schreiner’s attendance at the meeting, we believe that this little-known piece of women’s history in particular, and suffragette history in general, is worth commemorating. Given that Schreiner’s brother, WP Schreiner, and Cecil John Rhodes had houses in the area, we believe we can associate her with this part of the Peninsula.
It should be noted that at first Olive Schreiner held Rhodes in awe, but this diminished over time as she differed sharply from his beliefs and attitudes towards colonial rule. But that is another story…
On December 2, 2003, President Thabo Mbeki formally signed the Order of Ikhamanga Gold, awarded posthumously to Olive Schreiner "for her exceptional contribution to literature and her commitment to the struggle for human rights and democracy". The award was accepted on behalf of the Schreiner family by Ms Jenny Schreiner, ANC Member of Parliament.
This is particularly fitting since Jenny Schreiner is not only the great-granddaughter of Olive Schreiner’s beloved younger brother, WP Schreiner, premier of the Cape before the Anglo-Boer War, but is also a published poet in her own right.
Olive Schreiner herself, supported by her husband, Samuel Cronwright-Schreiner, was a fierce critic of imperialism and racism in South Africa before the Anglo-Boer War, and until her death in December 1920 was a strong champion of universal suffrage, arguing that the vote was "a weapon by which the weak may be able to defend themselves against the strong, the poor against the rich". — With acknowledgements and thanks to the National English Literary Museum (newsletter, July 2004)