Henriette Abrahams is an activist from Bonteheuwel, where she grew up and where she lives today. She started becoming involved in political organisations while still at school. She underlines that she is “nobody important; just somebody on the Cape Flats, doing what I have to do.”

Was there any particular moment that led to you becoming an activist?

At high school I got elected onto the SRC. Somebody came into our class and explained what the SRC was, and how it works. The class had to select two representatives, and because I was a loudmouth, the class elected me and another guy. Then we learned that the person who entered our room to come and handle the elections was actually Ashley Kriel. 

And that’s how I got into activism in 1983. I began attending meetings, learned about politics, and joined UDF campaigns, such as pamphleteering for the 1 Million Signature Campaign. We supported civic campaigns as students because we believed that our struggles are interlinked. So, it’s not a particular event; I got elected as a child into the struggle, literally.

What was it like to work alongside struggle hero Ashley Kriel?

It was very good. He was very inspirational, knowledgeable, and eloquent. And he had this charisma about him. So you wanted to join, the way he spoke about things. Whether it was the bigger political picture, apartheid, capitalism and its exploitation of our parents, housing and the conditions we are living in, he had a very good way of explaining and relating this to us as youngsters, and why it was important that we support other struggles and not only be involved in the struggle for quality education, or just one site of struggle. 

So, from a very young age, he had these leadership qualities, and he understood the world at large, so much better, and he could encourage and motivate us to form part of bigger and broader struggles and issues. Our meetings were a form of political education as well. So that we could learn, understand, discuss and debate. And that for me, was the exciting part of working with Ashley and the other leaders at the time.

When you look around today at the emerging young activists, do you think that there are any of the calibre of Ashley Kriel?

This is a different generation to our generation or the 70s generation and so forth. But one of the gripes I have with all types of organisations today is that we are not grassroots based. We don’t work in the streets where the people are. So you have this beautiful, eloquent youth. They are eloquent about issues and they are clear on the demands, but they’re not building strong grassroots organisations, with membership. There are too many leaders, too many chiefs. And today’s organisations do not have enough democratic processes that take place, and therefore our organisations aren’t sustainable. So yes, there are a number of youth out there that have some of the skills and qualities that Ashley had. But when it comes to building organisations, and achieving solidarity campaigns, then we’re lacking. And that is why we are making so little progress; because we have too many fights. And everybody wants to have an organisation of some form, but when it comes to membership, and taking up the youth’s bread and butter issues, then they do not follow through. It’s one thing to at university have waged a struggle for fees that must fall. But then how does that university structure support its members, who are going back into poverty? We can’t just be struggling on one side only.

When you look back at your activism over the years, is there a moment or a time you are most proud of? 

I’m proud that I’ve been consistent over the years; I’m proud that I haven’t sold out our cause. You know, some of our comrades became corrupt. And we will always have people joining for a particular part of their life and then life happens to them, and that is the life they choose. But I’m proud that I stuck with it over the years. And my passion is education. I’m proud of the work that I’m doing currently, with the Bonteheuwel Development Forum; working with the women and youth on our streets, and seeing how they have developed over the years, and how they take up leadership.  And we are also opening it up – Tshisimani, where I work,  and the Institute for Healing of Memories are now working with women from nine different areas, such as Khayelitsha, West Bank, Delft, Phillipi, Bonteheuwel and Heideveld. And the people are from different occupations; some are backyard dwellers; some of the women come from working class areas, and some work on feminist politics; and there is psychosocial support as well.

So that brings me to the question: How do you keep yourself strong? I mean, you’ve been at this a long time. What do you do to make yourself whole again? To fill that emotional cup?

That’s a difficult one because you’re holding so much, but I also have my own support system; comrades and friends whom I talk to and debrief with. To help me cope.

Do you have any words of advice or inspiration for young activists who want to follow in your footsteps? 

Be your authentic self. We are all fallible. If you’re out there to help your community, be a servant. Stand proud in being a servant. Leadership is overrated. Serve the people. And if it’s your calling, you will do your best. Keep on learning. Keep on reading up; discuss, debate and be led by the people; be led by your peers. Don’t think that you bring all the answers; always be open to learn.

Tell us: What did you enjoy learning from Henriette Abrahams?

Read more Charlotte Maxeke, early female activist.