Remembering Yoliswa Dwane

Fierce, intense, principled: Equal Education would not have been possible without her

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Yoliswa Dwane addressing a march of 20,000 people on 21 March 2011. Photo supplied

During our final year of law school, I don’t know if it’s still the practice, students signed up for a research focus group which met weekly, under one professor. We were in the socio-economic rights group and when it came to Yoliswa’s week she presented a proposal to write about whether a certain type of expression, of which she disapproved, was protected free speech under the constitution. We were not then friends—I knew her from the library where she worked to support herself—but she made clear that she was setting out to show that this was not an expression worthy of a constitutional defence. We went round the group, week by week, each student presenting until it was Yoliswa’s chance again. Now her stance had shifted. Based on her reading she’d come to the view, reluctantly but decisively, that the expression in question had to be protected free speech. I was struck and smitten by this intellect that overturned its own inclinations, reasoning beyond emotions.

Already then she was the person we now mourn. Intense, guarded, fierce, curious (one of her favourite words) and devoid of artifice. What she would soon discover was a remarkable ability to educate and lead people.

Yoliswa Dwane was born on Christmas Day 1981 in Dimbaza township, near King William’s Town in what today is the Eastern Cape. All her schooling happened in Dimbaza, at Ezikweni Lower Primary School, Nobuntu Higher Primary School and Richard Vara High School. During grade 8, while a new school was being built, her class was combined with that of a neighbouring school, meaning almost 100 students were crammed into one room. When Richard Vara High was complete, the laboratory contained no equipment and the library no books. And when she was in grade 11, striking students broke all the windows.

Fixing broken windows would years later become a galvanizing force for Equal Education.


Dimbaza was the result of forced removals by the apartheid state. In her affidavit to the O’Regan commission of inquiry into policing in Khayelitsha, Yoliswa writes that the idea of “surplus people” is “the symbol I am working to overcome in my daily work”. It is estimated that from 1960 to 1983, the apartheid government forcibly moved 3.5 million black South Africans in one of the largest mass removals of people in modern history — the ethnic cleansing by white South Africa that gave Yoliswa’s life its starting place.

In the affidavit she explains that many former Robben Islanders were banished to Dimbaza and that “ANC and PAC ex-prisoners were found on every street”. Her own father, Mcebisi August, who died two years ago, was an MK soldier. She continues: “Dimbaza infused a political consciousness into some of us who grew up there”. Note the word “some”. When she wanted to apply the coldest insult to a person she would invoke Lennox Sebe, the “President” of the Ciskei during her childhood. She had no illusions.

In 1998 she was one of 12 students to attain a matric pass. She was 16. Nine years later she had attained a bachelor’s degree in film and media studies and a post-graduate LLB, both from UCT. From which well did she draw this talent?

A history of resistance

Dwane, the surname passed to Yoliswa by her mother, Boniswa, is a name of significance in parts of the Eastern Cape. National government ministers and high officials, when sitting across from us in tense negotiations, were clearly aware of this, as were some parents of equalisers, the school-going members of Equal Education. Yoliswa’s great-great-great grandfather was James Mata Dwane. When he was posthumously awarded the Order of the Baobab in Gold in 2010, the official statement read:

“At the mere age of 19, he decided to start a school in a nearby village and enrolled 60 learners whom he taught all he had learned. He then left for further education and formal teacher training at Healdtown Methodist Missionary Institution where he later served as a teacher. During this time, he became painfully aware of the difference in quality between white and black education.”

In 1892, two years after the Fisk University Jubilee Singers arrived in South Africa (the impact of which is explained by Tembeka Ngcukaitobi in his book The Land is Ours) Dwane set off to England to fundraise for his educational project. The Methodist Church would not allow the funds to be used for their intended purpose, appropriating them and dashing Dwane’s hopes. With Tengo Jabavu he then co-founded Imvo Zabantsundu (Black Opinion), the first black newspaper in South Africa. In 1896, a year behind Charlotte Maxeke, he went to the United States to study. On returning he established the African Methodist Episcopal Church and later the Anglican Church’s Order of Ethiopia.

Ethiopianism was perhaps the first ideology of resistance to emerge in Xhosaland after its final military conquest by the British in the 1870s. A century later, his great-grandson, Sigqibo Dwane, Yoliswa’s grandfather, explained: “When the black consciousness movement came into the South Afrikan scene in the late 1960s history repeated itself as the lessons of the Ethiopian movement of the late 19th century had to be re-learnt, and its vision appropriated and sharpened for the cut and thrust of the South Afrikan political debate at the time.”

Sigqibo Dwane, also a prominent voice for freedom, was ordained as bishop, attaining something James Mata Dwane had been denied by the white church hierarchy.

Education of women was not unheard of in the Dwane family. James Mata Dwane’s daughter, MT Dwane, became one of the first five trained African nurses in the Transvaal, tending to mineworkers.

Intensely private and unassuming, Yoliswa could relay this history but didn’t. “When I hear Dwane, Dwane, Dwane it’s too awkward.” (Sorry Yoli.) But for those who experienced being on the wrong end of Yoliswa in a mood of royal prerogative and wondered just who she thought she was, well…

The birth of Equal Education

It was 140 years after James Mata Dwane founded his school that Yoliswa graduated with a law degree and co-founded Equal Education (EE). She was one of only three African South Africans in our graduating class in 2007.

We were the first two full-time workers following graduation, joined early on in the new year by Lumkile Zani, Joey Hasson, Lwandiso Stofile, Nokubonga Yawa, Lukhanyo Mangona and a bit later Michelle Adler, who single-handedly created EE’s institutional backbone. Yana van Leeve and Dmitri Holtzman, among others, were early volunteers. The organisation already had a board chaired by Mary Metcalfe on which Crain Soudien and Nathan Geffen played active roles. It had all been seeded by Zackie Achmat, who held the first meeting of what would become Equal Education on 14 December 2006 at his home, and nurtured it through 2007 with the support of Jordan Goldwarg and Gilad Isaacs. It was officially then known as the Applied Education Research Organisation (AERO), but by March 2007 Zackie was already running a regular mailing list called the “Equal Education Campaign”. He consolidated his ideas with me as audience while stomping the streets of Muizenberg.

There were three major tributaries that, through Zackie, coalesced into Equal Education. The first was the Treatment Action Campaign, the AIDS-rights organisation he had founded, of which Yoliswa was an active member at UCT. The second was Habonim, the Jewish youth organisation Joey and I had been heavily involved in, which offered a model of fun-but-serious political education. The third was a small community of research into educational inequality, to which Zackie had access through his friend Paula Ensor, soon to be a board member, who had recommended a draft PhD thesis by her student Ursula Hoadley. This was the prescribed text at that founding meeting in December 2006.

To this mix Yoliswa brought her remarkable political instincts, razor judgment of character, class consciousness, appetite for study, fearless public voice and the courage to push herself beyond her comfort zones.

Re-reading her e-mails now is heart-breaking but thrilling. She often managed to be both imperious and gentle at the same time!

Here she is admonishing a staff attorney on an early draft of a letter about the devastating conditions in a school in Matatiele:

“Thank you for drafting this letter. A few comments: 1. All paragraphs must be numbered. 2. Structure of the letter is not looking good: break the points into paragraphs and each paragraph must be clear and coherent. We must have facts and our commentary or analysis must have basis.”

Here she is schooling another staff attorney on the imperative role of reliable information in a parliamentary democracy: “Minister says the data is X on infrastructure in answering EE’s PAIA application, in Sept she says data is XY and in October NEIMS says data is XZ… Part of this misinformation was done in Parly. They don’t only lie to Parly but to everyone as well—the public. To me, this is more concerning.”

Less patient with a very bright part-time staff member who’d sent her his review of a new draft of the Norms and Standards for School Infrastructure while missing a crucial detail: “Read it again, Raphael, slowly this time around.”

Work ethic

Whites, who were always a minority in Equal Education, were seen by Yoliswa as resources to get work done, as were other middle class “kids” (as she called them). Actual friendship and comradeship were on the table too, but they had to be earned. Scepticism was her starting position. Whites who patronised her, or who she thought put their own ambitions ahead of the organisation, invariably didn’t last. A small number of people, both within and outside the organisation, criticised her willingness to work with whites as a political weakness but it was really an expression of her self-assuredness. She saw the risks in, but also the power of, a diverse group.

Intensely aware of the ways injustices compound, she nevertheless always argued that the fundamental struggle was that of the poor and working classes to free themselves from economic subjugation.

Nobody, of any colour or gender, could impress her with declarations of radicalism. Her eye was on whether they showed the work ethic and commitment to unity necessary to build a political organisation. After a while her formidable research team consisted entirely of black women, all of whom she treasured.

Here she is on e-mail after an unsatisfactory reply from the Minister:

“We must win this case in the streets, amplify our voices, organise, embarrass this Minister… I don’t know why we are so patient with this. We should be angry with this response and this treatment. I’m angry. We could call a special meeting for Equalisers and ask them for their opinion. It can be done on Tuesday afternoon or Wednesday.”

More rosy to an EE spokesperson who’d drafted a statement on alarming reports of school principals taking kickbacks for promoting union members: “I love the statement. It is strong and straightforward. This is a principled position. It is not enough for SADTU to distance themselves from the corruption. I don’t even think that a Commission of Inquiry is enough, more needs to be done. Corruption Watch, Hawks, Public Protector, SIU … serious steps against the culprits. I think that should be an additional demand from us.”

I was not spared her displeasure at times. “Michelle always says we can’t just leave without leaving the responsibilities to other people. I understand that you do need time to write. But people must know that you are gone.”

I could always count on her counsel. Here she advises me on an invitation to a meeting with then-Deputy President Ramaphosa: “[We] have come out clearly making calls against state capture and JZ/Gupta led looting of state resources. However, be vigilant that he might bullshit you and say all the right things or what he thinks you might want to hear. Meeting him and hearing what he wants to say without making any assurances of whether we support him or not is fine—just to be informed by what he thinks and maybe call him out on some of the terrible blunders he had made in the past like his role in Lonmin/Marikana Massacre.”

(In the end the meeting did not take place.)

Incapable of telling a lie

There are literally thousands of these wonderful e-mails. Yoliswa summarising a court judgment or research report, making campaign suggestions, identifying talent, conducting the affairs of the National Council that she chaired for six years, weighing in forcefully on financial matters and so much else. They show her policing the values and politics of the organisation, both in the public sphere and in the workplace.

People may have had disagreements with her, a handful perhaps disliked her, but I don’t think a single one of the hundreds of people who worked with Yoliswa over the years would describe her as anything less than principled, incapable of telling a lie, and devoted to the organisation and its members. And make no mistake, her close colleagues adored her.

In retrospect Yoli’s success as a UCT student is instructive; she thrived in the structure it offered her. As a colleague she could be a handful, sometimes late or disorganised, not always able to systematise her teams. (These things have been said about me, too.)

But to really think about Yoli we have to look at her through the eyes of the hundreds and actually the thousands of young black working class children who knew her, who spoke to and listened to her at uncountable meetings, in small circles and at huge marches. She was a political anchor and compass for them that was almost always able to find North. Equal Education would not have been possible without that. Without her. She could transmit ideas, circumstances, choices to them, bridge all the chasms and create the political trust and coherence in the organisation. That was the truly indispensable and singular contribution that she made.

Hip hop

Two of her most special people deserve mention. Rob Petersen was a treasured mentor to Yoliswa, as well as a friend. They spent hundreds of hours in reading groups and discussions, chiselling ideas. Luzuko Sidimba was like a brother these past few years as her health declined – a beautiful, unseen devotion.

In Yoliswa’s spare time she had a second career, in hip hop, as the producer of Khayelitsha Spaza artists. I once met her in Lower Long Street at a club where her musicians were performing and there she was, radiant, mischievous, activist become night club queen, a perfect twist on the severe lady of rectitude that was also her.

Yoliswa was my friend and I truly loved her. She died of liver cancer. This could happen to anyone. But it’s also inescapable that the way she died, diagnosed only days before the end, would be less likely to happen to a rich person, to a white person. She made many and tangible advances in fighting for justice but did not escape the injustice of being born poor and black. That is devastating. May her spirit be carried onward, the spirit of solidarity.

Yoliswa Dwane, 25 December 1981 to 21 October 2022, is survived by her mother Boniswa Dwane.

Doron Isaacs was a co-founder of Equal Education.

TOPICS:  Education

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Dear Editor

This article moved me to tears. It confirmed what I knew about Yoliswa Dwane in the little contact I had with her. She was a formidable figure and I absolutely agree with the writer that without her, Equal Education would not be what it is today. I thank Doron for including Yoliswa's family history which I didn't know. I wish all Equalizers could read this article about a great Founding Mother of their organization. In these days in which great leadership is a scarce commodity, locally and globally, Yoliswa Dwane's passing is a huge loss.

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