This working paper forms part of MISTRA’s priority research project, Protest in South Africa: Rejection, reassertion, reclamation, that critically analyses the underpinnings of protest in South Africa and the variety of factors that generate protest action. The research aims to locate protest and civil unrest in a broader systemic context of rising inequalities and popular dissent globally, by understanding how political, socio-economic and environmental factors, identifiable in other international contexts, transitional societies and new democracies, manifest in ways that speak to South Africa’s own history, dynamics and lived realities, as well as to longer-term protest trends.

This chapter maps the participation of women in community protests as strategists and organisers in community struggles. It seeks to map the role of women mobilised under the identity of omama boManyano to insert their voices and assert their bodies at the centre of protests and community struggles in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. The analysis draws evidence from three case studies of protest: the Black Sunday (1952) where hundreds of women, organised by omama boManyano (women of prayer), became victims and survivors of a massacre; the Duncan Village massacre (1985); and the Reeston 87 protest (2014), where episodes of violence were likened to ‘scenes from Marikana’.

These case studies were documented by the author through ethnographic mapping in East London in the Eastern Cape province between 2014 and 2019, and by interviews, also conducted by the author, in April 2022 for the forthcoming documentary, Democracy from Below. While the first two cases are drawn from a historical perspective, analysis of the 2014 protest demonstrates the continued role of omama boManyano in the community struggles and protests of the Eastern Cape.