Celebrating Susan Dangarembga, Zimbabwe’s first black woman to earn a degree in 1953
The Zimbabwean woman Susan Dangarembga, is the mother of Tsitsi Dangarembga, the celebrated writer whose first book, Nervous Conditions, was the first to be written in English by a black woman from Zimbabwe.
In 1953, Susan Dangarembga became the first black woman in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to obtain a university degree; a Bachelor of Arts in English and Latin.
But before her daughter could achieve such a height, Susan Dangaremgba would work hard to pave the way for not only her daughter but several women to fight for a complete education.
Due to the issue of being marginlaized, sidelined and denied access to equal opportunities as men, it is highly important to note and celebrate the success of women in Africa who managed to be and do more expected in a society that offered and expected little from them.
Women in Southern Africa can be said to have suffered more than women in other parts of Africa due to the racism, segregation and apartheid that occurred for several years preventing them from gaining an education so much so that a woman was awarded a University degree as late as 1953. Susan Dangarembga defied all odds to become that woman.
Born Susan Ngonyama in 1926 at the time when Zimbabwe was part of Southern Rhodesia, Susan was one of the very few women to gain access to education despite several difficulties.
Her father was a Christian minister and teacher who felt all his children should gain access to education although he was made to believe it was not necessary.
After completing school, Susan wanted to further her studies and become a teacher just like her father but systems were not in her favour to do so. Keen on furthering and completing the University, Susan moved to South Africa to attend Fort Hare University in 1951 where she studied English and Latin and completed her degree in 1953 at the age of 29.
The successful completion of her degree at Fort Hare University made her the first black woman in Zimbabwe to sucessfully start and complete the university and earn a degree.
Susan moved back to Zimbabwe where she started teaching and later went off to the UK to further her education by gaining a Master’s degree in English as well as a post-graduate Teaching and Education Administration diploma and returned to Zimbabwe to teach.
Throughout her career, she taught several of the nations present politicians and leading faces in several industries and became Zimbabwe’s first female Public Service Commissioner.
Aside from teaching, Susan became an advocate for girl child education encouraging the government as well as several educational institutions to not only give the female child the opportunity to access education but also make it possible for women to be able to complete school sucessfully. This campaign was very important because several women in the day were only able to finish school after meeting social demands such as marriage and childbirth.
Susan Dangarembga died in October 2017 at the age of 91 in her home in Zimbabwe and was given a befitting burial at Harare’s Warren Hills cemetery.
At her funeral, the former deputy prime minister Professor Arthur Mutambara gave the eulogy stating that without firing a single shot, going to detention or organising political resistance as a high school student in the 1950s, Susan Ngonyama scored a major victory for the freedom and liberation of women in Zimbabwe and is a pioneer educationist who must be remembered and spoken about at all times.
We publish below the full eulogy by Professor Arthur Mutambara, which was first published in October 2017:
Fellow Zimbabweans, the Dangarembga family and the Ngonyama family, I stand before you as a son to Susan Dangarembga (nee Ngonyama).
You heard it explained here, that the Dangarembga and Mutambara people are the same folk. They are of the Chihwa totem! I stand before you representing all those who attended that great academic institution — Hartzell Secondary School — in particular those who were taught by Susan Dangarembga.
I also represent the generality of the people of Zimbabwe who were impacted, directly or indirectly, by the knowledge, wisdom and example of Susan Dangarembga.
In any community, society or country, for there to be human progress; for any civilisation to flourish; we need vision, transformation and leadership.
Vision entails the ability to picture a desired future, the aspirational destination for a society or country, and work towards its accomplishment.
Transformative power speaks to the ability to improve the quality of people’s lives, making their existence more meaningful, and creating a better world for all. Both vision and transformation rise and fall on leadership.
Leadership is the process of providing sound guidance and inspired direction to an organisation, community, society or country.
We need vision, transformation and leadership. Put differently, for us as a people to thrive and prosper, we need transformative and visionary leadership.
Through her exemplary life, Susan Dangarembga provided us with vision, transformation and leadership. She was a visionary leader.
She was a transformative leader.
She did all this through three vehicles: excellence, education and character. Excellence is the quality of being outstanding and the best at whatever you do. She was the embodiment of pure and undiluted excellence, sheer brilliance and unparalleled distinction.
More specifically, academic excellence was her forte. Starting from primary school, where she was still known as Susan Ngonyama, she skipped a standard, what we now call grades.
She was always the youngest in her class. In 1947 she proceeded to Goromonzi Secondary School — the first government secondary school opened in Southern Rhodesia in 1946.
She was in the second group of Form One students, which included her future husband — the great educationist and administrator — Hartzell High School headmaster, Mr Amon Dangarembga; the future distinguished lawyer and academic — UZ vice-chancellor, professor Walter Kamba; and the future brilliant and revered physician — Dr Davidson Sadza. When they wrote the Cambridge Ordinary Level Examinations in 1950, Susan Ngonyama had the best results in the entire Southern Rhodesia — whites included.
Her unparalleled and unprecedented feat of outgunning the whites shocked and unsettled the racist settler regime of Southern Rhodesia.
Through sheer brilliance and undiluted excellence, Susan had demolished the myth of white supremacy. The then prime minister of Southern Rhodesia, Sir Godfrey Huggins took notice. He had to literally, though partially, concede defeat.
He said, “Well, Susan Ngonyama’s results mean blacks and whites are intellectually equal. However, socially the whites are still superior!” Obviously, Huggins was clutching on straws. How is that social supremacy measured?
Without firing a single shot, going to detention or organising political resistance, as a high school student in 1950, Susan scored a major victory for the freedom and liberation of Zimbabwe.
She started the necessary process of transforming the minds of the oppressive whites, while mentally and intellectually empowering the oppressed majority, by giving them self-confidence and self-belief. “Yes, we are equally capable. Yes, we can do it. We are not at all inferior to the whites. If we can actually outperform the whites by their own standards, why can’t we rule ourselves?”
That was Susan’s subtle message in 1950 to the toiling black masses in Southern Rhodesia. Fellow Zimbabweans, that is vision. That is transformation. That is leadership.
In 1951, after Goromonzi, Susan proceeded to Fort-Hare University, where she overlapped with President Robert Mugabe by one year.
In 1953 she became the first black woman in Southern Rhodesia to obtain a university degree; a Bachelor of Arts in English and Latin.
Here is Susan scoring another first, empowering black Zimbabweans, in particular our women. Fellow Zimbabweans, the struggle for gender justice, women rights, and equality of the sexes started with Susan.
For the feminists who wage an honourable struggle demanding equality between men and woman, if you combine her 1950 and 1953 achievements, Susan is saying, “Do not aim that low, women are actually superior to men!” She was a forerunner of what we now call “womenomics” —the economy as designed, experienced, driven and impacted by women. Current research has shown us that, in every measure, women are better managers and leaders than men.
Beyond Fort Hare, Susan, now married to Amon Dangarembga, went to the UK where she obtained a Masters in English and an advanced teaching diploma. Her journey in excellence never stopped.
On her return, she then settled at Hartzell Secondary School teaching both Latin and English. In 1983 she became the first female Public Service Commissioner.
The second way in which Susan provided vision, engendered transformation and nurtured leadership was through teaching. In every civilisation, education is a key enabler. It is the driver of social progress.
Susan was a great teacher, a distinguished teacher of teachers, an outstanding educationist. Having being the number one student in their entire country in 1950, she could have chosen a career as a lawyer, a doctor, an account or an engineer.
She said, “No to all that, I want to be a teacher.” Ladies and gentleman, the teaching profession is a noble profession.
Teachers are a sacred lot. We are all products of teachers. Educators are the incubators and breeders of human capital, the cradle of leadership, and the source of vision. The odyssey of transformation begins with a solid educational foundation.
The third and final channel through which Susan provided transformative and visionary leadership was through the strength of her character. She exuded dignity, integrity, humility, hard work, self-awareness and empathy.
Fellow Zimbabweans as we mourn Susan Dangarembga, let us celebrate her life by embracing the legacy of her exemplary life: Excellence, education and strength of character in pursuit of transformative and visionary leadership.
I thank you.