Change is a process, not an event or holiday

Date: August 6, 2010
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We are now in August, that special month set aside to celebrate the achievements of women in South Africa. But I’m not so sure we should be pouring champagne just yet.

It is also during this month that we commemorate the day on which 20,000 women marched on the Pretoria Union Buildings 54 years ago to protest the extension of passes restricting freedom of movement during the apartheid government.

You wouldn’t know Women’s Day was a sacred event from how it’s being marketed in much of the country. Our roads are lined with adverts for Women’s Day shopping sales and beach parties – but cheap shoes and beach volleyball are surely far from what we should be commemorating.

It is said to have been a magnificent scene on 9 August 1956 with women from all racial and social backgrounds coming together from all regions of South Africa to take a stand against the oppression of Africans, particularly women. There were women in traditional dress, Indian women in white saris and others sporting the colours of the African National Congress (ANC). Some women had babies on their backs and those who were domestic workers even had their white charges with them.

They stood outside the buildings in the amphitheatre in the bow of the Herbert Baker building in complete silence for a full half hour after leaving the huge bundles of signed petitions outside the door of the office of Prime Minister Johannes Gerhardus Strijdom who, along with his senior staff, was not present to witness this.

It was a memorable event which today, 54 years on, should still be honoured and revered. However, although I am not a glass-half-empty sort of person, I can’t help but take a critical look at this month. And I can’t help but think that we’re missing the point.

We live in a country which is by far one of the most democratic in the world with a constitution that puts some in the Western world to shame. But how much of what we have on paper is the reality on the ground?

Prior to the liberation of black South Africans in 1994, the women’s movement was very much alive and welcomed amongst South Africans. A collective consciousness formed the foundations of the indigenous feminist movements, not only in South Africa, but Africa as a whole.

However, although women’s groups were very visible and active they were considered by some as secondary to the more patriarchal political parties of the liberation movement and are reported to have floundered when the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) and the ANC were banned.

I have a problem with this description because in spite of the detention and bans put on the most prominent leaders, like Lilian Ngoyi and Helen Joseph, women persevered. They regrouped and focused on issues like food prices, the high rates of male army conscription and the plight of rural women. Some groups also worked to safeguard rights like maternity benefits and childcare, as well as encourage and train women to take up leadership positions in various sectors.

This surely makes one wonder why these undeniably active and capable women have not yet made it to Head of State.

Nationalism later mobilised women as political agents but also acted as a restraint that hindered them from exercising their agency or allowing them to bring to the forefront their fight over inequality. A case in point is today’s parliament, where the leadership is heavily male and sexist slurs are the order of the day. The ANC’s Youth Leader Julius Malema has recently, more than once, expressed sexist comments which without doubt alienate and anger women in his own party.

Women in politics were, and still are, expected to play a more maternal role (according to the patriarchal definition of the word) in order for them to be included.

This has translated into what today is a women’s movement that has no teeth and is sometimes elitist and exclusionary, from the political right down to civil society organisations – ignoring key issues such as sexuality and reproductive rights.

In many ways the struggle has changed and sometimes it seems women’s groups are unable to catch up. You see this with groups headed by academics unwilling (or unable) to reach out to their constituencies, where women are often poor, uneducated and sometimes illiterate. It is these very women who are more likely attracted to Women’s Day shopping sales and beach parties – they are too far removed from the very women’s groups (and women politicians) that claim to represent them.

We also, sadly, have President Jacob Zuma’s government banding disparate groups together: just look at the new Ministry of Women, Children and People with Disabilities. To me it somehow implies that these, individually, are not real issues, but areas which are just a pain in the side of a government trying to do “real” work and not worry about such miniscule problems.

Moreover, we have a government which is not supportive or vocal about the plight of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people in South Africa. And when they are vocal it is to make homophobic and sexist remarks. President Zuma once said “Same sex marriage is a disgrace to the nation and to God. When I was growing up, unqingili [homosexuals in the Zulu language] could not stand in front of me. I would knock him out.” Other government ministers have protested against gay rights, or, in the case of Minister of Arts and Culture Lulama Xingwama, stormed out of an art exhibit showcasing lesbian couples.

I realise that this is Women’s Month and not LGBTI month, but these are key issues which should fall under the mandate of women’s organisations and our government. We are failing a large segment of our female population.

Our leaders have come a long way in democratising the public sphere, but too much of the really important stuff is not translated into everyday practice. I think this is as a result of deeply entrenched and widely practiced patriarchal views. And the link between the elite national women’s organisations (and government officials) and those they are meant to work for, has become tenuous.

We need only look back to those marching women in 1956 to see that our women leaders don’t have nearly the same effect today.

Doreen Gaura is the Communications Officer at Gender Links. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service.



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