Frene Ginwala
Women in South Africa Shape Democratic Change

The status of women in South Africa is similar to that elsewhere, in terms, for example, of their low legal and economic status. But what is peculiar to South Africa is the layer upon layer of oppression and differentiated patriarchy. I became aware of this when challenged by Western feminists: "Why are you in the African National Congress (ANC) and not in a women's movement?". It was easy to answer: "Should women be fighting to be equally oppressed as black men?". But working through the implications of that answer meant trying to come to terms with the interrelationship between class, national oppression, race and gender. This again helped locate oppression of women in its political, economic and social context, and not as something that could be isolated into the social sphere.

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Layers of oppression on women

Racialism and exploitation characterised apartheid - historically rulers of South Africa have manipulated gender relations to retain power - and in particular controlled the mobility of African women. At the turn of the century, for example, the labour of black men was needed for mines, building, railways and for construction. The system of cheap labour is peculiar to South Africa. Men are drawn off the land to become migrant workers, while women remain on the land to produce food and look after children. Men are paid low wages - on the basis of a single person's wage - as the family is being looked after and fed by subsistence agriculture. So women's labour has subsidised the development of the mining industry in South Africa and the vast profits of mining houses. To make sure that women remained on the land, alliances were made with patriarchal elements among the African people. Headmen and Chiefs had to authorise the movement of women from the homesteads to the urban areas.

This had its modern day counterpart under apartheid. Women's mobility was once again controlled and a total bar was placed on movement from rural to urban areas. So men came into "white" South Africa to labour, while women - "superfluous appendages" - were removed to rural slums (homelands) to stay and look after the old, sick, handicapped and children. As a result, the social costs of labour and reproduction shifted to the homelands and white South Africa had its cheap labour and political control. Thus, apartheid openly systematised gender oppression and gave it legal form - women to the domestic sphere in poverty, dependent upon male breadwinners, with their role confined to being breeders of future generations of cheap labour.

African women are not the only group of oppressed women in South Africa. Those who came to settle in South Africa came from patriarchal societies in Europe and Asia. Not surprisingly, South Africa was and is a patriarchal society, affecting all women in our country, irrespective of race or ethnic origin. Black women are often described as "chattels". If that be so, then white women have been "pets". They have been pets not in their own right, but through their relationship with white men - as mothers, daughters and sisters - they shared white privilege. However, white women are absent from positions in industry, economic affairs and politics. A white woman is subjected to the exercise of her husband's marital power over her property. The law has only recently been changed, and many marriages remain unaffected.

Women are still absent from high office and responsibility. The Broederbond - meaning the "brotherhood" - has run the National Party of De Klerk and all of the power structures of the Afrikaner people. Now that South Africa is in transition, there is a period of uncertainty, when men, in particular, are feeling threatened, and this is manifested in greater levels of violence against women. Amongst all sections of the community, the levels of rape, wife abuse and random violence has increased significantly.

Yet for women this period is not all bad:

- Amongst the democratic / anti-apartheid movement there is a very genuine commitment to democracy. Within the country there is a lively debate about the nature of democracy - a factor which divides us from the National Party and the Government. While there is no "feminist perspective" in the debate, it does allow women to participate and become involved. We can use the commitment to democracy and expand it to encompass women.

- We have an awareness of structured oppression in our society, and the majority of men have first hand experience of it. The notion that we have to examine all institutions in order to remove racism and vestiges of apartheid is familiar. So women can use the opportunity to reassess and examine institutions and remove sexism.

- We can draw upon many examples of oppression under apartheid and proposed remedies as analogies in our debates. There is, for example, acceptance that we need affirmative action for blacks in order to redress historical imbalances. This is a small step towards acceptance that affirmative action is necessary to redress historical gender imbalances. It is also often argued that we must respect people's culture and traditions. In a debate within the ANC leadership, women posed the question: "If the Afrikaners said it was their tradition that Blacks are inferiors and should be subordinated, and that Black and White should be segregated, would the ANC accept, respect and allow such traditions and customs to prevail?". The answer was obviously no, and so it was not difficult to gain acceptance for the notion that customs and traditions that subordinate women should not be supported and protected.

- It is impressive to note that since the ban on organisations was lifted two years ago that women's issues are on the agenda. The main reason for this, is that participation by women in the liberation struggle has allowed women to put through very advanced policies,especially in the ANC, which is a major player in any solution. These policies include:

* Integration of women's emancipation into the liberation struggle; an issue which has to be addressed separately and now.

* Definition of the problem as gender oppression and not simply as discrimination against women.

* The ANC recently established a Commission on the Emancipation of Women. This was an expression of the ANC's beliefs that the responsibility for emancipation rested on the whole organisation, both men and women.

* In May this year, the ANC's economic policy was amended to take into account the contribution of unpaid labour. It was agreed that economic planning had to take account of unpaid labour and the ANC committed itself, once in government, to progressively introduce an additional set of national accounts that will reflect the value of unpaid labour. We are now examining how this can be implemented, and are examining ways of quantifying unpaid labour.

* These positions gave women a headstart - but essentially it is the activity of women that has placed their concerns on the national agenda. They created a climate which did not allow men to ignore women.

The Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) which is the main negotiating forum, committed its 19 participatory political organisations to establish a "non-racial", "democratic" and "non-sexist" South Africa. This characterisation of the future state of South Africa is very important. If we can carry it through into the Constitution, it would allow women to challenge almost any law or practice as non-sexist and therefore unconstitutional.

While having agreed on non-sexism, all the political organisations (including the ANC) however forgot their commitment when it came to appointing their delegations to the working groups for the negotiations. Very few women delegates were appointed and there was an outcry. Eventually, a special Gender Advisory Committee was established as part of Codesa. Its task was to advise on the gender implications of the issues before the negotiators. Men did not really understand what was involved, until the Committee's reports were produced e.g.,

* In the definition of political intimidation was added sexual harassment in political organisations and attempts by husbands to prevent wives from voting or engaging in political meetings etc.

* Consideration of citizenship qualifications had to be defined by treating male and female citizens as independent and equal in every respect. We believed that we had a unique opportunity to incorporate non-sexism into the transformation of our society, and use the doors opened by Codesa.

Women have come together to form a National Coalition that includes political organisations from the National Party, Democratic Party, Inkatha Freedom Party, ANC, Pan Africanist Congress(PAC),Azanian Peoples' Organisation (Azapo); groups such as Rape Crise; disabled women's organisation, girl guides, rural African women and Afrikaner women on the land; executive and business women etc. The Coalition has deliberately limited its scope to setting up the right framework, as we are aware that there is much that divides us, and if we force unity, the coalition will fall apart.

The objectives of the Coalition are to engage women in the constitutional process, to ensure effective equality for women in the Constitution, and to formulate a Charter of Women's Equality that will be part of the Constitution. We have discussed the question whether we want separate rights for women - but would that not put women in a ghetto? Some of us feel that there should only be "human rights" which belong to all citizens. Our Charter should therefore address the issues that prevent women exercising human rights, and hence it would be a Charter of Women's Equality.

The process we have chosen to formulate the Charter is also very important - almost more important than the product. We are determined that no-one should prescribe to women what their needs are - no lawyers, elite women or International Conventions. Our process is to elicit women's self-defined needs.

Our field workers will engage in dialogue with women - in focus group type discussions - and ask what women want changed. Prior to this we shall engage in public education programmes on the issues. After women have expressed their views,we shall have to process the data, identify issues for inclusion in the Charter and feed the information back to the women and into the national debate. Men are particularly in need of education. If we want our Charter to be part of the Constitution, then it will have to be adopted by men as well as women.

Apart from a Charter, our process is going to bring great advantages:

* It will educate women in democratic processes.

* It will lead to a lot of additional research that will benefit women - in particular a mapping of our country in terms of where women are, languages, literacy, education etc. Due to apartheid such basic information is not available.

We will also build up an incredible data base of women's self-defined concerns and needs and their priorities, for use by future policy makers and women's organisations. Most importantly, the process will empower women. For the first time, women will have been asked what they want and with the knowledge that what they say will be taken seriously. When faced with these problems, they will become aware that the changes in our country should have meant changes in their lives and so strengthened they will seek solutions in that context.

Major problems will remain, as we will only have dealt with the framework, but it will facilitate an advance. It will also facilitate the basic restructuring of our institutions - the reshaping of politics and the redefining of economics - so that we do not try to get women into pre-shaped institutions, but instead begin the changes that make these people shaped themselves. What strengthens us, is that not only are we in the majority in our country, but we are also the majority of the voters. Political parties will respond if they know - No women, no vote.

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-bibliothek

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