Mildred Lesiea
Women, Political Power, and Development in South Africa

Women have played a very important role in the development of progressive organisations in South Africa. Since the beginning of this century, women resisted the extension of passes to African women. This struggle reached its climax in the fifties when 20,000 women marched to the government headquarters in Pretoria to protest against passes. Women also played a key role in land struggles and organising around "bread and butter issues" at the grass roots level. At the leadership level, women were very under-represented and this situation is only beginning to change now.

After the lull in our struggle that followed the banning of organisations in the eighties and the repression of the seventies, women played a major role in reactivating the struggle against apartheid in the early eighties. In the Western Cape, the United Women's Organisation (UWO) was the first non-racial community-based organisation that worked to unite women against apartheid. UWO assisted many other organisations like youth and civics to start organising. UWO was also one of the major players in the launching of the United Democratic Front (UDF) and provided almost all women leaders for the UDF executive.

The United Women's Organisation changed its name to the United Women's Congress (UWCO) and started self-help projects and crèches, as well as actively campaigning against apartheid oppression. In 1987, UWCO spearheaded the relaunching of the Federation of South African Women that focused more on women's oppression and united a number of women's organisations. When the African National Congress (ANC) was unbanned, UWCO became the ANC's Women's League and grew fast. We are now part of the Women's National Coalition, working for a women's charter that will contain the demands of all women in South Africa. We will use the charter to campaign for women's rights and political power.

As a result of our long struggle for rights and dignity, women's issues have finally been placed on the political agenda in South Africa. Even De Klerk is now talking about non-sexism and the UN Declaration of Women. But, before women will have real power and control over their own lives, we have to become a much more effective political force. We aim to do this in the following ways:

1. We have to built strong organisations that can represent and unite a broad spectrum of women and make them a force that politicians cannot afford to ignore.

2. We have to consult women about their problems and their demands and raise awareness about women's oppression to motivate and mobilise women.

3. We have to educate everyone in our society so that men also recognise the oppression of women and learn to respect and value women as their equals. We cannot afford to leave our male comrades behind or to make enemies of them.

4. We have to train and empower women so that they can take their rightful place in leadership at all levels of society with confidence.

5. We have to fight for basic rights and legal protection for women.

6. We have to challenge and confront sexism and fight for freedom from all forms of oppression. This means we have to use weapons like affirmative action.

The area of development is another crucial one. There is no awareness about gender and the specific problems faced by women in the kind of "development" that has been done in South Africa. In rural areas, up to 70% of women are illiterate, while less than 50% of men are. The people most affected by the government's policy of changing the rural reserves into prisons for the poor are women. They are the ones who are starving, without health care, without land, without schools, without clean water and energy. They have to scratch an existence from barren drought-stricken land without any of the state support that white farmers enjoy.

Most health services and projects only reach a small percentage of these women and it is only really the state's population control programme that even tries to. In most villages there are no medical services and people have to travel far just to see a nurse.

When development needs are assessed, women's work is not counted. For example, it is not considered economically viable to electrify the rural areas, yet women spend 3 hours a day gathering wood and water. Because women are not seen as economically productive, they are not targeted for planned development The buzz word is growth and the thinking about how to achieve it is urban, male and skilled.

This attitude is very short-sighted. We are neglecting 50% of our human resources - which is in fact our most valuable and renewable resource. Women have to be part of any decent development. They are still the ones who hold our society together, who teach our children and who produce most of the food we eat. Without training and resources spent on women, we will not only keep women oppressed, but will further impoverish our whole society.

The kind of international development offered to our country on a large-scale will not achieve these goals. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have a history of funding that has not enriched the South, but has led to more money and natural resources going to the North. We need development that will build our capacity to look after ourselves without on-going dependence. For women, this means that we have to assist women with basic things like getting access to land, to loans and subsidies, to technical advice and support, to education and skills, and ultimately to political power.

In our country women have no power now. From the white parliament to the village councils, women have no say. Sexism will take years of education before it will die out in our communities. Women have to be given power in the form of economic power to help us fight for political power so that we will have a say in everything that affects our lives. This means, for example, that women in the rural areas will be in a better position to negotiate things like grazing rights if they own cattle of their own.

But it is not only rural women who suffer. At all levels of the economy, women are paid less, have less power and do more of the dirty work. Affirmative action where women are recruited will not address the basic sexism that keeps women down. Women's problems have to be taken into account and catered for - things like child care have to be provided and women must not be penalised for having children. Training women has to become a built-in responsibility for all employers and special care must be taken to see that women benefit.

We have a long way to go to reach real emancipation and those who want to help will be doing us disservice if they ignore these concerns.

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

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