The Sisterly Republic
The sisterly republic
There may be teething troubles in the world’s first ‘non-sexist’ state but, as Ferial Haffajee reports,
women are rolling up their sleeves and getting on with the job of creating a ‘female-friendly’ country.
The lot of African women rivals the worst oppression in the world. Yet South African sisters stand poised to create something new. The political settlement has brought in its wake a commitment from the new Government to gender equality and women’s empowerment. This new land has, after all, officially been baptized the ‘non-racial, non-sexist Republic of South Africa’.
One in four of the country’s new Members of Parliament is a woman – the seventh largest number in the world – and so are three of its cabinet ministers. Numbers aside, the new Constitution also makes provision for a Gender Com-mission to ensure that the Government breathes life into the ‘non-sexist’ commitment. Every aspect of the Reconstruction and Development Programme states specifically how it will benefit women. And just before it was voted into power last year the ANC committed itself to a wide-ranging and forward-looking Women’s Charter of Rights and Effective Equality.
But we are now one year into the new South Africa and these still remain pretty paper concepts. The sisters just haven’t started doing it for themselves. They’re the first to admit it. Bridget Mabandla is an ANC MP and is touted as the head of the Gender Commission when it’s eventually established. She says: ‘We’ve been slow at building on our gains. There’s no firm caucus yet and if we had been organized we’d have improved our interventions. But governance is new to all of us. We were a bit dazed initially.’
Cathy Albertyn of the Gender Research Project at Witwatersrand University says the new MPs entered an unfriendly parliamentary environment. Not only were they on virgin territory for women, but that territory was also occupied by a phalanx of hostile (and often sexist) civil servants.
Pregs Govender, a young trade unionist, entered Parliament on a women’s ticket – women in the ANC lobbied for a 30-per-cent quota on their party’s lists. The story of her induction into parliamentary life illustrates just how hostile the terrain was for women. On the day before Parliament started she went there for a briefing and was huffily told that the session was ‘for MPs only’. It got worse. The next day she took her (white male) partner along for the first sitting. At the entrance the young clerk informed her that ‘wives sit upstairs’. Albertyn says that women spent much of the first year making Parliament more women-friendly. For example, they’ve had to start a crèche and make sure that more toilets are provided for women.
‘We transformed the parliamentary tradition,’ says Mabandla, adding ‘and we bamboozled the other parties. Not only with our garb, but they had never seen so many articulate women in Parliament.’ One of the most memorable moments was the sight of Deputy President (and former President) FW de Klerk bowing before the sari-clad Speaker of Parliament, Frene Ginwala.
Such symbolic power-gains for women are important, yet they mean little for ordinary women who have seen few changes in their day-to-day lives. Many will call it trite to say that the majority of South African women suffer a triple oppression – they’re black, working-class and women. Trite it may be, but it’s still sorely apparent.
Black women make up the majority of the unemployed. Those who have jobs tend to be in the lowest-paying categories like domestic and farm work. A recent study found that of 27,192 artisans across the country’s major industries only 61 were women. Women continue to preside over the majority of the poorest rural households where many spend half their days collecting firewood and water. Politically, most rural women live under the yoke of traditional leaders who control their access to resources; and they are bound by discriminatory marital and property laws.
Arguably the biggest blight on the new South Africa is the violence its women experience. Rape has become endemic – in 1993 there were over 28,000 recorded cases. The reason cited for half the divorce cases in the same year was domestic violence.
It is with some frustration that Lisa Vetton, a young rape counsellor from People Opposing Women Abuse (POWA) says: ‘The Government has set up commissions around abortion and censorship, so I see no reason why rape can’t follow.’
POWA and a range of other women’s organizations have been campaigning for decades for a fundamental change to rape law in South Africa. They assumed that they would find a sympathetic ear and quick action from the new Government. But the issue hasn’t been raised in Parliament, even by women MPs.
The teething troubles of the new Parliament are not the only problem. Other factors include the relatively junior positions most women occupy and the fact that the new Government has thus far paid little more than lip service to establishing the mechanisms that will give life to gender equality.
Cathy Albertyn notes that few women have been elected to chair the all-important parliamentary standing committees, where both policy and draft laws are carved out. She’s also concerned that ‘no-one has taken political responsibility for driving the process’. The Gender Commission and the women’s desks in every ministry, which will be instrumental in carrying out women-friendly policies, are not on the parliamentary drawing board yet. ‘There’s not even a budget for the Gender Commission,’ says Albertyn.
Women in Parliament are going to pull up their socks, hitch up their kaftans and lobby hard to drive through essential reforms and to establish the mechanisms which will take women’s equality from theory to practice. But Albertyn says the snail’s pace at which gender reform has gone is not just the fault of those in government.
‘What the experience showed is not only the level of disorganization of women in government and Parliament, but also the level of disorganization (of women) in civil society; because we should have lobbied for it more strongly in a more organized fashion.’ But active women in civil society joined the Government en masse after the election. Those who weren’t elected to office were poached from non-governmental organizations, unions and political groups by the Government in its search for the new blood it so badly needed. Women’s organizations that had kept the gender flame burning suffered the loss of both key staff and funding, as aid agencies began channelling money straight to the now-legitimate Government.
The Women’s National Coalition, which did ground-breaking work in organizing women prior to the election, ground to a halt as the cream of its leadership was elected to Parliament. The Coalition was a brave experiment in cross-party solidarity. Established in 1991 to draft a new charter of women’s rights, it drew in women from all major political parties and across all sectors, from trade unionists to academics and business executives. Although it is still limping along, the Coalition has buckled under the strain of party interests being placed before sisterly solidarity.
Women in South Africa have historically organized through the liberation movements, which have now become political parties. ‘Gender was subsumed to national liberation because people responded to the more obvious source of oppression, which was race rather than gender,’ says Albertyn. Many women feel that progress will best be achieved by remaining in this political mainstream. They argue that trying to forge national unity among women in a country with schisms of race and class like South Africa is doomed. A young woman activist says: ‘We need to network around specific issues and form local coalitions around abortion, employment, health or whatever.’
But there’s a growing lobby that says South Africa needs an independent women’s movement. Debbie Bonnin is one of the editors of the feminist journal AGENDA. She argues that there is an over-reliance on women MPs and that ‘we should form a national independent women’s movement which will put the interests of women first, as opposed to the interests of political parties, churches or unions’.
This vigorous and public debate about the best way forward for South Africa’s women marks the revitalization of their struggle for a better life. In it is perhaps the beginning of a strong women’s lobby which will keep the parliamentary sisters on their toes. But they too are catching on to the fact that women can organize across party lines. Bridget Mabandla says they’ve begun negotiations for a multi-party caucus in Parliament: ‘If our focus is on the nation, we need to think of a broader forum.’
Even more heartening are the signs that women outside Parliament are also mustering their forces. Late last year POWA held a public, no-holds-barred ‘Speak Out’ on rape. Five women who had been raped told their stories in public. One had been pulled from a car one night and gang-raped. Another had been brutally beaten and repeatedly raped by her husband. Their shocking stories, told to the public in front of their MPs, were an urgent and eloquent demand for law reform.
In the same week women in the rural area of Moutse started their own radio station. The first broadcast was a party and great fun. Now the station’s going to be used as a development tool. It will tell women about everything from new health-care programmes to the best ways of fencing off their land.
South African women are finding their voices. Those voices need to boom out so that women can seize the moment and reap the benefits that their newly-won democracy has to offer.
Ferial Haffajee is a radio journalist. She is based in Johannesburg.
FRAGMENTS OF THE DAWN
Our oppressed minds
'Things changed here with dramatic speed. During the 1980s we were worried that there was going to be a lot of turmoil and confrontation. Although there is some level of confrontation now, it’s of a different type. At that time we were always taking to the streets – and I agreed with that. But since 1990 I always want to say: ‘Why can’t people sit down and discuss some of the problems we encounter?’
For years repression has taught us to resist. Even now we still believe that we should keep pushing. We cannot connect the idea of freedom with reality. For example, I talked to a union of prisoners and they demanded that all prisoners should be free. And I remember thinking: ‘If that is freedom, if that is democracy, then it’s a problem.’
The priority is for all citizens to know their rights. By knowing your rights you are then able to understand the limits to those rights. Sometimes we get confused by the mechanisms we use – by ‘resistance’ we mean taking to the streets. I’m sure we’ve never known any other way. I think there has to be a concerted programme of teaching us how to use other channels to raise our problems, our resistance, in a way that does not disrupt our advance.
I am not saying we should all be ‘cleaned up’ and become ‘college people’. We call ourselves a more democratic society and we should start there, with all the people. It’s a process of education – and I do not see it starting yet.
What I would like to do is incorporate my political ideas within my profession as an educational psychologist. When I was an activist I would go to conferences, I would spread my energy. Now I want to focus on what I am qualified to do. I want to work on our attitudes, our oppressed minds. I think if I don’t incorporate my political ideas within my profession I’ll be missing the point. But I’m not going to lose my political background.
Baby Tyawa acted as researcher on the NI’s 1987 film Girls Apart.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995