A couple of days ago we celebrated National Women’s Day again, and as is customary we recalled the women’s march to Pretoria, when on the 9th of August 1956 more than twenty thousand women marched to the Union Buildings to protest against the apartheid system and in particular the introduction of passes for women. This year, however, the challenges that our society is faced with force us even more than in years before to take stock of how far we have progressed – or failed to progress – with regards to women’s rights.
One cannot avoid a sense of deep discomfort in acknowledging that our society is failing to live up to the ideals that those courageous women marched for. Yes, the historical context of their march was to protest against the racist pass law system, but underlying that specific issue was the demand by women for recognition as full and equal human beings with no gender based discrimination and exploitation whatsoever.
Since 1956 we have come a long way. Our Constitution guarantees full and equal rights to all our citizens regardless of gender. It also recognises the harsh realities of the awful legacy of various forms of discrimination which were not only race based, but also gender based, and supports affirmative and corrective action. We should all be proud, that coming out of the de-humanising apartheid system, we have managed to lay such a sound foundation on which to build our future.
The African National Congress should indeed take particular pride in this achievement, and this is especially true for all the courageous women who were part of the liberation struggle. Throughout the long years of the struggle their courageous contributions in every aspect of the struggle – including also the armed struggle – ensured that liberation from discrimination was never only defined in the narrow sense of race, but throughout included gender discrimination. If we carefully read what the women who marched in 1956 to the Union Buildings demanded, we find that they did not only raise the issue of the pass laws being racist, but stated that specifically as women they carried a double discriminatory burden and were indeed suffering the brunt of the inhumane and brutal apartheid system.
One of the greatest contributions of our women comrades to our struggle was the clarity of purpose that they always brought with regards to unity. The understanding that as women – regardless of race – they had to unite to fight both racism and sexism. The composition of the leadership of the 1956 march – as well the multi-racial composition of the marchers that followed them – was deliberate and delivered a clear message of unity across the racial divides of apartheid. It is worthwhile to recall the names of those great women leaders again: Lilian Ngoyi, Sophie de Bruyn, Amina Cachalia and Helen Joseph.
At this juncture in the history of our liberation struggle we can learn valuable lessons from how those women comrades worked for and maintained unity in order to put up the strongest resistance to apartheid. They understood very well that the apartheid system was trying to shatter the unity of the women of South Africa by selectively only introducing passes for African women, and through the notorious Group Areas Act forcing various racial groups to live in separate areas, with hierarchies of privilege and race classification.
They understood that the white apartheid regime was using divide and rule tactics, and they successfully resisted these by confronting the racist enemy with a united struggle front. It is critically important that we learn from them, and treasure the paramount importance of disciplined unity in our continuing struggle for full liberation.
Despite acknowledging all of these positive elements, honesty demands from us to return to the deep discomfort that I referred to at the beginning of this article. Twenty three years into our democracy we must not only be concerned – but indeed distraught – about the deeply rooted sexism and gender inequalities that continue to exist within our South African society. There is a glaring disjuncture between the equal rights that our Constitution theoretically guarantee, and the gender based inequalities that women (especially black and African women in particular) suffer at home, in the work environment and overall in our society. It is a disgrace that women continue to earn less than men – even in exactly the same jobs – and that their chances of promotion to top decision-making and management positions continue to be severely hampered by their gender.
This institutional discriminatory violence also translates into physical violence against women and children (especially girl children) – often by men that they know. The staggering figures of incidences of violence against women are appalling, it is even more disconcerting to remember that there is a huge problem of under-reporting of violence against women. In the instances where it is reported one cannot but help to notice with utter dismay that male members of the ANC have also been implicated. This is a disgrace that must be called out without any hesitation. The ANC is the leader of society and ANC members have a particular responsibility to set an example for gender equality and to behave in an exemplary manner, upholding our commitment to a non-racial and non-sexist society.
It is a tragedy, and totally unacceptable, that women and girl children so often fear for their safety and their lives. It cannot be that women do not feel safe to move around freely anywhere in South Africa at any time – whether it is at day or night. The fact that the current reality is that they cannot do so, is a very serious indictment on our society and specifically on how men conduct themselves.
Any form of misogyny, sexist attitudes expressed in whatever manner, and specifically gender based violence must be exposed and resisted with every effort that we can possibly muster. The ANC as the progressive leader of society must take the lead in this and ensure that the conduct of all our members are exemplary and any member of the ANC who makes himself guilty of any abuse of women – regardless of his seniority or position in the organisation – should be sanctioned severely, and the law must take its course to the fullest extent without any hesitation, delay or favouritism.
The unequivocal stance that Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, in her capacity as a senior NEC Member of the ANC, took concerning the assault of a woman by Deputy Higher Education Minister Mduduzi Manana perpetrated (and which he had admitted to), by insisting that the law should immediately take its course and that there should be no favouritism must be commended. The decision of the ANC National Working Committee that disciplinary procedures are being instituted against him is also to be welcomed.
It is my belief that in the context the of the overall insidious sexism that continues to prevail throughout our society the strong push within the ANC that the time had come to elect a woman ANC President is an important move which is long overdue – but if anything the time for it has now truly arrived. Obviously any woman candidate will first and foremost have to be a competent presidential candidate – but the fact that she is a woman at this juncture in our history where we have to challenge every form of gender discrimination, must be considered to be in itself an important competence. I have deliberately listed the names of the four women who led the 1956 women’s march to the Union Buildings because any-one of them could in terms of competence easily have become the President of the ANC and of South Africa, but they were never even considered because of the patriarchal attitudes in our society.
That an extremely well qualified and competent woman presidential candidate such as Dr. Dlamini Zuma is still even today subjected to sexist and patriarchal remarks trying to define her simply as the ‘ex-wife’ of President Zuma is a sad indication of how insidious and persistent these discriminatory attitudes are. As Dr. Dlamini Zuma herself remarked, this is even worse when it comes from fellow women and comrades in the ANC. These comrades, especially the women comrades, should remember that to take on board the discriminatory divide and rule strategies of the enemies of our full liberation, is only to weaken ourselves and to delay the ultimate achievement of our liberation. It is time for all of us in the ANC who believes that every form of discrimination must come to an end to unite in ensuring that a strong and competent woman will be elected as President of the ANC in December at our National Elective Conference.
The great historical example of the unity of purpose that all the women who marched in 1956 presented to us should guide us. MKMVA, together with the ANC Women’s League and the ANC Youth League, have in pursuit of such unity formally declared ourselves in favour of comrade Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. Our clarion call to all who understand the demands and challenges that we face to fight every form of discrimination, is for unity around her candidature. The basic reality is that: Divided we will fail, but United we will Prevail.
Although it is important that the ANC must take the lead to fight gender discrimination, it is obvious that every sector of society must participate and take urgent action to root out the scourge of sexism. Every single South African – without exception – must declare #notinmyname.
August as Women’s Month helps us all to place renewed emphasis and commitment on the creation of a truly equal and non-sexist society. However, in reality every day of every month of every year should be dedicated to this ideal, which none of us can ignore or compromise about in any manner whatsoever.
By Carl Niehaus*
*Carl Niehaus is a former member of the NEC of the ANC and an NEC member of the Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association (MKMVA)
All Carl’s articles can also be found on his blog, Carl’s Corner: www.carlniehaus.co.za