The Women’s Movement in South Africa Presentation made to Mugarib Gabe

by Shamillah Wilson April 2005

Today – as women across the world (including South Africa) are facing greater inequalities, experiencing the impact of globalization and poverty, subjected to violence, and facing new challenges such as HIV/AIDS, you ask me – where is the women’s movement in South Africa? I suppose that to answer the question of the present and possibilities for the future, it is only appropriate that I take you through the history of women’s organizing and resistance in South Africa.

Like most other societies, South African society is a diverse one with different women experiencing different realities. Therefore, to speak of one women’s movement as an expression of a homogenous group of women with universal interests would be incorrect. In South Africa there have always been strong women’s movements (not one) expressing the different concerns, aspirations, and needs of women defined by amongst others, their class, race and geographic location. Although these different movements often came together, they did not always act as one movement primarily because of their immediate needs and primary demands, different forms of organisations and different methods of organizing and struggles.

However, there are two moments in our most recent history that these movements come together. The first is 9th August 1956, when about 20,000 women marched  to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest against the proposed amendments to the Urban Areas Act of 1950. This Act was meant to “tighten up control of movement of African women to town, registration of their service contracts, and a compulsory medical examination for all African women town-dwellers” (Walker; 1982: p.129). This Act was also meant to extend passes to African women in a form of reference books . The march was organised under the banner of the Federation of South African Women, and challenged the idea that ‘a women’s place is in the kitchen’, declaring it instead to be everywhere’. Although the Prime Minister, JG Strijdom was not at the Union Buildings to accept the petition, the women of South Africa had sent a public message that they would not be intimidated and silenced by unjust laws. As a group that had been marginalized, South African women rose to question the barrier and fought for their emancipation and their families within the political and social fields. Today, this day is celebrated as our National Women’s Day to celebrate and acknowledge the bravery of these women.

The second is the late 1980’s (prior to democracy), where the convergence of aspirations, was to defeat apartheid and create a democratic, non-sexist South Africa. During this time, women’s movements with other social movements participated in a period of heightened mass mobilization and mass activism to end apartheid. At the centre of this mass activism, women’s activism expressed in different organisations and engaging a range of issues, emerged as a coherent and cohesive movement through united action. While women’s actions were not in isolation from the general mass struggles to overthrow apartheid, there was also a specialized focus on women’s struggles particularly around gender related demands. These were led by a variety of organisations – ranging from women’s groups demanding access to services through to feminist kinds of organisations addressing both matters of access to basic services for women and qualitative changes in power relations between women and men in society. While there were no universal women’s interests, there was some kind of “sisterhood” experienced through united action across class, race and any other divides. The political context and environment created conditions for a coherent and cohesive movement mainly amongst the progressive forces though expressed in different organisations.

In the 1990’s, with the unbanning of the ANC and other liberation movements, many of the women’s organizations were dissolved and incorporated within the ANC. The ANCWL immediately set to form the Women’s National Coalition (WNC) as a unit to mobilize, and articulate women’s interests in the transition to democracy. The difficulty at this time, was how to effectively shift from women’s movements engaged in mass mobilization against a repressive regime, to building a new democratic state. Women’s movements at that moment struggled with the conundrum of the State as an important instrument for transforming power relations in society including gender relations, whilst it is also patriarchal and needs to be transformed.

The revolutionary gains since 1994

Since 1994, the WNC managed as a vehicle of women’s movement to achieve some significant gains in addressing some of the issues contributing to women’s inequality within the South African context. These include amongst others:

  • The Constitution – South Africa’s constitution is hailed as one of the most progressive in the world – since it guarantees equal rights for all South Africans, elaborates on all of these and makes guarantees for legislative measures for promotion and protection of
  • Progressive Legislation – Since 1994, women’s groups have effectively lobbied for progressive legistlation such as the Maintenance Act, the Domestic Violence Act and the Choice on the Termination of Pregnancy Act. Other acts include Employment Equity, Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair
  • The National Gender Machinery – Institutionally, provision has been made for the establishment of the Office on the Status of Women (OSW) located in the President’s Office, gender units in all government departments; the Parliamentary Committee on the Improvement of the Quality of Life and Status of Women (CIQLSW); the Women’s Empowerment Unit (WEU); and the Commission on Gender Equality (CGE), all with varying roles to ensure adherence to the constitutional
  • International Legislation – South Africa is a signatory to international conventions and agreements such as the Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Beijing Platform for Action (BPFA) to count a few. Reports confirm the strides that have been made in implementing these commitments.
  • Access – The fact that more than 30% of members of parliament (including those in Ministerial and Deputy Ministerial positions). So there is access and substantive participation of women in decision making processes at the highest.

The constitutional, legislative and institutional gains as well as access and participation creates an environment and conditions for transformation. Whilst, there has been a change in women being able to regain their dignity and taking responsibility for their lives, in general, the pace of changing the power relations between women and men have been slow. Also, the above gains reflect a focus  on technocratic efficiency, rather than a substantive commitment to structural change or institutional transformation. For example, there has been more focus on increasing the number of women parliamentarians, and a lack of focus on transforming the institution. Related to this is the fact that issues of  gender seemed to have been taken up mostly through state policy or parliamentary committees, rather than through civic society and independent women’s movements. This has shaped a specific climate around what gender equity entails and who should drive it.

The State of the Women’s Movement

Whilst the movements managed to initiate and achieve major institutional changes, within the women’s movement, the result of many more women participating in the political sphere, and hence taking up political and government positions nationally, had the unintended consequence of weakening of structures within the women’s movements more generally and especially at the leadership level. On the one  hand this is reflective of a lack of planning (beyond liberation!!) – and not enough grooming of a younger generation of women to continue the work on the ground.  In addition, although many of our leaders ended up in parliament, there seemed to be a breakdown of structured interaction between gender activists in parliament  and those outside. Experience has shown the importance of those links for the supporting gender activists in male-dominant institutions and also for ensuring that they are constantly in the loop of what the needs of women are. While feminist activists strove to figure out what their role would be in a democratic society, some gender activists in parliament especially women, in their day-to-day operation seemed to sometimes forget the gender agenda. Once again, the lack of direct engagement between the activists did not help those within the institutions to prioritize how to integrate the issues of women and gender equality within the broader transformation agenda.

So for South Africa, as in many other countries and contexts, institutionalizing of the women’s movement within the state and within civil society has thrown up various challenges. For one, it has meant a dispersal of feminists into different spheres (political, addressing basic needs, engaging at national – regional and international) which has sometimes made it difficult for the different movements once again to connect, interact and create effective linkages for building on the gains made and for prioritizing some of the fundamentals (gender relations, institutional transformation beyond numbers and also addressing women’s basic needs). While the women’s movements in South Africa struggle to engage and theorize in contexts that are influenced by international phenomena (globalization, war on terrorism), the post-1994 climate has also indicated a complacency suggesting expectations of the State and its machinery to take on the sole role of social (especially gender) justice. This has resulted in a kind of demobilization or role confusion of organs of civil society (including the women’s movements), where previously this sector had taken on a purely antagonistic engagement with the state.

While there has been a decline and fragmentation of the women’s movements, women’s activism has continued within new centres and micro-organisations with a degree of specialization and professionalism. For instance, there is a growth of organisations and networks such as the Network against Violence against Women focusing on the pervasiveness of gender based violence, while new forms of  networks have also emerged such as the Men as Partners Network focusing on mobilizing men in particular for gender equality. Women in there different localities – the rural areas and townships, continue to mobilize and organize especially around their economic and socio-political needs. So, the lack of coordination, cohesiveness and coherency, has resulted in the women’s movements breaking down once again to its different components which are issue- or sector-based.

The challenge we face at this moment, is how to effectively integrate, not structurally, but in action these different struggles into a coherent and vibrant movement that can utilize the strengths of past achievements, current specializations to bring about change. While it is critical that we organize and mobilize independently wherever we are and around our issues, it is also crucial that the bigger picture must not be sacrificed at the altar of the micro level.

Moving Forward

What is needed at this particular moment – given the fact that it is 10 years since Beijing and also just over 10 years since democracy for South Africa, is for the women’s movements to reflect on where we are. We need to assess what is the positive and negative developments that women are facing within society (socially, economically and culturally), and how the women’s movements can once again converge and rise to the challenge of mass activism to effect the transformation we need.

Amongst other things, some of the major challenges facing the movement are to:

  • Externally: Re-prioritise the feminist agenda of breaking down patriarchy as a system based on and reinforcing the ideology, practices, values, culture, stereotypes and all the manifestations of the unequal power relations between women and men. This would include tackling all socialisation institutions in society starting with the family as agents responsible for creating the new person with real non-sexist values. In addition, the movements needs to effectively integrate into its agenda issues of women’s basic needs, HIV/AIDS and violence against women.
  • Internally: Reflecting on what we can do to become stronger in addressing the challenges facing us in an ever-changing context. This would include relations between movements – different priorities – but with the same goal of social justice. It is important for us to recognize that there are different strands of women’s movements defined by amongst others the aspirations, diversity of needs, interests, issues, methods and organisations. It would not propagate for artificial sisterhood and yet would manage to cut across dividing constructs such as race and
  • How to include and build up a new generation of feminists to take forward the struggle and infuse it with new visions, energies and strategies. These processes are often neglected in favour of the external challenges and due to the fact that as women’s movements we are often reacting to situations and never proactive. It is time that we become proactive in reclaiming our vehicle for
  • We also need to strategize on how to connect with our political representatives and hold them accountable for locating gender equality within the broader struggles and the movement for transformation in South Africa.

So, as South African women’s movements, as we move forward, we do have a history of women’s struggles and mobilization that we can recall. Our experience has taught us that any change will have to come from the ground, and not necessarily from our institutions of power and that continued fragmentation of our struggles against patriarchy will in the long run lead to the withering away of the women’s movement and the defeat of our agendas. As we make space for women’s movements to articulate their priorities, we also enable the broader women’s movement to move forward with a common agenda and programme around which we unite will act as the glue that will help bind us together. Our greatest challenge is that without the will and ability to organize, we are unlikely to progress far in achieving our visions.

Click here to download: The Women’s Movement in South Africa Presentation made to Mugarib Gabe