Once we, the women of South Africa, were warriors
During times of war, the strength of women comes to the fore. Women bring stability, comfort and food security to their homes. They keep the economy going, occupying the spaces of workers and managers. It is known that during World War Two, women shattered rigid gender roles by performing work socially associated with men. In the late 20th and current 21st Centuries, women even went into battle.
South Africa is no exception. Women participated and led in all facets of South Africa’s liberation struggle, most notably in the 1980s. Women were not merely confined to support roles; they were in the trenches literally, being active members of Umkhonto we Sizwe and in the ANC underground structures; and figuratively, mobilising and leading mass-based organisations across the various sectors of society. National icons of that era included the likes of Winnie Mandela, Cheryl Carolus, and Gaby Shapiro. In the Western Cape, persons like Koleka Mqulwana, Regina Isaacs, and Carla Sutherland, a lesser-known, slightly younger generation, but equally militant and powerful, are just some of the many women who were distinguished freedom fighters. South African women, while known for beauty and grace, were never viewed as fragile. Indeed, once we were warriors.
Given the phenomenal role played by women to remove the apartheid regime and to begin the reconstruction of a democratic South Africa, how does one explain the societal regressive reinforcement of gender-based biases? In particular, how does one explain the continued and unfathomable prevalence of violence against women, specifically intimate partner violence and sexual violence? Could the refusal of South African women to embrace a post-war, ‘back to the kitchen’ scenario be a factor?
It was inevitable that the assertiveness of women, displayed during our liberation struggle, would manifest itself in the governance trajectory of an ANC-headed government. Gender-specific transformational initiatives included legislative and statutory provisions to guarantee women with fundamental political rights, access and opportunities; equality in the economy and the workplace; and the general promotion and enforcement of the human rights and social and physical protection of women.
Institutional support took the form of a women’s department with dedicated, budgeted, measurable programmes that promote equality, empowerment and access for women to education, the economy and social security and to enforce gender-mainstreaming across government. South Africa ranks 2nd in Africa and 5th in the world in representation of women in Parliament [StatsSA, 2014]. Post-1994, we saw more women accessing education, including higher education and South Africa’s adult female literacy rate was 92.59 percent and the youth female literacy rate 99.27 percent in 2015.
The gender-friendly legislation, programmatic and institutional reforms occurred because South Africa has phenomenal women. South African women have vision and are determined to be key players in driving progressive change. But maybe, just maybe, our greatness is something that South African men are not ready for? When a traditional sub-ordinate emerges to be an equal; intellectually, politically, and economically; maybe the only resort that remains is to rely on and demonstrate superiority, physically?
According to Hofmeester (2018), “South Africa's history is marred by brutality where violence was used as a legitimate means to acquire power, assert interests and address conflict. The normalisation of violence constructed a society in which violence became a mode of communication. It became a norm. The violent ideology and aggressive enforcement of apartheid stripped black people of their rights and human dignity and achieved this in significantly gendered ways. Dominant patriarchal constructions of masculinity under apartheid, in collaboration with white supremacist ideology, and in addition with woman's inferior position in South Africa, effortlessly facilitated the gross violations committed against their bodies.”
We might have defeated the system of apartheid-colonialism. But its socio-economic scars remain. It instilled a patriarchal mindset that defines a man’s identity based on his capacity to exert power and demonstrate his superiority over women and believing in an inherent right to dominate the spheres of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege and control of property. It is a mindset that is reinforced by an economic system that keeps men in a constant state of psychological insecurity as their labour is exploited and/ or their capacity to exploit others is celebrated. This same economic system keeps the vast majority of women dependent on men for money, food and shelter.
Gender-based violence is one of the crudest manifestations of patriarchy, but there are many other manifestations that demonstrate society’s reinforcement of gender-based inequalities and disrespect. Women, black women in particular, still carry the brunt of poverty, inequality and unemployment and still occupy the lower strata of the employment space. According to StatsSA (2018), the unemployment rate for women is higher than that of men, and women are less likely to participate in the labour market.
South African women are saying, “No more”! We have had enough of being relegated to the backseats of power. When women gathered at the International Women’s Conference that preceded the general meeting of the Socialist Second International in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1910, and proposed that 8 March be “International Women’s Day”, they did so knowing that the liberation of women was strongly linked to changing relations in society; and that relations in society can only be changed when an economic system that thrives on greed, is replaced. As people who associate ourselves with this determination, South African women contend that we will not be stripped of our role as warriors. We will continue to fight until patriarchy is defeated.
Just as we give birth to children; we will give birth to justice. Just as we are home-makers, we will create a peaceful and prosperous world. But just as child-rearing and home-making are important functions that should be the collective tasks of both parents; fighting patriarchy and the economic system that underpins it should be a collective task in which all South Africans participate as equals. Together we can build a united, non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous South Africa.
* Reneva Fourie is a policy analyst specialising in governance, development and security.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.