14/06/2012. Basic Education Minister, Angie Motshekga during a media briefing to hihglight recent development in Basic Education, held in Pretoria. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi

Sex workers have a champion in ANC Women’s League president Angie Motshekga. But that doesn’t mean decriminalising their activities will be on the table at the party’s national conference in December.

Reports have suggested the league would make a strong case for taxpaying prostitutes at Mangaung, but Motshekga says this was not necessarily so.

Instead, decriminalising sex work will stay on its radar, but cannot be taken forward until everyone agrees – and the league was “not there yet”. At the moment, says Motshekga, they would “not be able to fight successfully for it”, even though it’ll be up for discussion at the party’s policy conference at Gallagher Estate at the end of the month.

The issue of sex work popped up, quite surprisingly, in the league’s gender policy discussion document released in May, which was prepared for Gallagher. Proposals taken up at that gathering are expected to be confirmed at Mangaung in December, so it’s serious business.

But Motshekga emphasises that prostitutes weren’t given more than “two paragraphs”.

“It’s not something we would commonly discuss, but it was strengthened by us showing an interest because of concerns raised around women and health. Our understanding was deepened when Sweat (the Cape Town sex workers’ NGO) said ‘we see you have taken an interest’, and the league said ‘we do, but we do not have the depth’. They gave us that depth.”

The South African Law Reform Commission (SALRC) has been investigating what to do with prostitution for an astonishingly long time, but there have only ever been three choices. Sex work can stay illegal, as it is now, or it can be regulated or decriminalised. The league doesn’t pitch one way or the other, but says it’s looking to “embrace the dignity of women”.

“What I expect at the policy conference is a huge reaction from the men and women from the ANC,” says Motshekga. “But so far we know that even the women have been taken aback – our own women. Many of them are not ready, because they say they are not sure of the implications.

“They want to be assured that we would not be creating another form of decadence. Those that don’t want this would argue that we supported termination of pregnancy, and now it’s creating problems. There are no parallel support programmes, so the women in the league are using this to say ‘yes, we’ll take it up, but we do not think it will win’.”

It may sound like the president of the league is taking the route of least resistance. But Motshekga – who survived President Jacob Zuma’s cabinet reshuffle last week as the Minister of Basic Education – sounds buoyant.

She explains the democratic processes of the league and laughs lightly as she imagines ANC “senior officials being worried and asking: ‘Where does this come from, and why are you raising it?’

Prostitution has been illegal in SA for more than 50 years. But Motshekga says that ultimately “there hasn’t been enough time to canvass adequately for (decriminalisation) – there’s not enough groundwork to say what is the alternative”.

“We might say, yes, we agree with you on principle, but there are those who feel worried. Would we not be encouraging young girls to become interested in sex work?

“Even ourselves, within the league, have to find a very delicate balance, like a mother in a household. For example, we don’t all agree on polygamy and we find it a very sensitive issue. We do have those conflicts and sometimes to avoid any further schisms, we say, let’s accept that we don’t agree.”

The issue of decriminalising prostitution has shifted the ANCWL a little more into the spotlight – a place it hasn’t occupied for years, possibly since the Jacob Zuma rape trial six years ago. And even if its motives were, perhaps, misunderstood on that one, now is a crunch moment for the organisation, which has been criticised for seemingly refusing to take the party to task on difficult issues. It’s just been too quiet for too long.

Motshekga agrees.

She feels the time is now ripe to step up. Even she is growing weary of the women’s voice being hushed within the party. And after the league’s national executive committee meeting in Boksburg last month, she spoke about “the elephant of patriarchy” being “all over”.

She told journalists after that meeting that “as women, especially women in the ANC, which is very powerful and can shape the thinking of government, we need to push boundaries to ensure women’s issues are thought about at every level”.

The organisation itself, says Motshekga, needs to be pushed.

“We have been having capacity problems, and we need to sort that out in order to be able to go and report what has happened immediately after things happen.

“We inherited a very weak structure for that which we wanted to do. We wanted to build solid structures in every ward so that we would be able to take up women’s battles at grassroots level, so we have now been spending lots of time going to provinces, assessing, building proper branches which are functional to do that essential below-the-radar work.”

And it is that below-the-radar work which is most critical. It was all very well, says Motshekga, to see members in their black and green league uniforms at The Spear protest outside the Goodman Gallery, but that’s “not really the point”.

The gender policy document captures the degree of trouble for us, hardened by a fresh report on women in the world which shows that SA was fourth in the world for the worst place for women to live. Canada, Germany, Britain, Australia and France are the top five in a perceptions poll of 370 gender specialists conducted by TrustLaw, a legal news service run by Thomson Reuters Foundation.

At the other end were India, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, SA and Mexico.

It makes sense, then, that the ANCWL’s document is not at all happy about how little progress has been made here towards the gender equality envisaged in 1994. The league’s constituency is deeply unhappy. At least 28 percent of women are unemployed and women earn less, while a mere 10 percent of Chief executives and board chairpersons are women, with less than 20 percent in executive management.

The ANCWL wants government job creation to aim at least at a 50/50 split. They want women to get 50 percent of tenders and contracts from the state and for this, they insist upon proper training – even an institute that will give women the edge they so desperately need.

But from Motshekga’s point of view, this is all very well, but it’s not only about the law. Women struggle even at home, which is why she’s so insistent on breaking down the patriarchy that saw us nudged into such an uncomfortable position in that latest poll.

“It is a very tedious exercise to get the branches going and to get everyone in those branches to buy in, but we’re finding it does pay dividends and some have been successful. If there’s a case of rape, our women will be there in the morning. If a mother has passed away and her family’s been struggling alone for three months, we expect our branches to be there.

“Especially in Mpumalanga, we’re finding that women within wards are taking up those kinds of daily battles, whereas in North West we have had setbacks because we just didn’t have branches which could take up any campaign reports.

“The information we were receiving was not very truthful, and there was a huge fallout with leadership in the provinces, so that kind of thing means it takes a lot to re-establish a structure.”

The policy conference has helped the league focus.

“We know we must keep clear on broad issues about policy, advocacy and governance, but sometimes our relationships with other organisations have been a bit ad hoc because of capacity. It actually helps us to work with other organisations because then we do not have to invest lots of resources. Campaigns can be led by others and then we can do our part.

“When there are issues that affect us broadly in society, such as rape cases, when churches come forward to mobilise, we can piggyback on that. We must also believe that if we want to lead, we also have to be led.”

But Motshekga is worried that the league is not attracting highly skilled women. That, she says, has got to change. Perceptions have got to be “fixed up” so that professionals – “lawyers, economists, such like” – are not put off by a women’s agenda that seems too closely tied to the mother party.

“We know that the economic empowerment of women is just not getting off the ground. The skills revolution is not happening. And we could also see how much more powerful women could be when the skilled stood up for them, like it was around the Traditional Courts Bill. We needed those independent thinkers and women in law who said: ‘please wake up; there’s a problem here’.

“We should be able to work above our political divides to really raise alarm bells. It’s not about party politics. It’s about women. And we know that because we’re in the ANC, in the majority in government, we can push for something to be taken to the cabinet and be urgently prioritised. That’s our advantage.”