When thinking about South Africa’s transition into democracy, we think about decades of struggle, freedom fighters, and the first democratic elections held in 1994. What we often don’t think about -and what most history books don’t mention -is the vital role of women and women’s movements in shaping the democratic society we enjoy today.
For as long as we have had political movements in this country, we have had women’s movements. Interestingly, from the very first political organisation established in 1902, the majority of political groups have included some form of women’s auxiliary – such as the Women’s League (ANCWL) of the African National Congress (ANC).
In the 1950s the struggle gained momentum and women mobilised under the banner of the Federation of South African Women, writing the first Women’s Charter and in 1956, 20 000 women marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest against the unjust pass laws. The aforementioned women’s movement was acknowledged as a credible political organisation and as we celebrated Women’s Day on 9 August, we should recognise that women have participated in the struggle for democracy since the beginning.
Throughout the struggle for democracy, women’s movements were dually committed to the fight for national liberation as well as the promotion of women’s interests, but in the 1990s it became clear the emancipation of women had to be prioritised if it were ever to be addressed. Unsurprisingly, women began to mobilise around specific issues outside of their political affiliations and formal political organisations.
The Women’s National Coalition (WNC) was formed in 1990 – a non-partisan collective of women from more than 90 organisations across race and party lines – campaigning for gender equality to be included as one of the key premises of new South African constitution. Women were not initially included in democratic negotiations but the WNC and its members demanded that women’s rights be heard and included in the process, going so far as to threaten to boycott elections and withdraw their support at a critical time.
The message was loud and clear: there would be no democracy and no national liberation until women’s emancipation was realised.
The WNC campaign for gender equality through the drafting of a Women’s Charter and their initiatives led to the creation of a National Gender Machinery (NGM) which included the Office of the Status of Women, gender desks across all state departments and the autonomous Commission for Gender Equality. Comprehensive legislation such as the Domestic Violence Act, the Maintenance Act, the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act and the Choice of Termination of Pregnancy Act were all passed in the first five years of our democracy, campaigned for by feminist activists who entered parliament as leaders of the WNC.
Structures within the NGM were poorly resourced from the beginning, understaffed, and lacked leaders with the political will to support them and a lot of progress was rolled back under the Zuma government. Institutions were dismantled and replaced with a ministry for women, children and the disabled, where the focus on women’s issues was diluted and ministers loyal to Zuma were installed. The same ANC Women’s League that in the 1990s threatened to boycott elections if women’s rights were not heard, marched to the Union Buildings in 2015 in support of rape-accused Zuma, with the slogan “Hands off our president”, proving that the ANCWL had become nothing more than a mouthpiece for the men of the ANC.
Unfortunately, there has been no united movement or umbrella organisation to promote women’s interests – only small, fragmented organisations competing against one another for resources with a diminished capacity in keeping government accountable. Political scientist Amanda Gouws from Stellenbosch University calls them “temporal localised movements” – short-term alliances that intensely mobilise around specific issues or pieces of legislation in a way to engage the state and then disappear after reaching their goals.
Over the last two decades we’ve seen civil society’s traditional participation in democracy shift towards direct collective action, largely influenced by social media platforms and the onset of online hashtag campaigns. In 2015, the #EndRapeCulture campaign spread rapidly across social media and was especially prolific on university campuses. In 2018, the #TotalShutdown campaign was launched in response to gender-based violence (GBV) issues such as intimate femicide and sexual violence perpetrated against women.
In September 2019, thousands of South Africans gathered outside parliament in a country-wide protest to denounce GBV after a spate of brutal attacks against women and girls throughout Women’s Month in August of that year. The #AmINext campaign ignited across social media after multiple cases of violence against women made headlines, including the story of 19-year-old student Uyinene Mrwetyana.
During the Anti-GBV demonstrations, politicians acknowledged the plight of women, made promises of “swift action” and included gendered sections in their party manifestos, but have been slow to enact legislation and implement meaningful changes that address the root causes of violence against women in South Africa.
We’ve heard about the spike in cases of violence against women during the COVID-19 lockdown with several stories emerging around the country of women and girls being raped and murdered, most notably the murder Tshegofatso Pule in Gauteng, who was eight months pregnant at the time. The Anti-GBV protests held on social media due to social distancing measures were markedly less impactful than the mass demonstrations of 2019.
However, the recurring mobilisation of women via social media platforms has allowed a movement centred on a single issue to meaningfully participate in democracy. Continued collective action may be the catalyst needed to form a new umbrella women’s movement with representatives that engage the state, have access to NGM institutions and facilitate participation in decision-making processes. We’re witnessing the emergence of a new generation of women activists and feminists equipped with a new set of tools to dismantle gender inequality and ensure that women’s rights are heard.
*Troup is a Senior Researcher at S-RM Corporate Intelligence and Risk Consulting in Cape Town. This article is based, in part, on her recent Master’s degree in International Studies at Stellenbosch University.