The koeksuster tannies of the ANC?

On Thursday, some 1000 women will converge on Kimberley for what will surely be the largest all female gathering in South Africa since Lilian Ngoyi led the march on Pretoria in 1956. 

Then, the “mothers” of the African National Congress were fighting - at the most basic level - for their freedom, for the right to exist without a dompas. This week, at the first national congress of the ANC’s Women’s League, their daughters (and in many cases themselves) will be doing something entirely different: charting a future for the role women will play in the ANC, and for the role women’s rights will play in a democratic South Africa. 

“This might sound idealistic,” says Tenjiwe Mtintso, an Umkhonto we Sizwe commander and former ANC chief representative to Uganda; “but we are striving for nothing less than a restructuring of South African society. If we are to move to democracy, we have to redress the gender imbalances that leave women powerless, mute and exploited.” It sounds like a tall order for the first three-day conference of a fledgling organisation. And there is an acknowledgement by women in the ANC that before they can start rewriting the lobola laws or appointing female judges or mandating that South Africa’s particularly macho men share the responsibility of housework and childrearing, they have to get their own house in order. 

Currently, there are only three women on the 35-member national executive committee, two women in that first famous delegation that went to meet President FW de Klerk a year ago, one on the movement’s constitutional committee and, even in the most “gender-liberated” sector of the ANC, the diplomatic corps, only six out of the 44 chief representatives are women. And this, says the Women’s League, is certainly not for want of talent.
Co-convenor Gertrude Shope explains that “women have been socialised into keeping quiet. So even though South Africa ‘s women play important leadership role on the family and community level, when they are in a meeting, they just won’t put their views forward, or make their needs known.” 

The first task of the Women’s League, she believes, is to provide a “training centre” for women within the ANC “where they can learn and practise their leadership skills by working with each other on issues that explicitly concern them. Then, on a national political level, they will be empowered enough to work with men as their equals”. A training centre and also a think-tank. “There is so much on the ANC agenda already,” says Mtintso, “that it is up to us to come up with solution to gender imbalance. And once we come up with these solutions, we must use our power - we are, after all, 53 percent of the population - to implement them.” 

Already, the Women’s League has three potential short-term solutions that it will debate at the Kimberley conference and take to the national ANC conference in June. The first is a proposal, from current leadership, that 17 positions on an expanded NEC of 105 be reserved for women from the league. But the league is determined that, if the proposal goes through, these positions will not be used as a sop to calls for gender equality in the movement. “Just because the Women’s League has 17 ex-officio members on the NEC,” says PWV executive member Feroza Adam, “doesn’t mean women mustn’t be taken more seriously than ever for other leadership positions throughout the ANC.”

To ensure that women are seriously  considered, the league will propose to the ANC that a quota system be applied in all internal elections: that at least 30 percent of the nominations for any elected post in the ANC, from branch level to national leadership level be women. And women in the ANC have already proposed a National Women’s Emancipation Commission that will act as something of a sexism-watchdog in the movement: it will monitor and expose instances of gender discrimination, and it will make sure that affirmative action is adhered to. “This proposal was adopted by the NEC in 1987, but the commission still hasn’t been established,” says Adam. “We will insist, at the national conference in June, that it be a priority.” 

Through the commission, the league will ensure that women have positions in all sectors of the ANC. It will also set itself up as an affirmative action placement agency, supplying ANC departments with the names of qualified potential staffers. “We have already been doing this with the International Affairs Department,” says Mtintso. “Last week we gave them a long list of women who would be qualified for chief representative positions.” 

Perhaps the most important task the Kimberley conference faces is the election of its own president and executive. Although a week before the conference no one had declared her interest and no nominations had been tendered, there are three obvious contenders for the senior position: Shope and Albertina Sisulu, who are currently co-convenors of the league - and Winnie Mandela. Rumours are rife that Mandela is interested in the position, and that no one is willing to challenge her. “Many of us think she will be entirely unsuitable,” says one delegate, “and we are frantically trying to find someone who is prepared to stand against her.

There are clearly two tendencies within the league. On the one side there is a group, many of whom are older, who still see women primarily as “mothers”: mothers of the nation, mothers of the heroes, mothers of men. This group tends to define a woman’s power in terms of her traditional care-giving status. On the other side is a younger, more radical group, many of whom have been in exile or who have been influenced by feminism, either here or abroad. They see the league’s role as creating a non-gendered society in which women are valued not primarily for their reproductive systems but as equal members of society. 

At best, the Kimberley conference will elect a leadership that reconciles these two tendencies to become a for midible force within the ANC. At worst it could be marginalised into an ANC Ladies’ Auxiliary, substituting pap for koeksusters, perhaps, but re¬maining in the role of providing organisational support to the men on the frontline.

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.

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