Time for women to make history yet again

In her preface to Karina Turok’s book, Life and Soul: Portraits of Women Who Move South Africa, Mamphela Ramphele celebrates the strength of women, their resilience and resolve in the face of adversity. Echoing an earlier period of women’s struggle — in this case against the hated pass laws — Ramphele reminds us of the resolute spirit that inspired 20 000 women to march to the Union Buildings in a direct challenge to apartheid oppression.

On August 9, National Women’s Day, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of that fearless march, we are humbled by the memory of how South African women took a bold step to become the makers of history. The legendary phrase that captures the force and spirit of that historic event sums it up for me: Wathint’abafazi; wathint’imbokotho (You have struck women; you have struck a rock).

Drawing strength from the momentum created five decades ago by women who united across class and racial lines, many South African women have carried the torch forward and distinguished themselves in business, government, religious institutions, academia, and community organisations. Standing tall, strong and talented, women are today visible at the highest levels of leadership in several sectors of society — and there are many more on the horizon, poised to lead with the same fearlessness and spirit of resolve witnessed 50 years ago on the steps of the Union Buildings.

The successes of women who have achieved in life are everywhere visible: in Parliament, in local government, in non-governmental organisations and in business. As part of celebrating Women’s Day, local magazines have given us a good sense of the strength and visibility of women who are trailblazers in various corporate organisations. These women’s stories are celebrated as examples of how far we have come. They make us proud.

Yet there is another group of women who remain largely unacknowledged. The tradition of women’s courageous spirit continues to live through the stories of ordinary women whose visibility is confined to the communities they serve. These are the women in the “trenches” of South African rural and urban areas who face the day-to-day struggles of poverty, HIV/Aids, crime and insecurity, and sexual violence against themselves and their children. These are women who have formed a grassroots movement of social supports — creating livelihoods, caring for others, giving support and trying to build a sense of safety in their communities. These women, every day, are keeping the spirit of 1956 alive.

The struggle for respect, freedom and dignity that brought women to Pretoria half a century ago was a struggle against apartheid. In the 50 years since, women, wherever they are, have made huge advances. Our Constitution, as well as the leadership of President Thabo Mbeki, is strong on issues of gender equality. Women continue, as they must, to mobilise, to gain strength in their networks, and to fight for equality and against injustice.

The enemy, however, is no longer apartheid. The enemy is an old system that unites women across colour and class lines — the system of patriarchy. The growing change in gender dynamics and the courageous manner in which women are increasingly making their voices heard is challenging those who want to preserve this social relic.

In recent months, no event illustrated this problem like the Jacob Zuma rape trial, which focused our thoughts sharply on the issue of patriarchy. A chorus of voices from the leadership of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the African National Congress Youth League and the Young Communist League during the trial seemed to negate all that we have achieved in the past half a century. The attitudes about women revealed in the tenor of their comments — including from those who aspire to become leaders of the African National Congress — are frightening.

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