How to save herstory

The spirit of the women of 1956, who challenged the might of the apartheid state and won, is with women across our country today as we meet in small and large groups, in rural and urban areas, inside and outside Pretoria. Their song, “You have struck a woman, you have struck a rock,” reverberates down the generations to us.

The point of celebrating herstory is to honour the lessons and deepen the victories.
We honour the courage that our mothers and grandmothers have shown. The great women’s march united Indian, coloured and white women with African women through the Federation of South African Women, against the extension of passes to African women, at a time when race was apartheid’s divisive weapon.

To get to the march, many women must have fought and negotiated to get men to look after the children, to cook and clean while they were away. This is the untold story of that march and of every political action by women—how women organise against patriarchal power, roles and relations in their own homes, organisations and communities to participate in the public domain of leadership and decision-making.

In 1956, many must have won that fight—20 000 women are recorded as having gone to Pretoria. However, many women carried their babies on their backs to Pretoria. Many must have organised the women in their families to take care of the work they would normally have done. For many the great women’s march must have been a turning point—yet many must have had difficulties as they were beaten back into their old roles at home and in their organisations.

Despite the difficulties they faced, women’s struggles during apartheid resulted in South Africa today having one of the most progressive constitutional-legislative frameworks for women’s rights in the world. It is not, however, a time for complacency—there exist devastating compromises (such as the issue of land) and crucial omissions (such as the Sexual Offences Law and the Customary Law on Inheritance and Succession).

Globalisation

After 1994, the poverty and violence that was the legacy of our patriarchal apartheid past was exacerbated by neo-liberal globalisation. Combined with massive levels of HIV/Aids, a disease that thrives on gender inequality, women and girls have borne the brunt of the devastation. Our President, Thabo Mbeki, has yet to give clear, unambiguous leadership on HIV/Aids to his health minister, to the government and to the African National Congress.

There can be no further waste of time and lives in a global world order, dominated by United States President Bush’s policy on abstention, anti-abortion and the protection of patent rights of pharmaceuticals above patients’ right to health and life! Bush’s policy would have us believe that war is the way to peace, democracy and gender equality, from Iraq to Lebanon.

Bush’s funding for HIV/Aids is banned from being used for affordable generic equivalents. Yet, Brazil won the right at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to manufacture and import generic medicine, years back. This was a central factor in enabling its government to provide free treatment for HIV/Aids, which dramatically reduced the crisis in that country, which had been as bad as ours, in the early 1990s.

This victory has not been accessed and extended by countries that need it, such as ours, because of the threat of trade and investment sanctions. Instead of uniting within South Africa, within Africa and across our globe, to challenge the pharmaceuticals’ patents, we have been sidetracked into a nonsensical debate about nutrition versus treatment by the health minister. It is not one or the other; it is both that are needed. We cannot tackle poverty or violence or HIV/Aids as if they are mutually exclusive choices. We need an integrated approach that puts people, women and men’s lives at the centre, in a real, not a rhetorical, way.

We have to recognise that old stereotypes are deeply entrenched: “women are poor and stay in violent relationships because women are inherently weak and stupid” or “bright women are the exception”—Condoleezza Rice and Margaret Thatcher, who advance a patriarchal agenda, are widely promoted role models.

Dangerous stereotypes exist not just of black men, but of women as bearers of disease. Women are stereotyped as either virgin or whore … good women are virgins. Sex is sin—the worst is sex with oneself or with another woman. Women are the eternal temptress, the seducer of good men. Women must be veiled or celibate to claim any spiritual worth. The sexuality and biology of the mother of Christ is erased. His becomes a virgin birth. Sita had to walk through the fire to prove her chastity and fidelity.

Every religion has its unique expression of the same patriarchy. We have to say no to being divided by misogyny—into “good women” and “bad women”, into virgins and whores. Is it coincidence that the Zulu king began promoting virginity testing at the same time that Bush promoted abstention? How easy such public testing makes choosing another virgin bride for kings and chiefs. How easy it makes it to identify virgins for those who rape babies and children in the quest for cure.

Zuma

If anything should have alerted women and progressive men across our country as to how easy it is to manipulate culture as misogyny, it was the rape trial of former deputy president Jacob Zuma. The message of misogyny, the hatred of the female, could not have been conveyed any more powerfully in the week of International Women’s Day: from the burning of photocopied photos of the complainant outside the courtroom itself to the chant of “Burn the bitch, burn her”.

One of Zuma’s woman supporters said that since Zuma was a chief, she had no right to bring disgrace on him, even if he raped her—he owned her and had every right to her. Absolute outrage should have been expressed by our leaders in the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), in the South African Communist Party (SACP), by Zuma himself. He said nothing—the censure from male spokespersons in the SACP and Cosatu was mild, if anything.

Those Zulu men who spoke out were dismissed as “apolitical”, as “not quite Zulu”. We were told that there were bigger political issues at stake. There was a “Zuma camp” and a “Mbeki camp”, and too bad for those of us who fell into neither. “Yes,” we were told, “Zuma has flaws—but who does not?” and “Perhaps he had raped her—but he is not the only one who does such things. Why was his crime exposed?” This trial, we were told, was part of the conspiracy against Zuma, against the working class and the poor. All our legitimate struggles were collapsed into the persona of the great male leader.

None of these male leaders addressed the question of responsibility for the public unleashing of misogyny across our country, through the Friends of Jacob Zuma website, the newspapers, the talk shows on radio and television. This misogyny is going to haunt us for years to come.

In the week of the judgement I addressed a packed hall in Durban, on the gender implications of the Zuma rape trial. A young man stood up, took out his writing pad and read from it. He declared that Zuma was his leader and that from now on he would no longer be wearing a condom, to laughter and applause from many of the young men who filled the back benches and the upstairs gallery.

I would like to believe that he was simply being provocative and did not seriously mean what he said. Others present believed that that he was. The conduct and arguments of the defence and the judge inside the courtroom have dispelled any idealism about the challenges of implementing constitutional commitments to gender equality and justice. The bitter reality of how patriarchal our criminal justice system still is for ordinary women and girls every day was brought under the spotlight. The women who do not report rape are terrified of the “secondary rape” they often experience in the criminal justice system. They are scared not just of the men, but also of the women who chant “burn the bitch” as loudly as the men. The fact is that women, like men, defend our patriarchs.

Myths

During and after the trial, the old misogynistic myths screamed across the headlines. “She asked for it—she wore a skirt, she wore a kanga, she had sex many times before, in fact since childhood.” The ANC court in exile concluded that it was “sex with a child”—the ANC in the government denounces this as statutory rape.

Khwezi’s childhood rapes were used to consolidate a picture of a promiscuous woman who cried rape after consensual sex. Khwezi, who was raped several times as a child, went for psychological treatment after her father’s death. Callers to talk shows labelled her a “mad witch”. The lawyers suggested that since Khwezi has been raped so many times she should have “developed ways of resisting rape”; they sniggered: “Did she leave out shouting for help because it didn’t start with an F?” Zuma’s defence was that he had consensual sex without a condom … he had a shower afterwards—he is the former head of South Africa’s Aids Council and Moral Regeneration Campaign.

During the trial, Khwezi’s home was burgled and ransacked twice, and she and her mother faced death threats. At the end of the trial, Zuma apologised for sleeping with an HIV-positive woman who was not his wife, without a condom. He continued campaigning for president where he had left off. Khwezi lost her freedom at the end of the trial, forced to flee South Africa “for her own safety”. This is not what the women in the great march of 1956 fought for—this is not what women in our liberation movements dreamed would be how South Africa remembers International Women’s Day in 2006.

I have a daughter who is 24 years old. On this 50th anniversary of the women’s march, my wish for her and for all the young women of our country is to have the freedom to walk freely, safely at any time of the day or night, in any part of our country; to have the freedom to wear her clothes and to do her work without the judgement visited on generations before her. These are small, simple, essential freedoms. I want a world where my sons will not be defined by patriarchy and misogyny. I want my sons and my daughter to experience and enjoy both the “masculine” and “feminine” aspects of themselves. South African women have to make the connections … for ourselves, for all our sons and for all our daughters.

Challenge

Leaders of the progressive women’s movement, initiated by the ANC Women’s League, face a massive challenge—to ensure that women and our organisations do not simply ululate the patriarchy. We cannot honour the courage of the women who marched by trading silence for position, for inclusion, for collusion.

Such a movement excludes and marginalises critical voices to the detriment of women in our country. Such a movement cannot be built on the lowest common denominator of unity. It cannot give consent to economic policy choices that increase unemployment and poverty. It cannot give consent when principles and values forged in struggle and sacrifice play second fiddle to political personalities. It cannot give consent when false notions of loyalty ensure silencing in families, in political parties and in women’s organisations on issues as crucial as HIV/Aids. It cannot be silent when a Khwezi is burnt at a modern-day stake.

A progressive women’s movement based on a principled agenda for change can enable South African women to assert themselves very powerfully. Women are not just victims, vulnerable, disadvantaged or marginalised … women have power and agency, which must be respected as central to developing sustainable solutions.

The Growth, Employment and Redistribution Strategy (Gear), South Africa’s macro-economic policy, was designed almost exclusively by white men, several of whom are consultants to the World Bank. Gear argued for “a faster fiscal deficit-reduction programme … a reduction in tariffs … tax incentives to stimulate investment … an expansion of trade and investment flows in Southern Africa … flexibility within the collective bargaining system”. Gear promised: “The strategy below attains a growth rate of 6% per annum and job creation of 400 000 per annum by the year 2000.”

Neither of these targets have been met. The jobs created are mainly in low-paid, vulnerable work. These jobs do not match the increase in the labour force. The result is that unemployment levels as well as the numbers of the “working poor”, particularly among women, have increased. With the focus on attracting foreign direct investment, taxation on the rich, on those who make and take their profits out of South Africa, has not increased, yet regressive taxation—in the form of value-added taxes—continues to tax the poor.

“Money is not the problem; the problem is capacity to spend the money” is the argument often used in defending Gear and the arms deal. The common-sense logic of spending money to develop and retain the necessary capacity seems to escape those who articulate this line.

Workers

However, even prior to Gear, South Africa had already begun trade liberalisation in its implementation of the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT). Tens of thousands of women workers in the clothing and textile sector lost jobs. Women workers to whom I had taught “workers’ rights” in the Garment and Allied Workers’ Union, as national educator, were shunted into the “informal” economy, where there are little or no rights.

What has happened to women workers in South Africa is a case study in the “feminisation of poverty” and the “casualisation” and “informalisation” of women’s work. What does the informal sector mean for these women? It’s all and any work to ensure their own and their family’s survival … whether that work is selling fruit and vegetables at a bus stop or selling their bodies in the growing “sex-tourism industry”.

As long as we have a “vulnerable group” approach, we will have vulnerable groups competing with each other for the few resources thrown their way, rather than changing our economic priorities to change the size of the resources we have to share. The fact is that this policy approach is severely limited. It does not question why it is that in every one of these groups, whether the disabled, the youth, children, the elderly, it is those who are female who most often experience the worst conditions.

Policy has to address power, in all its multilayered and inconvenient complexity. Otherwise we will continue to scapegoat the badly named and poorly resourced “national women’s machinery”, with little or no authority to influence anything. We will continue to have a minister in charge of the office on the status of women (who is also responsible for the youth, the disabled…) who is not called to account for what is happening to women.

This is a minister who rejected the relevance of gender-responsive budgeting, which the government committed to in its 1998/99 Budget, even though South Africa’s experience has, to date, been utilised by 70 other countries across the globe.

In South Africa the urgency of implementing our constitutional-legislative commitments requires that we deploy resources away from choices such as arms deals. Resources are necessary to build the capacity and know-how to ensure effective implementation of existing progressive laws and policies by all those responsible and to prevent “rollover” of budget funds. Resources are needed to create awareness of these rights by those who need them most. The Zuma rape trial shows how urgently we need a strong, well-resourced Sexual Offences Act and not the watered-down version that is currently being touted.

A truly progressive women’s movement with a principled agenda could enable all South African women to stand with rural women who stood alone in trying to change the Communal Land Rights Bill; with women with HIV/Aids who want healthy nutrition and treatment, but who can afford neither; with workers such as those in the garment sector when global macro-economic policies strip them of their jobs and throw them into the so-called survival sector; with sex workers who are beaten and killed when they demand condom use and for whom police protection is a sick joke.

Agenda

As a South African feminist, I would like to share some ideas for an agenda of a progressive women’s movement. They were articulated by delegates to Parliament’s conference on women and economic policy in Africa that I helped conceptualise and facilitate in May this year.

What were some of the proposals? Women parliamentarians, members of civil society and women ministers from across Africa called for an end to privatisation. Delegate shared how privatised water has become too expensive for poor women who now spend many more hours looking for sources of free and often dangerously polluted water. The myth of efficiency was exploded as delegates shared how the quality of privatised water has deteriorated in many countries. They angrily spoke of how the combined impact was greater numbers of illness and death from water-borne disease.

Delegates discussed the issue of the WTO patents, especially in relation to HIV/Aids; and trade agreements on issues such as agricultural subsidies and the opening of markets to countries such as the US and the European Union, which—while advocating the removal of both subsidies and opening of markets in our countries—refuse to do the same in their countries.

Delegates resolved that all trade and investment agreements, as well as budgets, should be scrutinised to ensure that they are gender-responsive. The question of loans from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund was also challenged. Health-budget cuts and user fees in hospitals were linked to increasing maternal mortality—delegates called for user fees to be scrapped; for taxation to shift from burdening poor people to taxing the rich, who make huge profits out of our countries and then take them back to theirs, aided by a tiny layer of obscenely rich nationals. The example was given of oil-rich countries that have terrible levels of poverty. On the question of trafficking, research, legislation and strong action was called for.

We should learn, from the way in which women’s rights to land was sold down the drain by the Communal Land Rights Act, that there are no guarantees. During the Communal Land Rights Bill hearings, Mrs Shabalala, of the Rural Women’s Movement, went to Parliament and presented cases of evictions of widows and divorced women: “If the Bill gives amakhosi [chiefs] power over land, our suffering will become worse. We will go back to the old days—yet we have been looking forward to rights of our own. If Parliament does not hear us and does not understand that we are talking about our lives, and suffering that is happening every day, then it is like the amakhosi. It also does not respect us.”

Mrs Shabalala was not just speaking as an individual. She had participated, along with rural women in KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape and Limpopo, in workshops to formulate their submissions. Their voices were not heard. Their experience was silenced; their lives deemed less valuable than those of the chiefs.

It is urgent that we mobilise our individual and collective power and leadership, especially when (confirmed by all major research studies, from the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development report on gender equality to the International Labour Organisation regional reports) that patriarchy and gender inequality for most women and girls is deepening, together with poverty and violence, despite economic growth.

War

It is not surprising, in a world whose economic priorities reveal that war is valued above peace, and profits above life. In the context of war, violence against women and children always increases. Under apartheid, South Africa was a country at war. Apartheid’s budget prioritised spending on war against black people and privileges for white people. Apartheid did not keep statistics of how many were being raped and killed every day, from the violence of the military or the violence of poverty. The vast majority of those who were raped kept silent about it—who would report to the enemy police, when too many were being raped by those very policemen?

In the Truth and Reconciliation Commission special hearings on women, the particular violence by the state against women saw the light of day for the first time. In detention, as Thejiwe Mtintso and others testified, women had rats pushed into their vaginas; their Fallopian tubes were filled with water till they burst; women were made to do star jumps naked, menstrual blood flowing; pregnant women were tortured until they miscarried. In state-sponsored vigilante violence, women’s vaginas, wombs and breasts were torn apart, hacked off, ripped from side to side. And in their own homes women and children were not safe. Across race and class, women faced the silent violence of battery and incest.

The women of our country, as mothers and in our own right, demanded an end to the violence of apartheid. We fought, too, against the silencing of women—the women’s movement organised women to speak out against rape in campaigns on our campuses, in our trade unions and in our communities from the 1970s, through the 1980s and right up till the Women’s National Coalition Campaign for the Women’s Charter before our first democratic elections.

In editing the Beijing Report in 1994, it was clear that the apartheid state had devalued and erased women’s lives in its official statistics … the so-called homelands areas were excluded, for example. In Parliament, we fought to ensure that Statistics South Africa counted all women’s lives, which it has been doing since 1994. Today, South Africa has the highest rate of reported rape in the world. That has been misinterpreted to mean that South Africa has the highest rate of rape in the world.

Reporting rape means that women have the belief, the hope, that crimes committed against them will be addressed by the government through the criminal justice system, by society as a whole. The truth is that we have a long way to go to honour that promise. However, unlike in many other countries across the globe, from the US to the former Soviet Union, we are in a strong position to ensure that that promise is honoured because our country has large numbers of women who will not be silent, who can draw on the legacy of 1956. Women of our country have changed more than they are credited with.

Revolution

To participate in politics, as women in 1956 learnt, women have to demand shared power and responsibility in “personal” and “domestic” roles, relations and power, between men and women and by the state. This is a key principle of all revolutions. The failure to address this is the unseen factor in the failure of revolutions.

In the Soviet Union in 1917, changes to the Constitution and laws that women like Alexandra Kollantai, the first commissar for social welfare in 1917, enacted were potentially far-reaching for women. Apart from the right to vote, women won legal equality, the right to free abortion, to free divorce, to two months’ paid maternity leave, paid “nursing breaks” at work, and workplace and community crèches. Wife beating was made illegal, and housing communes and clinics, nurseries and maternity homes were built. Yet by 1936, anti-abortion and anti-divorce laws were enacted, homosexuality was banned and Stalin introduced the “Order of Maternal Glory” for women who had seven or more children.

The erosion of the rights women had won in 1917 worsened with the market economy where the state today no longer assumes responsibility for its citizens. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, thousands of Ukrainian and Russian women are being trafficked into sexual exploitation across the globe.

Women win important victories at different points in history, make herstory and then are beaten back into submission. How do we ensure that the promises made to women from the Soviet Union to Zimbabwe to South Africa are kept by the state and by our own comrades? Is there a role for “power within” and “collective power” in redefining power and leadership to maintain and deepen the gains women make?

In a world in which power is the power to destroy, to create hate and fear, women’s movements have to redefine and claim our own understanding and exercise of power. We have power, and each one of us exercises leadership, over ourselves, in families, in organisations, in communities and in workplaces. A progressive women’s movement with a principled agenda, in which we challenge the internalised patriarchies within our own minds and practice and in our society, can ensure that we assert the power of love with courage. Dora Tamana’s call to women is still relevant today: “You who have to run like chicken from the vulture, speak!” I would add: “You whom women have entrusted with power and leadership, speak … on poverty, on HIV/Aids, on violence.”

Our lives are fundamentally interconnected—when the life of the poorest woman changes, our individual lives change; when our individual lives change, hers does too. It depends on how we use our power, our choices, our loyalties and our lives. It is not just the flutter of the butterfly that can shift the earth halfway across the world—it is the despairing cry of another human being. That is the truth of social change.

This was the keynote address delivered to a Women’s Day event on August 9 organised by Cosatu, the Treatment Action Campaign, Sweat, the New Women’s Movement, Community Health Workers, the Department of Health, the Alternative Information and Development Centre, Workers World, the International Labour Research/Resource and Information Group, Khulumani, the Labour Research Service, Engender and Otherwise Media at Community House, Western Cape

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