Verashni Pillay: Strike a woman, you strike a hollow memory

Welcome to August! It's that magical time of the year when the cold of winter starts to thaw, Spring awaits around the corner, and South Africa is subjected to a fresh bout of gratuitous "Women's Month" celebrations.

I try to keep my cynicism to at least pre-1996 levels most of the time but it's stuff like this that can get a patriotic girl down. Stuff like what? I'm glad you asked.

Street renaming ceremony
Kicking off this month's celebration is the renaming of Maitland Street in Bloemfontein to Charlotte Maxeke. Now she was a kick-ass woman breaking through glass ceilings like no one else could in the early 20th century, never mind being a woman of colour. Furthermore she was instrumental in fighting against the effect changes in apartheid-era pass laws would have on women, so she's a pretty spot-on icon to honour during this month. But I doubt Maxeke, had she been alive today, would have been too impressed with this little bit of fluff. She already has a hospital in her name, after all. As someone who pioneered a number of social and economic initiatives, including an employment agency for Africans in Johannesburg, I imagine she would look around her, take stock of the considerable resources at our government's disposal and the problems we face and say: "Really?? A street? How about some jobs and proper schooling mofos?" Or the early 20th century version thereof.

Working together we can say very little
I can put up with a lot of jargon. I have to read press releases quite often, after all. But the ANC has this weird way of latching on to a buzz word or term and then every ministry will sycophantically echo it with scant regard for such imperialist creations like syntax or actual sense. Example: the ANC brought us the phenomenally underwhelming election slogan: "Together we can do more." Accordingly, the theme for Women's month in 2011 was: "Working together to enhance women's opportunities to economic empowerment." Fantastic! And while we're at it, can we work together to create catchier slogans? Please?

The department for people we tend to fail
I have yet to meet a single person – inside or outside government – who takes the department for women, children and people with disabilities seriously. As far as I can tell, the ministry was invented in 2009 primarily to organise banal and insignificant women's month events. For the rest of the year Lulu Xingwana and team tend to jet around the world overspending their travel budget and underspending on actual work. Their minister received an F in the Mail & Guardian's annual report card, which recalled how Xingwana and 48 officials deemed it fit to fly business class to New York, where they stayed at the five-star Ritz Hotel at R5 500 a night for a two-week United Nations conference on the status of women. Reportedly, most delegates failed to pitch for important conference sessions.

A Women's Day speech by a sexist leader
This women's month we'll be treated to not one, but two speeches from our darling president, Jacob Zuma, for the occasion. This is the same president who viewed wearing a kanga as an invitation to sex, who married six women and admitted to sleeping with others without protection, in a country plagued by HIV/Aids and absent fathers. It's very, very difficult to take him seriously on the subject of honouring women, when he has singularly failed to do so in so many areas of his life.

As we're reminded every year, all of this is in commemoration of the 1956 pass laws march. On August 9 that year, some 20 000 women marched to the apartheid government's seat of power at the Union buildings, many of them with children strapped to their back. Dignified yet resolute, they lay down petitions bearing more than 100 000 signatures protesting laws that would further restrict their movement, and stood in silence for 30 minutes in one of our country's most poignant displays of resistance.

You'd imagine that subsequent renditions would fight similar battles, if not reach similar proportions. Start anywhere: rape, low literacy rates, infant mortality, an education system in crisis: we have a bevy of issues affecting the most vulnerable women in our country.

But something bizarre happened when the party of resistance became the party of government: the level of organisation, money, capacity and sheer bureaucracy directed at the memory of the march increased, while its motive diminished till we were left with mostly hollow gestures and empty words in a country where the cause of women is routinely betrayed.

So here's an idea. Do away with the ghettoisation of women. Don't create a ministry for us or give us a month. Don't create a day where we take the girl child to work, so she can get to see the jobs she'll one day get paid less to do than her male counterparts. That's if she can get a textbook and basic infrastructure at her school to make it all the way to the middle class working world. Give us less pro-women bluster and do your damn job as a government, without pocketing chunks of our tax. Maybe then we'd take Women's Month seriously.

Verashni is the deputy editor of the M&G online. You can read her column here, and follow her on Twitter here.

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Verashni Pillay
Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.

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