Reading the history of a political organisation is an exercise in reading against powerful official narratives – powerful both in their capacity to tell a story and in their rootedness in the hearts of their supporters. In the case of the ANC, that official narrative is one of a progressive and natural line of development, an arc of redemption from oppression. It is history told as a triumphal march rather than a series of conflicts, several of which may remain unresolved.
The line of struggle for gender equality inside the ANC and by the ANC is discontinuous; it was not a straight line from 1912 to 1994 and was an even more crooked line from 1994 to 2014.
In its popular register, the ANC stands for nonracialism, nonsexism and a democratic South Africa, but it did not always stand for all of those values. It had to be made so and, indeed, many within it may still not stand for those ideas. Support for the idea of women as autonomous agents has always been tenuous in our politics.
In my recent book, I traced the history of the idea of gender equality in South Africa through one of its vehicles, the ANC Women’s League. Of course, the league was not the only vehicle through which gender equality was advanced. And the idea of equality did not reach any degree of finality with the enactment of the Constitution in 1996.
Indeed, equality is, in many respects, inadequate to the work of liberation: in the history I trace, the idea is rooted in the binary conception of male-female and offers us weak tools to address the forms of gender that escape heteronormative framings, bodily forms and identities – those that are expressed outside two fixed genders.
Those binary framings are revealed now in the floundering of the women’s league as it tries to come to terms with the multiple ways in which citizens are claiming their rights to voice, autonomy and identity.
But even within the binary terms of gender, and even within the official framing of the ANC’s support for equality, women’s political status and claims went unrecognised for most of the 20th century. It is not that women were passive. They have always been politically active and have always mobilised as women, for women, whether it was against colonial authorities, the apartheid state or men who rape.
Yet throughout the 20th century, African women were confined to a limited political space in the ANC. For the first half of the century they had no voting rights. They were simply “all the wives” of the male members. Their main role, in the ANC’s own words, was to provide shelter, food and entertainment for male delegates. It was only in 1943, 31 years after the ANC’s formation, that women were allowed to become full members of the movement, with the right to vote and participate in its deliberations. Part of this new position of the women in the ANC was the result of economic change, growing urbanisation and unionisation, and women’s own militancy in the urban townships.
The women’s league was part of the ANC’s attempt to build a mass membership base; women were seen as potential recruits. Slowly the idea emerged that the status of women was in itself something that needed to be “upgraded” as part of the emerging, modernising nationalism in the ANC. But the women’s league retained its auxiliary and secondary status as a substructure of the ANC and, very importantly, remained under the political control and direction of the congress throughout the first half of the 20th century.
It was very significant that the ANC did come finally to incorporate one half of the population it claimed to represent into its political frame of reference. But it was always a tentative kind of inclusion.
Those women who found themselves to some extent stifled by male-dominated organisations endeavoured to form something different: the Federation of South African Women, a nonracial body formed to articulate some kind of separate voice for women. The roots of this idea lay in the unions and the Communist Party, where working-class women had been organised across race lines.
The federation became an important part of the growing Defiance Campaign and, bolstered by an organisation outside the ANC, women in the ANC decisively went beyond their tea-making role.
The federation adopted a Women’s Charter, seen by some as a trial run for the Freedom Charter, whose demands for women to be recognised as economic agents and as deserving of respect and dignity remain relevant over half a century later.
In this highly mobilised phase of the ANC’s history, there was a realisation that national liberation would not automatically lead to women’s liberation. Still, the ANC was seen as the leading organisation, the vehicle through which democratic demands could be advanced.
In 1955, the federation launched an independent militant campaign against the extension of passes to women. The march of women from all around the country to the Union Buildings on August 9 has become symbolic of women’s resistance to apartheid. Left out of the telling is that the male congress leadership was not entirely supportive of the march in its planning phase. They thought it was too confrontational and that the federation should concentrate on educational campaigns. After all, if the women went to jail, who would look after the children?
The ANC now celebrates this moment, but its leadership at the time had to be convinced it was a good idea. And although women were defining and shaping political strategies, ultimately they too accepted the primacy of national liberation and the ANC as the vehicle for change. That meant working within the confines of male domination while chipping away at its edges.
Even late in the century, on the cusp of the transition to democracy, women in the ANC found that their chipping away inside the movement had made so little impact that they supported the formation of the Women’s National Coalition. Once again, they had to step outside the movement to make a significant impact. Once again, they formulated their demands for equality in a Women’s Charter. This time, they were able to affect the shape of the Constitution, but their organisational autonomy crumbled rapidly as the new state took shape and co-opted the language of equality.
The tensions and contradictions, the results of the compromises made over the course of a century to stay within the language of national liberation, were to become glaringly apparent in the democratic era.
Women took their place in the democratic Parliament in no uncertain terms – among the highest number of women in any Parliament around the world. The global image of South African democracy was much burnished by its presentation as a women-friendly state. For a time, the locus of gender politics shifted to the civil service and Parliament, and there was significant optimism about what might be achieved with the right combination of political will and the right institutional design.
Yet even in the earliest years of democracy, there were signs that the women’s league would be challenged by other women’s groups on the extent to which they represented the interests of all women. The space of opposition and new thinking about gender inequalities shifted to nongovernmental organisations, especially those dealing with rising levels of violence against women and with homophobia.
Inside the state, the women’s league began playing an active – and, some argue, a gatekeeping – role, ensuring that reliable ANC women were appointed to parliamentary committees, government departments and parastatals. Appointments were driven by considerations of party loyalty and political mobility rather than by a track record in gender activism.
The Commission for Gender Equality, designed to be a mechanism for accountability, independent from political parties and assured of wide powers by the Constitution, was a casualty of the emerging politics of patronage. So too was the presidency’s office on the status of women, which had overall responsibility for ensuring gender equality across all government departments and programmes.
Lack of resources, institutional resistance and, not least, the reluctance of the women in these structures to openly challenge the ruling party undermined their effectiveness, deepening the rift between state and civil society.
Although most forms of unfair legal discrimination against women were removed by the first democratic Parliament, various laws that troubled feminists, such as the Traditional Leadership and Governance Framework Bill, were later introduced by the ANC.
The women’s league seemed either powerless or unwilling to stop them. The Communal Land Rights Act was ultimately struck down by the Constitutional Court in 2010 and the Traditional Courts Bill was halted this year – not by our celebrated women parliamentarians but by activists outside the state.
The rift between women in government and feminists in civil society began under former president Thabo Mbeki and intensified under President Jacob Zuma. Feminism in the ANC became increasingly associated with positions in government. The politics of quotas and inclusion in the formal political sphere catapulted a few well-placed women into positions of influence and wealth.
But structural inequalities remain shaped by gender. Poverty and unemployment are still disproportionately distributed by gender, and gender inequalities are compounded by poor economic growth and deep, inherited problems in our economic framework. As women became more politically visible, the limits of representation became paradoxically more apparent.
Despite its outward commitment to equality, the ANC has not provided the political and theoretical leadership that might shape economic and social policies. The league remains locked in relatively conservative social attitudes that reinforce the view of women as primarily nurturing, caring members of a community rather than as citizens entitled to social and public resources.
The language of gender equality, interpreted as meaning access to positions within the system, could not robustly engage the demands for sexual autonomy or for creative and imaginative freedoms that would allow women to think of themselves outside the frame of virtuous motherhood.
A new, imaginative politics is bubbling in organisations working at the margins of formal politics – those that deal with sexual rights, access to economic resources and the redistribution of social power. Whether these politics can be represented in the current configurations of Parliament and government is debatable.
Shireen Hassim is a professor of politics at Wits University and is the author of The ANC Women’s League, a Jacana Pocket Book. This piece is based on her recent Helen Joseph Memorial Lecture, hosted by the Centre for Social Development in Africa at the University of Johannesburg.