On October 30, the ANC Women’s League, which self-identifies as the custodian of the women’s movement in South Africa, will embark on a “Hands off Our President” march to the Union Buildings.
“The nation’s mothers” as they like to refer to themselves sometimes, will descend on the capital from all nine provinces to “defend” our president, the polygamist Mr He-He-He, Mr In-My-Culture-You-Cannot-Leave-A-Woman-if-She-Is-Already-At-That-Stage-Of-Sexual-Arousal.
One does not need to attend a class in feminism to note the symbolic war on women’s rights declared by this ill-considered march.
Notably, the march is scheduled in the wake of a national uprising by tertiary students under the #FeesMustFall umbrella. Within this rising movement are young females who carry placards lamenting the pain of being subjected to sexual exploitation while trying to raise funds for their tertiary education.
Their plight, viewed from a women’s rights perspective, cannot be isolated from the findings of the department of women’s 2015 Report on the Status of Women. It found that women in South Africa are still less likely than men to enrol for higher degrees mainly because of their considerable vulnerability to family commitments, and also owing to the high rates of teenage pregnancy throughout the country.
Where women are employed, they are more concentrated (84%) in the low-skilled services sector, and are thus more likely to live below the poverty line than males. But regardless, the “custodians of the women’s movement” have planned their march at the very moment when the nation is exploring strategies to close the poverty gap by increasing access to higher education. Theirs: to defend the supreme patriarch.
The bitter reality is that an ANC-first, anti-feminist tradition has historically characterised the participation of the women’s league in South African gender politics.
Speaking for the ANC women’s secretariat in 1979, Mavis Nhlapo said “… in our society women have never made a call for the recognition of their rights as women, but always put the aspirations of the whole African and other oppressed people of our country first”. In 1986, Frene Ginwala, who later became speaker of the National Assembly, reaffirmed that “women’s liberation in South Africa cannot be achieved outside of the context of the liberation struggle”.
And indeed, the league’s participation in post-apartheid politics has primarily served the ANC at the expense of women’s struggles. In 2006, they tendered the most vocal support for Jacob Zuma during his rape trial. In 2012, through then league president Angie Motshekga, they argued that they were not a feminist organisation that was hostile to male leaders.
And more recently, through former league national executive committee member Nomvula Mokonyane, they have promised to defend the president with their “buttocks”.
There is only one rationale for this sustained anti-feminist self-sabotage. Systems of oppression such as racism, classism and sexism have historically relied on psychosocial processes of identity formation for the reproduction of subjectivities. In order to shape society, dominatory systems depend on control over the prevailing social discourse from which notions of self emerge.
From this perspective, the league’s intimacy to sexism must be considered within the broader analysis of patterns of relations between broader ANC governance practices and colonial notions of exploitative, corrupt public administration.
For the league, the implications of self-identification as the custodians of the women’s movement on the one hand while supporting and reproducing systems of domination on the other have long-term consequences for the women’s struggle.
Unfortunately, within the broader category of women, those in rural areas are more vulnerable than their urban counterparts to human rights abuses. The burden is worse and more poignant for those under traditional leadership.
While the league will be defending the president with their derrières at the Union Buildings, women in rural communities will continue to suffer, as they did during the era of apartheid, under the intersectional burden of being poor, black, and subject to colonially distorted notions of customary law.
The league does not need to be reminded of the albatross of womanhood in rural South Africa. Most of them are direct beneficiaries of the objectifying nature of sexist interpretations of customary laws. Bathabile Dlamini, the current president of the league, hails from Zuma’s Nkandla.
At best, the march is humiliating. If the league has a struggle to defend, it must descend on Parliament in numbers to protest post-apartheid traditional laws whose interpretation undermines the constitutional rights of women under traditional authority.
Someone needs to gently remind the league’s members that they are the constituents of their own struggle. They must liberate themselves from self-inflicted sexism first before they can claim custodianship of the women’s movement. Most importantly, they must be alerted that by continuously claiming to defend the women’s struggle while bound by internalised notions of submissive black womanhood, the pains and struggles of millions of black women in rural communities persist.
Philile Ntuli is a researcher in the Rural Women’s Action Research programme in the Centre for Law and Society at the University of Cape Town