​Women’s rights vs patriarchal traditions: Where does the ANC Women’s League stand?

Is gender equity possible while traditional patriarchal institutions and customs flourish in a democratic South Africa? Since many of these traditions are based on the primacy of male authority in the family and in society, the focus on women’s rights during August is an opportune moment for South Africans to assess the situation. And, given that the ANC Women’s League is one of the oldest and largest women’s organisations in the country, its position on women’s rights vis á vis traditional customs is an important barometer.

Last year, when Angie Motshekga was replaced as president of the league by Bathabile Dlamini, her fall was welcomed by those concerned about the perceived sidelining of women’s rights by the league. After all, it was Motshekga who had asserted in 2012 that: “We are not a feminist organisation. We are a women’s organisation.” Strange words from a leader of an organisation whose Facebook page insists that: “The ANCWL is the custodian of the women’s liberation movement in South Africa.”

Thus when, within hours of being elected, Dlamini asserted that the league would campaign for a female presidential candidate, it seemed the organisation would no longer be sacrificing female ambition for top leadership positions on the altar of ruling party unity. No longer would league leadership make undermining statements such as those made while Motshekga was at the helm: “The time is not yet ripe to have a woman to lead the ANC”, “No one wants to go into a futile battle” and “We are just not prepared for [a woman leader] right now”.

However, it is highly debateable whether the league will finally live up to its aim of being an instrument for “women’s liberation”, given that the head of government and the ANC, Jacob Zuma, perceives the role of women through the lens of a traditionalist.

During Women’s Month four years ago, he endorsed the traditional role of women primarily as wives and mothers by saying it was important for women to marry and have children as they “give extra training to a woman”. Continuing the gender stereotyping theme, he asserted that cooking was a domestic activity engaged in only by girls and men who were cowards and ran away from fights. In 2013 he said he was impressed by Venda women who clapped their hands and lay on the ground to show their respect to those in authority. His remarks during a speech on the Traditional Courts Bill to traditional leaders in 2012 are even more concerning because they appear to endorse a parallel system of autocratic governance within a democracy, in that the president pleaded for a rejection of “the White man’s way” and a return to the “African way” of resolving disputes — a system in which women are not allowed to represent themselves.

Given Zuma’s leadership role, his view of women as submissive beings inferior to men, is helping to fuel the acceptance of patriarchal institutions and traditions not only in the ruling party but more broadly in society. Hence the rise of traditionalism, even tribalism, has proved a tricky issue for the women’s league to negotiate, as shown by its ambivalence towards the Reed Dance and virginity testing.

Virginity testing (an examination of the genitals by older women), when conducted on girls under 16, is in violation of the Children’s Act, 2005, and has been rejected as demeaning and as violating the girl child’s right to privacy by institutions such as the Commission for Gender Equality and the Human Rights Commission. Notwithstanding, in 2008 the league called for more young women to participate in the Reed Dance, thus implicitly endorsing virginity testing since the practice is an integral part of the event held under the patronage of the Zulu King, Goodwill Zwelithini, in KwaZulu-Natal. Then in 2014, the league explicitly called for the abolition of virginity testing at its national policy conference, only to have one of its branches explicitly endorse the practice in 2015.

Prior to its elective conference last year, the league’s then treasurer general, Hlengiwe Mkhize, spoke about the tension between a very traditional way of thinking and “a more modern approach”, highlighting the differences between those who had “strong views about the importance of culture” and those who perceived some of the actions of tribal authorities as “oppressive”. This tension was to play itself out at the conference and, in a strong indicator of the swing towards traditionalism in the league, the decision to oppose virginity testing was reversed. From its previous abolitionist stance, the league now defends the virginity testing of girls (who are of age and have given their consent) as a legitimate cultural practice.

Thus it seems that the league, like its parent body, has been captured by the traditionalists. It is little wonder then, that the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal has since been emboldened to support the uThukela Municipality’s Maiden Bursary Award despite the fact that the Commission for Gender Equality has ruled that the virginity requirement applicable to young women only violates their right to equality, dignity and privacy.

While Dlamini has roundly rejected the criterion for the bursary, she has done so on the basis that this is a compulsory requirement and not because she is critical of virginity testing as a sexist or demeaning cultural practice.

The question to be asked is: Why is there such a discernible trend towards traditionalism in the ANC? The former arts and culture minister Pallo Jordan’s acknowledgement in 2013 that the ANC “vacillates” between supporting the rights of rural women and others, and seeking a political accommodation with traditional leaders, gives a strong indication of the motivation behind this trend. The ANC evidently perceives traditional leaders as a valuable political resource, able to influence its rural constituency. As a result, the party has proved reluctant to antagonise the traditional leadership over statements they make, which are at odds with a modern democracy.

This was well illustrated by ANC Deputy secretary general Jesse Duarte when she declined to comment on an anti-immigrant speech made in 2015 by Zwelithini, on the grounds that supporters of traditional leaders react “very negatively” to criticism of their leadership.

Senior ANC MP Mothale Motshekga went even further than Duarte’s display of wariness, when he warned the Human Rights Commission against its investigation of the king’s controversial speech, maintaining that it could have “unintended consequences”. He advised the commission to rather deal with “real challenges” and “let sleeping dogs lie”.

Zwelithini has also criticised the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act because it requires written consent from a man’s existing wife or wives before he can marry again, on the grounds that traditional leaders had not been consulted. He was even critical of a law giving property rights to widows, despite the fact that many widows and their children have been dispossessed in the wake of their husbands’ death. While gender activists have been vocal about these and other comments by traditional leaders that bolster the subordinate position of rural women, the league and the ANC have remained silent. The consequence of the ANC and the league’s reluctance to antagonise the traditional leadership is that a climate is being created in which it is regarded as acceptable to tolerate anti-constitutional comments, even at the expense of the rights of already vulnerable poor women.

The department of women’s 2015 country report, together with its 2015 Report on the Status of Women in the South African Economy, clearly detail the nature of the socioeconomic problems facing the majority of women (particularly the rural poor), as well as the extent of the numerous obstacles in the path of gender equity. Hence, if the league wishes to be taken seriously as a roleplayer in the struggle for female empowerment, it cannot afford to continue to ignore the party’s steady drift towards an accommodation of patriarchy and traditionalism.

This will require more than merely fielding a candidate to contest the presidency of the ANC. The league will have to directly confront the pattern of regression from gender equity indulged in by the ruling party in recent years. The silence it displayed in the face of the harrowing abuse inflicted by traditional leaders on vulnerable rural women, which was exposed during the 2012 public hearings on the Traditional Courts Bill, can no longer be an option.

Doing so will bring it into conflict with the powerful mandarins of the party, as even the former minister of women, children and people with disabilities, Lulu Xingwana, discovered during those same hearings.

In the past, the league has attracted much criticism from gender activists for being more involved in the factional battles in the ANC, than the struggle to end gender discrimination and promote gender equity. The league’s surrender to the patriarchal mores of its KZN delegates on virginity testing represents the beginning of an entrenched tolerance for patriarchal cultural values in its ranks. Its ambiguity towards patriarchal cultural traditions does not augur well for its future because it seems set on a path of regression from the principle of gender equity. This pattern will continue until the league’s leadership demonstrates a commitment to ending gender discrimination by stating that female empowerment and gender equality is inconsistent with support for patriarchal institutions that endorse female subordination and cultural practices which perpetuate gender discrimination.

Dr Farieda Khan is an independent researcher with an interest in gender.

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