Gender struggle was intrinsic to SA’s liberation

Tell it right: Gender violence occurred inside and outside the liberation struggle, but the challenge was and remains how we deal with violators and perpetrators. (Robben Island, Mayibuye Archive)

Tell it right: Gender violence occurred inside and outside the liberation struggle, but the challenge was and remains how we deal with violators and perpetrators. (Robben Island, Mayibuye Archive)

As women and gender activists who gave input into the story published with the front-page headline “Liberation leader raped me” (October 27), we are concerned that sensationalised and biased headlines wrongly contextualise our stories and perpetuate distortions about this important issue. We do not retract or deny what we said; rather, we wish to underline key points that were blurred or lost.

Our story goes far beyond an unsavoury and painful addition to the internationally trending “#MeToo” campaign. We need to explore how gender liberation intersected with South Africa’s liberation struggle as a whole.
We need to assess our
successes and failures, and to recognise how this history helped to shape gender equality and our response to gender violence today, in our post-1994 society.

Several key elements of our story have been trampled in the rush to print that screeching headline.

First: patriarchy and gender violence have been endemic in our society for centuries, entrenched in apartheid and colonial oppression. Oliver Tambo pointed out in 1981:
“A system based on the exploitation of men by men can in no way avoid the exploitation of women by the male members of society.”

Gender violence, especially, has been a structural weapon used to keep women silent and disempowered, literally for centuries. The Mail & Guardian’s second article last week, “Deafening silence on rape in MK camps lingers”, does not mention that this “deafening silence” is part of a larger problem with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: the TRC failed to address gender violence as a political crime.

As a result, that deafening silence covers thousands of stories of women abused, raped and killed by apartheid soldiers and security forces in the course of repressing our people’s struggles. Our society still needs to confront all these historic abuses. That does not let the liberation movement off the hook about our own abuses, of course, but it gives context.

Given this history, it is inevitable that perpetrators of gender violence would appear in the midst of our liberation movement. Our challenge, as women and as a movement, was and is: How do we deal with these violations and these perpetrators?

Our liberation movement did, indeed, challenge patriarchy and gender oppression. This was done by women liberation fighters but also by many male comrades. Leaders such as Tambo, Chris Hani and Samora Machel, and many comrades at all levels, spoke about these ideals and lived them.

The ANC in exile enacted regulations against gender violence. The M&G’s “deafening silence” article comments that Thabo Mbeki in the 1990s “did not specify what the offences were or what punishment was meted out” — implying that gender violations were not, in fact, addressed.

More research would have revealed that the ANC’s code of conduct, adopted after the Kabwe conference in 1985, listed gender violence, sexual abuse and gender oppression next to racism, as one step below the worst possible crime (selling out to the enemy). And our movement did take concrete steps to enforce the code.

Further: the slander that women in the struggle were treated as sex slaves or sex toys is just that: a slander that denies women our agency, our commitment, belief and actions, as liberation fighters. We are proud that we fought for our liberation.

True to the embedded patriarchy in our society, a few so-called leaders and “comrades” used their position to violate women. Our experience is that these were isolated occurrences and not condoned. Yes, there were instances when women were expected to deny this hurtful reality in the name of not undermining our unity and our movement.

But many of us believed then, and believe now, that failing to confront perpetrators within our ranks is more damaging to our movement than dealing with this wrongness. Our liberation movement must champion gender liberation. It must never participate in, cover up or condone gender violence.

To conclude: the framework for our story is not “Liberation leader raped me” but comes from the words of Tambo, speaking to a conference of the ANC women’s section in Luanda, Angola, on September 14 1981: “Women in the ANC … have a duty to liberate us men from antique concepts and attitudes about the place and role of women in society, and in the development and direction of our revolutionary struggle.”

We hope the M&G will continue telling our stories — neither biased and distorted to slander our movement, nor prettied up to protect perpetrators.

We believe our battles as women within the liberation movement form a fundamental part of our struggle for human liberation. We can learn from this, going forward.

So let’s speak out, and tell it right.

Thenjiwe Mtintso is South Africa’s ambassador to Malawi. Judy Seidman works with the Khulumani Centre, an organisation that assists victims of apartheid violence. They were both members of the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto weSizwe

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