Beyond #TheTotalShutdown: Lessons for the movement


On Wednesday, South Africa and the world witnessed a significant moment in contemporary politics.

Not since 1956 have South African women succeeded in demonstrating solidarity with mass public protest on a similar scale. Yet on August 1 women from multiple backgrounds defied their diverse, at times conflicting, positions to march towards a world free of gender-based violence.

Although this radical shift in gender politics has transformative potential for the relationship between the state and women, the extent to which its potential will be realised will be determined by the reflexive tools it employs.

Significantly, this means addressing an inherent challenge to the women’s movement, which was revealed yesterday: the strategic differences between the organisers of #TheTotalShutdown and the ANC Young Women’s Desk.

The 1956 march provides a useful reference to resolve these differences. But first, to tally the potential consequences of these two marches, we have to locate gender politics contextually — within the conceptual framework of a democratic South Africa.

In the period leading to the end of apartheid, women from different political formations, civil society organisations and community groups formed the Women’s National Coalition (WNC). Through the coalition a vision for women’s political participation in the democratic dispensation was conceptualised. Together, and in consultation with policy experts and activists representing new and old democracies across the world, the WNC conceived of the national gender machinery (NGM).

The NGM would be a package of feminist institutions located at all levels of the state and society, from local municipalities to the presidency, and from civil society to Parliament. To ensure accountability the citizens, through parliamentary processes and an independent judiciary, could lay claim to their constitutional rights.

Importantly, the 2000 national gender policy framework determines that central to the successful work of the NGM is a strong civil society, because the NGM “alone cannot shift public policy agendas for women without the participation of organisations of civil society”. In effect, it is the manner in which these two groups co-exist in the process of post-apartheid governance that determines the extent to which the state can end gender inequality.

What #TheTotalShutdown represents is a strain in the relationships between women’s civil society organisations and NGM structures under bureaucracy. If the movement will succeed in realising the aspirations of the gender policy framework — and if it will sustain feminist activity at the level of national policy — it must address, with urgency, the challenges it faces internally.

Left unaddressed, the tensions only reproduce some of the very problems the day’s actions sought to address.

In separate interviews on the morning of the march, Precious Banda, convener of the ANC Young Women’s Desk, and Gaopalelwe Phalaetsile, a member of #TheTotalshutdown organising committee, both confirmed that, after consultations between the two groups, the differences came down to the regalia for the day and the participation of men.

By their mutual inability to reach agreement, both groups missed the moment to change the trajectory of post-apartheid gender politics.

On regalia, Banda said: “We were expecting a march … in our colours, holding hands, showing society that … we’ve got different political views, but … our experiences are the same … The issue is about women being able to express themselves to have the freedom to decide what they wear when they call for an end to gender-based violence.”

This is a fair point, and an important one. As scholar Cheryl Walker once noted of the 1956 march: “Many of the African women wore traditional dress, others wore the Congress colours —green, black and gold — Indian women were clothed in white saris. Many women had babies on their backs and some domestic workers brought their white employers’ children along with them.”

In the famous picture of Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa and Sophie de Bruyn, taken on August 9 1956, their choice of outfits clearly served the important symbolic work of demonstrating that women were not homogenous, yet from their different subjective positions, suffered in similar ways.

Likewise the Young Women’s Desk failed to learn from the Federation of South African Women of the power of a women-only space in political protest. In 1956, women assigned men who supported the movement to partake by filling in where they could for women marchers. Men provided catering for participants, took care of children and did much of the tasks that would otherwise be performed by women.

Yet notwithstanding these challenges, the year 2018 marks an important shift in women’s protest strategies.

Moving beyond August 1, however, all parties will have to reflect on the opportunities that resolving the internal tensions within the women’s movement might present for gender transformation. If we are unable to transcend these challenges, we might continuoally repeat the historical mistakes that have inhibited women from realising their full political potential.

It is clear that this will not come from any political party. Rather, it will emerge from a united, autonomous congregation of women with a clear feminist orientation, a conceptual understanding of how the state has been reconfigured in the post-apartheid era and clear strategies for addressing these. This requires that women be located independent of the patriarchal structures of political parties.

The ANC has long understood this concept. As early as 1990, Frene Ginwala said: “I don’t think the ANC Women’s League can liberate women. To assume that it can, that is ignoring political reality … if we are going to push for a real challenge to gender oppression and the real emancipation of women, what we need is a strong women’s organisation, organised around the issues of concern to women. Therefore, while the league has a particular role to play, we still need a national women’s organisation.”

This is not to say that the women’s league does not have a significant role to play within the women’s movement. It is, however, to acknowledge that when women mobilise independently along the issues that affect them, they are most likely to achieve positive results.

The task, therefore, for the organisers and sympathisers of what promises to be a transformative moment in South African gender politics, is to conceptualise radical ways to ensure unity and solidarity.

This will be a painful exercise that requires certain sacrifices, but an important one nonetheless for building social movements.

Philile Ntuli is an activist, scholar and public servant. She is curious about the extent to which society can dismantle its inherited discrimination on the basis of gender, and is devoted to exploring possibilities for such transformation

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Philile Ntuli
Philile Ntuli is a full-time commissioner for the South African Human Rights Commission. She is also a member of the panel of the national hearing into the July 2021 unrest. This article does not contravene the rights and powers of the Hearing Panel contained in section 18 of the South African Human Rights Commission Act (40 of 2013).

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