Poor black women are disproportionately affected in the struggle to realise socioeconomic rights in South Africa.
On August 14 former judge Yvonne Mokgoro gave a stirring call to action about the dire social and economic condition of women in South Africa at a women’s month event hosted by the International Commission of Jurists and the Centre for Applied Legal Studies.
Mokgoro, South Africa’s first black female judge and a retired justice of the Constitutional Court, emphasised in her keynote address that poor, black women particularly continued to disproportionately bear the brunt of the most severe forms of poverty and inequality in South Africa.
Poor black women face difficulties accessing a number of constitutionally recognised rights, including education, healthcare, land and housing. This, despite far-reaching constitutional protections of women’s rights and socioeconomic rights in South Africa’s Constitution.
Mokgoro, a pioneer in her own right, who hails from the township of Galeshewe in Kimberley, began by quoting the recently deceased American novelist Toni Morrison. Saying that Morrison’s “bravery and gusto will forever stay with us”, Mokgoro added that: “We women in South Africa must take her example and write our own stories ourselves from our perspective”.
Mokgoro’s moving and passionate address created an open environment in which women human-rights defenders and public-interest lawyers voiced their experiences of gendered socioeconomic rights violations in South Africa. Mokgoro articulated the deep frustration of South African women with the government and broader society’s failure to act to curb and prevent the social, cultural and economic violence suffered by the women of South Africa.
“Women constitute most of society. Why can’t we make women’s rights at the forefront? We must structure the rules to meet the needs of women,” Mokgoro said. She was moved to tears as she spoke.
Tumelo Matlwa and Amelia Rawháni-Mosalakae, lawyers at the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, spoke to the all-too-common difficulties faced by women in South Africa who are married in community of property and who — because of an under-protective legal system and the disinterest of banks in their welfare — unwillingly take on their husbands’ debts. Poverty, they concluded, “is a form of economic violence that has a disproportionate effect on women”.
Fatima Shabodien, feminist activist and strategy director at the Raith Foundation, spoke directly to the sexual harassment crisis in the nongovernmental organisation (NGO) sector in South Africa, which has received extensive media coverage, and about the responses of a number of organisations to allegations of sexual harassment. The organisations include: Equal Education; the Legal Resources Centre; Sonke Gender Justice; the Public Affairs Research Institute; the Centre for Applied Legal Studies; Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions South Africa; and the Treatment Action Campaign.
Shabodien questioned why the issue of sexual harassment had not, until recently, been taken seriously by organisations involved in the struggle for social justice. “Women have not been silent in this sector: they have been deliberately silenced,” she said. She urged human rights defenders, public interest lawyers, boards of NGOs and donors to demand that allegations of sexual harassment are dealt with expeditiously and effectively and that there are real and lasting consequences for perpetrators.
Mokgoro had, in her address, warned that “the indignities suffered by women exposed to poverty in our country are graphic, trauma-inducing and all encompassing”.
This was brought into sharp relief by Nonhle Mbuthuma, a community land rights activist and member of the Amadiba Crisis Committee. It is primarily women, Mbuthuma indicated, who are risking their lives and wellbeing by signing affidavits to go to court to fight against the use of their land for mining in the name of economic development.
Mbuthuma also decried the misuse of appeals to “customary practice” and “customary law” to perpetuate patriarchal traditions impeding women’s access to land in rural areas. “Custom is applied and practised in a way that does not benefit communities as a whole, as it is intended to be,” she said. Instead, it is often applied in a manner that is detrimental to women and girls.
Women and girls remain at the forefront of the fight for social justice in South Africa, including the claiming of socioeconomic rights through courts. As examples, Irene Grootboom, Nomsa Dladla, Elsie Klaase, Yolanda Daniels and Lindiwe Mazibuko were all lead, named applicants in groundbreaking Constitutional Court judgments on socioeconomic rights.
Nevertheless, these women, and the gendered effect of socioeconomic rights violations remain largely unknown to society at large, and, often all but invisible in the reasoning of court judgments.
Mokgoro’s intervention was aimed at encouraging lawyers, judges and government officials to reverse this practice that often renders women invisible, thus limiting the transformative potential of the Constitution in their lives. Mokgoro called for an “engendering” of socioeconomic rights towards the social and economic liberation of women from the feminisation of poverty, citing Professor Sandra Fredman.
As young human-rights defenders, we are inspired by Mokgoro’s life, love, learning and labour through which she continues to contribute to the creation of a nonsexist society in which the oppressive effects of patriarchy are eliminated.
We take this opportunity, in “Women’s Month”, to remember all those women, who, like Mokgoro, have struggled against the odds to bring us to this point.
The many women who risked their lives fighting apartheid and colonialism, including the thousands of women who marched to the Union Buildings in 1956, demanding that the apartheid government withdraw pass laws.
The women who fought to secure a seat at the table during our constitutional negotiations despite their initial marginalisation and ensured that women’s rights are now afforded significant constitutional protection;
The women who continue to campaign tirelessly for women’s reproductive rights and against gender-based violence.
The women public interest lawyers who bring women’s socioeconomic rights cases to our courts.
The women in grassroots social movements around the country who continue to claim their constitutional rights and insist that they are written into the story of our constitutional rights jurisprudence.
The women in homes around the country giving their love and labour on a daily basis to ensure that care work that is so crucial to our families and communities is undertaken.
The women in townships, urban centres and rural areas around the country who work as domestic workers, community health workers, informal traders and farm workers and many other precarious jobs; who sacrifice spending time with their own families to provide them with the basic necessities of life in the absence of sufficient support from the state.
The women of Marikana, who are still fighting for simple justice for their murdered husbands and partners and their decimated families, seven years after the Marikana massacre.
We should be strengthened by their struggles and fortified by their memory and existence for the many struggles ahead. We draw strength from them, as we draw strength from the Irene Grootbooms, Nomsa Dladlas, Elsie Klaases, Yolanda Danielses and Lindiwe Mazibukos around the country.
As Toni Morrison said: “If there’s a [story] that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Mokgoro has reminded us that the story of the constitutional realisation of women’s socioeconomic rights has yet to be fully written. And she has inspired us to continue — alongside the many women activists currently doing so —to write it.
Mateenah Hunter is a feminist human-rights lawyer based in Johannesburg. Shaazia Ebrahim and Tim Fish Hodgson work for the Africa team of the International Commission of Jurists in Johannesburg