The story of South African women, and particularly black women, is often told as one of resilience and strength — all wrapped up in a majestic headwrap. The story is one of pride that they carry the load of a nation as gracefully as women in the hinterlands who still carry buckets of water from communal taps on the top of their heads.
This view of women, who make up more than half of the population and who’ve — quite literally — raised most of us, does them a disservice. The argument could be made that it’s because of this “strength” narrative that women aren’t at the centre of policy debates; that their travails are often overlooked and, in fact, ignored. The Covid-19 pandemic may have exposed, or rather, further highlighted our inequalities, but for black women it has set them back even further. The International Labour Organisation notes that globally women are over-represented in the sectors most affected by lockdowns.
Months like Women’s Month or the 16 days against violence against women in December are, in truth, nothing more than pageantry; they certainly don’t do enough to significantly uplift women’s socioeconomic status. It’s a dire state of affairs, reinforced by the quarterly labour force survey statistics for the second quarter, released by Statistics South Africa this week.
With an overall unemployment rate that now stands at more than 34.4%, the highest of the 80 industrialised nations tracked by Bloomberg, South Africa faces a jobless crisis that’s likely to grow over the medium term. In the three months to end-June, the number of employed people decreased by 54 000 to14.9 million from the first quarter, and the number of unemployed people increased by 584 000 to 7.8-million.
Black women have the highest unemployment rate at 41%, followed by coloured women at 29.9% and Indian and Asian women at 22.4%. Unemployment among white women is the lowest of all the sexes, at 8.2%. This is not a question of skills: more women than men graduated in every field of tertiary study in 2017. It’s clear, if anything, that the jobs market doesn’t work in women’s favour and, going on the stats, black women bear the brunt of its worst vices.
Two years ago, just fewer than 42% of South African households were female-headed, amounting to about 7.2-million — and with more 80 000 deaths throughout the course of the pandemic, this proportion has likely increased. Theirs are households that carry more beneficiaries — we can all think of the children who live under their grandmothers’ roofs. The average age of women in South Africa is more than 71 years; for men, it is just 64.
Given our sluggish economy, which has failed to inspire for more than a decade, and a labour market that is stacked against women — and even more so for black women — one can understand the struggles of South African households; their difficulty in paying for costs such as education, which led to the Fees Must Fall protests; and the rationale behind the spate of service-delivery protests across the country.
When we imagine the ultimate beneficiaries of a possible basic income grant, we tend to conjure up a pot-bellied and lazy man with his beer quart. The statistics, however, point to the likelihood of beneficiaries being a black women-led household. It is these black women who support the same dependants who, for the sake of a former president in Jacob Zuma, were willing to burn the very stores in which their grandmothers, mothers, aunts and sisters are likely to be employed.
These households are the key factor in the South African story; more so than the palace politics of the governing ANC. If we are to steer away from the abyss, all policy interventions, at their core, should be about improving prospects for black women and the households they lead or, in this still patriarchal society, service.