In celebrating its 110-year anniversary the ANC must the struggle is not complete without the emancipation of women

It has been difficult to find space and the platform to inspect the influence of women in the liberation struggle in Africa and in South Africa in particular. This is further exacerbated by the failure to write and recognise their participation in the political landscape. 

With the formation of ANC in 1912, and our continuation to celebrate its existence annually while remembering the founding presidents of the organisation, the question that should arise is why we can’t identify and celebrate the women who supported the former presidents of the organisation.  

There is no disagreement that the ANC is known to have strived to emancipate women and continue as the leader in society to promote non-racialism and non-sexism. But, contrary to its values and principles, its leadership has been male-oriented and spoke on behalf of women and represented their needs. 

It was only in 1943 that the ANC allowed women to become members of the organisation. But it is argued that whenever there were protests or boycotts, women were at the forefront.

Certainly through times of the unbanning of the political parties, women’s position was only associated with their supportive role to their partners and husbands. Take, for instance, the picture of Winnie Madikezela-Mandela walking next to her husband and holding his hand when he was released from Pollsmoor Prison. This image represents how women were seen as playing supportive roles to their spouses.  

Women across all races have a history of resistance in political activism. They fought against being oppressed as women as well as being black. The women who were imprisoned not only suffered through isolation but also degradation of not having necessities such as sanitary pads.

After more than 100 years of the ANC the organisation has still not been able to reflect and vote for a female president. The impression the organisation, together with rank and file members, has been displaying is that there has never been a fit, competent and politically astute woman who can lead the organisation. 

Women have led numerous struggles, including the 1965 resistance when more than 20 000 women marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest against the pass laws. All the protests in the country during apartheid and during the existence of the ANC have involved all genders — and women were mostly at the forefront.

It is widely known and accepted that comrade John Langalihle Dube was the first president of our movement, but there was Nokutela Dube, the wife of the founding president. 

It was Nokutela Dube who founded the Ohlange Institute and travelled with her husband on the mission to raise funds for the school. The school was an independent institution established for Africans and leaders such as Albert Luthuli were educated there. Her influence and determination led her to co-found the Zulu and English newspaper, Ilanga lase Natal

As Rosina Gabaitse and Simangaliso Kumalo in their academic articles express, she represented the first generation of African women who pioneered women’s struggle

against cultural, racial and political oppression. The writers further observe that it was Nokutela Dube who, during 24 years of marriage to John Dube, contributed to the making of the first president of the ANC. Comrades John and Nokutela did everything together and Professor Heather Hughes, the renowned South African historian and biographer, wrote that John Dube would not have achieved all he did without the assistance of his wife.

Another light that cannot be dimmed is that of Charlotte Maxeke, who attended the formal launch of the South African Native National Congress in 1912 and founded the Bantu Women’s League of the SANNC. Maxeke was central to advancing the interests of women in the organisation by challenging male comrades. 

In the book One Hundred years of the ANC: Debating Liberation Histories Today, Arianna Lissoni, Jon Soske, Natasha Erlank, Noor Nieftagodien and Omar Badsha regard Maxeke highly and refer to her as the “mother of the liberation struggle”. This resonated with the former president of the ANC, comrade Oliver Tambo, who said that the liberation of a country such as South Africa cannot be complete until the women are emancipated. 

This was a clear message that even after decades of the formation of ANC in 1912, women in the organisation and in the country were still oppressed and discriminated against on the basis of their gender. Women were either defined through their association with their husbands or were isolated within the political system and struggle. 

With the formation of the United Democratic Front in 1983, Comrade Albertina Sisulu was elected as the co-president of the organisation and was the only woman in its leadership. She became the patron of the Federation of Transvaal Women when it was launched in 1984. After the unbanning of the political parties, she was part of the female comrades who re-established the ANC Women’s League and served as its executive member. This is the organisation that became the front-runner in the struggle of the South African women. 

As we celebrate 110 years of the formation of the ANC, the leadership of the top six is dominated by men, with the only deputy secretary general, comrade Jessie Duarte, being the only woman. 

The same happened at the 50th and 51st ANC national conference. Comrades Thenjiwe Mtintso and Sankie Mthembi-Mahanyele were voted into the position of deputy secretary. Even the 49th national conference of the ANC, where Nelson Mandela was elected as the party’s president and Bantu Holomisa as an additional member on the ANC’s national executive committee, could not produce more than two female comrades in the top six. 

It was only in Polokwane at the 52nd National Conference, the significant Morogoro conference, that two women, Thandi Modise and Baleka Mbete, were elected as the party’s deputy secretary general and national chairperson respectively.

As we celebrate 110 years of the ANC we need to remember the words of OR Tambo

that the struggle is not complete without the emancipation of women. We will see proof of this when women are leading the organisation from branch to region, to province to national. 

The rank and file members must start to negotiate with an understanding that the organisation must one day be led by a woman. In our future, when we celebrate many

years of existence, we must be able to proudly mention that we were led by female president. 

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Motlalepula Rosho
Motlalepula Rosho is a branch member of ANC in ward 29, Mahikeng, member of ANC North West interim provincial committee and is MEC for finance in the province. She writes in her personal capacity.

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