African feminism can be an instrument of social, political and economic change in the fourth industrial revolution

The 2022 theme for International Women’s Day, which has been celebrated annually on 8 March since 1911, is #BreakTheBias. The goal is to imagine a gender equal world that is free of bias, stereotypes and discrimination and a diverse equitable and inclusive world where difference is valued and celebrated. 

One area where there is a crucial need to break biases about the roles of women in society pertains to the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). How can African feminism be an instrument of social, political and economic change in the fourth industrial revolution?

African feminists have a golden opportunity to relaunch the feminist agenda of gender equality in a way that will fast-track social, political and economic change, by leveraging the transition into the 4IR. The feminist strategy of representation, redistribution and recognition is still viable for 4IR related initiatives. 

First, direct political activism, feminist vision, narrative and discourse can be used to effect political change. Second, the transformation and decolonisation of education and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) programmes, together with the feminisation of the work agenda can bring about economic change under the 4IR. Third, the political and economic are able to secure the kind of social change that would give women a more meaningful life. 

For this to happen, Tinashe Chimedza argues that: “Feminist responses will need to be multi-pronged and focus on building and mobilising a feminist movement with a progressive critique, building that critique into a powerful feminist movement, and securing policy regimes that transform the access and control of IT resources by women.” 

He also highlights that feminist movements need to lead transformation interventions that challenge political economy structures, which position women in the fourth industrial revolution and in the ICT sector. The changing social landscape creates opportunities that did not previously exist. 

Representation involves the critical reviewing, amending, augmenting or formulating of legislation, policies, frameworks, projects and programmes as a vehicle for political change. Redistribution is necessary in particular for African women who, globally, are the most disadvantaged, with the greatest need for economic change. Recognition relates to a feminist theory that challenges the status quo and informs a consciousness and praxis that leads to social change. 

Given that the 4IR is creating a seismic shift in the world which is redefining realities, African feminists have the opportunity to renegotiate the terms of women’s positions in society, which would lead to previously elusive social, political and economic change.

How can African feminists stake a political claim in the 4IR economy? In  the editor’s note of Buwa, Issue 9 (2018), Alice D Kanengoni states that it is important for feminist economists to shape the narrative and response to the 4IR, given that there is little discourse on the matter. She argues that there is a gap in gendered perspectives that interpret local and global processes. This gap has placed African women in a precarious position on the value chain. It is also not clear the extent to which 4IR will exacerbate the vulnerability. Third, the gender gap in technology adoption by African women has to be analysed “against the backdrop of increasing inequalities among women due to differential geo-localities and related socioeconomic factors”. Thus, the role of feminists in the 4IR has to be proactive to secure agency for women and to ensure that they are not relegated to being passive welfare recipients, as was the case with the previous three revolutions.

In their report on “An African Feminist Understanding of the Future of Work”, Crystal Dicks and Prakashnee Govender offer a feminist vision for gender in the future of work. They suggest 12 initiatives that can both mitigate the potential negative effect of the 4IR, as well as harness the potential towards gender equality. 

These initiatives are: feminist political action; a decent and sustainable work agenda; employment for empowerment; ambitious industrial strategies; public policy advocacy; social reproduction; the social wage; investment in people’s capabilities; international labour standards and the human rights of women workers; corporate codes of conduct, global frame agreements and social clauses; a continued role for social dialogue; and unions and women’s worker organisations. Through these initiatives, Dick and Govender offer a framework in which feminists can deal systematically with the dynamics brought on by the 4IR. 

With respect to representation in the political sphere, Dicks and Govender argue for building capacity and advocacy for policy initiatives, which should include sourcing accurate data that can be used to frame feminist policies on the future of work. From this organised position, feminist can hold government accountable for support policies such as childcare, work-life balance and gender roles. 

Like Kanengoni, Dick and Govender highlight the importance of discourse and in their case, they speak of social dialogue under the auspices of trade unions in which feminists are members. They would strategise to preserve the gains already made and target the new threats brought on by the future of work. 

In addition, feminists should form strategic partnerships, alliances and networks with organisations that share their values and vision.

How should African feminists undertake the direct political action required? Patricia McFadden asserts that what is required is a “‘rigorous analytical model with which African women must distinguish between gender as a tool of neo-liberal status quo re-invention, and gender as a feminist thinking tool”. In other words, feminists should be at the forefront of a women’s movement that “uses gender as part of a critical intellectual and activist wedge, prying open the patriarchal language and taboos of communities and institutions of the state, and its largely feudal infrastructures, policies and practices”.

In addition, the 4IR finds African women in a political context with inherently complex interactions of marginalisation. To explain this interaction, Sandra Bhatasara and Tamuka Charles Chirimambowa draw from Kimberle Crenshaw’s feminist framework of “intersectionality”, which holds that women’s oppression arises from “the interaction of multiple identities and experiences of exclusion and subordination”. Bhatasara and Chirimambowa apply this notion of cumulative oppressions to the implications of the future world of work for women that captures “structural intersectionality, political intersectionality and representational intersectionality, particularly within the fourth industrial revolution”.

In light of the notion of intersectional oppressions, it could be argued that the state or government harbours the structures, institutions and systems that perpetuate these oppressions. Therefore, the feminist strategy of representation is still the most effective way to secure political rights. But the peculiarities of the 4IR require a new wave of direct political activism, with a feminist vision shaped by a feminist narrative and discourse on the 4IR, while recognising the intersectional context of African women.

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Sarah Setlaelo
Sarah Setlaelo is a writer with an MA in philosophy from the University of Johannesburg and a qualification in African Feminism and Gender Studies from the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute.

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