/ 8 August 2021

We women of 2021 need a new charter

Graphic Tl Zama Ritandzanga Twitter
(John McCann/M&G)

Rita Alice Ndzanga, or Gogo to me, lives in a modest house on vibrant Koma Street in Soweto. On the far end of Koma Street, you’ll find Moroka Police Station where Gogo would report every Monday from August 1964 after she and her husband Lawrence Ndzanga were banned by the apartheid government.

Ma Rita is my dear friend Laurette’s grandmother. I saw Gogo often in my late teens, first, on the odd occasion when I’d tag along when Laurette would pick her up from the airport when Gogo was home from parliament. Later at university, we would occasionally visit Gogo before buying the best kotas in Soweto, which were sold down the road. I spent a few nights sleeping on her living-room couch after some epic nights out, and Gogo let me stay with them when Laurette and I attended William Smith matric exam preparation classes at Wits. After all these years, Gogo still calls me by my English middle name.

She was born in Mogopa village in Ventersdorp. Her community was forcibly removed from their homes, losing assets for which the state made sure her family was inadequately compensated. She left school after Form 3 (Grade 10) and began working in the Brick and Tile Workers’ Union. In 1955 she met her future husband while working as a secretary at the Railway Workers Union. Once married, she and her husband continued their union organising work — work that landed them on the banned list.

Ma Rita was 33 years old when she and her husband were arrested from their Soweto home in front of their three small children. She was one of the seven women who were among the 22 accused in The State vs Ndou and 21 Others in 1969. Despite the acquittal, she spent months in prison, where her hair was pulled out and she was beaten until she fell on bricks or hit a gas pipe, or she was kept in solitary confinement. But much like this trial, her contribution, and the contributions of countless other women in the struggle against apartheid, are relegated to the footnotes of history. Aside from a few books such as Women in Solitary: Inside South Africa’s Female Resistance to Apartheid by Shanthini Naidoo from which many of these facts are drawn, women’s political participation is retold as spousal support and not political participation.

When we commemorate Women’s Day, we commemorate the women who took part in the women’s march of 1956, as part of the broader anti-pass campaign. We rightly pay homage to Rahima Moosa, Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, and Sophie Williams as organisers of this event. We rarely make reference to the Federation of South Africa Women, the broad-based organisation whose objective was to “bring the women of South Africa together to secure full equality of opportunity for all women, regardless of race, colour, or creed; to remove social, legal and economic disabilities, and to work for the protection of women and children”. 

In so doing we confine our understanding of women’s political participation during apartheid to a peaceful march, instead of positioning it within a broader political agenda of equal social, political and economic participation. As women, we inadvertently contribute to a gentle minimising of our own political agency, and our enduring political demands.

There is so much more to commemorate and to remember about the significance of Women’s Day. We should remember the Women’s Charter and its political demands, and we should continue to ask the political questions posed by marchers all those many years ago: Are women securing full equality of opportunity, regardless of race, colour, or creed? Has the democratic state removed social, legal and economic disabilities? Are the rights of women and children protected? And most importantly, if not, what are we, the women of today, doing about it?

More than 25 years since the ANC took over from the apartheid government, structural unemployment remains a key challenge. Narrowly defined unemployment has hit a record high of 32.6% and expanded unemployment is at more than 40%, with youth unemployment at more than 70%.

The situation is significantly worse for black women. According to Oxfam’s report, Reclaiming Power: Womxn’s Work and Income Inequality in South Africa, released in November 2020, race and gender remain the biggest predictors of income, more so than education. A black woman with a university degree (aged between 18 and 34 years) earns an average income of about R13 000, compared to about R17 000 for a white woman of the same age and education. Households headed by black women support more people despite the relatively low earnings of black women.

The report further shows that women are more likely to be employed in low-wage, service-sector jobs in private households, or in community and social services. These are sectors in which the pandemic has shown to be least secure for workers. White men account for less than 6% of people employed in the formal private sector, but account for more than 30% of senior managers in the formal private sector. Conversely, black women, who account for about 36% of the employed population, only hold 4% of senior manager positions in the private sector.

Asset inequality also persists. Property valued at less than R50 000 is most likely to be owned and headed by a black woman while that valued at more than R1 000 000 is most likely to be owned by a white man.

These are pathetic outcomes for a society that has had over two-and-a-half decades to address the deep inequalities that perpetuate this cycle. For all talk of the positive developmental impact of including women, women remain excluded. Increasingly, defenders of the ANC’s postapartheid policy approach use the current scourge of corruption to explain the little progress that has been made towards transforming South African society. But after almost three decades, a technocratic approach to addressing these challenges no longer suffices. These matters are political. So, as women, what are we going to do about them?

It is Ma Rita’s ordinariness that makes her story of resistance so extraordinary. Ma Rita is an ordinary African grandmother, who never leaves the house without a blanket, who loves her dogs, who is protective of her things, who loves her grandchildren. She is also an extraordinary woman, who fought for workers’ rights, who protected her children when her husband was killed in detention by apartheid police, who remained resolute after months of solitary confinement, who at 87 continues to actively participate in her community in Soweto.

Gogo reminds me that movements are built by ordinary people who are brave enough to do extraordinary things. And we don’t need her levels of bravery to participate today.

The current state of women’s economic access, rights and political participation require the attention of today’s women. Meaningful participation of women in community leadership and at all levels of political leadership can increase the political responsiveness of political parties and government. Women are active participants in vibrant civil society organisations across the country. But even this is not enough. We women of 2021 need to take a stronger political stand, our own Women’s Charter. We need to realise that our emancipation is not the priority of any group but our own. Women political alliances can do much more to shift power relations, enhance women’s social capital and increase mobilisation on transformative societal issues.

We are lucky enough to live in a democratic country where organising does not lead to being banned, or kept in solitary confinement for months, away from family and children. But we do not yet live in a country where political and policy process leads to equitable social outcomes for previously marginalised groups. We need to continue to organise as political actors and use our collective agency to achieve that. As women, we must ensure that we use our political access to elect women who prioritise the advancement of all progressive rights, who promote equality, and who are responsive to public needs.

Ma Rita has long retired from parliament and has been recognised within her community and by the country with the Order of Luthuli. She has given much of her adult life for the freedoms we enjoy today. But there is much work to be done. And it can start with us, ordinary women, choosing to do extraordinary things, together.