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Umsebenzi Online

Volume 2, No. 16, 6 August 2003

In this Issue:


Red Alert

Building a progressive women’s movement as a platform for taking forward the struggle for transforming gender relations

By Blade Nzimande, SACP General Secretary

This Saturday, 9 August 2003, is South African National Women’s Day. It is a day on which we celebrate the struggles and the victories of South African women in the fighting for the liberation of our country and the reconstruction and development that has occurred since the 1994 democratic breakthrough.

ANC Women’s League

It would be irresponsible if we do not use this occasion to seriously reflect on the strengths, weaknesses and challenges in the organisation of women in our country. We are celebrating this Women’s Day on the eve of the delayed national conference of the ANC Women’s League – a key component of organised women in our country. This conference will take place later this month. This is indeed a very important development, as the struggles of women in our country, and gender transformation in general, principally rest on a strong ANC Women’s League.

The need to reflect on the state of and challenges facing the organisation of women in our country is necessitated by the holding of the ANC WL Conference later this month. It is true that since 1994 there has been a serious decline in women’s organisations, principally reflected in the growing weaknesses of the ANC Women’s League itself. The National Women’s Coalition, which was founded in the early 1990s and sought to bring together all the women of our country, is for all intents and purposes a dead organisation. Ironically, this has happened during a period when, constitutionally, we have seen the establishment in our country of an extensive gender machinery, and some major advances in placing the question of women’s emancipation and gender equality at the centre of our democracy.

Indeed, the weaknesses in women’s organisation in our country reflects the decline of what was known as the ‘mass democratic movement’ – an umbrella bringing together all the mass organisations (youth, civic, student, women, etc) that were at the centre of the struggle against apartheid. One of the contradictions of our revolution, and possibly a danger if not closely checked, is that the very advances brought about by this mass movement have created conditions for its weakening. Why? Perhaps this is a question that will require deeper and honest reflection as we celebrate, on 20 August, 20 years since the formation of the United Democratic Front. Our Party’s Central Committee will be reflecting extensively on some of these questions at its next plenary session in the middle of this month.

Advances and the need for a progressive women’s movement

Whatever advances have been made by the women of our country during the past 9 years of our freedom, these may be rolled back unless we focus on rebuilding a progressive women’s movement. Whilst the struggle for transformation of gender relations is not a matter exclusively for women, a progressive women’s movement is a critical vehicle for transforming gender relations in society. It is for this reason that these two issues, a progressive women’s movement and gender transformation, are integrally linked.

The building of the National Women’s Coalition in 1992 was relevant for its period – a period of seeking broad and inclusive national reconciliation. The main weakness of the coalition was, ironically, its broad inclusiveness. This weakness was further deepened by the inability of our ANC WL, which was potentially the most coherent and organised formation, to provide effective leadership.

Recently, there have been very positive developments which we are confident will lay the foundation on which to rebuild a strong and progressive organisation of South African women. The recent ‘Women in Dialogue’ Conference initiated by Cde Zanele Mbeki came at a time when we were all critically evaluating what needs to be done to rekindle an organised women’s voice to strengthen our democracy. The recently held COSATU National Gender Conference was a significant development whose debates and resolutions also focused on the role of working class women in taking forward growth and development in our country, including the role of women in implementing the resolutions of the Growth and Development Summit. The holding of the ANC Women’s League national conference provides a further important platform for rebuilding a progressive women’s organisation.

The SACP has been debating and seeking some of the best ways of taking forward and strengthening these initiatives and struggles for gender transformation both inside our Party and in wider society. One of the ‘dilemmas’ we have identified in the past is that of taking up gender struggles without at the same time ghettoising them, or seeking to integrate gender struggles into our campaigns, without at the same time marginalising or submerging them.

How should women be organised?

At this stage, it seems that the best way to inject urgency into this matter is to organise women within the context of our existing campaigns, at Alliance and government levels. For instance, intensified women’s organisation must happen in urban renewal and rural development projects, through implementation of the resolutions of the Growth and Development Summit, through our jobs and poverty eradication campaigns. The SACP must organise women around the financial sector campaign and the specific needs of women within the banking and insurance industry, women in co-operatives and local governance. It should be within this framework of existing programmes and campaigns, that we pose the question of gender transformation.

Perhaps in the past we have made the mistake of seeking to build a progressive women’s movement outside of existing campaigns and programmes, thus creating the danger of women’s issues being sidelined. Whilst our campaigns would not exhaust the whole area of women’s organisation and gender transformation, these would give us a concrete anchor. We have a lot to learn from the women’s anti-pass campaign of the 1950s, where the issue of passes was affecting both black men and women. Women found a niche to raise this problem from the standpoint of women, without disconnecting from the broader campaign of black people against passes. By learning from such events, we can concretely contribute to building a progressive working class-led women’s movement on the basis of very real concrete issues that affect ordinary women. It is also in this way that women can directly impact on our broader campaigns, thus giving an important impetus to gender transformation – but gender transformation struggles rooted in the daily needs of women’s struggles for sustainable livelihoods.

It is becoming clearer through our own campaigns that unless we mobilise working class women to play a leading role, in the first instance in the ANC Women’s League, as a politically conscious force, any women’s organisations will tend to privilege the interests of middle class black women. To organise black working class women requires organisation around their daily struggles in the workplace, in the stokvels, in the burial societies, in street trading, around access to land and around care for those dying of AIDS and poor children suffering from extreme levels of poverty and hunger.

Our celebration of South African National Women’s Day should centre around struggling to organise working class women in their various socio-economic struggles, not just as women, but as women hawkers, in stokvels and a variety of sites of struggle for sustainable livelihoods. Perhaps this is one major contribution that the SACP can make towards building the ANC Women’s League and a progressive women’s movement from below. After all, a progressive women’s movement is one that places the interests of, and is driven by, working class women around their daily struggles for sustainable livelihoods.

Wathinta abafazi, wathinta abasebenzi, wathint’imbokodo! Wathinta abasebenzi, wathint’imbokodo!

Patriarchal Oppression  

(Extract from the SACP’s Political Programme – adopted by the SACP’s 11th Congress, July 2002)

National oppression, class exploitation and patriarchal domination are deeply entwined within the fabric of our society. Over many decades our Party has rooted its strategic approach to the struggle on an understanding of the deep linkages between national oppression and capitalist exploitation in South Africa. This legacy continues to characterise our society, and it lies at the heart of the SACP’s strategic socialist commitment to advancing, deepening and defending our national democratic revolution.

But it was not just colonial/racial oppression and class exploitation that intersected and reinforced each other. Through our own programmes of action and mobilisation, and through the influence of Marxist feminists, the Party has, in recent years, become more aware of the manner in which the South African capitalist path of accumulation relied heavily on patriarchal domination over black women (and, to some extent, black youth and the rural and migrant poor). Traditional structures of domination – chieftaincy, village headmen, and house-hold patriarchy – were appropriated, perverted, and their coercive features exaggerated for the purposes of colonial control and accelerated capitalist accumulation.

Pre-existing patterns of patriarchy amongst the black majority were transformed into subordinate adjuncts of the colonial (and later apartheid) state. In reserves/bantustans, in townships, in mine compounds, in the work-place, in squatter camps and in households, the oppressive white minority state cultivated and perverted traditional patriarchy. Numerous patriarchal structures were fostered as subordinate instruments of domination - “chiefs”, “head-men”, “indunas”, “boss-boys”, “war-lords”, “shack-lords”, vigilantes, and male house-hold heads. Black women, African women in particular, and black youth and the rural and migrant urban poor, continue to bear the brunt of this subordinate coercive apparatus, which, in many respects, remains in place.

It was not just perverted traditional African forms of patriarchy that oppressed black women. Patriarchal power relations from within the white minority ruling bloc further oppressed women, in particular black women. In white households and on white farms, it was often black women who were (and who still are) forced into the lowest paying and most menial work. In the “formal” sector of the economy, including the public sector, black women workers are often confined to the worst paying jobs, and they are those who are most likely to be employed as “casuals”, and among the first to be retrenched when “rationalisation” and other measures are pursued.

The South African capitalist accumulation path has rested on the unspeakably harsh, triple oppression of the majority of women, perhaps in a more exaggerated and barbaric form than in almost any other society. Black women generally, and African women in particular, have played the central role in the reproduction of the working class – a working class that was “cheap” (for the capitalists), not just because it suffered direct coercion (colonial dispossession, pass laws, compounds, starvation wages), but also because the burden of its reproduction was carried by the unpaid labour of women. The triple oppression of black women (as workers, as blacks, and as women) forced them to bear the burden of care for the young, the unemployed, the old, the sick and disabled, and the vast reserve army of labour with the most pitiful resources.

Through survivalist activities, through micro-trading, through extended family networks (including the use of very young women and girls, “makotis”, as household chattels), through resistance and collective endeavours (stokvels, burial societies, church groups) black women have played a coerced but absolutely central role in the accumulation process that developed (and simultaneously underdeveloped) South Africa. Women in great numbers have organised against their triple oppression, often playing the leading role in agitational, mobilisational and organisational work in our national liberation struggle. The SACP believes that the advancing, deepening and defence of the NDR, and a progressive transition to socialism are critical for these struggles to finally lead to outcomes that surpass the oppressive accumulation logic of capitalism. However, the de-racialisation of our society, and a dominant socialist ownership and control of the economy do not guarantee, on their own, that patriarchal oppression will be overcome.


In approaching the transformation of our country we have to deal with a terrible and interrelated triple legacy that, to some extent, gives South Africa a unique character:

  • Colonial dispossession - has left the overwhelming majority of our people deprived of sustainable means of independent survival, probably to a much greater extent, and for a much more extended period than virtually any other African or colonised society. It is true that many colonial invasions resulted in the genocidal extermination (or near extermination) of the indigenous peoples. In our case (although some of our indigenous peoples have suffered complete, or near complete, genocide), the greater proportion of indigenous peoples survived as an overwhelming (but thoroughly dispossessed) majority.
  • Partly linked to this is the prolonged colonial fostering, perversion and aggravation of traditional coercive patriarchy. This, as we have just argued, has placed an impossible burden on women, and young people, in carrying responsibility for social reproduction (care of the young, the aged, the unemployed). This is a responsibility more characteristically borne, in other societies, by relatively more durable household self-sufficiencey and/or the state and its public sector; and
  • The relatively advanced levels (for an African society) of capitalist development - and, therefore, of relatively advanced levels of urbanisation, proletarianisation and the commoditisation of basic needs. These have left the great majority of our people more or less entirely dependent on the capitalist market for work, and for means of survival (food, housing, loans, access to land, transport)

These three pillars of capitalist accumulation have left us, in many respects, with the worst of all worlds. The two greatest crises currently facing our society (the HIV/AIDS pandemic and unemployment of 37 per cent in 2001) further worsen, and, of course, highlight these three intersecting problems. Once more poor women (sometimes the very young, and very often the aged) are being forced to carry, through unpaid labour, the burden of care and general survival.

This triple legacy, which is not the product of a lack of development, but the product OF a particular kind of development (and its consequences – systemic under-development) now leaves us with a huge challenge.

A Marxist-feminist approach to the challenges facing our revolution helps us to understand, perhaps better than any other perspective, three crucial and closely related points:

One: Any sustainable growth and development strategy has to address, as a central (and not peripheral) task, the progressive eradication of patriarchal domination in production and in the social reproduction of the conditions for production

The struggle for a non-sexist society, the struggle to overcome gendered oppression is NOT simply about “integrating” women into the “modern” economy - as if their daily grind over more than a century had not been a critical element of the “modern” (i.e. capitalist) economy. Nor is it simply and primarily about promoting a quota of women into senior positions within the existing structures of power – although such promotion might help foster transformation.

Two: The progressive transformation of gendered power must be understood, theoretically and practically, as absolutely central to a growth and development strategy.

This means, amongst other things:

  • Engendering our entire approach to the economy
  • Integrating the analysis of the reproductive and informal economies within our analysis of the capitalist economy, and understanding their future potential role in constructing a socialist economy
  • Recognising that the subordination of women is fundamentally linked to capitalist exploitation
  • Promoting the role of the state and public sector in providing secure quality employment for women and men
  • The role of the state in setting an example as a model employer for women (through good working conditions, pay equity, maternity benefits, job security and affirmative action)
  • Deepening and extending the provision of social services by the state
  • Establishment of an integrated system of social protection and the promotion of a social wage
  • The social wage should include the development of infrastructure, facilities and services that reduce the disproportionate reproductive and care-giving responsibilities of women (thus moving towards the socialisation of reproductive labour)
  • Driving a bold state-led rural development strategy, including service and infrastructure provision and job creation projects (e.g. public works programme)
  • Promoting and supporting sustainable livelihoods, income security and food security
  • Promoting women’s access to land

Campaigning against privatisation measures that deepen the reliance of millions of unemployed and poor on the capitalist market for basic necessities, and which, therefore, increase the burden of social reproduction placed on poor women.

Three (and by extension from the above two points) – In both theory and in practice we must:

  • Avoid separating “development” from any sustainable “growth” strategy;
  • Avoid separating “social” transformation from “economic” transformation, as if they belonged to two separate worlds; and (a related tendency)
  • Avoid separating the “informal” sector from the “formal”, as if what happens in the one is more or less unrelated to what happens in the other.

These are themes will be taken up in the following chapter. Critical, however, to any success is the organisation, the ideological development, the unity and the general subjective and objective strengthening of the key motive force of our struggle – the working class.



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