Volume 11, No. 28, 8 August 2012
Inequality, Poverty and Unemployment - The Impact on Women
By Jenny Schreiner, member of the 13th Congress Central Committee
As we mark women's month to commemorate the role that women have played in the national democratic revolution, it is time to take stock of the livelihoods of working class women in South Africa. The daily experiences of working class women are a measure of how far a society has gone in achieving a society based on promotion of human rights for all. It is time to ask ourselves what is necessary in society for the emancipation of women to be realised and what conditions are necessary in society for this to be achieved.
We are proud, and rightly so, every August of the anti-sexist, anti-discrimination and pro-equality South African Constitution, the bedrock of our democracy. The significance of this for women, across the classes, should not be under-estimated. The rights protected in the Constitution are rights that all women can claim, but they are not yet rights that all women, particularly working class women, are living. The equality in law and rights does not automatically translate into equality in access to jobs, resources, and protection. As Lenin said: "Where there are landlords, capitalists and merchants, there can be no equality between women and men in law. Where there are no landlords, capitalist and merchants, where the government of the toilers is building a new life without these exploiters, there equality between men and women exists in law. But that is not enough. It is a far cry from equality in law to equality in life. We want women workers to achieve equality with men workers not only in law, but in life as well. For this, it is essential that women workers take an ever increasing part in the administration of public enterprises and in the administration of the state." Lenin, 1920 To the Working Women
When we ask "Can the constitution enable our advance towards women's emancipation?" we should answer that the constitution on its own cannot advance struggle. It is a product of struggle on the terrain of the Constitutional Assembly at a particular point in our history. Unless we combine the protection that the Constitution provides with organisation and struggle around the relevant clauses of the Constitution, it cannot advance our struggle. The interpretation of the Constitution is not only defined in the Constitutional Court. It is also defined in the course of mass campaigning and organising around the content of the Constitution.
Unemployment, inequality and poverty, issues that affect working class families in urban, peri-urban and rural areas, have a particular impact on the women in these families, more so given the historical legacy of colonialism of a special type on most working class families. Women bear the direct burden of themselves not having jobs or being marginalised in the job market, having low income and facing high prices, of carrying the burden of work in the home, of not having access to land, credit and finance. These working class women also feel the result of their husbands, brothers' and fathers' unemployment, of their husbands', brothers, and fathers' difficulty in putting food on the table, and their frustration at unequal access and resources. Often the burden of unemployment and poverty result in drinking and in aggression, often with women and girl children as the victims. The Minister of Women, Children and People with Disabilities has recently said "A life of abuse, discrimination and violation of human rights remain the harsh reality for the majority of the women in our country". Women's Month Speech August 2012. Domestic violence is a reality that must be addressed.
Economic thought for a long time identified the central problem of women's oppression as the lack of integration of women into the economy, and particularly into the formal economy. It is neither the lack of integration nor merely the form of integration of women that is the issue. The actual problem is that the terms of economic participation for women and men are different. Principally, the form of men's participation is premised on the relative exclusion of women, and women's location within the domestic sphere. The family unit is an economic premise that provides capital with cheap reproduction of labour. Put simply, capitalist profit depends on hidden domestic labour, performed predominantly by women and girl children. Unpaid work by women both in home and in agricultural work makes enormous contribution to the economy which is seldom recognised. The material base of women's emancipation has to be in the integration of women into the economy without gender discrimination, the equalising of the gender division of labour within the household and addressing social and political gender equity.
For women, much as the family is a place of romance, love, motherhood, and security, the household is also a site of oppression. Women should not be conceptualised as dependent members of a household unit, which is what political economy has assumed to be the basic unit of society. The family, the household, the domestic unit is usually understood as a hierarchy with a man at top, with all resources pooled and common interests of the family are expressed by male household head. The extent of female headed households in South Africa is very marked and has been found across time, and is a phenomenon which is not being reversed in South Africa.
We have correctly identified the community as a site of patriarchy, but we must not lose sight of the fact that patriarchy and unequal gender relations are prevalent in all sites of struggle and must be tackled. Historically for the majority of women, access to housing has been largely through a relationship with a man. While access is a Constitutional right that women can demand, it is certainly not the case that the right to access to resources and services is one that has been realised for the majority of working class women. The dependence of women is not yet challenged.
Unless the liberation movement puts the household and family relations under the microscope, the oppressive implications for women in the workplace and in social life will remain unchanged. Work and activity outside the home is premised on an inequality between men and women defined by their household or domestic responsibilities. Capitalism and patriarchal oppression are premised on the unpaid domestic labour of the women at home and yet our Constitution and our approach to gender empowerment have the expectation that women outside of the home should deliver in the same way as men on uneven terrain. We have said that the struggle for women's emancipation is a struggle within a struggle and one that touches both the personal and the political.
In 1996, we asked the question "What are the prospects for gender transformation in South Africa?" and said the following:
"South Africa has within it both the seeds of gender transformation and the seeds of entrenched gender oppression. The neo-liberal option or the modernising route of the democratic transition permit a kind of solution to racial and gender oppression. It can make the upper strata of society more representative in terms of race and gender. But along with this goes a widening of the socio-economic gap between women of the middle and bourgeois classes and those of the working class. Ultimately oppressive gender relations remain entrenched.
The challenge of the Party and the left is to ensure that the gains made in the constitutional struggles, and in the structures of government, do not only benefit the elite women, but empower working class and poor women in rural and urban areas. The seeds of transformation can liberate the lives of working class women. Which seeds eventually become rooted and nurtured depends on strategy and struggle based on the correct understanding of the interconnection between oppressive gender social relations and women's oppression. Such strategy and struggle must go along with the appropriate organisational forms to carry out the objectives. Without this, neither the emancipation of women nor the transformation of society to a non-gender-oppressive socialist formation will be realisable. When we ask why some socialist states have failed, we must include the extent to which the lack of gender transformation placed brakes on democratising and socialising society." Gender Challenges and Organising For Socialism - Part One By Jenny Schreiner, for NUM/SACP Spring School, November 1996
Alexander Kollontai identified that the social basis of women's oppression lies in class relations and private ownership of the means of production and appropriation. She discussed whether there was a basis for a cross-class women's movement. She argued that working class women will more easily identify in struggle alongside their working class menfolk than to side with bourgeois women against men. This is an important issue for the Party to engage with, particularly in the context of the progressive women's movement. It should be clear that the hegemony of the working class and its organisation in all sites of struggle is weakened if working class women are excluded from that organisation. However it is equally important for working class women to assert working class leadership of the progressive women's forces in society and form allies amongst the multi-class strata in the liberation movement. The experience of relative discrimination by women across classes provides a unique opportunity for women of the middle classes to be mobilised in support of working class women's interests, and there y become aware of working class issues.
In conclusion, the answer on what is necessary in society for the emancipation of women to be realised and what conditions are necessary in society for this to be achieved is that it is only where the means of production are socialised, where power is in the hands of the working class, with women of this class fully empowered at home, in the community and in the economy, that women can be truly freed. Equally to quote Lenin again: "The proletariat cannot achieve complete freedom unless it achieves complete freedom for women." Lenin 1920 To the Working Women.
On 16 July Business Day published an "Open Letter" to SACP general secretary, cde Blade Nzimande. It was a vacuous piece trotting out hackneyed vulgarisations and misreadings of Marx and Marxism. One of the the first to respond was Professor Jeff Guy ("Trabant versus Mercedes, Cohen versus Marx"). Business Day clearly felt it couldn't quite ignore this thoughtful response - it was published on the 18 July, but buried obscurely in the back-end reaches of the paper. Guy's response was then followed by a barrage of anti-Marxist letters indiscriminately attacking Guy, Nzimande, the SACP (all prominently displayed in the letters page), and by another column steeped in nostalgia for the Cold War by our own Don Quixote, the anti-communist warrior, John Kane-Berman ("SA's vanguard communists want power everywhere", 6 August). In the face of these responses Guy submitted a second article, which was rejected by Business Day on the grounds that after "a marvellously vigorous debate" it was time to "move on". But, as Guy asks, move on to where?
In this issue of Umsebenzi Online we publish Guy's second intervention which the Business Day was too afraid to publish.
By Jeff Guy
We are confronted by it daily: the failure of education at every level: attempts to remove the stifling legacy of our educational past brought to nothing by inflexible pedagogies, inadequate teaching, stifling bureaucracy, and inefficient administration all contributing to the waste of the funds and material upon which young peoples' futures depend. In the press, at conferences and workshops, this contemporary crisis is in the public view. Open comment and criticism of this kind are essential attributes of the democratic approach, and will lead, one has to hope, in the direction of radical improvement. But in the past fortnight I have been confronted by another dimension of the crisis in education. While it might appear to be very different I believe it is one that also has its roots in our history, and is as difficult, to solve.
On 16 July Business Day published an open letter to Blade Nzimande in which the writer wondered how a prominent and powerful South African political figure could espouse a doctrine so incapable of dealing with today's problems as Marxism. In reply I wrote an article which suggested that Marx's ideas still had pertinence in the contemporary world. Deliberately avoiding direct reference to contemporary South African affairs or the general history of communism, I concentrated on one set of themes: that the consequences of war, want, and waste threaten not just lives, but life itself; that conventional policies seem unable to find solutions to this, and that Marx's lifelong attempt to understand the nature and demands of capital deserves informed consideration, not frivolous dismissal.
In so doing I didn't expect to change the minds of Business Day's readers. From its content and arguments, one can make a considered guess at its target audience - informed South Africans, in positions of some standing, interested in learning more about the world, the business world especially, but holding what might be called conventional attitudes and points of view. An article in defence of Marx's relevance to the present global crisis might nonetheless, I hoped, persuade some readers that it was no longer enough to cover ignorance of what Marx actually wrote with hand-me-down prejudice. But what I didn't expect was not just the ferocity, but the inadequacy of so many of the responses to the debate which followed, characterised not just by ideological bias and short cuts which miss the point, but by such ignorance of the great themes in modern history - that is, of the world that has made us and we have made.
Marx, Marxism, Communism, are not merely interchangeable terms - they are connected of course, but these connections have to be made by argument, not mere assertion, and necessitate a confrontation with the most contested and significant debates of modern times. However, not content with using them outside of any historical context they were then extended into fields way beyond the ones I had selected. To the mafia - ridiculously; to Stalin - wrongly but understandably; and in one article, incredibly, to Hitler. Once this door was open it was then possible to make the outrageous statement that Marx was personally responsible for the deaths of millions.
Arguments of this kind which fail to distinguish between individual evil and universal tragedy make it impossible to comprehend both the magnificent and the terrible themes of the modern era. These include the technological and scientific achievements that Marx celebrated and their potential to alleviate so many of humanity's burdens. But at the same time they were, he believed, human achievements and a human legacy, not the inheritance of a particular propertied class to be used in perpetuating its power.
However, as it developed within the twentieth century, capital used its unprecedented strength to extend and advance itself. Those whom it exploited resisted, and looking back on the past century we can see something of the cost. It includes two terrible global conflicts, unprecedented civilian casualties, totalitarianism, imperialism, and economic catastrophe within a world eventually divided into hostile capitalist and socialist blocs. In all of this Marx's ideas were used and abused not only by those who opposed them but amongst those fighting in their name. As a result just what Marxism is, and who embodied or betrayed Marx's thought, remains a subject of intense controversy to this day. But not to Business Day's contributors who assert the existence of an easily identifiable, all embracing source of evil in the modern world - monolithic, unchangeable Marxism.
But Marxism should be seen as a historically dynamic set of ideas which can be used to track, organise and better understand the events, the divisions and the conflicts that make up the modern world, and in the process reach a greater understanding of ourselves and the society in which we live. And this is not easy. It requires proximity and distance. Youth and maturity. It demands a critical approach. It cannot be done by the repetition of received ideas: it means drawing on accepted interpretations and recognised achievements, but always with the option of criticising them, of creating something new for a new world. It is a social process that requires hard work backed by all the resources that society can afford. We have a name for it. It is called education.
The contemporary debate on education in South Africa has dealt largely with the very young who are being failed in our own times, and the youth who have been failed in the past. But the reaction to my article has persuaded me that the crisis concerns not just the educationally disadvantaged, but the advantaged as well. Those with whom they differ are dismissed with an arrogance and ignorance redolent of the red-baiting of the Cold War. The easy association of the ideas of a nineteenth century economist with the horrors of twentieth century totalitarianism reflect an outdated anti-communism - indeed one cannot but suspect the shadowy, lingering presence of a state of mind that identified any challenge to the status quo, all meaningful protest, any argument for radical change, with communism and was given expression in the Suppression of Communism Act of 1950.
A new democratic state needs new ideas with which to confront new problems, urgently in a world where local problems are increasingly global. But they are never entirely new, the future demands the presence of the past, in order to create fresh, dynamic, answers. And to do this we need new approaches to education: for those young enough to take advantage of them, obviously; to repair the damage done to those already disadvantaged, of course; but, from the evidence of the recent debate in the Business Day, also for those whom the bright light of educational privilege has blinded.
Jeff Guy is an historian whose books include The Heretic: a Study of the Life of John William Colenso and Remembering the Rebellion: the Zulu Uprising of 1906. He has just completed a life of Theophilus Shepstone.