Posted on August 13, 2021
As we observe Women’s Month, the University of Pretoria’s Transformation Office has set out to encourage debate about all aspects of this annual commemoration. In this compelling first entry, Natasha Allie, Acting CEO of the Adelaide & Oliver Tambo Foundation, and Thandiwe Matthews, attorney and PhD candidate (Human Rights and Inequality) at Erasmus University Rotterdam and the University of the Witwatersrand, discuss how both prominent and unseen advocates of women’s rights in SA can be more meaningfully honoured.
During Women’s Month in South Africa, the general public tends to celebrate women in various capacities: women who occupy positions of leadership in business, politics, academia, and the vast number of unnamed, unseen women who play a crucial role in sustaining the social fabric of their communities. We also celebrate our Constitution, which was adopted in 1996, as progressive in its inclusion of the right to equality in Section 9, and indeed one of the first in the world to expressly include sexual orientation in the list of forbidden grounds of unfair discrimination. Crucially, that list also explicitly mentions gender, sex, pregnancy and marital status.
Yet we remain subject to shallow displays of solidarity and tributes that are meaningful only for as long as they are uttered, before being relegated to the same annals to which the actual contributions of our women liberators are condemned.
But what is the alternative? Not celebrating Women’s Day? No.
In 1956, more than 20 000 women converged upon the Union Buildings. Women came from all over the country, marching against pass laws in the quest for our collective freedom, and consequently playing an indispensable role in shaping South Africa’s political, economic and social trajectory. These were women who defiantly challenged the idea that a woman’s place was in the kitchen, and instead proclaimed that women belonged everywhere. They were political activists and trade unionists, domestic workers and machinists, mothers and wives. They endured extended periods of banning orders, faced detention without trial and spent much time in solitary confinement. Yet despite the tremendous sacrifices they made for all of us to live in a free, democratic South Africa, their names remain largely unknown.
A few years ago, we co-authored a children’s book that anthologised the stories of 30 incredible South African women linked by themes of affirmation, identity, gender and mental health. From Albertina Sisulu to Caster Semenya, Her Story told the inspirational tales of an array of heroes. The book was born out of a desperate need: we were outraged that years of scouring bookshelves produced few results of books about South African women – less so, about black women. We should all be outraged that both children and adults do not know the stories of our liberators, especially the female ones.
Despite the frustration we feel, we also cannot ignore the significant strides that have been made to affirm women’s rights since the 1956 march. In addition to the advancements that have propelled women forward as access to education, housing, healthcare and social welfare have expanded, our courts have also adopted innovative, feminist and intersectional interpretations of the law. Recently, the Constitutional Court declared that private domestic workers can now claim compensation for workplace-related injury, disease or death. In arriving at its decision, the country’s apex court recognised that a large proportion of domestic workers in South Africa are poor black women, and their previous exclusion from accessing compensation for work-related injuries amounted to race and gender-based discrimination.
Similarly, in response to the gross acts of gender-based violence endured by millions of South African women on a daily basis, our courts have engaged feminist legal theory in challenging sexist and patriarchal gender norms in defining gender-based crimes against women, and rape in particular. Consequently, through the expansion of legal interpretation, women’s rights remain firmly entrenched within the framework of our broader political economy.
But the more we rise, the more intensive patriarchal backlash appears to be, reinforced by deeply embedded structural violence that permeates our society. Despite the visibility of women in influential positions, the issues that directly affect them, and particularly that of the political economy, remain in the realm of men. Rarely do we discuss how the outcome of poor decision-making processes by governments impact the lives of women, or how to protect vulnerable portions of our population when policies aimed to improve their lives do not yield the desired results. We tend to fall short on considering the real cost of corrupt practices and economic exclusion on ordinary South African women and their ability to access basic needs such as healthcare, shelter, food and social security. Consequently, women continue to bear the brunt of poverty and violence in South Africa’s highly unequal landscape.
Lest we forget that women have often been at the forefront of South Africa’s never-ending fight against corruption: from Constitutional Court Justice Sisi Virginia Khampepe and former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela to Fezeka Khuzwayo, who accused Jacob Zuma of rape, Mandy Rossouw and other female journalists who have reported on the issue, all of whom have encountered vitriolic persecution as a direct consequence thereof.
So what more can be done?
For us, the most poignant lesson we draw from the women of 1956 was that they embodied the spirit of ubuntu. While the interpretation of this way of life is often reduced to superficial ideas of assimilation and forgiveness, for us the radical potential of ubuntu is to remember how much the individual can achieve as part of a collective, irrespective of the artificial, socially constructed barriers of race, class, gender, religion and age that seek to divide us. While we must continue to celebrate the achievements of the numerous individuals who have elevated our status in society, we must not forget the millions of unnamed women who continue to carry our communities, despite the physical and structural violence we continue to endure.
Essentially, we need to go back to the basics in recalling that not only are women’s rights human rights, but it is only when we are grounded in the essence of our communities that we can be inspired by the power of love and resilience in our continued quest for a liberated society free of all forms of violence and oppression for everyone in South Africa.
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