Era passes as Duncan passes away

2010-05-08 13:57

One of the country’s foremost feminists died this week, and in a sense her passing was also the passing of an era. For Sheena Duncan wasn’t just a member of the Black Sash.

For those whose only acquaintance with this courageous and principled band of women is through sepia-tinted photographs, Sheena Duncan was the Black Sash.

Although Duncan was an organiser of many campaigns and causes, including the anti-gun lobby, she will be best remembered for her leadership of what is fondly known as “the Sash”. A university-educated white woman from Parktown, Duncan spent her life furthering the rights of black women – many of them rural, poor and uneducated.

Not that this detail was particularly remarkable or unique – either at the time or now. There were hundreds, thousands maybe, like her. What was unique, though, was the visibility back then of the white women of “the Sash”.

Like the Jewish mothers and daughters of Machsom Watch in Israel, who stand every day at security checkpoints watching for signs of the abuse of the rights of their Palestinian sisters, Sheena Duncan and the white women of the Black Sash were visible participants in the struggle for black women’s rights: standing at street corners bearing placards.

But today – unless the cause is particularly célèbre (like Aids) – there is a near invisibility of white women (bar a handful) in feminist campaigns, either by choice or by deliberate exclusion.

And vice-versa. The non-racial, feminist unity that was so powerful in the ’50s and which resurged in the ’80s is all but gone.

A public life for women’s collective concern and solidarity simply does not exist.

And even if it did, we’d have the benefit of the leadership of an ineffectual and neutered (or should one say spayed?) Commission for Gender Equality and a government that lumps women together with the enfeebled and incapacitated in a Ministry of Women, Children and People with Disabilities.

It could also be that class differences have split causes along racial lines. It really isn’t a given any more that “the meddem” is a white woman. And though we are constantly told HIV can strike anyone, it’s mainly poor black women who are infected.

There are those who would argue that different forms of activism need not be mutually exclusive, and that tits ’n ass parades (on page three of newspapers; in strip clubs; on red carpets) are just as damaging for gender equality as economic dependence.

A visit to the maintenance and domestic violence courts on a Monday morning shows where the real struggle still lies.

The greatest struggle is still the quest for women’s economic emancipation: for equal pay for equal work, access to grants and provision of decent childcare. It is the mantra that is drummed into all feminist ears: a woman will never be free unless she has a bit of money and (if she’s lucky) a room of her own.

Armchair critic that I am, I would venture that this country’s feminist movement lacks unity of purpose and membership.

It falls short of what in NGO-speak is termed “broad-based” or “cross-over” appeal. A feminist mass movement was last seen in South Africa in the now defunct National Women’s Coalition.

Duncan’s activism surpassed the navel-gazing that passes for the “feminist movement” in South Africa today.

For she and her organisation have long championed the achievement of socio-economic rights for women über alles – instead of embarking on quixotic adventures like the “Strip the Back Page” campaign of a few years back, or grinning next to Caster Semenya at news conferences.


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