Hlengiwe Mnguni

Woman up

2010-12-10 07:52

Every August 9 we remember and revere the estimated 20 000 women from different sections of South African society who took part in the iconic march of 1956 to petition the government about its oppressive pass laws.

And over the years the ANC Woman's League has appropriated (maybe not officially) the event and considers it one of the most important moments in its history.

Out of that march, which had as one of its principal aims the need to make the apartheid regime (and society at large) realise that women not only had a voice but a presence to be felt as well, came that now famous rallying call, "Wathint' umfazi, wathint' imbokodo"(You strike a woman you strike a rock).

But as another 16 Days of Activism Against the Abuse of Women and Children campaign draws to an end, I struggle to find in the ANCWL the potency suggested by that slogan.

While I understand that the woman's league, along with the youth and veterans' league, falls under the umbrella of a larger organisation with party objectives, they have over the years disappeared into the ANC and failed to live up to the spirit of that march, particularly when it comes to fighting against the victimisation of women and the cultivation of disempowering stereotypes.

There have been a number of proven and disproven high profile allegations of sexual misconduct over the years within the ANC - including those against former chief whip Matthew Goniwe, the late diplomat Norman Mashabane and that of the party's president Jacob Zuma.

It is only on few occasions that the league has come out as the most vocal women's formation in the country against the negative perceptions of women that develop habitually around such cases.

Most times the league has to be prodded into response by the media and rights groups.

The first people to speak out against ANCYL president Julius Malema's refusal to pay the fine ordered by the Equality Court after it found his comments on Zuma's rape accuser to be hateful should have been the ANCWL.

Not only because of its association him, but because as the biggest women's formation in South Africa, within the country's ruling party, one would imagine that they are the most likely group to feel obliged to advance women's causes in South Africa.

However, in recent years, the league has done little to dispel the perception that it pays allegiance first to the ANC, then to women.

If ordinary women have difficulty finding strength in standing up against ingrained abuse, what hope is there for them when a formation such as the ANCWL is unable to effect change?

I am not calling for the woman's league to condemn anyone, but it would be encouraging if they made proactive pronouncements on events affecting women in particular. One hardly has to ask anything of the ANCYL or the main body before they have a statement on it. From the woman's movement, there has largely been silence – despite the fact that South African women continue to suffer, with record rape rates and frightening abuse statistics.

What I see is a whole woman's movement, in its silence, helping enforce problematic stereotypes of women as people who quietly stand in the background, are for the most part unquestioningly supportive of their partner and avoid at all costs public disagreements.

By not calling for serious action against Malema, and instead standing by being loyal to party harmony while he further entrenches the idea of women as disempowered sex objects, the league's inaction is tantamount to spitting in the face of every woman who is struggling to break free from abuse and redefine herself as a strong human being.

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