No, the women’s movement is not dead

2012-08-11 15:13

Whenever I am asked about whether the women’s movement is dead in South Africa, I usually respond with a confident “no”.

But this answer is not as straightforward as it initially seems.

The fact that the question gets asked, and how often it is asked, tells us something about an existing anxiety for the women’s movement.

Clearly, enough people worry about the state of the women’s movement enough to keep asking the question.

Questions reveal more than a mere desire for a resolution.

The South African women’s movement is dead or dying if we anticipate the large number of women taking to the streets as well as the visible formation of mass-based organisations.

This is a reasonable expectation since claiming public space is a strategy much loved by such movements, whether we are thinking about
members of the West African women’s movement ­stripping in public, the South African women’s marches that culminated in the 1956 anti-pass laws, or anti-gender-based violence marches across the world.

Yes, there are fewer actions of this kind in South Africa than there once were. And where they exist, they tend to be smaller on average than Cosatu marches, for example.

Nor are there attempts to come up with something of the character of the now-romanticised Women’s National Coalition SA.

When this argument is made, people forget why the women’s coalition worked and how hard it was to ensure that it achieved its successes, choosing to focus in their nostalgia on the power of women from ­different political homes.

There are many reasons why we do not see thousands of women taking to the streets on a regular basis.

­Organising thousands of women to march in this way, and to do so regularly, continues to be a challenge in a context where the efficacy of such marches is under scrutiny.

Feminist poet Audre Lorde is often quoted as having cautioned against using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.

Marching against the state using tools that those now in power have intimate knowledge of can be as ironic as it is ineffective.

Many of the older forms of women’s movement organising were premised on a very clear relationship to the state, whether as an enemy or a
potential partner.

Such an orientation does not work in the current dispensation.

This is not to say that there are no women’s organisations that think of the state as the enemy, given the free reign of violent masculinities in the political leadership of the nation as well as the ongoing brutalisation of sexual violence survivors within the legal justice system.

At the same time, many in the women’s movement are part of the state, or invest in models of patient collaboration with the state.

Linked to this taming of subversive political language is the manner in which the successes of the current democracy have also been premised on directly weakening an autonomous women’s movement.

They have led to a more fractured women’s movement than we have ­ever seen before.

While there are various organisations and formations of women who organise for varied ends, they often do so separately, rather than in ­alliance.

There is no question that the Rural Women’s Movement or the One in Nine Campaign do important work.

Yet, many discussions of the South African women’s movement often become obsessive reflections on the ANC Women’s League or ­expectations from women within the larger governing party’s ranks.

While this may be well-intentioned, it also renders other spaces within the women’s movement less visible.

It ­also reveals a hankering after a ­certain historic model of women’s ­organising that has worked well to get us the legislative framework we boast.

However, I am not convinced that these are tools that can get us further than we are.

It is clear that we need a re-energised women’s movement.

Such revitalisation is only possible with the crafting of radically new kinds of tools to deal with women’s realities today.

We will have to take a significant leap of the imagination, including questioning many of the tools that are as dear to activists in the women’s movement as they are to other members of the left in South Africa.

The challenges are different. The enemy is more elusive, if indeed we think of what we fight as that which resides in a discernible enemy.

»Gqola is a feminist writer and associate professor of literary, gender and media studies at Wits. She is the author of What Is Slavery to Me? and @feminist_rogue on Twitter


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