August is the month of pretence as we ignore the real issue

Modidima Mannya
Modidima Mannya

The real issue about the emancipation of women is the plight of rural women and domestic workers.

The month of August has become a routine month of pretence about the struggle and the true desire to recognise the real contribution of women to our liberation.

The question of whether we will ever have a female president has become irrelevant.

Whether we do or do not will not change our real fortunes on what matters about the emancipation of women.

The real issue about the emancipation of women is the plight of the rural woman and the domestic worker who were the core of the 1913 women’s struggle and campaign.

On the face of it, there is a need to be reminded of the role played by women in our liberation.

In real terms, it is the time when we show the lack of truthful commitment to the issue of women.

Despite the fact that South Africa has a rich history of gallant women fighters, most of whom stood up firmly against the colonial and apartheid governments, in the more than 100 years of a relentless freedom struggle, not one organisation claiming to champion our freedom struggle was ever led by a woman.

We have a record of many capable women over the many years and generations who have proven their capabilities beyond any doubt, even in the most adverse circumstances.

Each generation has produced a very capable woman leader who could easily have assumed leadership.

The correct record of the struggle history of women points to the fact that women leaders developed on their own to be formidable leaders, and not because of any particular political party.

Women launched major campaigns against both the colonial and apartheid governments and embarked on major protests as early as 1913, when they embarked on the Bloemfontein anti-pass campaign.

It is significant that that campaign was preceded by the formation of the SA National Native Congress (SANNC) in 1912.

It is also significant that the issue of gender equality was hardly a concern for the SANNC at the time.

The laws of the government naturally affected Black people in general.

The provocation to women arose more as a result of the specific restrictions the government imposed on women, in addition to the general restrictions on Black people.

The first organisation in the history of our struggle to adopt a militant approach was the Bantu Women’s League, which was formed against the backdrop of a refusal by the SANNC to allow women to participate as members.

Despite having adopted a non-violent approach, the women ended up in violent confrontations with the police when it became clear that the government was not prepared to consider their demands.

Forty-seven years after the Bloemfontein protests, both the ANC and the Pan African Congress (PAC) organised anti-pass law campaigns.

The ANC campaign led to the arrest of several participants and the PAC one led to what is today known as the Sharpeville massacre.

Firstly, unlike in the case of the women’s protects, the protests organised by both the ANC and the PAC had elements of competition instead of unity.

The protests of the women exhibited the highest level of unity among African women.

Secondly, the protests of the women served as a benchmark for such resistance.

It is significant that the protests of women engulfed the entire country, showing the extent of the influence and level of organisation of women.

The manner in which the struggles of women are presented seeks to underplay their influence in their challenge against the apartheid and colonial government laws.

While it may be that the Bloemfontein anti-pass campaign was instigated by the particular restrictions imposed on women, constraining their ability to work, it would be foolhardy to believe that the campaign was all about that.

Objective facts indicate that it must have been a broader struggle as opposed to a narrow issue of restrictions on the ability of women to work.

A narrative has been developed over years which seeks to confine the campaign and characterise the struggle of women as a gender issue and an appendage of the broader struggle as opposed to recognising the struggle of women as part of the broader liberation struggle.

There is no sound and logical basis to undermine and undervalue their contribution to the struggle.

It was the women who were the first to tear their passes in front of the police and the governor-general.

The debate about whether South Africa will ever see a woman president is a rather sad one.

Those who argue that the country is not ready for a female president may just have a valid point.

If South Africa hardly has a female deputy president and there appears no prospect of having one any time soon, then the future is bleak.

It is not about an absence of capable women but the continuing patriarchy that defines the role of women in society and the ongoing subjugation of women.

If the country could not be led by the likes of Charlotte Mannya Maxeke, Albertina Sisulu and many other women in the various generations, we must accept that we may indeed never be led by a woman.

Until this society reproduces women of the calibre of Josie Palmer, the wife of Edwin Mofutsanyana, who was one of the organisers of the Women’s March of 1956 and who, way back in 1928, organised and led a campaign against residential permits, we must forget about a female president.

At some point, an ordinary rural woman or a domestic worker must ask the question of who is responsible to champion the cause of her true freedom as a woman.

The answer may be that she must do so herself, including by being part of the various structures which have as their object advancing the struggle for gender equality.

The next possible question she would ask is which one of these structures is the most effective. The answer may be all or none, depending on who responds.

If you asked Professor Shireen Hassim whether the ANC Women’s League (ANCWL) would be the best structure for women to join and participate in, she might answer you in this way: “This is the problem with the ANC Women’s League: their failure to really develop their own analytical, critical capacity; they have not invested in it; they have no ideas; they have no alternative; so I am not surprised that, when push comes to shove, they go out looking for some rent-a-crowd analyst.”

This statement follows a hot debate about the presence of six men at the ANCWL policy conference, who were reported to be the resource persons to assist at the policy conference.

The response of the president of the ANCWL to the rejection of the participation of these men was as follows: “The six men are a resource because sometimes we lose debates because we are emotional, so now we want experts to argue.”

With this type of answer, should the ordinary rural woman ever have any hope that the issue of gender equality will be addressed?

The president of the ANCWL and Hassim are two powerful, influential women.

They are knowledgeable, capacitated and resourced enough to have a meaningful debate on the issue of gender and the broader issue of equality.

The ordinary woman, on the other hand, is trapped in daily discrimination, inequality, poverty and, most likely, gender-based violence in some remote area without any access to resources.

She feels the direct pain of gender inequality in her life and it is a real daily struggle.

Mannya is an advocate and writer


Who is responsible for championing the cause of true freedom for women?

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