The history of Women’s Day demonstrates a commendable feat in the history of South Africa.
It has become commonplace to hear of and see various advertisements in mainstream media relating to Women’s Day and Women’s Month, almost relegating the month and the day to times when women must be given presents and pampered.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with pampering, as women often carry the heaviest burdens and take care of everyone else’s interests before their own.
Such burdens are often exacerbated by the weight of patriarchy and sexism.
For most black women, systems of domination – the triple effects of unemployment, poverty, and inequality – intersect with blackness and class to further burden them.
That said, we must not normalise making Women’s Day Women’s Month and about the superficial. If we do that, we run the risk of not honouring women in a manner fitting the significance of womanhood.
We ought to locate Women’s Day in the context of the 1956 women’s march to the Union Buildings to protest against laws requiring black people to carry a dompas (passbook) when travelling to “white areas” in South Africa.
To commemorate the month with the honour it deserves, we must consciously remind ourselves of what the passbook meant in the lives of black people in apartheid South Africa.
The first law requiring black people to carry a passbook when in a white area was introduced in June 1797 by Earl McCartney to prevent “natives” from entering the Cape Colony. Various iterations of the same law were promulgated across the country.
It was in 1952 that the regional laws were collapsed into the Black (Natives) Laws Amendment Act as an amendment to the 1945 Native Urban Areas Consolidation Act, which stipulated that all black people older than 16 were required to carry passes.
In terms of these laws, no black person could stay in an urban area for more than 72 hours unless given permission to do so. The pass laws entitled policemen to demand that a black person produce a properly endorsed passbook on demand or face arrest.
Naturally, this restricted movement and tied black people to exploitive employers who alone could endorse the passbook to show that the “native” was gainfully employed in a white area.
With this background, we must ask ourselves: What has changed for women? For one thing, they are no longer required to carry passbooks. However, and most unfortunately, women have a different form of restriction – patriarchy, sexism and gender-based violence are all subsets of oppression that emanate from systems of domination.
Today it is not the dompas that makes a woman think twice about venturing out of her home. It is the constant fear of either being raped, robbed or killed, as has become the norm. In some cases, she does not even have to set foot outside her home for such fear to manifest because she shares a bed with her violator.
It remains the greatest tragedy of our time that there are still thousands of women who continue to be mercilessly exploited, suppressed and even killed by a society that supposedly celebrates them every year in August.
Disturbingly, there persist cases of women being sexually assaulted and harassed in the workplace by employers and colleagues emboldened by workplace cultures that do not take women’s sense of security and autonomy seriously.
It is also a sad reality that, in some instances, women bosses have assumed unhealthy masculine patterns and treat other women – be they domestic staff or fellow office workers – as lesser human beings undeserving of the human rights and dignity guaranteed by our Constitution.
As we commemorate Women’s Month, we must return to the promise of the Freedom Charter, particularly the parts that state that South Africa belongs to all who live in it; the rights of the people shall be the same, regardless of race, colour or sex; and all people shall have equal rights.
There is no doubt that it is heart-warming to buy gifts for the women in our lives.
However, unless we see the struggle for gender justice as part of the freedom continuum and unless us men become conscious of the privilege handed to us by patriarchy, these acts will remain superficial and unhelpful.
Women’s Month should therefore be about men joining women in the activism for gender justice and for the fall of patriarchy, and do so within the terms that women endorse.
All men, whether they like it or not, benefit from the patriarchal structure of our society. That is why, as men, we must acknowledge that women do not oppress, marginalise or rape themselves. For there to be meaningful change, men must carry the heavier burden.
The duty is on men to do the work of undoing the culture of sexism and misogyny that we benefit from – a culture that is steeped in patriarchal practices and beliefs that women are the lesser sex.
Women’s Month should be a reminder that, as long as women are paid less than men for the same work; as long as rape culture endures; and as long as men continue to dominate social and economic spaces at the expense of qualified black women, the struggle that Sophia Williams-De Bruyn, Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa and Lilian Ngoyi led will continue.
Makhubo is the mayor of Johannesburg