South Africa must fight for the freedom of our women


Last week’s parliamentary questions revealed an overriding concern for the lot of women in our country. We can speak from dawn till sunset to show how the ANC-led government has always been seized with the Constitutional imperative of the full emancipation of women. But with all our successes, we know very well that patriarchy and sexism remain pervasive in our society. We know that when women die violently, it is more likely to be from their intimate partners than from strangers. And we know that patriarchy itself has no race, no ethnicity, no class and no gender.

According to feminist writer Katrine Marçal, in The Wealth of Nations Adam Smith, known as the father of modern economics, asks a fundamental question about the human condition: Who puts dinner on the table?

As a market fundamentalist and beneficiary of patriarchy, Smith naturally gets it wrong. He gravitates towards the “economic man” – the self-interested banker, farmer, butcher, who puts dinner on the table for nothing else but profit.

Yet all of us have abiding memories of our grandmothers, wives, sisters and the girl-child lovingly putting dinner on the table.

For it is women who bear the child; it is women who make the home; it is women who enable men to work; and it is women who create the wealth of nations – and, they do it for free.

As it is said in the Women’s Charter, adopted in 1954, “We women share with our menfolk the cares and anxieties imposed by poverty and its evils. As wives and mothers, it falls upon us to make small wages stretch a long way. It is we who feel the cries of our children when they are hungry and sick. It is our lot to keep and care for the homes that are too small, broken and dirty to be kept clean. We know the burden of looking after children and land when our husbands are away in the mines, on the farms and in the towns earning our daily bread.

“We know what it is to keep family life going in the pondokkies, shanties or overcrowded one-room apartments. We know the bitterness of children taking to lawless ways, of daughters becoming unmarried mothers while still at school, of boys and girls growing up without education, training or jobs at a living wage.”

And so the degree to which we can claim to have created a civilised and democratic society depends on the extent to which we have liberated the woman both socially and economically.

It depends on how we empower women to demand their inherent rights to take the advantages, responsibilities and opportunities of a civilised society.

Women, more than any of us, have paid the price, they are the birth mothers of our freedoms – freedoms we have earned freely on their unpaid labour.

And so we must place particular stress on treating women as special. Women must be treated as wholesome human beings, as people who are neither underlings to the male folk nor separated from their responsibility to build a cohesive and sustainable society.

Our Constitution envisages a democratic state founded on “Human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms”.

Born from the evil experience of racial hatred and discrimination, sexism and patriarchy, the Constitution enjoins us to give birth to a new society founded on human dignity, nonracialism and nonsexism.

Prejudice and discrimination against women are a violation of that Constitutional injunction. They are a violation of who we are as a people and the perpetuation of what is in essence a crime against humanity, just as violence perpetrated against women is an offence against these founding values. A nation that undermines the aspirations of women and oppresses them can have no peace, no social cohesion and no development.

Our liberation struggle was not just about ending national oppression. It was also about ending the triple oppression of women. As mothers, sisters and daughters, black women were oppressed on the basis of race, class, and gender.

The ANC-led government remains seized with this historical task of the full emancipation of women.

We are keenly aware that patriarchy remains omnipresent in our language, idioms, metaphors, stories, myths and performances.

This means we all have to change ourselves. The liberation of women demands that we free women from sexism, oppressive language and other forms of discrimination that are packaged as transcendental truths or ancient wisdom. That is what our times require. That is what the new revolution of the soul warrants. This is what radical economic emancipation demands.

The revolutionary Samora Machel warned 45 years ago that: “The emancipation of women is not an act of charity, the result of a humanitarian or compassionate attitude. The liberation of women is a fundamental necessity for the revolution, a guarantee of its continuity and a precondition for its victory.”

The governing ANC is committed to gender parity as a precondition of economic freedom in our lifetime. We understand that women are the soul and fire of the ANC and our nation. More concerning to us is that the weight of caring for the family, and society, has shifted towards women. More and more men are absconding from parental responsibility, yet are available for power, leadership and economic opportunities.

The woman today carries double the burden – she has work and must still make the home. Without empowering women we can speak of no society. We have to empower women economically in order to dispense with patriarchy.

We need to build a new society in which men and women can naturally reorder social relations in a manner that castrates the power, income and class of men from having an overriding influence on women’s choice of sexual partners. Then, and only then, can we build a functional society built on equality and mutual respect.

As Friedrich Engels wrote in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, we need: “A new generation of men who never in their lives have known what it is to buy a woman’s surrender with money or any other social instrument of power; a generation of women who have never known what it is to give themselves to a man from any other considerations than real love, or to refuse to give themselves to their lover from fear of the economic consequences. When these people are in the world, they will care precious little what anybody today thinks they ought to do; they will make their own practice and their corresponding public opinion about the practice of each individual – and that will be the end of it.”

- Mabuza is deputy president of South Africa

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