11 Jan Radical Agendas #4: Gender in South African Politics
By Shireen Hassim
Recently, the University of Cape Town (UCT) student organization #RhodesMustFall, displayed a banner proclaiming: “Dear History: This revolution has women, gays, queers, and trans. Remember that.” It was a profound declaration that the old politics of the left can no longer hold, and that the masculinist, male-dominated forms of oppositional politics that centred the male subject as the defining agent of transformation must be confronted.
To understand where this statement – which went viral on social media – comes from, we need to consider both the failures of the state-led democratic project and the modes of analysis and organisation on the left. An honest examination is especially timely as progressive politics is re-grouping around new formations ranging from political parties such as the Economic Freedom Fighters, to student movements, to broad front civil society arrangements such as the United Front. The women’s movement itself, to the extent that it ever existed in coherent form, has also seen several changes in the past two decades with the collapse of the Women’s National Coalition, the ever-increasing distance between the ANC Women’s League and feminists, and the emergence of a much wider range of organisations dealing with issues of violence and sexuality. Importantly, through initiatives such as the Feminist Table, connections are being forged between women’s organisations working at the brutal edge of the economic crisis in families, households and communities, and feminist thinkers.
But can the left itself connect in new ways? In this period of see-sawing between despair and hope, what are the possibilities for a renewed conversation on what redistribution would entail – redistribution of economic resources and assets to be sure, which remain central to projects of the left, but also the redistribution of social and political power which remain marginal? Women, gays, and queers appear to be caught between two forms of nationalism: a state-based, liberal project in which ‘women’ occupy a particular place in governmentalism, and a resurgent populist Africanism which for the most part privileges racial identity over all other forms. Are Zuma and the Malema merely two sides of the same patriarchal coin?
“But can the left itself connect in new ways? In this period of see-sawing between despair and hope, redistribution of economic resources and assets to be sure, but also the redistribution of social and political power which remain marginal?”
The ANC has proven that the old allies of feminism are all too unreliable. Pulled kicking and screaming behind a project of equality over the course of a century, the ANC in government found ways to blunt the concept and denude it of its particular radical content developed by women under its banner. In both Women’s Charters (1954 and 1994), the concept of equality referred to substantive equality. By this was meant attention to the systemic ways in which gender power operated through both the economy and the family-household.
The drafters of the Charters – and the thousands of women involved in the Federation of South African Women and the Women’s National Coalition recognized that representation in the formal institutions of the state mattered: nothing about us without us. They well understood that the law was complicit in inscribing inequality and upholding it in ways that mattered for women’s everyday lives. But as even a cursory reading of the Charters will show, they were at pains to point out that formal discrimination was indelibly tied to maintaining a system of exploitation of women’s labour and control of women’s sexuality.
That legacy, rich in debate and contestation, has been abandoned by the ANC in government. Going into the democratic era, there was a political consensus that not only should women have greater voice in decision making about public resources, but that those resources should be directed towards reducing the inequalities that are rooted in economic and social structures. That consensus is embodied in the Constitution. To be sure, one part of this related to parity in representation, full legal equality for all, and a public commitment to the rights of women. But that was always understood among feminists inside and out of the ANC to be one side of the bargain; the other side was the redistribution of status and resources.
Slowly but steadily, the last two decades have witnessed the Women’s League taking up the space as official representative of women in politics, in the process dislodging claims for redistribution. Under the presidency of Thabo Mbeki, a form of liberal feminism found firm footing. Women became the face of the modernist, national project of governing. Indeed, South Africa could be an exemplar of the argument made by Nancy Fraser that feminism is a crucial ally in the restructuring of capitalism. The easy incorporation of women into the existing places of power through the use of quotas, the spiraling illusion that projects of gender equality could be disaggregated from decision-making about the economy and the celebratory discourse about women’s progress in the new South Africa are all examples of this.
The Women’s League of course benefited from supporting both Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma: it gained positions for its members in Cabinet and in provincial legislatures, as well as in the Commission on Gender Equality. In 2007 it was poised to nominate a woman for the position of president of the ANC, in line with the suggestions by Mbeki about his successor. Many hoped that successor would be Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a longstanding leader in the Women’s League and a smart and capable politician.
But Mbeki’s game was up and, by the end of that year, the League joined the winning side. It supported Zuma against the views of feminists in its own party, who were concerned about the macho assertions of power, the attitudes of sexual entitlement and the homophobia displayed by Zuma during his rape trial. Standing by their man came at a price. By the 2014 elections it was so hopelessly aligned to Zuma that it could not even maintain the pretense of support for women’s political power. It declared that South Africa was not ready for a woman president. This year it has made an about turn and rumours are that it will be nominating a woman for president at its elective conference this month. Truth is, no amount of spinning can conceal the fact that the Women’s League has done little during the past two decades of democracy to build public support for women’s rights, let alone shift gendered patterns of economic inequality.
“…no amount of spinning can conceal the fact that the Women’s League has done little during the past two decades of democracy to build public support for women’s rights, let alone shift gendered patterns of economic inequality.”
Even by the minimal standard of formal equality, the ANC has regressed in its support for feminism and the Women’s League has not been able to leverage its close relationship to the powerful faction in the party into political advantage. The women appointed to Cabinet and to parliament cannot seem to stop their party from introducing legislation that threatens the rights of women living under traditional authorities. It took a campaign led from outside the party, under the auspices of the Alliance for Rural Democracy, to halt the legislation. The Department of Women can seemingly not provide leadership in the battle to end gender-based violence, infamously tweeting in August 2015 the query ‘what should we do about women who lay charges (of gender-based violence) and then withdraw them’. They were roundly criticized by gender-based violence activists for having no understanding of the complexities of navigating the justice system. Hosting Sixteen Days of Activism and Women’s Month events is meaningless when government budgets for addressing violence and for supporting women affected by violence are massively cut.
In place of a politics of removing inequalities, the various structures set up to represent the interests of women in policymaking – such as the Office on the Status of Women – suggest the triumph of form over substance. Once the Ministry of Women’s Affairs was set up, none of the ministers that headed it could come up with the programs or the resources that would address the hard realities of life for poor women. Instead, they championed a bill that would legislate gender equality in both the public and the private sector – a cold sop to compensate for the lack of proper ideas and strategies. Now even that Ministry has been moved, this time into the Presidency – precisely the location in which the Office on the Status of Women was sidelined. This latest shuffle seems to be a typical gesture that gives the appearance of elevated status without the power to actually do much (or be properly accountable through the structures of parliament).
In fact, it is hard to see it as anything other than a retrogressive step for the project of getting government to deal with the gendered impacts of its economic policies. Zuma hopes that the Minister will champion women’s socio-economic empowerment and rights: so would we. But does anyone really believe that Susan Shabangu, who disastrously mismanaged the aftermath of the Marikana massacre, remembers her trade union roots?
Much of the collapse of the idea of substantive equality is attributed to the shift in the leadership of the ANC away from the ‘modern’ ideas of Mbeki to the more ‘traditionalist’ ideas of Zuma. Indeed it is fair to argue that Zuma has shifted the public debate to the right on issues of gender and that crude patriarchalism is far more evident under his presidency. More pertinently, the left in the tripartite alliance resolutely refused to listen to the feminists who warned that he was not the standard-bearer for progressive politics that he was portrayed to be. Of course, the association of Mbeki with the quota project and the initial support of the Women’s League for the continuation of Mbeki’s presidency complicated the picture. But only a little.
“More pertinently, the left in the tripartite alliance resolutely refused to listen to the feminists who warned that he was not the standard-bearer for progressive politics that he was portrayed to be.”
Mbeki may have incorporated women into his project of neo-liberal governance but there was never any doubt that Zuma would make things worse. It was very evident by 2009 that Zuma’s personal life revealed that his support for women’s and gay rights was thin. While the ANC Youth League was boosting Zuma with its 100% Zuluboy campaign, feminist activists were visibly and vocally opposed. The left in the alliance had little time for feminist arguments. The stakes were ‘higher’ they said: returning the party to the branches was the key consideration. Radical change was to hand. Gender was a secondary issue, they said impatiently. In effect, they made a Faustian pact and left it to history to prove the feminists right.
This raises the question of whether the Economic Freedom Fighters, the radical new kids on the political bloc, can offer any hope for beleaguered feminists. The signs are not promising. This first and obvious point to make is that the EFF is driven by the same team that brought us ‘100% Zuluboy.’ It is a team, moreover, led by Julius Malema who was taken to the Equality Court for his comments on women and sexual consent, and who made the infamous statement that the word intersexed did not exist in the Pedi language and hence it was unAfrican. Secondly, the EFF have chosen an explicitly militarized and masculinist mode in which to make their entry into politics. This is signaled by the language of the party: Commanders, Fighters, Central Command. It is also signaled by the gendered nature of the chosen uniforms: overalls for the men, housecoats with doeks for the women. The EFF supports substantive equality and redistribution and on paper it looks like a fair ally on the core issues.
However, their rhetoric slips dangerously into verbal abuse. When he was still leader of the ANC Youth League, Julius Malema referred to the then opposition parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko as a ‘teagirl’. As a more recent example and in a tussle in parliament this year, Malema referred to Minister of Small Business Development Lindiwe Zulu as a ‘straatmeid’ – literally a girl of the streets, figuratively a sex worker! As Siphokazi Magadla points out, such sexism is telling: it is ‘a crude reminder of the sexist double-standards faced by female guerillas in the aftermath of war where they are expected to conform to dominant ideas of feminine respectability.’
“…such sexism is telling: it is ‘a crude reminder of the sexist double-standards faced by female guerillas in the aftermath of war where they are expected to conform to dominant ideas of feminine respectability.’ “
The other new kid on the block, the United Front, has begun promisingly with an upfront commitment that it would not reproduce the typical patterns of civil society organisations in which women act as the backbone of the movement and men take on leadership. Some feminists suggest that the United Front’s association with former COSATU General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi will taint the project. Vavi was notoriously brought down by allegations of a non-consensual affair with his secretary. It is too early to call whether this whiff of the familiar will be enough to keep feminists away from the United Front – whose anti-austerity politics has enough in other ways to bring together those who want radical change through nonviolent means.
There is no doubt that key feminist questions have only been engaged thus far at the margins of political debate: the gendered nature of power, the implications of a masculinized politics for women’s sense of agency, and more particularly how we might understand the implications of masculine forms of power for women as political subjects of postcolonial democracy in its South African form.
The sphere of the ‘political’ continues to be constructed in terms of high politics: the formal state, associated parties and allies such as trade unions, and oppositional social movements and NGOs. Even though racism and its multifarious forms of persistence in social and economic relations are re-entering public debate, the left pays scant attention to the sphere of the social. Economic policy debates simply pay lip service to the gendered forms of production and reproduction, leaving these connections to be made by the small number of overburdened feminist activists. It is a rare event when there is attention to gender dimensions of inequality in the writings of the male left. Issues of sexual identity and gender-based violence remain a ‘bit on the side’ of politics. The RhodesMustFall banner references precisely the ways in which these important concerns are either ignored or counterposed to the project of radical change, and the refusal of young feminists to collude in that positioning.
Shireen Hassim is Professor of Political Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand. She has published widely in the field of gender and politics, and her most recent book The ANC Women’s League: Sex, Gender and Politics was published by Jacana in 2014.
Magadla, Siphokazi, “The deafening silence of the EFF’s leaders” SACSIS 15 September 2014, available at http://www.sacsis.org.za/site/article/2133.
Lopez-Gonzalez, Laura, “Poor left out of new plan to end hunger – activists”, Health E-News, March 5, 2015, http://www.health-e.org.za/2015/03/05/poor-left-out-of-new-plan-to-end-hunger-activists/
Jacklyn Cock and Meg Luxton, “Marxism and Feminism: Unhappy Marriage or Creative Partnership?” in Michelle Williams and Vishwas Satgar (eds) Marxisms in the Twenty-First Century: Crisis, Critiques and Struggles, University of the Witwatersrand Press 2014
Pumla Dineo Gqola “How the ‘cult of femininity’ and violent masculinities support endemic gender based violence in contemporary South Africa” African Identities 5(1) 111-124.
Shireen Hassim 2014 Violent Modernity: Gender, race and bodies in contemporary South African politics, Politikon, Vol. 41, No. 2:167-182
The Salon Volume 9, Special Issue on RhodesMustFall, available at http://www.jwtc.org.za/the_salon/volume_9.htm