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Umsebenzi Online, Volume 5, No. 51, 15 February 2006


Red Alert



The urgency of building a working class-led, progressive women’s movement



By: Blade Nzimande, General Secretary


This year our country will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 1956 Women’s March. The SACP will be joining millions of women of our country, and indeed all South Africans, in celebrating and honouring those women heroes who participated in that historic march.

However we have been concerned as the SACP that in honouring our historic events, we tend to reduce these to ceremonial, often only government-led, occasions divorced from a programmatic approach to advance the goals associated with such events. In addition when celebrating these events our own formations, which have led the struggle for liberation for decades, play an insignificant role. This by no means suggest that our democratic state should not honour these events, but that the movement must be central in the mobilisation of our people to appropriately celebrate these milestones of our revolution. We are raising this matter now, so that it is not reduced to an ‘August 9’ once-off celebration, but must be used as an opportunity to reflect on progress made and challenges ahead. We of course expect the ANC Women’s League to play a leading role in this regard.

The ANC and its allies have for more than a decade been debating and emphasising the importance of building a progressive women’s movement. During the constitutional negotiations in the early 1990s, this call coalesced into the formation of the National Women’s National Coalition (WNC). This body played an important and significant role in ensuring, amongst its most important achievements, the inclusion of progressive clauses on women and gender equality into our national constitution. It was also a crucial platform for dialogue amongst women, drawn from different political and social formations in our country.

However we need to honestly reflect on some of the weakness of the Coalition since then. The form that it took was perhaps necessary for its time, but it has now significantly declined, such that its only existence is as part of the Community Constituency at NEDLAC, with no clear linkages to mobilised, progressive women’s constituencies. Perhaps its strength (of bringing together women from all walks of life) was also its weakness; it sought to be everything to everyone. Because of its character and social composition it largely became a platform for formalistic lobbying with no active mobilisational basis.

The SACP is of the view that while it is essential to build a broad front of women’s organisation, such an objective will not be attained unless we build a vibrant, working class-led, progressive women’s movement.

Since the 1994 democratic breakthrough women in our country have indeed notched important victories and advances, most significantly in the constitution and some of the ANC government policies to advance the interests of women in society. Women also now occupy key positions and play an important role in the reconstruction and development of our country. These are important gains given the long struggle to try and place women’s emancipation at the centre of our historically partriarchal organisations.

A brief overview of women’s and gender struggles in South Africa’s revolution


Much as the struggle for women’s emancipation (as distinct from the struggle for transformation of gender relations) has always been a component of the national liberation struggle and our perspectives on socialism, it is a truism that it was not until the 1980s that the liberation movement and our Party begun to firmly incorporate these into our programmes and perspectives. However until then, the major debates and strategic calculations of the Party and the liberation movement principally revolved around the relationship between the national and class struggles in the national democratic revolution.

The lack of a strategic and programmatic focus on the question of women in our major strategic and programmatic perspectives is illustrated for instance by only one single reference to the ANC Women’s League in “Fifty Fighting Years”, and the same with reference to FEDSAW. It was not until the 1980s that the question of women’s emancipation and gender struggles began to feature more prominently in the programmes of our movement. Even the Freedom Charter, progressive as it is, never really said much about the struggle for women’s emancipation and struggles for gender equality.

The reason for this was largely because of the patriarchal nature of our society, which our own organisations inherited, and not due to an absence of women’s struggles in the liberation struggle as a whole. This reality led to a much later development of comprehensive gender perspectives within our movement.

Indeed a proper history of the women’s struggles in the South Africa’s liberation struggle still remains to be properly written and recorded. Women’s struggles are as old as the national liberation itself since 1910. But it is a struggle that for a long time tended to take a back seat in key strategic considerations of our movement. For instance women were only admitted as full members of the ANC in 1943, some 31 years after the formation of the ANC. The situation was however different with the SACP which had always had women as full members right from its inception.

According to Hilda Bernstein, women burst onto the scene in 1913 in a campaign against the carrying of passes in Bloemfontein, though Ginwala points to some earlier forms of women’s organisation prior to the establishment of the Union of South Africa in 1910.. During the same year, Charlotte Maxeke led the formation of the earliest political organisation of African women, the Bantu Women’s League, regarded as the forerunner to the ANC Women’s League. These women’s struggles deepened in the Free State and led to co-operation amongst coloured and African women, leading to the formation in 1913 of the Native and Coloured Women’s Association.

With the huge influx into the black townships in the 1940s also saw the intensification of women’s struggle, leading to the revival of the ANC Women’s Section in 1941, which laid the basis for the admission of women as full members in the ANC in 1943. The 1940s were years of intensified activism on the political and economic front, with the SACP playing a leading role in many of these struggles. It was during this period that women communist leaders like Dora Tamana in Cape Town were involved in building co-operatives, the squatter movement and crèches to look after the children of working women. Other heroic struggles by women included the struggles against the beer halls, the most intense being in Cato Manor in Durban.

The launch of the ANC Defiance Campaign in 1952 also gave further impetus to women’s struggles, culminating in the historic August 9 1956 Women’s March to Pretoria.

A gender perspective based on our South African realities


However throughout these struggles the gender perspective was less articulated and these struggles were largely seen in terms of supporting the working men and husbands. The 1980s began to advance very clear gender content to the women’s struggles, primarily led by the democratic movement inside the country, culminating in the important Malibongwe Women’s Conference in Paris which consolidated the gender perspectives that were to inform much of post 1994 gender struggles, policies and legislation by the democratic government.

We have correctly argued in our movement that women’s and gender struggles, though closely interlinked, are not identical. The struggle for gender transformation must be a struggle involving both women and men, but such a struggle can only be enhanced if there is strong progressive women’s organisation at the centre.

Like many other communist parties, whilst the SACP progressively came to incorporate gender as one of the fundamental contradictions in the national democratic revolution and the struggle for socialism, for a long time it believed that the victory of socialism over capitalism will automatically resolve the gender contradiction. However, the growing influence of feminist perspectives gradually merging with perspectives of women’s emancipation of the national liberation movement, led to a much deeper appreciation, at least in the strategic perspectives of the SACP, of the complexities of the gender contradiction in the national democratic revolution.

Our 10th Congress programme provides what is perhaps the most advanced theorisation of the centrality of the gender contradiction in our revolution. It notes that:

“Marxism developed on the foundations (and as a critique) of classical bourgeois economics. In its heyday…bourgeois economics focused upon production and, therefore, on labour. It was this focus that was central to Marxism as well. The focus was not wrong, but it led to a tendency to down-play the critical reproductive side of economies, and societies at large. This, in turn, led to a neglect of the fact that capitalist profit maximisation is based not just on exploitative production relations, but critically on oppressive reproductive power relations. …The focus on production obscured the central economic and social role played by ‘non-economic’ activity in the reproduction of society – the rearing of children, caring for the sick and elderly, house-hold management, and shopping. Much of this work is borne by women, and the failure to adequately account for it has led to an historical blindness around gender oppression in many socialist and communist formations…The SACP believes that a key task in taking forward, developing and renewing the socialist project requires a much greater theoretical and practical attention to reproductive labour, and it is here that much of the intersection between class and gender oppression is to be found.”

In the last two years the Party has begun, both in practical struggle and in theory, to take forward these issues raised in the 10th Congress. While the theorisation from the 10th Congress quoted above remains entirely valid, it is a theorisation that could apply equally to a developed, first world capitalist economy and to a society like our own, characterised by deeply entrenched and racialised underdevelopment and polarisation. In our practical campaigns (co-ops, land and agricultural reform, financial sector transformation) we have been forced to consider whether the economic zone of the so-called “second” economy is essentially a zone of “reproductive” activity. Our conclusions are increasingly that social and economic activities in this zone may well be reproductive from the perspective of capitalism (they play the role of “cheaply” providing a range of services (usually unpaid) that reproduce labour-power for capitalist production - from minibus transport, to stokvel savings, to street vendor meals that the “formal” capitalist market is failing to address). But from the perspective of the working class these activities might well be considered as also incorporating actual or embryonic forms of production (and not reproduction) of use-values for working people and the poor.

What we are also discovering (we have always known this, without necessarily being thoughtful about it) is that large numbers of working class women are often in the forefront of these “second” economy social and economic activities – on the land, in own account petty entrepreneurship, in stokvels, in social caring activities. These practical and developing theoretical perspectives of the Party are an important area in which we can take forward our theorisation of the connection between gender struggles and the class and national struggles. It is also an important area (it is not the sole area) in which the centrality of women in the struggle for a different kind of society (based on production for social need – i.e. socialism) is high-lighted.

Key sites and struggles in building a working class-led, progressive women’s movement


In the SACP’s electoral message in support of an overwhelming ANC victory in the forthcoming local government elections, we have welcomed the decision by the ANC that half of all its municipal councillors must be women. This is one of the most important steps towards full women’s emancipation and a decisive advance towards gender equality in the public sphere.

However we are concerned that this decision has been made without adequate political work on the ground to engage Alliance formations on the reasons for this decision and how this is to be done.

It is also important that this 50/50 representation must not simply be reduced to women bodies in local councils or gender political correctness. This should be accompanied by a clear programme of what these women councillors should do once elected. In addition, much as the struggle for gender equality is equally the responsibility of women and men, gender transformation cannot be achieved unless women are at the head of this struggle. Therefore for the SACP equal representation of women should also be accompanied by a conscious strategy to build a progressive women’s movement and a clear programme to place women’s issues and gender equality at the centre of local government transformation and that the struggle for gender equality is at the centre of the Integrated Development Plans (IDPs).

What the above seeks to underline is that building a progressive women’s movement perhaps require more intensified sectoral mobilisation of women, in the spheres in which they are located, leading activities for sustainable livelihoods and transformation, in the workplace, in residents’ associations, in stokvels, in school governing bodies, and so on.

Another key sectoral site of mobilisation needs to be led by the trade union movement. The high and deepening levels of casualisation in our economy has produced a large layer of young working class women, especially in the commercial and catering sectors, many of whom are not organised into the progressive trade union movement.

Despite the many strides made by our women especially post- 1994, the SACP is concerned that this struggle seems to be increasingly co-opted by an elitist agenda. This agenda is underpinned and fuelled by the increasing dominance of narrow and elitist conceptions of affirmative action and black economic empowerment in our society. The struggle for women’s emancipation is, to put it differently, increasingly being ‘BEEd’. It is for this reason that our media is dominated mainly by glossy magazines of top women, and about the advancement of women in senior managerial ranks and those cutting BEE deals in the capitalist economy.

In the process, the struggles of ordinary working class and poor women in both the urban and rural areas tend to take a back-seat. The heroic and exemplary struggles of these women, in the trade unions, in the stokvels, in burial societies, in street trading, and the progress or otherwise these women are making, do not feature in much of the public discourse.

As a result of the increasing elitist co-option of the progressive women’s agenda, the discourses and perspectives on many issues fundamental to women (abuse, rape, exploitation, discrimination, etc) are increasingly being dominated by ‘liberal’ and ‘ post-modernist’ perspectives that do not adequately reflect the concerns of ordinary working and poor women. Where these concerns are raised within these elitist and liberal perspectives, they tend to be patronising towards ordinary women, and approached in a manner that their plight can only be addressed by middle class women ‘activists’, ‘delivered from above’, but not led by the working class and poor women themselves.

It is for these reasons that the SACP has a special role to play in building a working class-led progressive women’s movement. In addition the SACP has a unique role to play in fostering and seeking to hegemonise Marxist perspectives into contemporary debates and programmes for emancipation of women.

In a way a progressive movement is already being built in the daily collective struggle of ordinary women, but it remains fragmented and requires conscious co-ordination and strengthening. A fundamental challenge is that of strengthening and harmonising the work of the different alliance components to achieve these objectives, especially for the ANC Women’s League, the SACP’s Gender and Social Transformation Commission, and the COSATU Gender Desk to take a lead in this regard.

There can no better year to earnestly accelerate the building of a progressive women’s movement than during the year of the 50th anniversary of the historic Women’s March.

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