Even though black and white extremists (and sometimes not-so-extremists) have been skinning each other quite often lately, and even though the sporadically raised “national question” seems to have brought us no closer to any useful answers, most reasonable people know that confining apartheid to the historical dustbin was in the interests of all South African citizens.
Sure, black people are the biggest beneficiaries of the democratic era that started in 1994 because they gained something they never had – the vote and decent, equal rights. But although that struggle was dominated by black leaders and fighters (joined by some white people) – economics aside – we’re all better off for it.
So we all seem to understand the equality-of-the-races thing, but the quest for equality between the sexes, and any victories associated with it, is still often lumped alongside the dirty work women should do, like changing diapers and scrubbing floors.
Already forward-thinking florists and spas have been lurking around email inboxes, offering deals on bunches or special treatments on the day. More ads are guaranteed to follow in the next few days. Sure, 9 August is a holiday and people spend money when they have time off work (and anyway, most people are unlikely to trek to Polokwane on the day to hear President Jacob Zuma dryly deliver some recycled speech), so salespeople will leap at the chance to sell something. But these capitalist desperados should know better than to send those emails to a girl like me.
The advertised treats smack too much of self-congratulation anyway (or are they in reality consolation prizes?), as if we’ve won the struggle already, or as if being a woman in itself is something to be rewarded. Well, it ain’t. Sure, sometimes it’s hard to be a woman, but don’t men experience equally crappy times by virtue of their manhood? Even cowboys sometimes cry, right?
So, Women’s Day isn’t just for women. Although women benefit greatly when they have the freedom to do what men do (we’re talking about the good things here, like being pilots and nuclear physicists), or even if women have the option to choose not to be shackled, barefoot and pregnant, to the oven, men also stand to gain if stereotypes are tuned down.
For one, we see many disaffected young men ending up in prisons or harming each other, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that a macho culture is partly to blame for this. Fathers could also do well to have closer relationships with their children. For example, over and above issues like emotional support, the children of single mothers and absent fathers are more likely to grow up in poverty and less likely to afford a good education. Simply put, fathers who are present can help give their children a better chance in life, which in turn will contribute to the child’s ability to help build society when they’re grown-ups.
But for all this to happen, equality, or at least mutual regard and respect between the genders, is important.
Deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe hit the nail on the head on Wednesday, when he addressed delegates at a women’s conference organised by the ministry of women, children and people with disabilities.
He spoke about patriarchy, and explained that men’s dominance of women is often justified on the grounds of culture (and here we’ll resist launching into other dubious practices culture is said to underwrite). Unicef, for example, has involved both men and women in the struggle against gender oppression by, amongt others, encouraging “positive fatherhood”, spreading the message that reproductive work and caring for children was not a task that belonged to women (only), he said.
There are many South African organisations that now work to “construct positive images of masculinities”, i.e. moving away from portraying men as perpetrators of violence, and instead showing them what good they can do as men, Motlanthe said (Sonke Gender Justice springs to mind). This includes work around the prevention and reduction of the spread of HIV and Aids. Wholesome stuff. It also includes meeting with traditional leaders, encouraging them to ensure that women are not discriminated against in traditional practices or when resources like land are handed out.
“These partnerships should be based on support and respect for each other. It should also be based on sound principles and theories that support gender equality,” he said.
For this Motlanthe has my vote, even though we know that a deputy president gets paid to say the right things. But at least he’s saying the right things, unlike leaders who get paid to do so, yet end up silent or with their foot in their mouth. And hopefully people will get the message, despite his dull delivery of the speech.
So, Women’s Day should be celebrated by men and women, but at the same time women can still hang together to make a change as they did 55 years ago, marching to the Union Buildings to protest against the pass laws. It was a political event that transcended narrow party politics. In the 1980s I recall groups of women holding informal gatherings (call them tea parties, if you like) across race lines at a time when these things weren’t done – a quiet political act that was removed from the “skop, skiet en donner” politics of the government and liberation organisations.
While the top brass of government are scratching their heads about social cohesion every time some idiot manufactures new drivel about how they dislike people of another colour, the wise ones should consider co-opting women. There are issues – political and otherwise – on which we can find each other across race lines. South African Women in Dialogue, for one, has quietly been doing just this.
Sadly, though, party political rifts still dominate the scene on Women’s Day. Remember the booing last year of the Cope speaker at the national celebration in East London? The audience consisted largely of the “progressive” women of the ANC Women’s League. It would be great if all of us – in the spirit of the brave nkosikasi of 1956 – could drop this macho political bullshit for just one month, or even a day, and consider each other as brothers and sisters. DM