As women’s month commenced, reports stated that the Minister of Women, Children and People with Disabilities, Lulama Xingwana, declared that empowerment of women cannot be left to market forces. This was in response to the recent findings by Businesswomen’s Association (BWA) Women in Corporate Leadership Census, which found some companies still have no representation of women in executive and directorship positions.
Just 4.4% of managing director and chief executive positions in SA are held by women. It’s only nominally better in other positions in the corporate world, where just 5.3% of board chairpersons and 15.8% of directors are women. In the public sector, women hold 35% of all senior management positions, a situation Xingwana described as a “sad scenario”.
Because of this, she has come to the conclusion that the market can not be relied upon to empower women. “We are confident that through the Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill, we will be responding to the calls made by BWA and many women of our country who find themselves discriminated against on the basis of their gender,” she said. “We are painfully aware that financial dependency on husbands, fathers, partners and family members has increased women’s vulnerability to domestic violence, rape, incest, abuse and murder. We remain convinced that empowering women will help us win the war against poverty inequality unemployment and abuse.”
In an environment where people have been systematically discriminated against because of gender, colour and sexual orientation, I suppose it is only natural to respond in kind in order to reverse the effects of that discrimination.
If discrimination is based on gender, with women barred from holding certain positions, for instance, it would follow that one remedy to the situation would be to advocate for the installation of women in such positions. Or where blacks had been excluded from certain basic rights one could agitate for access to those rights in order to get as much black representation in those environments as possible. The same would be true for homosexuals in scenarios relevant to them. This is the progressive way!
But is it?
Is progressive thinking and action purely about the flooding of formerly discriminatory institutions with the victims of that discrimination? Have we truly dealt with the devastating effects of patriarchy and gender discrimination when we have more female directors, CEOs and parliamentarians in private and public institutions of power?
Perhaps a better question is: “Does it follow that the victims of oppression are the best people to bring about the required and appropriate redress?” A closer look at the assumptions made for developing programmes for transformation is required, because the consequences of not doing so are indeed far reaching.
Many studies into the psychology of discrimination and victimhood reveal that in order to survive both physically and psychologically, victims of prolonged, systematic subjugation and oppression will generally accept, internalise and even collaborate with their oppressors.
This is well documented in instances such as the “house niggers” during the slavery of Africans in America, the Stockholm syndrome, and liberation struggle of the Askaris of the South African. It is not unusual for victims to become identified with their oppressors and defend or accept their oppressive values.
Worse still, there are collaborators who were never really exposed as such but stayed hidden within the ranks of the oppressed until they achieved “freedom” and many of them rewarded with positions of power and influence after “liberation”. The latter may have been even unaware of their “internalised slavery” and bridled “hate” for those they shared the trenches of struggle with. These make for the most effective “Trojan horses” against the progressive battle for equality in all spheres of this struggle. Could this be the case with our “empowered women” in positions of power and influence?
So inasmuch as the Minister of Women, Children and People with Disabilities correctly laments the under-representation of women in positions of power, it must be pointed out that the material conditions of women “on the ground” have showed no significant changes. In fact there are those who believe the plight of women is worse now than it was under the leadership of a totally male-dominated system.
What have the current crop of women in power done to change the material conditions of women in loveless, disempowering relationships? What have these women done to help elevate the level of education and skill sets of rural women? What sort of influence have they brought to bear on institutions of power to bring about the change towards equality?
Have they simply taken up positions of power and influence purely on the basis that they are women but have no understanding of, nor the inclination for, the empowerment of women for an equal society? Have we simply replaced tyrants with penises with those who have vaginas?
Perhaps the purpose of any progressive movement and mentality is about more than replacing the oppressors with the victims of any struggle. Perhaps it is about interrogating and understanding the very reason and philosophies of the value systems that underpin the institutions and individuals who populate them.
Do these institutions and individuals understand the fundamental need for the empowerment of women for the normalisation of our cock-eyed societies at every level (no pun intended)?
Perhaps it is about understanding that not all women hold other women in the requisite esteem necessary for effective transformation of gender power relations. Perhaps it is about understanding that the struggle for female empowerment is fundamentally about the struggle for human equality and not gender dominance. Perhaps the struggle for the empowerment of women is one that can’t be waged by women alone, that there are men who genuinely understand the plight of women and would be more effective in this struggle than some women.
The political and legislative strategy suggested by the minister to effect empowerment may produce a result opposite to the one intended if it is not approached with caution and genuine circumspection.
As we celebrate Women’s Month in South Africa, there will once again be all manner of Champagne-drenched parties. The usual platitudes and symbols will be dusted off as we drift further from the “real issues”. It is time to revisit the reasons for the struggle for gender equality so that we appropriately respond to its ever changing demands. We must redirect, recalibrate and recommit. If we do this, we will realise that the empowerment of women cannot be left to half-baked ideas of progressive activism and the Trojan horse of patriarchy. We need to resist the seduction of piecemeal responses to the mammoth task of gender equality and honour it with real engagement.
We must protect this struggle from the fate of all other struggles for equality. DM