Opinionista Ryland Fisher 5 August 2013

Putting ‘men’ back into in women’s rights

Women’s issues cannot be viewed in isolation from other social issues in South Africa. Men and women have equal roles to play in ensuring gender equality in South Africa.

The main reason we celebrate Women’s Day on August 9 every year, and not on March 8 like many other countries, is because it is our way of paying tribute to the thousands of women who marched on the Union Buildings in 1956 to protest against pass laws being extended to include women.

It is a fitting tribute to women like Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Sophia de Bruyn, Rahima Moosa and Albertina Sisulu who dedicated their lives so that today we can be free.

It has become easy in post-Apartheid South Africa to forget this little history lesson now that Women’s Day has become more about glamourising women and in some ways denigrating men.

In newspapers and magazines it is not unusual to find “Women’s Day specials” that feature manicures and pampering sessions for women.

I am not opposed to anyone being pampered, but the issues facing women today are far too serious for us to turn Women’s Day into a glamourous occasion. It is also too easy to turn it into a day of attacking men for their role in oppressing women over the years. Not all men are sexist, just like not all white people supported Apartheid.

Sitting at the Top Women Awards, presented by Topco Media in Sandton on Friday, as a man it was uncomfortable to listen to the main speakers—the newly appointed head of UN Women and former deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and Minister of Social Development Bathabile Dlamini—use their speeches to point out that women are, in some ways, superior to men. I understood the point they were trying to make, that women should see the sky as their limit, but I still felt uncomfortable about the way they related it.

There was also a cringe-worthy joke about rape told by the otherwise excellent programme director Anele Mdoda. There are certain topics that just don’t work as jokes, no matter how you try to spin them, and rape is one of them. Rape is too big a problem in South Africa to have a lighter side.

Apart from this, it was good to see how many women are achieving so much in the corporate, government and non-governmental sectors. There is some light at the end of an otherwise dark tunnel.

While not so long ago there might have been some suspicion about black women’s achievements in the context of affirmative action and employment equity, I get the impression that this is no longer a serious issue. There appears to be an acceptance that achieving women are doing so because they are the best in their positions.

Admittedly, we still have a long way to go to make South Africa a completely gender equal country, one where both men and women feel completely comfortable.

The point is that women’s issues cannot be viewed in isolation from other issues facing our society and will only be solved if we all working together. I have never believed that the fight against sexism should be left to women only.

It is probably better for women to work with men, rather than against them, to sort out the problems in society. Men who still harbour sexist views and who don’t accept women as equals need to be convinced that it is in their best interest to think otherwise. Often this is better done by other men.

I often wonder about gender-based organisations where no men are involved. In some ways it feels like preaching to the converted.

The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa seeks to “heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights.”

One cannot have proper democratic values without including women; one cannot have social justice if women are still subjected to rape and abuse in our society; and one cannot have fundamental human rights if the rights of women are trampled on both within organisations and in personal relationships.

In the same way, one cannot heal the divisions of the past if there are such huge discrepancies between rich and poor in our country; one cannot have social justice (or any justice for that matter) when some people can afford to buy justice, often by engaging highly-paid lawyers; and one cannot have fundamental human rights in a skewed society such as South Africa’s.

The key here is to hold everyone accountable for achieving a more equitable and just society. Men need to take equal responsibility for the emancipation of women. Men need to realise that their freedom, in many ways, is indivisible from the freedom afforded women.

Just think how different South Africa could have been if white people, first under the leadership of P.W. Botha and then F.W. de Klerk, did not see the need to negotiate with the ANC as the representative of the majority of South Africans.

We might still be involved in a bitter and protracted battle against Apartheid, which would not have been in anyone’s best interest. The irony of South Africa today is that the Afrikaners, who were used as voting fodder to keep Apartheid alive, appear to be doing quite well in post-Apartheid South Africa.

Imagine if all South Africans worked together to promote the aims and values of the Constitution. We could have one of the best countries in the world and all of us, men and women, would benefit. Happy Women’s Day. DM

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