In an era when open letters are becoming fashionable advocacy tools for people to make their voices heard, I thought that I, as President of the ANC Women’s League (ANCWL) should pick up the baton and deal with the persistent and stubborn issue of patriarchy, power and the continuing oppression of women in all spheres of our society.
This letter was prompted by the fact that almost 60 years since the Women’s March to the Union Buildings in 1956, notwithstanding progressive legislation we have promulgated since 1994, numerous campaigns of No Violence against women including the 16 Days pilgrimage of no violence against women from November till December annually, levels of violence against women persist in all sectors of society. This cannot be right.
We owe it to those women of 1956 to secure our future. A future where women can feel safe wherever they are: in our homes, our streets, our boardrooms, workplaces, places of worship, and learning institutions. Earlier, this month, the ANCWL launched a Young Women’s desk to ensure that issues that affect young women are dealt with. I am writing this letter in my individual capacity while holding office as a Minister, appointed by the governing party, the ANC and while being elected as the current president of the ANCWL. I am also speaking for the collective membership of the ANCWL.
But I am writing this letter foremost, in my capacity as a black woman, and as an activist. I have at times publicly berated other women in power for forgetting about the plight of women not protected by political, economic or social power, and I now want to walk the talk. I am not naive to think that there will not be any risks associated with removing the carpet and bringing these issues to the fore. There will be such risks and I am prepared to face the dangers ahead in rocking the boat of Silence. It is a risk I am prepared to take.
Now is the time to focus on making our country a truly non-sexist one. I will not go into the numbers relating to the levels of violence against women in our society. We all know the numbers, and we all know that they are appalling and unacceptable. All women, irrespective of their race and class are vulnerable due to their being women in a fundamentally male dominated society. As South Africans, we have correctly been cajoled into action by the expressions of racism so endemic in our society that have for decades been under the yolk of the ideology of white supremacy, which is what racism is in our context. But while we have correctly and justifiably been railing against racism, women have been raped, sexually assaulted, beaten in their homes, marginalised at work; women political leaders have been insulted and called names, and had doubts cast upon their rights to be leaders.
This ideological brother (yes, the emphasis on the male description is deliberate) of racism, the ideology of male supremacy continues to sail comfortably through all sections of our society, in business, NGOs and in all political parties. Yes, I am saying all political parties, including my own, the ANC. When leaders of the ANC are complicit or active in the oppression of women in our society, it becomes difficult as a party or as a governing party to implement the policies and laws that we as the ANC have developed and need to implement. When we do not lead by example, how do we seek to discipline the police officer who wants a 15 year-old rape victim to drop a case because he feels she was complicit in a crime committed against her, because she sent an SMS to her rapist?
How do we change behaviours and attitudes of abusive men in business, in the opposition, or in NGOs, households, when men in positions of power within our own movement continue with the idea that they are entitled to be the only top leaders in the party and in government, entitled to have sex with women who are vulnerable due to their age, employment status or any other status?
Part of our programme to dismantle patriarchy in all its forms must include dealing with this continuum of entitlement in all spheres of a male dominated society. No, men, you are not entitled to have sex with women without consent. No men, you are not entitled to be the boss in the house, the corporate sector, or in government. In fact, men, you have to be conscious of this entitlement derived from male privilege so that we can work together to eradicate all forms of discrimination and violence against women.
In conclusion, I hope that this letter sparks informed debate about all the ideologies of superiority prevalent in our society. These include the ideology of white superiority, the ideology of male superiority and the ideology of hetero-normativity. These ideologies complement each other to the extent that there is deafening silence when a black lesbian living in a poor community is brutally murdered merely for being who she is, and there is barely a whimper in our society. I hope for informed discussion and debate, but I fear that the responses will be personal and denigrating, because I am, after all, a black woman in a male dominated society.
Despite my relative proximity to power I know I remain vulnerable. Think about how vulnerable a young woman with no political or economic currency must be and feel everyday. That is what we must change if we are to have a peaceful and equitable society. DM