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The Women’s League, feminism, and the six men: A Historical Perspective


Philile Ntuli is a commissioner of the South African Human Rights Commission.

So we’re back here again, where the ANC Women’s League (ANCWL) reminds us that is it unreservedly uninterested in the emancipation of women from a feminist theoretical perspective. By now we’ve all heard it – the league sent six male delegates to represent it at the ANC policy conference. We’ve been here before.

In October 2015, I noted that while their children were being shot at by the police during the #FeesMustFall Protests, the ANC Women’s League marched to the Union Buildings to defend Jacob Zuma with their buttocks. That an ANC-first, anti-feminist tradition has historically characterised the participation of the ANCWL in South African gender politics is now common knowledge, but that the league continues to dominate and hijack platforms reserved for feminist discourse while rejecting the very conceptual notion perhaps deserves a more elaborate historical positioning.

Colonialism in general, and the apartheid era in particular, were both simultaneously systems of resource exploitation through racist marginalisation as well as pervasively gendered schemes that propelled the personal into the political space through laws that sought to determine disparate boundaries and fates for men and women.

For the apartheid era, the promulgation of Afrikaner nationalism – read as the late 1930s Tweede Trek (Second Trek), which served mainly to celebrate the Boers’ first trek away from British laws – was dependent on both racist classism and on constructions of a gendered discourse where Afrikaner men embodied the political and economic symbols of the nation, and women were their private emotional and spiritual supporters.

Yet despite being both racist and gendered, social and political resistance to apartheid domination was led by a tradition of patriarchal, socialist African nationalism dominated by race politics. The dominance of race politics in struggles against apartheid inequalities immensely inferiorised the struggle against gender domination.

This inclination towards patriarchal African nationalism was perhaps also propelled by the very nature of apartheid’s racial capitalist politics.

From this view, the overarching context of racism added stimulus to the notion of “black unity”, and in turn encouraged a culture where challenging patriarchy was constructed as destructive to the notion of black solidarity and thus silenced. The impact of this silencing has had substantial long-term costs for the women’s movement’s solidarity over the course of historical gender politics in South Africa.

Notwithstanding, the course of anti-apartheid resistance was not absolved from extra-national global political processes. According to scholar Gay Seidman, feminist political consciousness in South Africa emerged and gained currency within liberation movements (the ANC in particular) and broader society from the late 1980s. This is consistent with the declaration, by the UN, of the period from 1976 to 1985 as the UN Decade for Women.

The emergence and reception of feminist thought in South African gender politics is encapsulated in the following statement by Thenjiwe Mtintso, an activist of the ANC and South African Communist Party (SACP), as well as a member of the first democratic Parliament:

Women’s struggles in South Africa have always tended to be around the practical needs of the majority of women. Emancipation of women was seen as an integral part of the national liberation movement. At the early stages of women’s struggles, there was little concern about whether addressing these needs challenged patriarchal relations or not. However, as national liberation itself progressed and different forms of feminism in South Africa and elsewhere developed, a perspective of gender struggle was integrated into the understanding of the national liberation struggle. At the same time, there was, within South Africa, both an absence of a feminist movement, beyond the confines of academic institutions, and some hostility towards Western feminists. These tensions continue to flare up between those who define themselves as gender activists and those who define themselves as feminists.

The very weight of Mtintso’s argument lays in the undeniable fact that given our history of racist classism, black women’s suspicion of feminism was justified when considered against white womens’ historic complicity to nationalist racism.

What is tragic, perhaps, is the ANCWL’s refusal to contextualise this historical fact within broader post-colonial feminist debates. Early hostility towards feminist ideas was symptomatic of a general trend by many “Third World women” who were and continue to be sceptical of the “cultural imperialism” of middle-class white experiences associated with feminism.

This historic scepticism to the notion of feminism should be the heartbeat of public discourse on this issue, and should refrain as far as possible from crack-brained discussions about Dlamini’s choice of drink and its relation to the ANCWL’s decision to send six men to a conference.

This discussion is of particular importance now because it provides the necessary foundational background for an analysis of the current challenges facing the status of women, who are still at the lower end of the socio-economic hierarchy in all areas of public and private life in South Africa.

The biggest risk of silence on this matter, of course, is that in the same way that women’s early contributions to the anti-apartheid struggle can hardly be defined as feminist politics, we might soon find ourselves with a first female president yet not be able to transform the lives of women for the better. And it won’t in any way be the fault of the Guptas. DM


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