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Women’s Day/Month: From an Undefined Struggle to a #TotalShutDown

Philile Ntuli is an independent political analyst, gender activist and writer.

On Wednesday, 1 August 2018, women and gender non-conforming people, like the women of 1956, will shut down the country and march in protest against gender-based violence. The significance of this moment in the evolutionary trajectory of women’s movement activism in South Africa can never be overstated.

An analysis of the dominant discourses that have often prevailed during the Women’s Day/Month period reveals three sustained views.

On one end is the position and responsibility occupied by the state, as the custodian of national holidays. The state shares this position with the ANC Women’s League – by implication of party-political proximity, and the domineering role occupied by the ANCWL in the historical narrative of South African women’s movement activism. Rightfully so. No one can, nor should, discount the brave work of women like Charlotte Maxeke and Lillian Ngoyi in leading the early women’s movement, particularly their strategic utilisation of the proximity of the ANCWL to the ANC for mobilising women. Consequentially, this explains the disproportional representation of the Women’s League in national events marking this historical day.

On another end are activists, feminist scholars, and the general public, mainly represented by civil society, academia, and the media. These voices often maintain that the celebratory manner with which the state memorialises 9 August 1956 neither addresses the substantive needs of women nor advances the course towards a world free from gendered oppressions. These voices, too, are justified, as a link is yet to be drawn between the resources replenished during women’s month events and women’s subject formations.

Between and within these groups are representatives of women’s political formations, often from the women’s “wings” of opposition parties. This group, often out of the obligation of their formal duties as opposition party agents, and at other times as an act of defiance against the monopolisation of women’s day/month by the ANCWL, often host their own women’s day events.

What these contrasting positions represent are the implications and characteristics of an undefined struggle.

Not since 1956 have South African women defied their multiple subjective differences to march towards a single vision. What marked 1956 as a turning point in the history of South African liberation politics was made possible by women’s combined abilities to define a common political claim, and to demand it, en mass, against the state.

In the post-apartheid era, the battle towards women’s liberation continues to be fought at contrasting, and often conflicting sites – demarcated along the multiple subject formations inherited by all of us from our common colonial and apartheid ancestry. Women’s movement activists have yet been unable to articulate their demands with as spectacular a force as that witnessed in 1956.

To put it in context, in 1956 there was neither Twitter, Facebook, nor Instagram, and telephones were for the privileged. To mobilise 20,000 women under such conditions, with strict laws against freedom of movement, and in defiance against those very laws, was a work of administrative genius.

Yet throughout the country, women formed local support institutions and structures, upon, and from which, common claims for women’s liberation could be articulated.

In the reserves, women formed religious and traditional groups, and songs of freedom often greeted the sun from riverbanks. In urban areas, domestic servants met during dog walks, and bumped hips on “Chillas Days” – all the while planning the route to freedom. Their madams too, pondered on fitting methodologies to articulate the problem with no name. In colleges and offices, letters exchanged hands, and brave women, black and white, executed risky missions towards their common vision.

Towards 9 August 1956, some women left their homes without informing their husbands or families, fearing they might be prevented from making their mark in history. When the day arrived, thousands filled trains, arriving from distant towns and villages, others were loaded in buses and cars, and some walked with wailing children on their backs. There were trade unionists, business women, nationalists, churchwomen, students, and the unemployed – all differently affected by the repressive apartheid government – yet together gathered in common voice.

It was a meticulously executed exhibition of force, unprecedented and yet replicated – and a far cry from the current state of South African gender politics.

In 1962, Chief Albert Luthuli remarked that:

The weight of resistance has been greatly increased in the last few years by the emergence of our women. It may even be true that, had the women hung back, resistance would still be faltering and uncertain… Furthermore, women of all races had far less hesitation than men in making common cause about things basic to them.”

It is only just that each year, those who understand the true cost and meaning of freedom should salute the women of the 1950s for the precedent set for mass politics in South Africa. To acknowledge the profound impact of women’s leadership in our liberation struggle, the state has established monuments, named buildings, streets and geographies in their honour. On the steps of the amphitheatre of the Union Building, extracts from the 1956 Petition handed over to the then Prime Minister are inscribed. Yet we have not articulated strategies and tactics towards building women’s movement solidarity at the same scale as they did. Until tomorrow!

Like the women’s movement activists of the 1950s, feminist activists from across diverse backgrounds, under the umbrella #TotalShutDown, have been at work implementing what is a meticulous mobilisation plan across the country. For the first time in recent history, women are articulating a clearly defined, singular claim for a world free of violence perpetrated on the basis of gender differences.

On Wednesday, 1 August 2018, women and gender non-conforming people, like the women of 1956, will “shut down the country and march in protest against gender-based violence. Lesotho and Botswana will also form part of the mass action”.

The significance of this moment in the evolutionary trajectory of women’s movement activism in South Africa can never be overstated.

Therefore, whether in the past we had danced, sang or shouted about, or whether we had critiqued those that did, this #TotalShutDown can change our collective trajectory, and present new ways for us to co-exist.

However, the extent to which it can be the conduit for radical change to women’s lived experiences depends on the participation of each member of society. Importantly, this work requires sustained monitoring of the state’s response to gendered violence, beyond the March. Freedom is Coming Tomorrow! DM

Philile Ntuli is an activist, scholar, and public servant. She is curious about the extent to which society can dismantle its inherited discriminations on the basis of gender, and is devoted to exploring possibilities for such transformation.


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