South Africa is a country built on the construct of Otherness. It began, in the not-too-distant past with apartheid. This Otherness being the separation of The One from The Other; The One being the “have” and The Other relegated to the “have not”, the settler marking his territory over the indigenous, the powerful versus the vulnerable.
As yet another Women’s Day commemoration passes, another paradigm of Otherness comes into stark focus: women defined and classified as the Other of Men, separate from men, unequal, and in the absence of quotas, persistently disenfranchised.
From the C-Suite to the spaza shop, the statistics are damning. As of February 2021, just 14% of women held executive director positions at JSE-listed companies. Black, coloured and Indian/Asian women hold a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it 1% of these positions. Women who have jobs earn on average 30% less than their male counterparts. Among young females aged 15 to 34, four in every 10 are not in employment, education or training. Although unemployment levels are skyrocketing across all genders, black women are the most affected at an unemployment rate of 36.5%.
Then there is the cancer eroding the intrinsic value of life as enshrined in our Constitution — gender-based violence and femicide. A woman is murdered in South Africa every three hours. Every day 116 women are raped. The surge of heinous acts against women as the country went into lockdown in 2020 impelled the president to declare gender-based violence (GBV) a “second pandemic”.
As we prepare for a gender-conscious week of agenda-setting and dialogue around women’s rights and liberties, for the 27th year in a row, perhaps we are seeking answers in all the wrong places. If Women, the Other of Men, comprise 51.1% (30.5 million) of our population and are in such dire straits, then it follows that the nation, all of us, are in crisis. Perhaps the answers and solutions are to be found in language and mathematics.
The labels attached to the plight of women may be at the root of the slow pace of redress. Gender equality, gender-based violence, domestic abuse, the wage gap and many other misnomers fail to pinpoint not only the source of the problem, but serve to facilitate an escape from history and reality. It is little wonder then that at a time when the word “gender” has become a synonym for “women”, so many men, indeed so many people, feel disconnected or ambivalent about so-called female concerns. How easy it becomes for men to extricate themselves from that labelled as “women’s issues” and for so many to continue to relegate the gender agenda to an annual event. Our terminology needs to be updated to provide an accurate and concise grasp of the problem.
The prevailing paradox that allows for the separation of women’s concerns from the consciousness of men is extremely problematic.
Only once the conversation around women and inequality is brought into meaningful engagement with men will we create a society in which equality is the privilege of every citizen and not the preserve of the few. As the country, now in the throes of recession, grapples with economic recovery strategies, some will argue that there are concerns more pressing and urgent than gender inequality. This is folly and short-sighted. Inequality, in all its forms, exacerbates and accelerates all social ills.
The dismantling of the apartheid regime was labelled a Struggle, the fight against the oppression of South Africa’s indigenous people, the mission to dismantle the brutalist, inhumane structures designed to subjugate, oppress and, often, kill. The language was clear. Zero ambiguity. This Struggle was won by the courageous efforts of men and women in the unified quest for racial, economic, social and moral justice.
Our shared humanity trumps gender divisions. We live in a world where the circumstances and contributions of all people, men and women, are inextricably linked and interdependent. For how long can we continue to shoulder the R28.4-billion to R42.4-billion lost to our economy stemming from GBV incidents every year?
How can any response to address the alarming prevalence of new HIV infections among young women and girls be effective without the education, consideration and participation of men and boys? How can we celebrate that for the past few years, women comprised the largest group of property buyers in South Africa, when 43% of our children have no father figure in the home?
For how long can the simmering tensions in South African society be held at bay when structural economic inequality is on the rise this deep into the new dispensation? When people are divided as “rich” and “poor”, where do we come together to find solutions to eradicate the indignity of poverty? As of February 2020, black ownership in reporting companies stood at just 29%.
If our world view is framed by our respective vantage points, the creation of a new paradigm is desperately needed. The empowerment and emancipation of women will in turn free men from the shackles of patriarchy, the burden of misogyny and the mask of toxic masculinity. The rewards are for us all.
It is a fallacy for us, as a nation, in our endeavour to end social and economic inequality, to remain tied to the notion of Otherness. The freedom we fought so valiantly for will never ring true for as long as we persist with the separation of one from the other, of white from black, of man from woman.
The sooner men and women, human beings, find common ground, without enmity, the sooner we can all get on with the unending journey towards the realisation and fullest expression of life and liberty. DM