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The fallacy of the independent woman

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The fallacy of the independent woman


Refilwe Moloto is an economic & investment strategist and the host of CapeTalk’s breakfast show, Breakfast with Refilwe Moloto, weekdays 6am to 9am.

South African Women’s Day on 9 August honours a historic march of 20,000 women in a collective act that reached across age, racial and religious divides. The Women’s Charter called for the enfranchisement of men and women of all races. Six decades later, women are still fighting for an equal seat at the table. And chanting ‘when you strike a woman, you strike a rock’. The inclusiveness of the original intention has not endured, and the gender divide remains.

This women’s day, as so many before it, we celebrate the power of the 20,000 women, coordinated by the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) who marched on the Union Buildings on 9 August 1956 against the racist pass laws of the day, as represented by the Population Registration Act. In so doing, they affirmed their right to independence of movement and association. It was a collective act that reached across age, racial and religious divides in a rallying cry that if all of us aren’t free, then none of us is. It’s difficult to imagine a protest movement so vast: 20,000 women on the ground, representing 100,000 women’s voices who’d signed their supporting petition – and they did so in silence. It was a remarkable act of collusive discipline, particularly without the ease of communication we enjoy today. 

What often gets lost in the retelling of this tale, however, is how far-reaching their activism was. FEDSAW’s Women’s Charter, written within a year of their coalition, called for “the enfranchisement of men and women of all races; equality of opportunity in employment; equal pay for equal work; equal rights in relation to property, marriage and children; and the removal of all laws and customs that denied women such equality. The Charter further demanded paid maternity leave, childcare for working mothers, and free and compulsory education for all South African children.” (South African History Online). The march on the Union Buildings represented but one expression of what FEDSAW stood for, for the entirety of South Africa’s population. 

Fast forward six decades, and our more generally accepted understanding of Women’s Day is one of claiming women’s rights in particular. Rights to our independence in a very different way than “independence” meant, back then. The emphasis today has migrated much more toward the individual win or our individual protections: 

We celebrate a range of powerful women of independence on Breakfast with Refilwe Moloto, regularly celebrating trailblazers, and their ability to excel of their own volition: self-starters who have smashed through ceilings and broken the mould. We also discuss the crushing realities of our disturbingly violent country, and the weight so many women are forced to endure, often a retaliation against their financial independence, their sexual freedoms, and indeed, their individual humanity. 

But, when I step back and review my career and life as an “independent woman” around this time of year, I am reminded how little of it I have done on my own. And, in recent years, I have been more and more comfortable to admit what a relief that is! I have loved acknowledging the fact that I can’t do it all alone, and that I am frankly, quite tired of being called an “independent woman” in the way it is understood today: an island of self-sufficiency, strength, limitless energy and availability to lift everyone up around me, without boundary. The less I have enforced resilience upon myself, and the more I have leaned into my vulnerability, the more I have allowed myself to be supported by an army of committed friends and colleagues, family who avail themselves and, at times, even just a stranger on social media who remarks, “I see you, Sis. You’re doing great!” If there’s one thing the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us it is that life and career can be interrupted and stifled despite our best efforts, and we can’t be Wonder Woman every day. And that is okay, because it is about balance, and leaning in to our support structures, champions and partners. 

And when I consider my individual freedoms and rights that we fight for as women, for instance for equal access to that ever-elusive seat at the corporate table – and the equal pay that goes with it, for the privilege of freedom of movement without attack, rape or murder, or for the right to be  sexually free or dress as I please – that battle remains against the legacy of a systemic patriarchy over which I have limited control. And so, I cannot go this journey alone, without the buy-in of those already at the table, or the awareness of those who strangle the freedoms and privilege of independence that I deserve.  

I believe, at the heart of FEDSAW’s intent in demanding those broad-ranging rights for every single South African in the Women’s Charter, was the understanding that women’s rights and freedoms reside in bringing everyone along. I believe, also, that on 9 August 1956, when they expressed everyone’s deserving of independence in such huge numbers, that they knew they, as in everyday life, could not do it alone. As the African adage goes, “If you want to go fast, go alone; but if you want to go far, go together.”  

Despite this, the evolution of Women’s Day has, over the six decades since then, whittled down this collectivism in ways that I feel are burdensome to us individually, and as a critical majority of the population. On 9 August every year we step into an isolated battle against “the rest”, chanting, with our fists in the air, “Wathint’ abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo!” (“When you strike a woman, you strike a rock!”). 

Well, you know what…? I don’t wanna be a rock. And I don’t wanna be struck to prove I am one. 

Nor do I want to have to be Wonder Woman, all the time, to be respected or revered. 

It’s about balance. 

As we endeavour to achieve, through frank but empathetic conversations with a multitude of diverse voices from across the country every day on Breakfast with Refilwe Moloto, I want a society that holds one another accountable, to come along on this journey to independence that frees us all – from unfair expectations of ourselves through our vulnerability, and from unfair expectations of others through our resilience for one another – because until we get to that point, the notion of the “Independent Woman” in today’s terms is a fallacy. 

Perhaps in a time of outrage culture, and the politicisation of identity, that is the part of the very first National Women’s Day that moves me the deepest: the fact that it was a collective of women, fighting for the rights of all. That, to me, will be our bravest independence as we enter Women’s Month this August, and I feel quite strongly about that. DM/MC


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