The river runs dry: Gender equality in South Africa

In 1789 France’s Ancien Regime, its monarchy and traditions, were swept away by the tide of the French Revolution – only for these laws and customs to reappear some years later. Struck by this, Alexis de Tocqueville remarked that it was as if a river had plunged underground and resurfaced a distance away, the river banks altered but the water the same. Something very similar may be observed of South Africa’s gender equality project.

Consider President Mandela’s words on the occasion of his very first State of Nation address in May 1994:

It is vitally important that all structures of Government, including the President himself, should understand this fully that freedom cannot be achieved unless the women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression.

Now compare his utterances with statements made twenty years later in November 2014 at a meeting organised by the Minister of Women, Susan Shabangu, to discuss the 16 Days of Activism to End Violence Against Women. One of those sharing the Ministerial podium was Chief Moses Mahlangu, who stated that women must be submissive to their husbands. Developing this theme further Princess Dineo pronounced feminism to be un-African and called on the Minister to cut all funds to centres for abused women and children. These forms of domestic violence, she argued, should be dealt with in the home.

Their sense of betrayal implicit in the question, 13 organisations released a media statement asking How have we come to this moment?”

Yet review of the historical record suggests that these ideas never disappeared but, like de Tocqueville’s river, temporarily went underground. Indeed, in the views expressed earlier this month may be discerned the key fault lines on which the country’s gender equality project has repeatedly foundered: feminism, traditional authority and the family – women’s ‘natural’ home.

At least some of the ambivalent relationship between feminism and the contemporary state can be traced to pre-democratic South Africa and the struggle against apartheid – a time when nationalism and motherism largely shaped women’s mobilisation and feminism was dismissed as a divisive white, middle-class, Western woman’s irrelevance. But as Shireen Hassim’s history of the ANC Women’s League shows, the claim that women’s gender struggles were secondary to race and class oppression did not go unchallenged. Years of argument, strategizing and organising finally paid off on 2 May 1990 when the ANC’s National Executive Committee issued a statement acknowledging that women’s emancipation was not a by-product of socialism or national liberation, but a problem to be addressed in its own right.

With the political space cleared, women organised across the political spectrum and by April 1992 the Women’s National Coalition had been launched and women made part of the political negotiations and the writing of the interim Constitution. What we enjoy today is the result of that transitional period and the five years between 1994 and 1999 when women both within and outside the state worked to craft the legislation, policies and institutions that established South Africa as a trail blazer in the promotion of gender equality.

This watershed period did not succeed in embedding feminist frameworks and goals within the state however. By 2000 researcher Gay Seidman, who spent six months within the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE), was suggesting that the CGE had become cautious of taking up gender issues that might appear too feminist and likely to alienate political support. Indeed, she suggest these debates over strategy and demands played a key role in the conflicts paralysing the CGE during this period.

Feminism’s initial political capital has ebbed still further and in January 2012 the Ad Hoc Committee on the Filling of Vacancies in the Commission for Gender Equality was asking prospective commissioners “if they perceived the CGE as an organisation…that was based on feminism. If so, how would they change those perceptions?” Later that same year President of the ANC Women’s League, Angie Motshekga, made sure to tell journalists that the League was not a “feminist organisation.”

The CGE itself is the product of a clash between traditionalists and feminists. With the negotiations over the interim Constitution of 1993 drawing to a close, traditional leaders objected to the inclusion of gender equality within the Bill of Rights and demanded that customary law be excluded from the ambit of the interim Constitution. The CGE was born of the compromise between traditional leaders’ demands and the opposition of rural women in particular to these.

Traditional leaders’ efforts to insulate customary law from Constitutional scrutiny have not evaporated with time and some of 1993’s concerns around the powers of traditional authority were reprised in the Communal Land Rights Act of 2004. At stake on this occasion was rural women’s security of tenure. Despite opposition from a range of women’s groupings the Bill was enacted – only to be declared unconstitutional in 2010 on the grounds of inadequate public participation.

But it is the Traditional Courts Bill first introduced in 2008 that has sparked the sharpest contestation around traditional leadership. Many criticisms were levelled against the Bill, which subordinated both women and men to chiefly power, regardless of whether they wished to live under customary law or not. Of particular concern to women’s rights advocates was the Bill’s potential to entrench male-dominated courts able to decide matters of maintenance, dissolution of marriage, domestic violence and even certain cases of rape. Thus far efforts to push the Bill through Parliament have not succeeded.

But what powers traditional leaders have not been able to secure through legislation they have consolidated elsewhere, particularly through Department of Social Development (DSD) policies dealing with the family. Both the Integrated Social Crime Prevention Strategy of 2011 and 2012’s White Paper on Families grant religious and traditional structures privileged status in the supervision of family life.

The White Paper also takes a particular position on domestic violence, its chief intervention into the problem being educational, therapeutic and rehabilitative interventions for perpetrators of domestic violence. It simply does not entertain the possibility that victims may wish to live independently of their abusers and so require legal, economic and other social support to do so.

While family preservation has always been a goal of DSD, policy documents issued post-1994 have included the caveat that in cases of domestic violence family preservation was not to come at the expense of the victim. No such caveat is included within the White Paper. In making family preservation, rather than women’s safety, its chief goal, the White Paper not only represents a striking departure from earlier DSD policy but in some ways also resembles the position pre-1994 when abused women were offered therapeutic interventions to cure them of the supposed psychological defects which prompted their husband’s violence, rather than material and legal support.

And so, twenty years into democracy, resurgent traditionalism bubbles and gushes to the surface, capturing bureaucratic structures intended to advance gender equality, as well as campaigns challenging violence against women. Yet currents of feminism, along with different ways of thinking about the family, have also informed South Africa’s politics. How are these streams of thought and practice to be brought the surface again?

* This opinion piece was first published on Daily Maverick on 25 November 2014.

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