Expelled African National Congress Youth League President Julius Malema celebrates the party's centenary with the ANC Women's League in South Africa. The ANC leadership is meeting later this year in Manguang., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
Women's rights: Will the real ANC please stand up?
07 Aug 2012 15:18 - Shireen Hassim
South African Mail & Guardian
The ANC's leaders risk erasing the long and painful history of women's struggle for equality. They could learn a thing or two from the youth league.
Perhaps we ought to be grateful that there was a gender discussion document among the package for the ANC policy conference at all.
In its rush to condemn the Constitution as a compromise imposed on the majority of South Africans, the ANC's current leadership is in danger of erasing the long and painful history of women's struggle for equal rights and full citizenship.
As it lurches dangerously into the arms of the social conservatives, it is reconstructing its history in ways that may pit feminists against the very party that was once their strongest ally. In the past four years, the "women question" has been more discussed in relationship to which faction of the leadership battle the ANC Women's League will support rather than how to strengthen women's rights.
Under the leadership of Jacob Zuma, the party that earned global respect for the recognition of women, gays and lesbians as equal persons appears to be in retreat from these values.
The gender discussion document suggests, though, that all is not lost and that there are still champions of feminism within the ANC.
The introduction begins promisingly, with a commitment to fair distribution of resources and redistribution of power, sharing of care responsibilities and the eradication of gender-based violence.
Mbeki-era approach to feminism
It identifies patriarchy as the overarching system that sustains inequalities, while understanding that the material underpinnings of inequality – women's lack of access to paid work, the gendered division of labour and the feminization of poverty – must be addressed through social and public policy. It even argues that the idea that women's subordination is "part of tradition and culture"' is problematic.
So far, so good.
How disappointing, then, that the rest of the document reiterates the Mbeki-ite approach to feminism, a hollowed-out modernist liberal feminism that deals with numerical increases in female personnel without dealing with the structural inequalities that underpin women's lack of power, resources and voice.
In a telling slippage from the strong ground of the economic basis of inequalities, the introduction ends by posing "patriarchal thinking or the continuation of institutionalised sexism" as the key obstacles.
Of course, the drafters of the document are right to point to patriarchy as a problem. But the document offers no clue as to how we might understand the nature of patriarchy or its relationship to the economy.
Indeed, in several respects it shows a regression from the conceptual debates of the 1980s and 1990s within the alliance.
Cause for concern
Then, in documents such as the Women's Charter for Effective Equality, the heterogeneity of women – of race and class, not least – was confronted head on. The varieties in the ways patriarchy was historically shaped by colonialism and capitalism, and the impacts of different traditions and cultures on women (and indeed as shaped BY women), was a matter of intense worry.
None of the richness of that debate survived in the discussion document.
Nor, sadly, did it recognise the parts of the modernist discourse that have been historically useful, such as the restraining of the power of traditional leaders and the assertive reiteration of women's rights in the face of the rising tide of conservatism. Indeed, you would be hard-pressed to find any critique in the document of the ANC's backsliding on equality.
The Traditional Courts Bill gets no mention. Yet if this is not an example of "institutionalised sexism" I will eat my feminist T-shirt.
A kind response would be to say that discussion documents are often not specific about policy proposals but rather provide an overall framework of priorities. But the gender document was breathtakingly off the mark, even from this perspective.
Take, for example, the area of education. South Africa shines on the Millenium Development Goals' ambition of gender parity in enrollments. But all South Africans know that the real problems lie elsewhere, in the sexual abuse of female pupils by teachers and fellow male pupils, the lack of sufficient clean toilets that result in some young women missing school for a few days every month, and early pregnancies that lead to high drop-out rates. We know this because the government's own investigations tell us so.
The burden of care
Yet, the document's solution to the problem is to call for free sanitary towels in schools. This is like offering Elastoplast to Aids patients.
This is a problem throughout the document. The recurring remedies relate to targets for women as beneficiaries of policies such as job creation, entrepreneurship training and in tender procurements.
There is no questioning at all of the New Growth Path and its implications for women (who are virtually absent in the industries targeted for support).
There is no discussion of relationship between work and care, the implications of failing health systems on women's household burdens, or of how we might begin to think about what families look like and how care burdens ought to be distributed within households.
In the related social transformation discussion document there was much hand-wringing about the fact that women bear huge burdens and therefore need support – but not what kind of support might be provided through the distribution of state resources.
NGOs call for more support for shelters, childcare services and assistance with care for the elderly. The ANC simply blandly reiterates that families must be reconstituted.
But it may be that blaming "institutionalised sexism" for the feminisation of poverty, the high rate of maternal deaths and the war on women's bodies usefully sidesteps the issue of the failings of the ANC government to make any meaningful inroads into these problems.
For that you would need to look at the ANC Youth League's discussion document on gender, which openly discusses the problems of sexism within the ANC, and the implications of what it calls the government's neoliberal trajectory of development – privatisation of services and weak state infrastructure in particular – that has resulted in disproportionate burdens on poor women.
It does not see numerical targets as the magic bullet. Nor does it treat "gender" as equivalent to "women", and refers in several places to the ways in which unemployment and poverty have destabilised male patriarchal identities. The youth league is unrelentingly critical of the choices the ANC has made in the ways in which it governs and in the limpness of its policies with regard to economic inclusion.
An unlikely place to look for feminism in the ANC, but stranger things have happened in South Africa.
Shireen Hassim is a professor of Political Studies at Wits University
This work was presented at the Mail and Guardian/WISER Colloquium Digging Down: ANC Policy Documents at Wits University on May 30 2012