OPINION: It's not the ANCWL, it's patriarchy
Author of Social Constructionism Vivien Burr once described the things that people say and write as “outcrops of representations of events upon the terrain of social life. They have their origin not in the person’s private experience, but in the discursive culture those people inhabit. The things that people say or write, then, can be thought of as instances of discourses, as occasions where particular discourses are given the opportunity to construct an event in this way rather than that.”
What is implied is that our world is created first by the meanings we draw from the words around us. Importantly, the term “opportunity to construct” insinuates that people are not, or should not, be passive products of discourses. Rather, implied meanings can be challenged and, in the process, new discursive cultures established. This is how Mondli Makhanya’s editorial, titled Young and Factionalist: The Farce that is the Women’s League, invites for itself a critical analytical engagement.
Makhanya is accurate in observing that the ANC Women’s League (ANCWL) has been “nowhere when principle was supposed to trump political expediency”. He also issues a credible warning about the consequences of disunity within the women’s movement. But what difference is there between those who might use the term “the ever-chewing one” to describe a senior politician, and those who reduce a potential, albeit most suited presidential candidate, to “ex-wife”? How are these discourses different from those employed by colonialists to objectify Sarah Baartman in the 1800s? What meanings do these “outcrops of representation” construct? And how does society, consciously or unconsciously, reproduce these to sustain patriarchal discursive cultures?
Society, through language, has historically given men dominance over women. This occurs as gendered identities are ascribed through particular terms and reaffirmed into cultural norms. If our society has a chance at transformation, we should, as a starting point, examine the intricate ways that patriarchal systems sustain and reproduce themselves.
Coming out of the 54th elective conference of the ANC, the president of the ANCWL, Bathabile Dlamini, asserted that “the ANC has failed the women of South Africa”, and “the ANC has indeed regressed on the issue of women”. Following this observation, would it not be fair to expect gender activists within the ANC to make political claims against the highest executive structures of the ANC?
In fact, this has been the tradition of the ANCWL since inception: to root out patriarchy within the liberation movement, and within society at large. History shows that this has not been easy. The policy advances made by the party on gender relations did not come as a gift to women, but have resulted from hard-won battles by ANC women.
It was not renewed feminist zeal from the patriarchs that allowed women membership of the ANC in 1943. In fact, in 1956, senior male leaders of the ANC refused to support the women’s march. In Umkhonto weSizwe camps, many female comrades were subjected to forms of gender violence that mirrored the extreme violence of the time.
By the early 1990s, it was clear that women would have to unite in order to strengthen their demands for gender justice. Women from the ANC, Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), National Party (NP) and Democratic Party (DP), and non-partisan feminist activists formed a coalition to conceptualise the content and form of gender relations in the era of democracy. However, this unity had to be forged within a highly contested political environment.
ANC and IFP women had the people’s war raging in townships and hostels to antagonise them. NP and DP women had historical tensions between the Afrikaans and English as their source of division. Madams and their maids had to sit in one meeting to deliberate on a common goal. In a 1990 issue of the Journal of the South African Communist Party, Baleka Kgositsile (now Mbete) wrote that “even white women in the Mass Democratic Movement are still showing signs of total insensitivity when it comes to dealing with the black women who work for them”.
Sadly, these tensions continue to threaten women’s solidarity in the post-apartheid era. Patriarchy has been in power for so long that it has lost any interest in innovating its strategies for domination. The divisive tactics employed against the ANC Young Women’s Desk and the #TotalShutdown movement were present in the 1990s within the ANC, in the 1980s against the United Democratic Front Women’s Congress and throughout women’s struggles before then.
Current challenges and persistent divisions are therefore not about regalia or the role of men. They are mere representations of the historical nuances of sexist domination. If these are not attended to, it will only be a matter of time before the hope brought by the marches against gender-based violence on August 1 joins the fate of previous attempts to build a united women’s movement.
Significantly, to blame the rigidity of patriarchy on the ANCWL is short-sighted and a protective tactic employed to disempower and silence feminist voices within the ANC. If the ANCWL must be found guilty of “princessing” for patriarchy, so must women in the DA, Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), IFP and all sectors of society. The factors that compelled the ANCWL to support Jacob Zuma’s rape trial, for example, are the same forces that visit women in other political parties.
A similar force inhabits the ANCWL as that which has silenced the DA Women’s Network on, for example, Archibold Figlan, who was found guilty of sexual assault in 2015, but enjoys the position of shadow minister of home affairs. There is also Edmund van Vuuren, who was found guilty of sexually harassing a woman, yet is currently chief whip in a provincial legislature.
Lennit Max is allegedly a repeated sexual offender. In 2003, he was reportedly given a golden handshake of R5 million to leave his post as the provincial police commissioner after four women accused him of victimisation and sexual harassment.
Others, like Mamphele Ramphele, Zanele Magwaza-Msibi and Makhosi Khoza were hounded out of their own parties. Who is to blame when young female fighters in the EFF are reduced to girlfriends and tea ladies?
These examples demonstrate that dominative systems are non-discriminatory. The brand of masculinities that politics breeds makes cousins of the diverse experiences of women. It doesn’t care whether you wear a green doek or a black dress to a march. It cares about sustaining the dominance of men, using disunity among women as a tool.
It is a pure sign of the rigidity of patriarchal systems that women would form 60% of the ANC membership, yet be represented by only one woman in the top six.
Unfortunately, these challenges will persist until the ANCWL realises that, alone, it will neither transform the inherently toxic expression of sexism within the ANC, nor translate this possible victory to the broader national landscape. As once confirmed by the then head of the Women’s National Coalition, Frene Ginwala, to think that the ANCWL alone can liberate women “is ignoring political reality”. The only way for gender relations to transform is if a strong, autonomous women’s organisation with an explicit feminist orientation is established and supported by women from all political and other social sectors.
The same goes for the #TotalShutdown movement. Substantive policy and practical outcomes will not be a reality until the hard work of defying persistent tensions is conducted. There is an inherent danger in a movement for all that excludes all.
It is up to those who hold genuine concerns for gender transformation to refuse to be passive recipients and constructs of patriarchy through divisive discourses. As the old saying goes, “United we stand, divided we fall”.
- Ntuli is a feminist scholar, activist and public servant