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Author: Mbulelo Vizikhungo Mzamane
Title: Gender politics and the unfolding of liberation in South Afrika
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Source: Gender politics and the unfolding of liberation in South Afrika
Mbulelo Vizikhungo Mzamane

Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 5, pp. 10-14, 1993
Author Biography: Mbulelo Mzamane is African Studies Director of the University of Vermont.

Gender politics and the unfolding of liberation in South Afrika

by Mbulelo Vizikhungo Mzamane

Indigenous Southern Afrikans were not a tabula rosa (sic) for white invaders or capitalists to civilize or to victimize. Over many centuries, they had been developing social forms and cultural traditions that colonialism, capitalism and apartheid have assaulted, abused and modified but never eradicated. One cannot understand how Afrikans have endured the fragmentation of their family life by migrant labor unless one has knowledge of their customary social values and networks. Nor can one fathom the vigor of black resistance to the apartheid state without knowledge of precolonial Afrikan ideas about the social and economic obligations of rulers and rights of subjects, and the basis of political legitimacy. [1]

The Unfolding culture of liberation

Culture is the ensemble of meaningful practices and uniformities of behaviour through which self-defined groups within or across social classes express themselves within an identifiable field of significations. It is the process which informs the way meanings and definitions are socially constructed and historically transformed by the social actors themselves. Cultures are distinguished from one another by their differing responses to the same social, material and environmental conditions. Culture is not a static or even a necessarily coherent phenomenon: it is subject to change, fragmentation, and reformulation. It is both adaptive, offering people ways of coping and making sense, and strategic, capable of being mobilised for political, economic, and social ends. Such an understanding of the function of culture in society is necessary for an appreciation of the political importance of the cultural struggle in South Afrika. [2]

A democratic culture has been unfolding in South Afrika that stands at the polar end of the exclusive, stagnant, and moribund culture of oppression and exploitation. In essence, the unfolding culture of liberation is syncretic and expresses the collective identity of the forces ranged against apartheid. It is an amalgam of progressive trends in South Afrikan society and is especially suited to forging a new national culture of reconciliation and transformation to supplant apartheid culture. It is a configuration of the culture of the oppressed, including women's and children's culture, as well as Anglo-South Afrikan culture and Afrikaner culture, all of which have a germinal role to play in creating a new national consciousness. This truly majority culture that is evolving is accommodating, democratic, and capable of use in mass mobilisation or liberation and advancement. South Afrikans are searching for an alternative to the skewed cultural policies of successive unrepresentative white, minority, racist and sexist regimes, an alternative that will restore the underprivileged to their culture as it unfolds and to their history and, at the same time, validate cultural pluralism in its positive aspects in South Afrika.

At the core of South Afrikan liberation culture, in its multifarious formation, lies the resilient culture of Afrikans, which has survived more than three-and-a-half centuries of settler-colonial expansionist culture and repression and has triumphed by building a new base in each epoch, by digging in its transplanted roots and firm stem on soil made fertile by the blood of a people schooled in sacrifice and struggle. Leonard Thompson, with uncanny insight, characterises it as possessing qualities of transcendence. It has been transformational, enabling oppressed groups to take charge and triumph in the end. Thus proving that, far from being helpless, hapless victims, the downtrodden have been creative fighters, making their own history and shaping their own destiny. Liberation culture is capacity building, too. Through its essential dynamism, it holds out hope for far-reaching social change; it is already providing the infrastructure for the new order.

Lest we should sound as if we are romanticising the culture of the historically disadvantage, progressive as well as regressive strains can be identified in the culture of the privileged and underprivileged alike. Identifying negative elements in one's or another's culture, however, does not necessarily entail trashing one's or the other's culture. Marginalised groups have suffered immeasurably on that score, from being constantly depicted in a negative light. The reproduction and edification of certain enduring stereotypes is a common feature of all class stratified societies. In subjecting liberation culture to rigorous criticism, our envisaged end is the validation of its positive but largely stifled elements. For our plural society to reap the benefits of its cultural diversity, we need to learn how to deal anew not so much with the "deficit model" of the problems marginalised groups cause but with their contribution and creativity. This may well be the most effective way to inculcate new societal attitudes, whereby we may come to affirm our distinctiveness and, at the same time, celebrate our similarities. We cannot cultivate such new attitudes, however, unless we know the cultural contours of our land and appreciate other cultural tributaries that flow into the mainstream.

The understanding of the context within which each cultural group operates will be crucial in defining the new paradigms of our nationhood. In defining such new paradigms, however, no single group's culture is complete in itself. National culture becomes an amalgam of the various cultural configurations in our land. Through the interplay of these disparate cultural configurations, a wholeness is achieved. But to achieve such a wholeness also requires an understanding of past trends, their effect upon the present, and their contribution to the future.

In the past, our arts and culture played a vital role in the struggle for liberation by spreading knowledge of events in South Afrika to the outside world, thus helping to influence people's attitudes toward apartheid. Within South Afrika, the arts and culture gave people an identity, pride, self-respect, and spiritual fulfillment. By enhancing and expanding community consciousness, art and culture inspired and uplifted a demoralised, oppressed people and unified them across racial, class, caste, ethnic, gender and other barriers. Although recent political events in South Afrika are probably significant and certainly welcome, the legacy of segregation and apartheid will take decades to redress. In a society still lacking basic human rights and equal educational and other opportunities, we envisage a dynamic and strategic role for arts and culture which, in addition, have the capacity to provide the collective identity that makes up a nation. A South Afrikan nation is in the making, but its constituent parts and their interplay in the national arena are as yet little understood.

At any given moment, the collective identity of a people is a combination of both the fragments of tradition and the changes taking place. The dividing line between tradition and change, though, is not always clearly demarcated. Thus during a process of change, over which no one has complete control, it is always difficult to decide what must be preserved and what must give way to the new. Studying social change, however, ultimately leads to the following question: How is it possible to go on drawing strength from one's roots while, at the same time, making the most of available and enriching change? That, in the final analysis, is what determines how healthy and relevant old or new forms are.

Gender politics in South Afrika continues to play itself out within the context of both the old and the new. No doubt, the old is significant, in the manner described by Leonard Thompson. But to speak meaningfully about gender politics in South Afrika, we need to locate our discourse within the context of our unfolding culture of liberation. In that way we can identify, too, progressive and retrogressive strains within the various cultural formations. We need to eschew the temptation to dwell on the beauty of traditional culture, for to do so uncritically would be a hollow exercise performed at the expense of more vital issues. Liberation culture has made commendable gains in certain areas of our lives, but we must also concede that in other areas it has made very little headway, particularly in the sphere of gender politics.

Gender politics and the South Afrikan experience

Albie Sachs, in his inimitable style, once argued that patriarchy is one of the few truly non-racial institutions in South Afrikan society. Many in the movement were startled by the notion and hastened to disclaim any individual responsibility. The universal predicament facing women is made more complex by being inextricably intertwined with other variables such as race and class.

We blushed when Ted Koppel of ABC interviewed Nelson Mandela in February 1990 upon his release from prison. He asked what had grieved Mandela most during his twenty-seven years of imprisonment. Mandela replied that it had painted him most to think that members of his household had been reduced to fending for themselves, without the head of the family. Such patriarchal attitudes, however, are not the sole province of the septuagenarians in the movement.

At the July 1991 conference of the Afrikan National Congress (ANC) in Durban, a motion calling for 30% of the positions in the National Executive Committee (NEC) to be occupied by women, who are grossly under-represented at every tier in the ANC, was resoundingly defeated. The movement was non-racial and non-sexist, it was argued, and would not countenance setting up quotas based on gender considerations anymore than it wished to sanction similar practices based upon race. The election of the overwhelming majority of males to the NEC was ostensibly based on merit and service.

There have been other platforms, however, where the marginalization of women has been discussed openly and frankly, even if contentiously. At the New Nation's Writers Conference in Johannesburg in December 1991, Keorapetse Kgositsile told a story during the day-long session on women's issues. The story was about how he once took his children to a party in Dar es Salaam. The South Afrikan females at the party were shocked that his wife had acted so irresponsibly as to abandon her children with their father. They began to fuss over the children, ready to rescue them from imminent disaster. Kgositsile put up a valiant but futile struggle to put them at bay, alarmed by the fact that many of these young exile ladies from the movement were in need of parenting themselves. Thus we see how even women in the movement continue to live stereotypical roles internalised from their youthful conditioning in a patriarchal society.

At the same conference, Lauretta Ngcobo argued most forcefully that gender discrimination was worse and ran deeper than racial, class or any other form of discrimination in our society. For once, the men in the audience were silent, intimidated, occupying space customarily reserved for the "other" in this unfamiliar game of role reversal. A male respondent drew wrath upon himself from the audience when, in the awkward moment of self-conscious and embarrassed silence that followed, he rose to question the validity of establishing a hierarchical gradation of oppressive forces. Two irate white males shouted "Trotskyite!" and staged a dignified walk-out. Ironically, throughout these sessions, the voices of the white female panelists sounded more strident and shrill on the subject. Undeterred by the growing ire from the restive audience, he reminded his listeners of Mao Tse Tung's assertion that gender discrimination, like race, can never be addressed adequately without paying attention simultaneously to issues of class stratification. Would all women automatically attain equality if gender discrimination were to be eliminated from society? Would the playing field be levelled automatically for Afrikan women from various class backgrounds? Would inequalities between black and white South Afrikan women disappear as a matter of course?

There is no gainsaying the fact that gender discrimination has persisted everywhere, beyond the attainment of freedom from feudalism and colonialism, but so have class distinctions. We need to embark on a holistic approach to problems posed by discriminatory practices in society and, as a matter of strategy, to avoid polarisation that will become an inevitable consequence if others in the struggle are deemed to come from positions that smirk of political correctness. Sexism, in particular, needs to be confronted from the cradle literary and accosted whenever it is encountered, at every layer of society, by both men and women.

Gender considerations and challenges to the abuse of power

Many other areas of our lives in the struggle need to be re-examined in the light of what they tell us about the relations between the sexes, even in progressive political circles. In this regard, the complex case of Winnie Mandela becomes significant. To be sure, the charges brought against her of kidnap, lynching, and murder are most disturbing and, if true, cannot be condoned. Although judgement was passed on her even before she made her first court appearance, the case is still on appeal and we need not go into its merits and demerits here. We are interested, though, in exploring another dynamic of the case, even if only speculatively.

One wonders how different the outcome of this particular case might have been if the genders had been reversed and her husband had been involved instead. To start with, rumours of her infidelity have dogged her since the 1960s. This, of course, would have been excusable in a man whose wife was serving a life sentence. Just as persistent in those days was another rumour, that she was an SB (Security Branch) agent, although no one could quite explain why, if that were so, she was constantly hounded by the SB and subjected to detention without trial, banning, arson, and banishment. What proved to be her undoing, however, was her secret army of bodyguards, the Mandela Football Club, with whom she is said to have terrorised Soweto, leading to the abduction, torture, and murder of 14-year old Stompie Moeketsi. In her defence, over the Stompie Moeketsi case, she claimed that she had only given instructions for the children to be rescued from the home of the white Methodist minister, after learning that they were victims of sodomy. Could that have been vintage Winnie, appealing above the heads of the leadership and her detractors and capitalising on widespread homophobia, an issue yet to receive adequate attention within the movement, like the women's question itself? Hot on the heels of her case came disturbing revelations of persecution by males in the ANC military camps. [3]

The press accuses the ANC of failing to come out clean on the issue, but certain information has since come out:

a) A number of people currently employed by the ANC at its Shell House headquarters in Johannesburg have been implicated in the torture and murders carried out at these guerrilla camps. They include one of Nelson Mandela's bodyguards, Jomo Mavuso, a former guard at the Quatro camp in Angola, and others who are still in the Department of Intelligence and Security.

b) The major figure behind the torture and murders in the camps, however, is Mzwandile Piliso, who was in the NEC of the ANC until July 1991, when he failed to secure re-election. Previously he had been head of Intelligence and Security and subsequently head of the ANC's Department of Manpower—this department is still called "Manpower"—and has admitted his involvement in ordering and carrying out torture and executions, from 1979 to 1985. Following investigations by the Stuart Commission of the alleged abuses, he was moved to Manpower.

c) Andrew Masondo has also been implicated. A member of the NEC of the ANC until July 1991, the central committee of the South Afrikan Communist Party (SACP) until the Kabwe conference in June 1985, and the ANC's political commissar for much of the 1980s, he is accused of ordering the torture of dissidents, some of whom died as a result. He was made principal in 1985 of the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom School (SOMAFCO) in Mazimba, Tanzania, following his implication in the torture charges by the Stuart Commission, and is currently head of the ANC mission in Uganda.

d) Other ANC leaders accused of turning a blind eye to the abuses at the military camps include Umkhonto WeSizwe's (MK's) military supremo, Joe Modise, who is also the current head of the National Working Committee. The 1984 mutineers at Quatro cited Modise, along with Piliso and Masondo, as their chief persecutors.

All of this contrasts with the way Winnie Mandela's case was handled on similar charges of torture and execution. Her temperament and her pronouncements have not endeared her to moderates and older radicals in the movement, at least since the mid-1980s. She seemed to be hammering a nail into her own coffin when, during the funeral of a comrade, she said: "With our matchboxes and our necklaces we shall liberate South Afrika," a statement from which the exiled leadership of the ANC, worried about its image abroad as a terrorist organisation, immediately disassociated itself. She was, without doubt, a loose cannon and a potential embarrassment. But there were numerous militants in the mid-1980s who were not unduly worried about "necklacing", who cited Frantz Fanon and pointed to the example of the Algerian war of independence for precedence. Cadres of Umkhonto WeSizwe who infiltrated the country had instructions, in a number of cases, to eliminate certain Afrikan sell-outs from the community. Such was the elimination by guerrillas of the notorious Soweto policeman, Hlubi. Another instance was the mistaken liquidation, as it turned out, of an ANC underground operator in Durban, once a prominent figure in Black Consciousness, for which the ANC has since apologised. No disciplinary measures have ever been taken against the men who ordered such operations.

One wonders how predisposed the leaders of the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM) and the ANC were to rid themselves of Winnie Mandela, who was seen increasingly as a liability to the movement. We do not for a moment doubt their earnestness, sincerity, and even their politically savvy ways of damage control. Many women, with impeccable credentials and honourable motives, in the upper echelons of the movement have also attacked her excesses and caused her to be brought down. This has tended to confirm the fact that the ANC is, indeed, engaged in a principled struggle. It is equally true that the MDM leaders who stood up to Winnie are not the same people accused of torture and the execution of dissidents in the camps. But we have yet to hear their public voices raised in the condemnation of abuses in the camps. Many supporters of the ANC, not just members of Winnie Mandela's fan club, are unhappy about the fact that while the crucifixion procession lines up behind her, awaiting judgement from the court of Pontius Pilate, the ANC is poised to forgive the Barend Strydoms of this world and to make peace with all the perpetrators of what the UN, at our prompting, classified as crimes against humanity. While it may be admirable and noble on the part of the ANC to eschew Nuremburg-style trials in the future against its enemies—a feature consistent with the ANC's occupancy of the high moral ground in this debacle—we are concerned by its implacable hostility towards Winnie Mandela and the implication of its stance for gender relations.

Winnie Mandela had to resign all her portfolios from the NEC, the Women's League—to both of which she had been elected with a sizeable majority, notwithstanding such "facts" as were already known about her case—and from the Department of Social Welfare. In addition, she had to distance herself from the leader to avoid tarnishing his image. Men with blood in their hands have been allowed to stay close to the leader to protect him but his wife, accused of committing similar atrocities (on a lesser scale, in terms of numbers), must keep her distance lest she contaminates the leader, her husband. "The woman brings nothing but trouble," I have heard it said. One is never certain whether the stress here is on woman: "Because she is a woman, she brings nothing but trouble" or "Just like a woman, comrade, don't you think?"

What is bothersome, therefore, about the case of Winnie Mandela is the unconscious and residual sexism many harbour, which was brought out by the case and which has led the movement to treat recalcitrants who are male differently from their female counterparts. These are not merely contradictions in the struggle; they are inconsistencies and double standards. None of this would have been particularly disturbing if we knew for a fact that the same treatment is meted to all who violate the high ethical standards which the ANC has set itself and for which it stands in the eyes of the world. To be sure, these cases we have discussed are different but they both deal with very serious charges and unfortunate events. They call for evenhanded justice, nonetheless, irrespective of the culprit's gender.

Gender and trade unionism

Women are also marginalised in other structures of the liberation movement, such as the trade unions. Women in the Congress of South Afrikan Trade Unions (COSATU) make up about 40% of the federation's membership but less than 5% of its leadership and only 14% of all its shopstewards. The absence of women from labour legislation and economic restructuring negotiations leads to what Fiona Dove has described as "gender blindness". This insensitivity to gender issues is exemplified in the manner in which in recent negotiations over farmworker legislation, the drafters forgot to add a clause on job security for pregnant women. Sexual harassment, which women in the 1989 COSATU conference tried unsuccessfully to get classified as an official offence, remains a problem. [4]

A survey of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the largest of the unions affiliated to COSATU, revealed that the sexual harassment of women staff members in the union is rampant. Gender structures and women's forums have been rendered barren by (a) the paltry resources allocated to them, (b) the cumbersome bureaucratic trail they have to follow to have ant campaign put on the agenda of COSATU, and (c) their lack of decision-making powers, making them more like women's talkshops. Women's concerns are, in fact, sidelined each time they crop up during the deliberations of the union by being referred to the women's forums, thus leading tho what Fiona Dove describes as the "ghettoisation" of gender issues.

As in other spheres of South Afrikan life, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Women unionists, like their counterparts within ANC structures, have been relentless and largely successful in their struggle to put parental benefits, children facilities, and equal pay for women on the agenda in every negotiation platform. COSATU's rail, road, municipal, paper, and mining affiliates have accorded women's forums direct access to constitutional structures.

Abortion rights

Other battles are raging around such issues as the rights of women to terminate their pregnancies. Both the conservative white right and the militant township left—and many others in between—share and intense antagonism to abortion. A popular chant from the mid-1980s sung by young comrades went like this:

Informers, we will destroy you, hayi, hayi!
Witches, we will burn you, hayi, hayi!
Those who commit abortions, we will destroy them, hayi, hayi!
Mrs. Botha is barren, she gives birth to rats, hayi, hayi!
Mrs. Mandela is fertile, she gives birth to comrades, hayi, hayi!

Such sentiments from the most militant wing of the liberation movement have stalled debate on the issue.

Sentiments from the right were heard when the Abortion and Sterilisation Bill was debated in parliament. In 1973, Helen Suzman criticised Minister of Health Munnik for not appointing a single woman to a commission of enquiry set up to look into abortion. "If one wanted to abolish capital punishment," Dr. Munnik responded, "one would not appoint a bunch of murderers to go into the matter." Dr. Claude Newbury, Pro-Life chairman, has compared abortion to Nazi atrocities. "In the holocaust, the Nazis killed six million people because they decided that these people were unwanted and a burden to society," he once said. "Now, doctors all over the world kill over sixty million unborn children a year, using the very same arguments." [5]

Yearly, about 200,000 women of all races in South Afrika undergo risky backstreet abortions. Baragwanath Hospital alone in Soweto treats 3,000 cases of induced miscarriages a year, about 60% of them due to botched backstreet abortions. The result is often permanent physiological damage and emotional trauma. Only a thousand women each year are granted legal permission by the state to undergo abortion. The vast majority of unwanted pregnancies are thus "illegally" terminated. This is because of South Afrika's stringent abortion laws, the labyrinthine process of procuring permission, and the fact that the vast majority of the women so affected do not even know that they might be entitled to legal abortions.

The Abortion and Sterilisation Act of 1974 permits abortions only when there is proven rape or incest, or when the continuing pregnancy will seriously affect the mental or physical health of mother or the foetus. To prove any of this, a woman needs to obtain the signature of three doctors, one of whom must be a state employee, and the operation must be performed in a state hospital. Since it is easier to prove mental incapacity than physical danger, rape, or incest, 53% of legal abortions are on psychiatric grounds. This works to the advantage of wealthy white women, who have access to psychiatrists, money, and the power needed to manipulate the system. Although the law was passed ostensibly with the intention of giving doctors discretionary powers in deciding when a woman is eligible for abortion, because doctors face a five-year prison term if found guilty of violating any clause of the law, they tend to interpret the law most conservatively. It is not surprising then that most women procure backstreet abortions, particularly black women and a small number of poor white women who cannot afford the legal process or the trip to a country where abortion is available on demand.

Within the ANC, the issue remains inflammable and unresolved. Despite strong submissions from the ANC Women's League and their Health Department, calling for the inclusion of the right to abortion in the movement's Bill of Rights, all that could finally be mustered was a deliberately ambiguous clause about women's "rights to control their own bodies"—which could be construed to refer to prostitution only but not to abortion, since with abortion another body is also involved. There are obviously fierce battles ahead over abortion.

Most of this antipathy stems from the fact that in tradition womanhood is defined in terms of mothering. Fertility is at the center of a woman's being and barrenness the worst calamity that can ever befall a woman. Meddling with the womb is a function of witches and evil spirits. A termination of pregnancy is thus a termination of motherhood and, therefore, of womanhood. Ironically, though, abortion was practised in many precolonial societies and restrictions introduced only with colonialism. Now, the colonists who have gone home, at least from the rest of Afrika, have liberalised their own laws, while Afrikans have kept the restrictions in the name of "traditional culture". People's feelings and attitudes about abortion continue to be ambivalent and contradictory, at best, and in the majority of cases down-right hostile. To avoid a schism over the issue, the ANC has committed itself instead to "an education process on the ground", according to the Women's League media officer, Lindiwe Zulu.


In liberation circles, a stock response to gender politics and other contentious areas in our struggle that are not directly linked to the racial question is invariably to shelve such issues by declaring that they must no be allowed to divide us and to detract from the central business of dismantling apartheid. Once that has been accomplished, it is further argued, we can then turn to other matters that plague society such as thuggery, theft, dagga smuggling, and gender. For our part, we see no justification for not tackling gender discrimination, itself a form of apartheid but one likely to endure beyond formal apartheid, simultaneously with other forms of discriminatory practices.

We limit our revolutionary potential by marginalising women. The most successful struggles in our history have been those in which rural communities, another sidelined group, and women have played the most active roles: during the women's anti-pass campaigns of the 1910s in the Orange Free State; during the 1950s throughout the country; and during the peasant revolts in Bahurutseland, Sekhukhuniland, and Pondoland. A proverbial saying: "Whathint' umfazi, wathint' imbokodo" (Provoke a woman, you invite a granite stone) is homage to women's contributions in the struggle. We also limit our potential to full productivity by the marginalisation of our women. Their empowerment is a pre-requisite to the liberation of all of us.

There are dangers inherent in embracing any variant of the two-stage theory of revolution. In other parts of the formerly colonised world, independence meant embourgeoinisation and the process left out peasants, workers, the lumpen-proletariat, and women. To allow ourselves to be lulled into acquiescing to a scheme that promises to resolve piecemeal issues that can be dealt with concurrently might prove to be a very costly mistake. The process invariably leads to conferring power, without the necessary checks, to a clique of patriarchs. It places society on a mid-way course to a dictatorship of the patriarchs. It offers no guarantees against megalomania, senility, and plain intoxication. Gender issues must be addressed simultaneously with matters of race, class ethnicity, homophobia etc., without positing hierarchies. A comprehensive agenda for liberation must be all-encompassing, both in terms of issues and people. That is our only guarantee for social transformation, beyond co-optation and accommodation. In our unfolding culture of liberation, any strategy that aims for less can only lead to a state of privilege for a few at the expense of the vast majority. "Old wine in new bottles" is all our liberation would amount to, but with the wine kept away altogether from the masses, except at communion time.

1. Leonard Thompson, A History of South Africa, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1990, p. 2.

2. Contemporary Cultural Studies, No. 5 Birmingham, UK, 1985, n.p.

3. Weekly Mail, Johannesburg, October 23-29, 1992.

4. Weekly Mail, November 6-12, 1992.

5. Weekly Mail, November 6-12, 1992.

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