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Conversation: Gender Policy in South Africa

Female African Torero
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Cover-Image of Perspectives - Political analysis and commentary from Africa # 2.11

    By the Heinrich Böll Foundation Southern Africa


      Gender equality is enshrined in South Africa's democratic constitution of 1996, and a spate of progressive laws has since been passed to advance women's human rights. But while (especially black) women continue to carry the brunt of poverty and gender-based violence, implementation of the laws has been inconsistent and service delivery has in some cases all but collapsed. South Africa's high level of women's representation in the executive and parliament seems not to make much difference, a situation exacerbated by the lack of a coordinated women's movement.

      Seeking insights into how southern African feminists think about the situation, feminist, author and journalist Christi van der Westhuizen discusses the possibilities for feminist action in South Africa today with Claire Mathonsi, who until recently was the director of operations at the Western Cape Network on Violence Against Women.

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      van der Westhuizen: Research and other evidence show that government departments are not responsive to women and that civil servants are unwilling to give effect to post-1994 laws such as the Domestic Violence Act and the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act.

      Linked to this, religion, "culture" and "tradition" are entering the public discourse more, and are being used to resist women's empowerment. These moves suggest attempts at a rollback of what women have achieved since the advent of democracy in South Africa. What are your thoughts on this?

      Mathonsi: "The state" is not this one body; there are so many actors within the state, engaging with women on so many different levels. When it comes to women and the economy, for instance, the state is working very hard and is very progressive on this score.

      In certain pockets in the state, we see more allies for women than ever before. We find that there are people within government who share information with us as an NGO, that attempt to further a progressive agenda and that recognise the role of civil society.

      For example, last year, the Department of Justice approached the Western Cape Network on Violence Against Women to assist with stakeholder consultation and information regarding an approach to combating hate crimes against LGBTI [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and intersexed] persons.However, whether this translates into service delivery is another question. In some areas, service delivery has improved; in others, not.

      There have been some very slight improvements in reporting domestic violence to police, for instance, but dealing with the trauma of survivors is still a major challenge. Recordkeeping and statistics on domestic and gender-based violence are still inadequate. It depends also on the province or city, who is there and whom you are working with.

      We have to look at the state bureaucracy. As feminists or women's rights activists, we haven't challenged the state enough.[The women's empowerment agenda] has lost out to a human rights discourse that the state has adopted, which says women are just an interest group, along with youth, children and the disabled. How is service delivery supposed to occur for an interest group, as opposed to women and men from birth to death?

      There are fantastic initiatives happening, like the National Policy Framework for the Sexual Offences Act Working Group, but the question always comes in with implementation. It's about political will. And with women, if it's ticked off, that's it. We're not a priority anymore.

      van der Westhuizen: What do you mean by the "human rights discourse" rendering women an "interest group"?

      Mathonsi: Instead of dealing with patriarchal power relations, this agenda relegates women to a category: "gender" - one block in a tick-box.

      When you are dealing with the liberation of women in South Africa, you can't look at them as just an interest group. [The state] is not looking at women from birth to death. Under the human rights framework, they bring everything (age, youth, disability) together, not recognising that gender is continuous, a social construct that underlies power relations. Because it's a bureaucratic and technical exercise, substantive equality is not part of the human rights mainstreaming model.

      This approach replaces substantive issues with numbers. For example, when we talk about 50/50 representation in government, we don't talk about influence. When we talk about 50/50 political participation, we don't talk about decision making.

      You have to ask yourself why the state and civil society are so afraid when women demand things purely for women.

      van der Westhuizen: Laws to advance women's human rights have, in many cases, remained at the level of paper. Don't you think part of the problem is that the state does not prioritise gender as much as race? As you say, when one is born, you are sexed and that influences everything until the day you die.

      The equality clause in the constitution mentions many categories, including age and disability. But being sexed as a woman places you on a particular trajectory of discrimination and oppression from birth to death.

      Mathonsi: [An unequal approach to gender and race] sometimes happens and sometimes doesn't.

      On the surface of things, you have black women at the centre of some government agendas. In policy, on paper, lip service is paid to the women question. But the question is, which women? It's hard for the state, because society still homogenises. We haven't moved to a point of acknowledging that there are different groups of women who want different outcomes. The state still works with that abstract profile of "MaMtambo in Tzaneen" but what about Shaun, the disabled, transgendered woman in Bredasdorp?i We have categories that qualify for action, but we still have not allowed for diversity and accepted that women are a group with different types and levels of vulnerabilities.

      Regarding what you said about culture at the beginning, people will use whatever discourse they can to advance patriarchy - whether it is "culture" or this growing cluster of men's groups that have a very problematic discourse and are very homophobic.

      It's all about "I protect my wife". No interrogation of masculinity happens, yet they will attack when women demand women-only spaces.

      Everybody does "culture", not only black people.

      People have rejected our message at times because they think we are saying, "Strip culture away". But we're not saying that. We are saying, "You have to interrogate any oppression in any form from where you are". You have to take it on because things are dynamic.

      van der Westhuizen: "Culture" is a discourse that is increasingly abused in South Africa. So-called traditional leaders have vested interests in maintaining rural women in a certain position. They have organised themselves quite well in the last few years to keep rural women in their place. It also applies to urban women.

      Ethnically, I am an Afrikaner, and the pressures on me to perform a certain kind of gender role are incredible.

      So I agree with you that black people are not the custodians of culture. Studies have shown that Englishspeaking whites in South Africa, including women, see themselves as "outside of culture". But obviously there exists a very specific discourse about what constitutes "white English-speaking femininity" and what is regarded as a "real woman" in white English-speaking culture in South Africa.

      Mathonsi: I so hear you. Seventeen years later

      [after the first South African democratic election], black people are still so "other", and race is still such a big issue. I fail to understand why we are not having those "lived realities" conversations.

      I was telling friends the story of how my [Zimbabwean] mother - and I know in South Africa this happens, as well - became the father of my cousins after my uncle passed away. She has adopted the identity of the father, so she would sit at the table deciding about lobola [bride price] (not that this is perfect, because it still follows the patriarchal line).

      Things are fluid, and they are not black and white.

      But we never work to show these things. Those with big mouths and profiles run around [talking as though everything is clear-cut and unchanging].

      [Moving to politics], what is interesting is that Helen Zille [leader of the Democratic Alliance and premier of the Western Cape province] gets rid of strong women.

      How can we hold our heads up high if we have a [Western Cape] cabinet of all men?ii In the time that she has been premier, funding allocations to NGOs that deal with gender-based violence and women's empowerment have been dramatically slashed - not based on those NGOs' effectiveness, but because of their relationships with the previous administration.

      Engaging with Zille has been difficult - she seems to negate the role of NGOs in this field.

      This raises the question of what is a good female leader. This is a woman who did this. I have massive respect for her because she runs a political party; massive respect because she got there.

      But patriarchy has us at a point where you can't criticise a woman, because her environment is already so intense. Women leaders are so regularly demonised in the media. For us to attack her … she already experiences attacks in so many spaces. Because of this environment we haven't been able, as the feminist or women's rights movement, to challenge these women.

      van der Westhuizen: Regarding the African National Congress [which rules nationally], there is a stark difference between the ANC Youth League [ANCYL] and the ANC Women's League. The Youth League speaks on behalf of disenfranchised, young, black, unemployed people - and, judging by their sexist statements, particularly on behalf of men. I am not seeing the same engagement from the women in the ANC, which is especially of concern when one is reminded that black women still carry the brunt of poverty and certain forms of violence.

      Also, if you have a certain kind of gender identity, you are targeted for violence. The only time I can recall the ample number of women ministers in cabinet speaking out as a collective, it was to refute Winnie Madikizela-Mandela's allegation in 2001 that Mbeki in his position as president was eliciting sexual favours from them. Therefore, the only time that they spoke out was, ironically, to protect a male politician.

      Mathonsi: When one thinks "ANC Women's League", the image that comes into one's head is that of an African mom. They understand that something is fundamentally wrong, but they understand it through the lens of women being wives and mothers. The Women's League has never taken a revolutionary stance on this issue. I don't know if it is because they are not interested, or because they are aware of their lack of power.

      We have a women's ministry at the moment, and it has decided to create a structure on gender-based violence similar to the [intersectoral] SANAC [South African National Aids Council], which is chaired by the deputy president [and therefore taken seriously].

      I have said that the money could be used better. SANAC is important, but it also runs on a huge budget granted by an international donor, and managed by the Department of Health. If you don't have equivalent resources, you will set up a ghost council where the issue will not get the same recognition. Speaking to our allies in the state, you sense the marginalisation [of women's rights]. For example, the women's ministry is designed not to work. The budget isn't there.

      van der Westhuizen: But why set it up, then? Some feminists were quite perplexed by the ANC's decision in 2007 to set up a women's ministry, given that the model has not worked in other countries. This is why the so-called gender machinery of the OSW [Office on the Status of Women], the CGE [Commission on Gender Equality] and parliament's JMC [Joint Monitoring Committee on the Improvement of the Quality of Life and the Status of Women] was created in the 1990s in the first place.

      Mathonsi: If you read the reports on the OSW from civil servants saying, "We can't work like this, we don't have the budget or the time". It was absolute suicide.

      I am not excusing them, but even though the OSW sat in the presidency, when the head of the OSW asked for a report from a department's director general [DG] it wouldn't work because she is lower than the DG.

      [From civil society] there was rage about this structure that didn't do anything. They might work with the [ANC-aligned] Progressive Women's Movement, so they wouldn't work with the ANC Women's League [because of ANC factionalism]. Then, say something is upsetting these bodies, CGE would say, "As an independent body, let us write something on this".

      But the OSW may disagree because the minister [responsible for them] would not like something to be written. Then you would have the CGE and the JMC saying, "But we are independent, you can't tell us what to do".

      van der Westhuizen: So rather than the government creating a new ministry, the OSW should have received more money and had more say.

      Mathonsi: With the proposal of the women's ministry, we asked, "How are you going to avoid the problems that the OSW had? Are you going to get a bigger budget and qualified staff? Will there be political commitment?" van der Westhuizen: You can have exactly the same problems, whether it is a ministry or not.

      Mathonsi: And they are having it now at the ministry. Patriarchy is insidious, and it changes and it is smart, whether you are inside or outside the system. So when we are talking about the ANC Women's League, their identity under the ANC umbrella also makes it hard to lobby.

      I work on the SADC [Southern African Development Community] Protocol on Gender and Development.

      With women in the state, we come up with a strategy together, quite aware of how much change they can affect. Unless we can agree on gender equality as a societal responsibility, women who enter the state - whether in the judiciary, executive or the legislature - can't be relied upon as allies.

      van der Westhuizen: This would be a way of understanding the situation of 44 percent of parliamentarians being women, but never using their position to speak out on behalf of women. What do you think of the proposition that gender has become a resource for a few politically connected individuals to access posts? Mathonsi: That may be somewhat unfair, because not everybody is politicised in the same way. At branch level, a woman may be selected for being skilled as a politician, but not because of her advancing an agenda for women.

      We have to stick to the decision to set targets for the number of women in parliament. But we need quality as well. How do you get that in any political system, not to speak of a proportional representation one? What we should be asking is how we start to influence the cadre of women who are entering political parties.

      van der Westhuizen: Is civil society aiming enough of its energies in this direction?

      Mathonsi: The other day we tried to identify an organisation that is unashamedly working with only women parliamentarians, and we couldn't find one. But that said, if the funding environment hadn't changed, we could have capitalised on the phenomenal potential out there: women operating in tough circumstances and understanding patriarchy and understanding what is needed. But we can't harness this potential currently. With the funding pool shrinking and women's organisations closing down left, right and centre, we are not always at the coalface to respond and challenge.

      In society in general, there are a lot of pockets of activism. We did focus groups in different provinces last year, and I met rural women who know their rights.

      They know what they want the government to do.

      van der Westhuizen: There is incredible work happening, and a lot of it is activist work, where women are changing their communities. In terms of having a political impact, one wants to draw these women together into a movement of sorts, so that when [ANCYL leader] Julius Malema makes his sexist comments, you have a voice that talks back. Is it a case of "we're just not there yet"?

      Mathonsi: I don't know if it's a case of being there or not. Do women always agree with each other? Does everyone think Malema makes sexist statements? What do we expect MaMtambo from Tzaneen to say? This is not everyone's area of activism. How do we see this activism, and what should it look like? How do we make sense of this when people are grappling with survival issues, and civil society and the grassroots have changed? Do we want a women's movement that is always reactive? It might not be Malema; it could be housing.

      van der Westhuizen: What about a loose alliance of different kinds of organisations drawn together on a national scale because they are generally all working towards women's empowerment? It should be openended.

      The issues could range from sexist discourse to housing to violence, and all other elements that women find oppressive in their lives.

      Mathonsi: That is the model we work on at the Western Cape Network on Violence Against Women.

      As the secretariat, we won't take a position, but all the member organisations are free to adopt positions.

      We bring organisations together to understand each other's positions - for example, recently we brought the trafficking and sex work organisations together.

      We also invited mainstream organisations to say what services they are providing for LBT people.

      Identity is a mixed bag, so when we deal with violence we can't just deal with straight people. You can raise any issue and people will bring forward their identities, their vulnerabilities. I agree it would be great to link everybody up, but you would need a secretariat or a structure that just focuses on coordination and linking; that does not adopt positions, but creates platforms for engagement.


      i Author comment: In official policies, particular protections and advancements of women's rights frequently involve a conflation of womanhood with motherhood - e.g., housing policies favouring single mothers; health policies favouring mothers with young children; and the child support grant, usually accessed by women who remain primary caregivers. Speeches by ministers follow the same line: women as literally "producers of the nation" are firmly on the agenda. Other women? No sign of them in official discourse.

      In fact, then-Minister of Arts and Culture Lulu Xingwana declared in 2010 that the depiction of black lesbians in an art exhibition was "against nation-building".Black lesbians have been targeted for killing for a few years now. There was absolute silence from the government until an upsurge in media and international interest forced it to look into the matter, resulting in the very recent plan for a ministerial task team. Will trans people be given any attention? We'll have to see.

      ii In 2009, after Helen Zille was sworn in as premier, she was heavily criticised for appointing an all-male cabinet, half of it white.

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      The text 'Conversation: Gender Policy in South Africa'  is part of the publication The Power To Participate: Building Feminist Political Influence in Africa (available as PDF) of the Perspectives - Political analysis and commentary from Africa series #2.11 published by the Heinrich Böll Foundation Southern Africa.

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