By Fortune Ncube
”We, the women of South Africa, wives and mothers, ·working women and housewives, Africans, Indians, Europeans and Coloureds, hereby declare our aim of striving for the removal of all laws, regulario11s, conventions and customs that discriminate against us as women, and that deprive us in any way of our inherent right to the advantages, responsibilities and opportunities that the society offers to any one section of the population.” – Preamble or the April 17 1954 Women’s Charter or South Africa.

Women in South Africa have always played a significant role in the struggle for liberation, and as early as 1905 women were in the forefront in the grassroots fight against apartheid.

In the words of the former president of the African National Congress, the late Albert Lithuli, “Women … have far less hesitation than men in making common cause about things that are basic to them”.

August 9 marks the International Day of Solidarity with the Struggle of Women in South Africa and also marks the 36th anniversary of the women’s protest march of 1956. Over 20,000 women from all over South Africa assembled at the Union Building offices of the then South African Prime Minister Johannes Strydom in Pretoria to remonstrate against the government’s oppressive apartheid laws.

”The march was in protest of the pass laws, our low wages and the low wages of our husbands. It was in protest of Bantu Education which had been introduced in 1954. And we, as wives and mothers, wanted to tell Strydom what we thought of his laws,” said an elderly but highly spirited Thoko Mngona of Alexandra in Johannesburg. “Wathint’ abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo, uzookufa,” (Now that you have touched the women, you have touched and dislodged a boulder which will crush you) the women chanted in the march which marked a great turning point in the South African struggle.

The pass laws affected black women more than any group in South Africa. The racist influx control (of blacks into urban areas) laws necessitated the introduction of passes whose main aim was to deny women from the rural areas the right to live and work in the cities.

However women needed to work. Increasingly most women were the sole breadwinners because of the high divorce rates in the towns. But more often the women chose to seek employment because of the need to supplement their husbands’ low wages and others had to work because their husbands did not send any money from the towns.

Even after the historical protest march in 1956, the South African government did not change the laws.This resulted in most black women being confined to the “homelands”.

The homelands were (and some of them still are) places of death and starvation. Many children suffered from malnutrition. Adults often went without food for days because they had no means of earning a living. Many people died from poverty-related diseases such as tuberculosis, dysentery and kwashiorkor. This was aggravated by the lack of sanitation facilities.

Apartheid and migrant labour broke down families. In the homelands, the women were left to do the farming and raise the children on their own. Often, the rich fertile lands where some of the black peasants tilled would be designated by government and then redistributed to white farmers with the blacks relocated to barren areas.

This practice resulted in rural black people — mostly women — in South Africa being forced to live in poor, crowded, unproductive and infertile land. The women, who had a proud tradition of defiance resistance the removals. With the use of guns and bulldozers by the authorities, the fight would be lost but still they protested.

Those women who had made their way into the towns were in no better conditions as they became victims of detention, banning orders, denial of the right to work, separation from their husbands and children and restriction of movement.

If they got the jobs, most of the women were regularly abused sexually at work. According to findings by Helene Perold in her book Working Women, published in 1985, women became victims of “carpet interviews” because of the repressive pass Jaws.

“The position of women workers (in South Africa) is too heavy, with many things: The first thing: say you are a woman and you are looking for a job. When you reach a factory you find the induna (foreman) there and you ask him for a job. If you like the job he will tell you that you must steep with him before you get the job.

“And you’ve got no choice. You want to work and your children are starving in Soweto. So some women slept with these men,” said an interviewee in the book.

Besides fighting against apartheid the women in South Africa, like most oppressed women the world over, are fighting for their rights and to be treated as equals in society.

Women’s organizations in South Africa have taken it upon themselves to ensure that women’s issues are addressed at the negotiation table. They have also worked tirelessly to eradicate the marginalisation of women within the leadership of various liberation movements.

The ANC Women’s League (WL) last year demanded the creation of a body within the ANC which would look specifically at women’s issues. This bore fruit when the organisation agreed to the
establishment of an Emancipatory Commission for Women.

The establishment of the Gender Advisory Committee (GAC) at the now suspended Codesa II talks was also another sign that women’s issues cannot be ignored. Women in South Africa in 1991 constituted the National Women’s Coalition (NWC), which is a grouping of women’s organisations, both political and a political.

The main objective of the NWC is to urgently highlight crucial women’s issues in South Africa. One of the most important concerns of the NWC is that the fundamental changes taking place in South Africa must not only eliminate racism, but also sexism.

‘The coalition is trying to make it an explicit constitutional principle that any Jaw, custom or practise in South Africa undermining the equality of women, becomes unconstitutional.

“We will engage in educational programmes to change attitudes. Part of this would be to address the material base of women’s subordination. We have to look at rural development to empower women,” says the newly elec1cd head of the NWC, Dr Frene Ginwala who also heads the ANC’s research department and is deputy of the organisation’s emancipatory Commission for Women, further adds that through the NWC, women will make sure that a new constitution in South Africa goes beyond a ritualistic commitment to equity but actually lays the basis for effective gender equality.

The struggle is therefore far from over for women in South Africa as they maintain the continuing fight against apartheid and for equality of the sexes in a post-apartheid era. As Albertina Sisulu, former co- respondent of the now disbanded United Democratic Front (UDF), once said, “After all, we stand shoulder to shoulder without men folk in a common struggle against poverty, race and class discrimination”. (SARDC)

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