Women Pushed Aside As Men Seek Power


“Black women need space, and Black women are the majority in social movements. In meetings, the women who dominate are white women. In their communities, it is still Black women who are leaders. Black women need to have the power and, with no compromise, they need space.” – South African women’s rights activist, Makoma Lekalakala

My excitement upon arriving at a large weekend workshop of the Anti-Privatization Forum (APF) in South Africa and seeing a room filled with community activists, more than half of whom were women, was abated as the workshop progressed and I realized that most of the women were not participating. It was men’s voices that overwhelmingly dominated the comments from the floor. Of the women who did participate, it was primarily women with lighter skin, for whom English is their primary language.

This experience has led me to question how is it that Black women can make up the bulk of the membership of the movements against neo-liberal policies and be so marginalized in the functioning of these organizations?

The APF is one incarnation of the so-called “new social movements” that have emerged in South Africa since 1996, in what University of Natal researcher Ashwin Desai describes as movements of people “fighting revolutionary struggles to stay in the places where apartheid put them, to retain access to basic services like water and electricity and resist exclusion from education.”

However, “In challenging these injustices, women are also being used,” says Dudu Mphenyeke, a community activist based in Johannesburg. According to Mphenyeke, “[Black women] are in a majority in the movements, and most of the impacts (of water privatization, evictions, HIV/Aids) are on us… but very few women play the role of thinking caps. Instead they are preparing the way for men… we are being used by men who are looking for power within the social movements.”

“It’s all about who has the biggest cock,” one Anti-Privatization Forum activist quipped, when I asked him about gender dynamics within the organization. “And if [a woman activist] is going to succeed, it’s because she’s got a big cock also.”

That this is the level of gender analysis among comrades who see themselves as revolutionary presents obvious problems in that daily forms of oppression are being normalized in the name of the struggle. In an unpublished paper, Rebecca Pointer identifies Mandela Park Anti-Eviction Campaign activists as “[claiming] to be ’revolutionary’ in their thinking, [claiming] to want to overturn the systems that create oppression. But this is predominantly viewed as attacking the state, capitalism, privatization, not as an attack on their own oppressive ’cultural’ systems or their own oppressive thoughts or actions.”

Efforts to start a women’s collective within the APF have been dismissed (by a predominantly male leadership) as fracturing the movement. According to APF office bearer Teboho Mashota, “We don’t have a gender group, but we’re starting to develop a policy on gender. We should look at gender, not have women in a corner talking about women.” This position reflects a problem that Wits (University of Witwatersrand) scholar Ntabiseng Motsemme identifies as, “In the name of black homogeneity and political solidarity, challenging black male-female relationships is easily constructed as fracturing the idea of ’cohesive community’ and is thus discouraged from public official discourse.”

“Throughout the 20th century, the strength of women allowed the fires of the struggle to continue,” says gender rights activist Makoma Lekalakala, “but women’s roles are still considered to be background roles.” The initial exclusion of women from mass-based political organizations including the African National Congress, and later from positions of leadership in the struggles against apartheid, has meant that women’s roles remain historically invisible.

According to a presentation by the ANC to the United Nations, “there is no doubt that the overt leadership has been dominated by men, while the seemingly unacknowledged and informal segment of society controlled by women has been the key to many of the most significant mass movements in modern South African history.” Social movements that have arisen since the ANC government took power in 1994 have tended to replicate these power relations, “[continuing] with the old fashion” according to Lekalakala, as male leaders have been dominant and women’s participation is not recognized and encouraged as it should be.

As new social movements look forward, the question of strategy is central to the course of actions that will be taken in the coming years. The APF has recently released a platform on the upcoming federal elections, after months of internal debate and discussion regarding the tactics of APF participation in the parliamentary system. If the same amount of energy were invested within the organization to encourage women’s participation and leadership, could this not be seen as a strategic move organizationally and functionally? Lekalakala believes so. “If women have the support of the new social movements, we can change this country in five years,” she says, demonstrating revolutionary optimism in the face of the beast of international capital and a neo-liberal ruling government.

If it can be agreed that increasing women’s participation is a positive strategy for social movements, there are real and immediate steps that can be taken to do so. One is to ensure that speaking African languages is normalized in mass meetings, because women are often less comfortable speaking in English than men and this is a barrier to their participation. According to Mphenyeke, “Women are intimidated by the need to speak English. More of our [meetings and workshops] should be conducted in our own languages so that more women participate.” Two, a strong network of women’s organizations needs to be forged across the country, and the creation of space for women to discuss and learn together must be prioritized. Three, new social movements must encourage women to take up leadership positions. Four, women need technical skills and training, in terms of technology and media production, accounting and organizational skills, and knowing and interpreting their legal and constitutional rights. These ideas represent the first concrete steps that can be taken, and do not constitute an exhaustive list.

Looking at gender alone will not be enough to encourage Black women to participate in South African social movements. As Motsemme points out, “Black feminists and womanists insisted on… interrelated ways of how discourses such as race, class and gender simultaneously shape experience.” A move towards looking at gender and race, within the context of social movements whose discourse is based around class might be a way to start constructing a new practice of inclusion of the most marginalized members of the new social movements.

Dawn Paley is an intern with Alternatives currently living in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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