On National Women’s Day 2017, the South African Federation of Trade Unions salutes all the heroines of our struggle for freedom, democracy and especially for women’s right to equality.
This year we remember in particular Emma Mashinini, one of the greatest fighters for the rights of women workers who has recently passed away. Her tireless work in building the trade union movement, in sectors with a high proportion of women workers like clothing and textiles and retail, was a fine example of the way to take forward the struggle which is as relevant and important today as it was on 9 August 1956.
On that historic day around 20 000 women marched to the Union Buildings <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Union_Buildings> in Pretoria <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pretoria> to petition against the country’s pass laws <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pass_laws> that required South Africans defined as “black” under the Population Registration Act to carry an internal passport, known as a pass, so that the apartheid regime could maintain population segregation, control urbanisation <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urban_planning_in_Africa> , and manage migration.
As they marched the shouted ‘Wathint Abafazi, Wathint Mbokodo!’ – “strike a woman and you have struck a rock!’
As we celebrate this historic day, SAFTU wishes to once more remind its members and society of its true significance. The 9 August 1956 march formed part of a single struggle for the total liberation of our people. The marches against the extension of pass laws was intractably linked to the broader struggle for the liberation.
The National Democratic Revolution (NDR) was about liberating black people and Africans in particular. It was about ending exploitation of the working class and ending the triple oppression of women in their homes society and workplace. Today however the NDR is off the rails as the economy spirals into a catastrophe.
Yes we have made some important advances in advancing the rights of women, at least on paper. The blatantly racist discrimination against women from the apartheid years has ended, and many more women occupy prominent position in government, business and civil society, but we are still far from seeing the promises in both the Freedom Charter and the South African Constitution that all shall enjoy equal rights.
Women are the worse victims of unemployment
The challenges facing women, just as in society as a whole, is that economic transformation has totally failed to materialise. Women make up 50% of the total global population and 40% of the global workforce, but they own only 1% of the world’s total wealth.
The biggest crisis facing women today is that they are the face of the unemployment. 40% of women are unemployed meaning 1 in every four cannot find a job. When these figures are disaggregated to Africans in the rural areas, the picture becomes even worse. Most of the 14 million go to bed on empty stomachs are women and women are the accordingly also the face of the crisis of inequalities.
The underlying reason for the persistence of patriarchy, chauvinism and racism, is these massive levels of unemployment and poverty, which are the real cause of these horrendous statistics of violent crime. We Iive in a capitalist society, which has become dysfunctional and structurally incapable of reforming itself.
We shall only overcome the scourge of crime when we end the triple crisis of poverty, unemployment and inequality which are all intractably linked to the way we are all brutalized by a competitive, ‘me-first’ free-market capitalist economy when the pursuit of profit is the only morality.
Women and equity including leadership
The big majority of South African women workers suffer triple exploitation, as workers, as women and as black Africans. Every year the Employment Equity Commission (CEE) report confirms how little progress we have made in 23 years of democracy to uplift the status of the black majority and women in particular.
Its 2017 report confirms the “female representation at top management level has remained largely unchanged at just over 20% for the last three reporting periods. This remains a concern for the CEE because an equitable representation of women at this strategic decision making level at this rate is likely to have an adverse effect on the equitable representation of women at every other occupational level”.
That is a gross understatement. The reality is that millions of poor working-class women still battle against unemployment, poverty, exploitation, discrimination and abuse. According to a report by the World Economic Forum in 2016 in terms of wage inequality South Africa ranked 83rd out of 142 countries: women earned 38% less than men.
In the workplace the majority of women stay at the bottom end of the wage scale and in more vulnerable positions of employment. Many employers continue to resist the training and promotion of women and are not complying with the provisions of the Employment Equity Act.
Women are continuously sidelined and discriminated against in leadership positions at work, in community and political structures and in the trade unions.
This situation is made worse by the fact that in many cases women workers also have to do most of the work in their family home, and worse still face the massive threat of both physical and sexual violence, at work, on the journey to and from work and in the home itself.
Women the worse victims of a violent society
The figures are appalling. One in five women have experienced physical violence and the figure is even higher in the poorest communities. Thousands of women every day of the year suffer pain, fear and trauma, as a result. This reality was tragically brought home to us by the brutal murder of our NUMSA comrade Thembisile Yende while working at Eskom.
She was the latest in a long list of victims of such brutal murders:
The SAPS 2016 crime statistics recorded 51,895 sexual offences, but this is likely to be a big underestimate, as unreported rapes are estimated to be as high as seven times those reported.
Women and a sick judicial system
Our judicial system is as sick as the perpetrators of crime. We are told that the police arrest only half of all the crimes reported annually. Of those arrested a meagre 42% eventually appear in court; the rest are released. And only 30% of the suspects who do appear in court are found guilty.
In 2009 according to the police statistics, the conviction rate for murder in this country was 13% and for rape 11.5%. But other estimates in 2014 said the conviction rate is as low as 10%.
The justice system is dysfunctional and therefore women who are the vulnerable members of society remain victims of the culture of impunity.
The police and courts are also often reluctant to treat violence against women, especially against partners, as seriously as other violent crimes. Rape victims often battle to prove that they did not consent to the act.
As Kathleen Dey of the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust wrote in Independent Media: “In a country where rape culture underpins our gender relations and where violence of this kind is almost a norm because we see it on a daily basis perhaps we are not as shocked as we should be. And because we are not as shocked as we should be perhaps we are not reacting as we should.”
The problem is rooted in a society in which patriarchy, sexism, racism, homophobia and violent suppression of dissent were all entrenched under colonialism and apartheid but still thrives today.
Patriarchy remains pervasive
Patriarchy is still pervasive in a society in which too many men feel justified in using violence to enforce their will against partners and children, and women in general. Culture and religion are also misused as an excuse for men to dominate and assault women.
What SAFTU to do to help liberate women?
To counter this SAFTU demands, and will play a leading role in, a massive national campaign of educating and mobilizing our members to set an example by stopping violence against women and reporting others who they witness behaving violently to women.
Workers must be at the forefront of the campaign for gender equity in the workplace, the community, political parties and civil society, to rid society of the scourge of violence against women.
There must be zero tolerance to all forms of violence against women and children, fast tracking of the legal processes and the harshest possible sentences for those found guilty.
As we celebrate National women’s day let us commit to the struggle for genuine radical economic transformation, so that both women and men can live in a socialist society, inspired by the Freedom Charter, in which we share the country’s wealth and live together in peace and harmony.