“Gigantic evils arise from the fact that [women’s] labour, especially domestic labour, often the most wearisome and unending known to any section of the human race, is not adequately recognised or recompensed.”
Olive Shreiner, Woman and Labour
“The Emancipation of women is not an act of charity, the result of a humanitarian or compassionate attitude. The liberation of women is a fundamental necessity for the revolution, a guarantee of its continuity and a precondition for its victory.”
The South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) joins millions of South Africans in wishing all women of our country a Happy Women’s Day. This day was occasioned by the unprecedented and unparallel acts of heroism by 20 000 who defied one of the most brutal and repressive regime in the world and marched to the Union Building to demand the scrapping of the pass laws.
This was in no way an isolated act of defiance, women have been in the forefront of struggles before and after the historic 1956 march to the Union Building. Working class women in particular remain the bedrock of a continuous and uninterrupted struggle for the total emancipation of all human kind.
This women’s heroism has not been in vain! Important strides have been registered in our country thanks to activists’ pressure on officials of our government. So, women are in a far better condition now in the society, economy and politics.
These activists are often nameless. Women in the liberation movements played a critical (albeit only partially-recognised) role, and more research and oral histories are needed to bring their struggles to light.
The post-apartheid women’s movements have been critical to the successes won in the constitution, and in subsequent laws, institutions and social practices. These women-led movements include the second-generation Treatment Action Campaign which won society free HIV/AIDS medicines in the 2000s; women farmworkers in the vineyards and farms in the early 2010s; Black Sash campaigning against predatory firms like the World Bank’s CPS Net1 in the 2010s; and the more recent struggles to halt gender based violence, including The Total Shutdown: Intersectional Women’s Movement Against GBV.
Important as these strides are, South Africa is still very far from achieving a non-sexist country, sensitive to the way women must be given support in their social, community, family and personal lives. We must work much harder, in the spirit suggested by Thomas Sankara a third of a century ago:
“The specific character of [women’s] oppression cannot be explained away by equating different situations through superficial and childish simplifications[:]
It is true that both the woman and the male worker are condemned to silence by their exploitation. But under the current system, the worker’s wife is also condemned to silence by her worker-husband. In other words, in addition to the class exploitation common to both of them, women must confront a particular set of relations that exist between them and men, relations of conflict and violence that use physical differences as their pretext.”
― Thomas Sankara, Women’s Liberation and the African Freedom Struggle
Across the world, with few exceptions, the foundations of patriarchy remain firmly entrenched. Women are still suffering at the fault lines of poverty, unemployment and inequalities, especially gender-based. SAFTU is in solidarity with women workers, in particular, who during the Covid-19 crisis are intensifying the struggle for their own emancipation, until all visages of oppression and exploitation have been buried.
Our country has registered progress, as exemplified by the fact that in 1985, studies of that era showed women over-represented in the clerical/sales and service occupations (comprising almost 57% and 66% of the sectors’ workers, respectively), and they were considerably under-represented in managerial and executive occupations (17%).
In 1985 the majority of those with no schooling were women (55.2%), and even within the middle- and upper-classes, women made up only 37% of those with a bachelor’s degree 21.1% with master’s and 17% with doctorates.
This situation has improved, thanks to equal opportunity and minimum-wage laws that protected women directly or offered greater protection to vulnerable job holders which disproportionately helped women. As liberation progressed, the share of women in total employment rose from 39% in 1985 to 45% in 2003. This also included women’s employment within high-skilled, highly-paid occupations.
However, on the negative side, women’s share of low-paid and insecure work increased faster during the late 1990s. Women remained far more vulnerable to unemployment than men, especially African/Black women. One example is domestic work, which represented a quarter of all formal jobs held by women in 2003.
On the positive side, however, a state commission headed by a woman (Prof Francie Lund) recommended and won a considerable expansion in the social security system, giving support for the elderly and for caregivers of children, nearly entirely women. Nonetheless, because the Child Support Grant was cut by 35% in 1996 when first rolled out to African women on grounds of state austerity at the time, the level of this monthly grant – just R440 today, before an increase due to the Covid-19 crisis – never was adequate to even cover food expenses. So poverty rates among women have remained substantially higher than for men, with the added burden of women heading households with inadequate incomes given the low rates of marriage and co-habitation. Women’s ability to collect paternity payments is greater than during apartheid, but nowhere near strong enough.
In part because men expect women to have greater caregiving roles at home, women are less likely to participate in the labour market. All statistics on informality, job precarity, unemployment and salary levels show sustained discrimination.
It is true, as researchers have shown, that as a result of our liberation struggles the average gender wage gap has declined substantially, from a 40% difference between men and women in 1993 to 16% in 2014. Without minimum wage legislation in agriculture and domestic work, which raised the wages of women at the bottom of the wage distribution, this progress would not have occurred but it is still unacceptably low and SAFTU again repeats our demands for much higher minimum-wage levels, which we see as simultaneously addressing gender, racial and class inequality. Government can do more to impose better minimal standards, especially because it is unfair to single out agricultural, public-works and domestic work for minimum wages well below R20/hour.
The private sector is also to blame for residual sex discrimination. At last count in 2016, 43% of employees in large firms were women, yet only 22% in top management positions were women. Women comprised 47% of temporary workers.
We agree with the complaint by leading gender researcher Debbie Budlender: “women are paid less because the jobs that they do are seen as women’s (care) work, and women’s (care) work is under-valued.”
For example, of all health professionals in South Africa, nurses represent 80%, and 9 out of 10 are women. They are vital to the current life-and-death struggle against Covid-19. The ANC Government rewarded this with a R161 billion cut in civil service wages, and the state cannot provide these workers with rudimentary Personal Protective Equipment.
But these women are fortunate compared to the majority, because in the informal sector, the hourly earnings of women are much lower than men. Again, as researchers Dorrit Posel and Daniela Casale explain in a 2019 article, “Women’s responsibility for childcare, and the threats of violence and intimidation at the workplace, limit the kinds of work that women can perform, and when they can perform this work. Women can take their children to work with them, but this means that they cannot focus on the job at hand and have to divide their time and energies between their stall and their children.”
Again, it is obvious that since 1994 women made major gains in political terms, thanks to extensive anti-sexism policies and rhetoric accompanying the liberation movement. Under racist white rule, women held fewer than 3% of seats in Parliament, but by 2009 this was raised to 42%, with only three countries having higher ratios. At the peak of women’s influence in 2009, South Africa had 30 women cabinet ministers and deputy ministers (14th in the world). Then, a majority of the nine provinces were run by women premiers. According to the World Economic Forum’s “Global Gender Gap Index,” South Africa ranked 14th overall of 135 countries.
But in the era of President Jacob Zuma, what appeared to be progress at a superficial level actually disguised a terrible rot. Some of the women in his Cabinet proved to be as corrupt as the men. Some women – and even the ANC Women’s League – gave Zuma uncritical support.
That translated into supported an elite women’s politics (celebrated by Facebook’s Cheryl Sandberg as “lean-in feminism”) that sometimes left poor and working-class women disempowered, for example in the terrible plight of mothers who lost much of their monthly grants to contracts imposed upon them for microfinance, cell phone and other debit orders, by CPS Net1, whose main government sponsor was the relevant minister (and also head of the ruling party’s Women’s League).
Out of 153 countries, scoring 14th was best in ruling-class assimilation of women. But at the same time, it was shameful that South African women ranked 67th in wage equality, 69th in primary school enrolment, 72nd in labour force participation, and 83rd in literacy.
By 2020, South Africa had moved up on the World Economic Forum ranking to 10th best in political empowerment including the 9th highest number of women in parliament, mainly thanks to the ruling party’s gender parity quotas for which they should be congratulated. (Most opposition parties are not close in this regard.)
But other statistics were still deplorable: wage equality collapsing to 121st, primary school enrolment crashing to 106th, labour force participation falling to 82nd and literary rising slightly to 77th. So while ‘political empowerment’ is the world’s 19th best, socio-economic empowerment and education are now only 92nd and 67th best, dramatic declines. It appears that women legislators need to be given much more support so that women’s rights can be finally deepened from the formal equality of parliamentary membership, to the substantive equality of the workplaces, streets and households.
Also, we must be frank to confess that where South Africa’s traditions of race, class and gender super-exploitation were most extreme, in the migrant labour system and displacement of surplus people to the Bantustans, the end of apartheid did not change much. Apartheid’s racist patriarchy left women unpaid for their role in social reproduction, something that in a normal capitalist labour market would be handled by state schooling, health insurance, and pensions. The migrant labour system’s deepening after apartheid formally ended was reflected in a survey of rural households in which 24% recorded a reliance on at least one migrant worker in 1993, a figure which increased to 34 percent in 2004.
The bankrupt politics of mild-mannered reformism, in which women’s roles are understood as a matter of personal, private advance within the existing system, must now be confronted, especially by men who are beneficiaries and who give what amounts to just lip service when it comes to women’s emancipation. Our role in the trade unions is typically reformist insofar as we negotiate for better pay and working conditions, without changing the structure of gender power in society. For women who are not in the formal economy, the public policy problem is usually limited to how best to support women in the informal sector or ensure that social grants reach their targets. And where there are problems in women accessing sufficient healthcare, education, housing, municipal and social services, reproductive rights, legal services, and gender-based violence, the mild-mannered reformers usually treat these as individualised ‘women’s problems,’ not looking at these forms of gendered repression in a holistic, structural way, not looking at the way these are maladies of an uncaring capitalist-patriarchal system.
And to be sure, all of the structural oppression is exacerbated by an apparent increase in domestic sexual violence associated with rising male unemployment and the feminisation of poverty. For example, in 2018-19, women were enraged by increasing instances of high-profile attacks on women, and mass protests in Cape Town and Pretoria broke out, including at the World Economic Forum conference, at Parliament and at Union Buildings. A year ago, the catalysts included the murders of UCT student Uyinene Mrwetyana, UWC student Jesse Hess, boxing champion Leighandre Jegels, 14-year-old Janika Mallo, Lynette Volschenk, and Meghan Cremer. But although Cyril Ramaphosa was repeatedly brought out to address protesters in both Pretoria and Cape Town, the original #TotalShutDown criticism of his administration appears valid today: “political posturing… at the expense of truly addressing the plight of women and gender non-conforming people.” This condemnation we join, because if anything the Covid-19 crisis has intensified all the contradictions between races, classes and especially the sexes.
What we in SAFTU add is the desire by the South African working class to see women’s political emancipation be accompanied by other victories across the spectrum of social justice campaigning that would make women’s lives easier.
If Ramaphosa truly cared for women he would extend more state support to caregivers; a Basic Income Grant and higher social grant levels (and certainly an extension of the additional funds beyond October); a National Health Insurance system; a more humane approach to housing and land evictions; a non-corrupt food parcel system; an end to Eskom’s inhumane electricity disconnections; sufficient kombi subsidies to avoid 100% capacity; more VAT zero-rated products; more punishment of sexual abusers; an end to the “Bantustan Acts” which empower ethnic male leaders against their female constituencies; a higher minimum wage for women-dominated jobs like domestic and farm labour; serious commitments to reversing climate change (and providing more funding to its victims who are mainly women-headed poor households); and meet other intersectoral needs.
These are the kinds of demands that SAFTU and our members struggle for day after day. These demands are made by men and women alike, even if in many cases the main beneficiaries will be women. And that makes SAFTU and our male and female members proud, card-carrying feminists. We will stand with all women, at home or in the broader struggles, bringing with us the conviction of our long-standing, forever-lasting commitment to non-racial, non-sexist, socialist politics.