On 09 August 1956, about 20 000 women marched to the union building seeking audience with the racist minority regime. The revolutionary women left bundles of signed petitions against the amendments to the Pass Laws that required black women to carry pass books, at the doorstep of J.G Strijdom.
The victory of the earlier anti-pass movement in 1918 had enabled a gradual move of black women to the urban areas. Here, they occupied unskilled work and domestic work in white households. In addition, the hardships in the “native reserves” had added to the influx of black women to urban areas as they strove to join their husbands.
National Party retied the knot with the old SA union government, when in 1952, it extended pass laws to black women. The intention was to curb the movement of women to urban areas and lock them tightly in the reserves were they faced landlessness and poverty.
But whilst the resistance to pass laws stands out primarily because of this historic march in August 1956, women engaged in all struggles that affected the black working class at the racial and class level. They fought against rent hikes, bus fare increases, forced removals, laws that prevented them from selling home brew beer, wage increases in factories, bantu education and joined the armed wings of the liberation movements.
Today ― 27 years since the demise of apartheid ― has women’s position in society improved or they continue to face the matrix of racism, class exploitation and gender oppression?
Unemployment and employment in paid work
In the latest Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS), unemployment grew to 32.6% in the 1st quarter of 2021, officially taking the number of unemployed people to 7.2 million. However, if looked at closely, this mass economic marginalisation takes many shapes and expose the historical continuities of racial and gender relations.
89.5% (6.4 million) of the 7.2 million of the officially unemployed people are black (African) people. There is a little over 5 million unemployed women, of which the overwhelming majority are black (including those discouraged to find jobs). In the same quarter, 47.1% of young women aged 15 – 34 are Not in any form of Employment, Education and Training (NEET), compared to 40.2% of their male counterpart.
Having found a convenient rationale to cut their labour force, bosses blamed Covid-19 for the mass shedding of jobs. Most of the recovered jobs ― predominantly in industries dominated by women ― have been returned only under precariat conditions. The latest Quarterly Employment Statistics (QES) recorded that “formal community services” lost 63 000 full-time jobs in the 1st quarter of 2021, but created 54 000 part-time jobs.
In SA, black women predominantly occupy low skilled – low paying jobs that have increasingly become more precarious. They dominate agriculture, tourism and hospitality, community services (especially nursing and community healthcare work) and private household as domestic workers. These industries are the most exploitative with weak regulatory legislations.
Women’s income and basic consumer goods
Despite the progressive legislations in place to ensure employment equity, pay gaps between races and gender persist. In 2017, International Labour Organisation (ILO) reported that SA had a 30.3% gender pay parity, way above the global estimate average of 20%. The median monthly income for black women is approximated at R2 500, compared to R3 250 for black men, R10 000 white women and R13 100 white men.
Research estimate that 37% of SA households are headed by women, and 48% of female-headed households support extended family members. Oxfam estimate that households headed by Black women spend R58 000 on average annually, whilst white female headed households spends four times higher, at R258 000.
Despite the racial and gender wage gap, can black women and their households subsist on the meagre wages they earn from their most exploitative industries?
The sufficiency of income can only be tested if it affords in the consumer market i.e if it can afford the basic necessities of life – bills for basic services, nutritious food, transport – on a monthly basis.
Headline inflation was 4.9% in June. Food and non-alcoholic beverages price index was at 6.7%, with meat at 8% and cooking and fats 21%. The general rise in prices of food and household essentials has resulted in the average cost of household monthly grocery of R4 135.
In 2021 alone, electricity prices increased by 30%, whilst water and sanitation increased by 6.8%, and refuse by 4.3%. Between 2007 and 2020, electricity increased by 460% at the real inflation rate of 205%.
Before factoring in the estimate household costs of electricity and transport, the average cost of grocery is one third higher than the national minimum wage for domestic workers, and R500 higher than minimum wages for the general and agricultural workers.
The meagre minimum wage, the monthly median income for women and average annual expenditure of black women headed households suggest that more women bear the brunt of this inequality.
The two-tier systems of education, healthcare and policing are perpetual consequences and perpetual source of the historical legacies of class, race and gender inequalities shaped by South African capitalism.
Despite that many black girls drop-out of school before reaching matric, Oxfam reports that only 1 out of 10 black women attend tertiary institution. The high rate of drop-out in the schooling system is a symptom of a poor public education and dysfunctional black families.
Neoliberal cuts on education have resulted in understaffed and under-equipped school with chronic lack of infrastructure. These factors combine to lower the quality of teaching and learning, in which the educational needs of pupils are ignored.
In a single-mother headed household, impoverishment is responsible for untold psychological distresses. Many women across SA townships, living with a partner or not, usually turn to drunkardism to cushion the distresses of poverty or abusive partners. Those conditions bear a parental negligence in which their children become susceptible to gangsterism, teenage pregnancy and sexual abuse. Lacking any parental support because a single mother has to do odd jobs, the pregnant teenager end up dropping out of school.
For the same reasons that collapsed of public education, public health has collapsed because of underfunding, understaffing and managerial bungling. This has exposed black working class people, and in particular black working class women ― the predominant consumers of public healthcare services ― to rely, with all the demanding needs of women’s reproductive health, on a failing healthcare. The results have been maternal and infant mortality, institutionally induced womb infections and other horrors that are now highly prevalent in public hospitals and clinics.
Unemployment and poverty have coincided with low education levels amongst the black youth to produce unprecedented levels of violence in society. These worrying levels of violence include the high prevalence of rape and domestic violence in SA today.
Lack of accessibility to higher education – which has the potential to alter people’s views, stereotypes and prejudice – has left the conditions for bigotry against women to persist. Even among the educated, the tendency to hold tight onto the old traditions of gender stereotypes is stark. But this is an indication that we need revolutionary education in the trade union movement and working-class movement to educate the working people about the backwardness of these views.
Social reproduction and unpaid care work
The fledgling capitalism in the 19th century created conditions that restricted women to only reproduce labour for the factories, whilst stripping her off the political rights. In the colonial world, the advent of capitalism rigidified the existing gender relations to be the mirror image of the European societies, albeit, even more destructive because of the racial elements that accompanied such social relations.
In the native reserves, women were automatically turned into unpaid domestic workers when their husbands were torn from them to work in the urban areas.
The previously disadvantaged had hoped that the advent of liberal democracy would usher a new socio-economic order. Unfortunately , the social relations that exploited a woman’s social reproductivity freely continue to exist. Firstly because they have been rigidified into customary tradition, and secondly because capitalism does not want to carry a burden of grooming its next generation of labourers.
It is estimated that women’s unpaid home care labour is valued at $10.8 trillion worldwide. In SA, it is estimated that such labour is measurable to the value of 14% of our Gross Domestic Product. The only reason capitalists have not used their state to recognise this form of labour is because they see no profitable value to them.
It is on this basis that SAFTU and other grassroot movements of the working class are campaigning for the Basic Income Grant so that the 5 million unemployed women can, as a first measure, be given something to cushion the plight of poverty and difficulties of single parenting.
As Lisa Vetten observed 21 years ago, most women “finding a man and then sticking to him, is often as much a matter of economic necessity as it is a romantic choice”. It is because of economic marginalisation of unemployment and poverty, that women would often tolerate an abusive relationship. Basic Income Grant and job creation can be a first start in freeing woman from the bondage of the matrix of racial discrimination, gender oppression and class exploitation.
But the ultimate freedom for women would be realised with revolutionary education, and the socialist transformation of society, in which basic care for children and the old would be undertaken as a centrally planned programme of the workers state.