SAFTU notes and welcomes the progressive ruling made by the Constitutional Court on the Matrimonial Property Act of 1984. The ruling annulled the reactionary provision that “black couples in civil, registered unions were automatically married out of community of property except under special circumstances”.
We salute the plaintiff ,Agnes Sithole of Pinetown, her lawyers at the Legal Resources Centre and the Commission for Gender Equality for challenging a law that our sleepy ruling party and indeed all Members of Parliament should have addressed 27 years ago, when supposedly ending formal apartheid, which by all accounts was a crime against humanity.
The continuation of this law since then has had two implications. Firstly, it perpetuated apartheid-era racist patriarchy. Not only did it embed the original 1984 provisions, but it also embedded the racist Black Administration Act that dates to 1927. Secondly, it discriminated against women and disadvantaged their position in marriages. In accordance with these provisions, women were not entitled to claim any matrimonial property or profit, in the case of divorce.
The outlawing of this provision represents a huge step forward for the rights of women and their status in society. The liberal democratic dispensation ushered in 1994 premised itself on the principles non-racialism and non-sexism. To have had these provisions 27 years into liberal democracy despite all pronouncements of the progressive nature of our constitutions, means the realisation of sexist free society has been slow and is far from being achieved.
The 1996 adoption of the constitution of this country heralded a period of optimism in which equality, dignity and end to patriarchy were to be realised. But quickly, this optimism evaporated as many realised that neoliberal capitalism and the rule of private property disabled many from achieving equality and dignity. In 1996, corporations were termed “juristic persons” and given the same rights as human beings. Private property appears sacrosanct.
The commodification of many public services meant poor and working-class people could not access some of the basics required to realise the dignity and equality. For instance, being unable to afford a lawyer has compromised the principle of equality before the law. Only massive activist campaigns fighting back against the privatisation or corporatisation of water and electricity, of AIDS medicines and of tertiary education have reversed the most egregious of these neoliberal strategies.
However, the repealing of this Matrimonial Property Act provision which discriminated against women who got into civil union before 1988 did not require individuals to have funds. It required any judiciary and parliament that held themselves as progressive, to realise the discriminatory nature of the provisions.
This provision clearly echoed the patriarchal property relations under capitalism, in which whilst women were condemned to the kitchen and domestic servantship, they were not entitled to the proceeds of the marriage – immovable and movable properties, profits and other such gains – to which they would have sacrificed their labour power and time for the greater part of their lives.
In the old European capitalist society, women did not even have rights to divorce their husbands. This discriminatory basis was exported to Africa, especially, when capitalism spread throughout the world through colonialism. In foreign lands, capitalism mobilised racism too. Now, for the benefit of capitalism, women were exploited at home with unpaid housework, whilst the black labourers were exploited at the shopfloor. Without the need to pay women for housework, capitalism had the justification for suppressing wages of workers on the shopfloor. Apartheid and colonial capitalism added migrant labour, which intensified the inequality.
The resistance of women for suffrage, divorce and abortion went a long way in bolstering the status of women in society. But the concessions to these demands by women’s movements, did not carry with them an immediate transformation of their
entitlement in marriages in cases of divorces. In the colonial worlds, this was even worse. Black women had to concentrate on fighting for access and acceptance in towns, and later, broader political liberation.
With the dawn of liberal democracy, the general acceptance of dignity, equality and non-sexism, such discriminative provisions which carried the legacy of apartheid into the dispensation were overlooked. Thanks to all combative quarters of the women’s movement who continue to carry forward the struggle for equality.
SAFTU invites those forces of the women’s movement to unite with other sections of the working class to ensure that through the eradication of capitalism, the realisation of equality can become a reality.
Statement issued on behalf of SAFTU by General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi:
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