The South African Federation Trade Unions (SAFTU) salutes the women of our country on the occasion of the historic 1956 march to the racist regime’s headquarters, the Union Buildings in Pretoria. When 20 000 gathered against all odds, and maintained perfect silence for a half hour, the Federation of South African Women demonstrated the truth in what they sang that day: “Strijdom, you have tampered with the women, You have struck a rock!”
Generations and generations before and after the march have done everything to highlight the plight of women in society who, during the apartheid, faced triple oppression. They were oppressed in their homes, oppressed by society and the brutal apartheid system and exploited in their workplaces. Regrettably, 66 years after this march, women remain largely where they were socially and economically, even if women’s political freedom and a small degree of elite assimilation may be celebrated by those in power.
As apartheid ended 28 years ago, deals done – nearly entirely by men – at the inception of our liberal democracy meant the economic system of capitalism was retained and continued. This in turn is so full of contradictions that free markets now threaten free politics, and Thabo Mbeki and many others openly worry about the potential for a democratic uprising, our own ‘Arab Spring.’
Though the policy of separate development along racial lines was abolished, the retention and continuation of the capitalist mode of production meant the old socioeconomic relations formed under colonialism and apartheid were left intact and continued. This legacy, amplified since 1994 by neoliberal economic policies, is worsening the inequalities between ethnic and racial groups and within and between those, in gender relations which so often appear to be at rock bottom.
Patriarchy and racism together degrade the condition of black African women. Their roles in social reproduction continue to assure that children are raised, sick or injured workers are cared for, and the elderly have a place to rest. In all these ways, women are ‘super-exploited’ because they labour at work and in communities, and then face terrible shortfalls of creches and schools, appalling public health services, and a tokenistic pension system that must stretch resources far into the younger generations.
The Treasury is hell-bent on making their lives even harder thanks to austerity policies. The migrant labour system amplifies all these extreme conditions because it places women at great physical distance from men-folk – a condition that should have been eradicated after apartheid but that the current government allows to continue because it is profitable to its corporate allies.
Income and economy
Women remain at the bottom of the economic pyramid, and on the receiving end of the social crisis of capitalism more than any other group.
Today, there are over 6,2 million unemployed women, including those discouraged from finding jobs. The overwhelming majority of these women are black African. In quarter 1 of 2022, 47.9% of young women aged 15 – 34 were “Not in any form of Employment, Education and Training” (NEET), compared to 42,1% of their male counterparts.
Early in 2022, the World Bank Inequality report indicated that SA had a 37% gender pay parity, way above the global estimate average of 20%. And the bulk of the gender pay gap is suffered by black women, as shown in the 2020 Oxfam Report. Oxfam reported that the median monthly income for black women is estimated at R2 500, compared to R3 250 for black men, R10 000 for white women and R13 100 for white men.
In this case, the racial legacies of apartheid racism show that gender parity is not squashed by racial parties in some spheres of life. Hence a white woman earns higher than a black man.
Oxfam reported that only 1 out of 10 black women attend a tertiary institution. The high dropout rate in the schooling system is a symptom of poor public education and dysfunctional black families, in which the burden-bearers are mainly carried by women. According to StatsSA, a catastrophic 71% of so-called black/African children grow up without the love of their fathers. Over 51% of so-called Coloured children grow up without the love of their fathers. This is directly a product of the entrenched culture of patriarchy, amplified by apartheid capitalism’s migrant labour system and single-sex hostels.
To illustrate this further, 37% of SA households are headed by women, and 48% of femaleheaded households support extended family members. In these households headed by black women, R58 000 is an average annual expenditure, whilst white women-headed households spend four times higher annually, at R258 000.
In many areas, such as work and civil organisations, women are still disadvantaged in fully participating because they have to take care of children. This is because, in both civics and workplaces, society has not made any progress in lifting the burden of child-bearing from the shoulders of women.
Many workplaces, including trade unions, do not have childcare facilities despite advocating for such. This means women are mainly reluctant to take time-consuming leadership roles in their organisations and trade unions because of childcaring responsibilities, which society has, despite making technological progress that can allow lifting the burden of childcaring from women’s shoulders to do so.
Patriarchy, violence and rape
Many centuries of male domination in society, in society’s economic and polity structures, have produced and reproduced the cultural and customary regulations/policing of women’s conduct.
In the period of capitalism, ordinary working-class men with no economic means of power to exert this domination resorted to violence to enforce their traditionally curved status. The consequence has been the most egregious violence against women in society and in domestic households.
The latest Crime Statistics by the South African Police Service (SAPS) show that between January and March 2022, 10 898 women were raped, which amounts to 121 rapes a day.
SAPS recorded 2 165 cases of sexual assault in quarter 1 of 2022, and the totality of these cases was 13 799 sexual offences. The overwhelming majority of rape victims are women, and because judges have proven unwilling to take women’s word seriously, and because rape unveils society’s lack of faith in the police, most women do not report rape incidents. We are not surprised by this disgust when at the very top, police minister Bheki Cele declared, “a 19-year-old woman was lucky to be raped by one man while others were raped by 10 men.”
In 2011, Time reported that only one in nine South African women reported rape. More than a third of women have told pollsters they have been raped. This means Cele’s rape and sexual assault statistics are conservative, and contribute to the pandemic by underestimating how grave the situation has become.
The rise of the new feminist movements on our campuses in recent years, and more women’s leadership at grassroots structures, and within environmental organisations and unions, can together provide a glimmer of hope. However, feminism must be spread into other organisations of the working class, where our battles can be conjoined with the other three most important theatres of class struggle: communities, workplaces and our environment, especially because so many women were among those killed or injured in extreme weather events, such as houses collapsing in mudslides during Durban’s April 11-12 and May 21 Rain Bombs. Civic organisations, climate movements and trade unions must continue to work in unity to develop a solid ideology: socialist feminism infused with environmental justice.
Though we believe it is essential to fight for feminist reforms now and not later, socialist feminism centres on long-term struggles – so important to future generations, whom women are often the stewards for – and in that regard, the importance of abolishing the capitalistpatriarchal system. Capitalism shows again and again that it can never mobilise all our natural and human resources to eradicate inequalities, to allow people to enjoy their human rights, and to save the planet from a climate catastrophe now bearing down with greater force than ever.
SAFTU calls on working women and men to take up the struggle against patriarchy, and to build a deep-rooted feminist movement. The struggle against patriarchy is not a struggle for women only. Instead, it is a struggle for the whole of society, just like fighting imperialism and capitalist exploitation of workers and of nature. The defeat of patriarchy represents the most critical step in the progression of humanity to the peak of human civilisation.
Workers must combat Gender Based Violence (GBV) wherever it rears its ugly head. GBV deforms social relations within households and communities. Consequently, it can turn children into incomplete beings, who are either vulnerable or aggressive because of the social degradation created by violence in their families.