In 1911, three years before the start of the first imperialist war, WWI, socialist women activists gathered in Copenhagen for a women’s conference. In this conference a decision was taken, in concert with the socialist women of US, to celebrate and commemorate International Women’s Day. These conferences were preceded by a period of struggle for women’s emancipation, and marked a major contribution to those struggles.
Two years after this historic conference in Copenhagen, Charlotte Maxeke, Cecilia Makiwane and other women activists under the first nuclei of women’s organisation in South Africa, led a series of anti-pass resistance protests in Bloemfontein.
The link between these two events and others preceding and succeeding them, was fighting the patriarchal structures in a fledgling capitalist system which undermined the position of women in society. In South Africa, the right of universal women’s suffrage, promotion of labour laws for women, equal pay for women in workplaces, and equal treatment for women before the law were among the major demands of these activists.
In South Africa, the movement of women from the native reserves had seen an influx of women in the towns, and as a result the colonial administration enacted influx control laws which required women to carry passes amongst others. This influx also gave rise to new challenges; as women who came into the city increasingly found employment, they were remunerated far less than men and given low skilled jobs, the crises of nurseries for children of those black women was raised.
And in rural areas, African women were part of the “cheap labour” supply of men to mines, plantations and factories. They were oppressed multiply because the migrant labour system drew on their raising of children, looking after sick workers and care for the elderly – without the kind of state support (creches and schools, clinics and medical aid schemes and retirement funds) that most capitalist societies provided. Women were organisers of their homes with extended families, and communities – all unpaid, leading to “super-exploitation” of workers who were cheaper than most places on earth as a result.
These developments required the rise of Women’s resistance to pass laws, to wage inequality and to the lack child care provision. Inevitably, the employment of women drew them into trade union organisations which increased their consciousness and their fighting power. From Maxeke’s anti-pass marches, through to the beer riots into the 1950s anti-pass movements, women demonstrated a commitment to fight for their emancipation as working women.
Despite these efforts, enormous problems still persist today. A core feature of apartheid cheap labour supply – the migrant system – is as wicked as ever, drawing workers from every corner of the region but not compensating them properly. The gender pay gap continues, not only in South Africa but also in the advanced capitalist countries. The US Census Bureau reported in 2018 that a woman working full time in the US earned 81% of what her male counterpart earned.
Statistics South Africa reported in 2020 that women in South Africa earned 30% less men in the same jobs. Investec’s 2019 report on pay gaps showed that it remunerated women in global operations outside South Africa 38% (median) lower than men. In South Africa, the pay gap was 26%.
Inequality in the workplaces does not only feature in terms of wage. It also includes sexual harassment, being considered for promotion, being undermined for executive decisions, not trusted with certain leadership roles, etc.
The Mining Charter demands that a minimum of ten percent of the labour force must be women. Mining corporations treat this as a ceiling, resulting in an unfair demographic imbalance between men and women in the work place leading to the exploitation of women, and their sexual harassment in the workplace.
Furthermore, the burden of household chores still persists. Regardless of more women getting further education and obtaining jobs, most still have to do house chores exclusively when they arrive at home after work. This owes itself to the fact that ordinary working class people are still soaked in patriarchal norms that restricts women to the kitchen and household care. In the absence of union and socialist education that would raise the consciousness of working class people continues to enslave women to the household care.
To illustrate this, former ANC Women’s League deputy president Mavivi Myakayaka-Manzini told the Citizen Newspaper that women in the ANC are afraid of raising issues of women’s emancipation because they fear losing their positions.
The government and bourgeois institutions are paying cosmetic attention to the issue of women’s emancipation. For them, days like International Women’s Day are commercialised. For the most part, publishing of glossy reports and holding webinars/seminars is sufficient for them. They are not willing to deal with the very basis from which women’s oppression finds sustenance.
For instance, they refuse to recognise that their insistence on a neoliberal economic path and the austerity associated with it disables the government from investing in health care or in pre-school centres for the children of working class women who earn less and cannot afford private pre-schools. Some women quit employment or schooling in order to look after their babies and toddlers, whereas pre-school could have relieved them of that duty and afforded them an opportunity to pursue their education and employment.
The austerity budget announced last month included cutting by 10.5% the per user allocation of funding to the heath sector. There women are disproportionately the front-line workers, and this adds to the insult of the finance minister reneging on the 2018 three-year public sector workers’ pay agreement last year.
Capitalism reproduces the working class daily and intergenerationally through the unpaid labour in the household. This also allows it to pay men lower wages because the costs reproducing on a daily is not paid for as women carry out this task for free.
Gender Based Violence (GBV) also thrives on the relations of men and women under capitalism which put men as economic and political arbiters of a household, and a woman as perpetually dependent on the man. Hence any economic progress and political assertiveness by the woman is interpreted as emasculation of maleness. Any deviation from the norms of heterosexuality by those in our LGBTQI community is seen a challenge to men.
The result in South Africa and everywhere is worsening GBV, yet the 2021 budget gives only R5 million to a specific commission dedicated to fighting GBV, with other promised billions difficult to identify. Yet in polls, such as a 2010 Gauteng sample, half of women say they have suffered GBV. And 20% suffered at their own partner’s hands. In the year just before Covid-19 broke out, there were 150 sexual offences reported to police each day, including 116 rapes – and given police insensitivities and lack of reporting, this is just a small indication of a worsening crisis. What the World Health Organisation terms interpersonal violence against females is 4th worst in the world out of 183 countries.
It is evident that the position of women in a capitalist society can only be narrowly improved, but a substantive improvement can be achieved alongside a movement to abolish capitalism and all the gender stereotypes that have been cemented by it. Despite espousing and promising a guarantee for freedom, capitalism has excluded many from enjoying this freedom, especially women.
The rise of the new trends of feminist movements in our campuses in recent years are steps in the right direction. However, they should not be restricted to university spaces only, but must unite with other organisations of the working class to fight for the emancipation of women and transformation of society as a whole.
In commemorating this day, SAFTU calls on all organisations of women to unite with trade unions, civics and political movements to fight for the overhaul of the capitalist patriarchal system from which the oppression of women finds expression. In retying the knot with powerful women movements throughout history, we in
SAFTU call on all workers to:
· combat sexual harassment and discrimination at workplaces
· demand government build and provide access to free, good-quality pre-schools so that working class women are exempt from this unpaid labour of child care
· demand government introduce a Basic Universal Grant to ease the dependency of unemployed women on men
· avoid delinking of the struggles of women from those of the working class as a whole
· build a systemic worker education in their organisations to challenge gender stereotypes and patriarchy
· combat GBV in communities.
An injury to one is an injury to all – as our working class slogan insists – and nowhere is this more important to recognise than in the recognition our working-class women are due for their struggles. They will liberate not only the women of South Africa and the world, but everyone else in the process.
Statement issued on behalf of SAFTU by General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi:
Contact National Spokesperson for more details at:
073 378 7049, email address: firstname.lastname@example.org