South Africa: `We have to empower women'
By Pip Hunter
SYDNEY - ``Historically, it has been easy to discuss class
and race in the South African context. But the discussion on
gender has been undermined or subsumed'', Thenjiwe Mthintso,
an African National Congress member of parliament and
representative of the ANC Women's Caucus, told a dinner here
on September 26. Dealing with issues related to women, she
said, was still a major task for the ANC.
Mthintso is in Australia as part of the Chris Hani Memorial
Tour. A product of the black consciousness movement in the
1970s, and formerly a commander of the ANC's military wing
Umkhonto we Sizwe, Mthintso spent two years in solitary
confinement, after which she was exiled for 12 years. When
she returned in 1992, the beginnings of a women's movement
In its 1914 constitution, the ANC did not accept women as
full members. ``We had a slogan `side by side with our men'.
Women's role was to support the national liberation
struggle, and there was a tendency to assume that once we
had achieved this women could live happily ever after. The
gender question, it was believed, would be solved as a
by-product of the national liberation struggle.''
She said that this in the main continues to be the ANC's
thinking, ``although it has been championing women's issues
in its own way''.
Inside the movement
Mthintso has also led a struggle from within the South
African Communist Party (SACP) and ANC on gender relations.
An article written by Nombonisa Gasa in the fourth quarter
of 1993 South African Communist, the journal of the SACP,
tells the story of her brave decision to take up the
delicate issue of relations between the sexes within the
Because she and her activist companion Isaac had chosen not
to marry, there had been no formal acknowledgment of her in
a pamphlet produced for his obituary. Gasa reports that at
Isaac's funeral, Mthintso used the opportunity to defend the
choice she and he had made.
She asserted her right to be recognised as ``a woman who had
lived, fought, laughed with loved and nursed this man. With
such clarity she challenged society, the SACP, ANC and
COSATU ... she drew a connection between their personal life
and their political beliefs - a lesson for all South African
feminists, the left and freedom-loving people in general.''
The black consciousness movement of the 1970s had a large
impact on all young radicals. ``We used to say that we were
black first, before anything, a woman or a worker, and that
tended to subordinate all the other struggles'', Mthintso
said. But in the 1980s, coinciding with the rebirth of the
feminist movement internationally, the women's movement
began to strengthen in South Africa. The Copenhagen and
Nairobi women's conferences of that period impacted very
strongly on the ANC.
The women's movement in the 1990s was spearheaded by the
alliance between the Council of South African Trade Unions,
the South African Communist Party and the ANC. In order to
raise women's issues and have an impact in the first
non-racial elections, the National Women's Coalition was
formed and immediately began work on a women's charter.
``The charter, the product of a year's work mainly among
rural and working class women, was born just before the
There is an ongoing debate about where to locate the
charter, Mthintso said. ``We already have a constitution and
a bill of rights, so is the charter just an appendix to the
constitution? Some say that it should be a document that
advises. Others say it should have a bigger status.''
The ANC is currently tackling the thorny issue of how to
implement affirmative action programs. Are quotas the
answer? What's missing, Mthintso said, are the mechanisms to
ensure affirmative action. ``When we talk about quotas, or
proportional representation, comrades say `that's not
democratic because you are selecting people just because
they are women'. In a country where 54% of the population
are women, we cannot avoid the issue.''
After much debate, the ANC decided on proportional
representation and that women must make up at least 30% of
those standing for election. This was easily achieved.
Women make up 35% of the new South African parliament - the
majority of whom are in the ANC. However, as Mthintso wryly
remarked, ``Unequal gender relations have a way of
sustaining themselves''; out of 29 people in the cabinet,
only three are women.
``Parliament is a slightly different battle for all of us,
and we are beginning to realise that'', Mthintso said. ``Not
only is it undemocratic in its structures and hierarchical,
it is one of the bastions of male chauvinism - they had even
forgotten to put up women's toilets, and we can only use the
gym when the boys don't want to! And despite the fact that
there are so many women in parliament, there are no
One problem identified by Mthintso is that the ANC went into
parliament ``without having put in place the right
structures to enable women's voices to be heard''.
ANC women wanted a ministry, a representative in cabinet who
would speak up on behalf of women in the movement, a gender
equality commission and gender desks in all other
ministries. ``When we got to parliament none of these were
Instead, on offer was a women's caucus and no separate
ministry. So, as Mthintso puts it, ``We have to get through
whatever opening we have to show that women's issues are on
While the ANC women's caucus works on injecting women's
concerns into the ANC caucus, Mthintso is also concerned
that this could lead to a tendency to ghettoise women's
issues. She believes that there is a need for an inter-party
women's caucus ``where all women can speak with one voice
and link up with women outside [parliament]''.
``The challenge is on us not only outside parliament, but
also inside. We have to change the thinking, the way of
doing things. But we also have to transform the state and
its machinery - and part of that is the army, the police and
the civil service.
``We need to bring about a transformation in the lives of
all people. But for us, what is key is the empowerment of
***** Nathan Newman: [email protected] *******
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