By Maropene Ramokgopa
Our country has gone through a number of transitional integration phases that have given the democratically elected government of the ANC impetus to appreciate and seek to fast track gender equality in South Africa. A number of concepts were developed to channel the energy of bringing to consolidation the fruits of the new democratic dispensation such as women emancipation and gender mainstreaming. The struggle that remains constant is how, when, why and where do we locate the precise level in sectors of society be it, economic, social institution or household, in the monitoring of progress of gender equality.
Philosophers have stressed in one way or another, that the progress of any development in a nation cannot be fulfilled without its character being reflected in the standard of living of its women as a group in society. It is no surprise that the African National Congress as a leader of the National Democratic Revolution, couldn’t envision its objective’s logical conclusion without reflecting on a non-sexist society.
A world-renowned author, motivational speaker, Founder and Chief Lecturer of Vedanta Academy in India – a globally leading movement in matters of self-management and leadership – Swamiji Parthasarathy once said “Not until you learn to ignore the question of gender and to meet in a common ground of common humanity, will your woman really develop”. He has extensively written and shared in his lectures that indeed, our progress in life as society, depends mainly on how we treat women around us.
It is an undeniable fact that a lot of strides have been made and must be celebrated as it relates to the numbers of women in leadership and occupying strategic positions of power . To be specific in the pre democratic era, women representation in parliament was 27 % and in 1994, at the dawn of the democratic dispensation, this representation showed a rise to 33%. South Africa is currently ranked high globally and in third place in Africa with over 40% of parliamentarians being female. However, much still remains to be done in the other sectors of society, as to ensure congruence of growth and progress in both the elite structure and grass roots women as it relates to socio economic emancipation.
We have in the past witnessed a deliberate feminisation of poverty that was institutionalised at the same rate as the racialisation of poverty in South Africa. This found greater expression in the rural areas and areas that were previously reserved for Black and African people. We must relocate the effort put in elitism of gender equity, to meeting on common ground of common humanity as said by Swamiji of Vedanta movement, in order to decrease the domination of those efforts to the upper strata of society that constitutes a minute percentage of women as a group in general. This will have a direct impact to women emancipation across all levels of society. Most especially in consideration of the fact that gender relations as a concept, is a societal construct, therefore cannot be engaged in a vacuum from stratification elements of its whole.
It will indeed be disingenuous to suggest that there is no effort and progress in total emancipation of women, in terms of legislation. In 1996, the ANC in government ensured that the right to reproductive process for women is formally enshrined in our constitution.The Chapter 9 institutions in the Constitution, Employment Equity legislation as well as the establishment of the Women’s Ministry located in the Presidency are further evidence of these advances.
However, we must guard against social inequality lagging behind legislation. The role and programs of these institutions must be inundated solely with reacting to gender based violence or general patriarchal based corporate or political career progression. They must ensure they put in place systems in society as a construct, that will erode any form and element of gender inequality. Women of all ages, strata, race or creed must where necessary access deliberate support in order to develop themselves to stand ready to take up opportunities presented by our government initiated programs. This should be a constant and deliberate action with clear objectives.
Some of the already direct and unambiguous programs to be adopted and domesticated as it relates to direct and deliberate intervention are principles such as those found in the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations. Basic principles such as women health and education.
We should also acknowledge that “gender like race, is socially constructed with rights, access to resources, power participation in public life and it is in the main interpreted through cultural lens”
There are a number of school of thoughts (whether right or wrong) as it relates to Feminism as a concept. There are those who perceive this concept as competition or battle for dominance between men and women, some see it as a way of fighting for equality and others see it as a mechanism of reversing the injustices of the past and to a certain degree of the current injustices, most especially social injustices. There are those who also see it as a way of engineering a methodology that can change how opposite genders relate or engage in society to the redistribution of resources and roles in general.
In my experience, that must include excusing my ignorance, feminism is necessary to transform society as a whole not only by institutionalised forms through legislative processes, but equally social transformation from the all levels. This will reflect the view held by some gender activists including myself, that seeks to suggest that , emancipation of men and women equally from socialization that defines the current gender roles in society, will in essence eradicate any form of dominance by any group, in-terms of equal access to opportunities and a better way of life.
Women emancipation is a form of co-operation and most definitely in the words reflecting on the teaching of Swamiji , a common ground of common humanity concept. We know it better as Ubuntu/Botho.
As a diplomat representing South Africa in India and as a deployee of the African National Congress in the diplomatic/ Consular Corps, I have observed a number of commonalities and few differences in how different societies globally engage with issues of gender equality and women emancipation in particular. The common denominator in discriminatory behaviours is usually the belief systems that can be characterised as culture and religion.
Some of these commonalities are evident in how culture informs many activities in our society, including commerce, social and political processes. In international management theory offered in various Masters in Business Management courses, culture which is derived at times from religion and tradition carries a lot of load in decision making and engagement of investors in their host countries.
This is one way of proving that culture has a lot of impact in how we operate and view things in society. It is in this regard that I am convinced that any form of dominance as it relates to race, class or gender, has got a lot of its principles rooted in socialisation inculcated through belief systems. Culture and religion remains the essence of human nature of relations and the anchor of our being, but if not carefully inculcated in the construct of society, it can be detrimental to human progress. We must note that cultural practices that are impeding on the rights of women in particular, are not only embraced by men but they are also embraced by other women. Most especially older generation of women.
As a result of this social construct and different stratum in it, it is important to note that the deficiency witnessed in balancing socially based inequalities, that usually has its glaring ugly face in the lowest strata of society be a reason for regression of the united gender struggle movement. We must remain vigilant not to allow the achievements and successes such as of being ranked 3rd in representation of women in the arm of our legislature in the state to become a mere drop of hot water in an ocean of a cold water. An unintended consequence may develop and the remanence part of it will definitely be social distance and very high levels of inequality in a group of society that is supposed to join hands in their own emancipation.
These unavoidable realities will definitely breed differences in how women may view what represents them as a group and action to be taken to forge a united struggle against patriarchal society. This may eventually have an impact on our movement’s efforts to achieving a non-sexist society. Analysing common ground and common humanity is the only tool that can change history and give us an opportunity to achieve a just and equal society, were humanity outside of gender, class of race defines how people relate.
The African National Congress as a leader of the mass democratic movement, the national democratic revolution and a leader of broader society, must ensure that its approach on achieving a non-sexist society is concerned more with non-elitist solutions and embrace the fact that human rights and women emancipation are congruous in all forms, context and concept. Although strategic positions of power are important and can easily be achieved through a decree of a quota systems, they must not replace the appreciation of what gender equality really means.
Ours, as liberation movement, is to lead society as a whole. We don’t exist for ourselves as an organisation but we exist for society as its leader.
As we enter into women’s month programs in our beloved country, commemorating the 1956 Women’ march against pass laws and apartheid era, lest we forget, we must be resolute in what is to be done and how it should be done. The future is ours to mould, the present is for us to take charge of and history remains our constant lesson. We should be inspired by the precision in thought, objective and execution from the women of the generation of 1956. Their effort and unity of purpose became the labour ward of the freedom of our people and hope of achieving a national democratic society, which will characterise a non-racial, non-sexist and prosperous society.
We salute the generation of 1956 and the fighting spirit of the generation of Comrade Mme Charlotte Maxeke, in whose footsteps the 1956 generation followed. She was part of the first anti- pass movement organisers that mobilised people for a march in 1913 against the apartheid regime. As one of the feminists and gender activist ancestors of our national democratic revolution, we continue to be inspired by her for she broke barriers imposed by a patriarchal society, but most of all, her efforts, and acquired skill, was mostly seen in the development of the grass roots levels of our people.
Comrade Maropene Ramokgopa is a member of the ANC, ANC WL and former NEC member of the ANCYL. She is deployed as Consul General of RSA in Mumbai, India and writes in her personal capacity