Mandela: towards a non-sexist South Africa

Part of the blessing of Mandela’s longevity is that he modeled reflexive behaviour which changed over time. To realise his vision of a non-sexist South Africa, we might re-evaluate the patriarchal values which pervade our own lives, recognising our own ability to change.

Che Ramsden
9 December 2013

On the December 5th Nelson Mandela died and I found myself feeling more South African than I ever have, despite having lived in the UK for over half of my life. I was connected to millions of South Africans in a collective act of grief and inward recollections of the hope and aspiration which we had shared with Madiba for the New South Africa.

My green passport says I have every right to feel South African, but even while I lived there my privileged life separated me from the majority of South Africans. Born on the cusp of liberation from apartheid, my early memories of the New South Africa are seen through the distance of two decades, six thousand miles and the rosy hue of an ex-pat now living in England, and it is difficult now to separate my idealised early life experiences from Mandela’s vision of a Rainbow Nation. They were experiences of affluence, aspiration, and they were racially mixed.

Spreading the new South African flag over the nation, it was Madiba who told us that we would all fit underneath it, no matter who we were. In July this year, while Madiba was ailing in hospital, his wife Graça Machel described the unifying effect he has on South Africa: “we feel equal in our love for him and in our love for our country.” It is under this banner which I find myself rallying, almost involuntarily, alongside my fellow South Africans thousands of miles away.

ANC election poster

ANC election poster

Besides the beloved Madiba, as a young female South African I also had plenty of examples of heroic women from whom to draw inspiration: figures like Ruth First, who was assassinated by the South African police in 1982 (and who my parents named my sister after), and Albertina Sisulu, the wife of Walter Sisulu (who was imprisoned on Robben Island with Madiba) and a social activist and politician in her own right. Today, political life is still something girls and young women can aspire to: 42% of parliamentarians are women.

However, the New South Africa is a country of stark contradictions. It is a country with the principle of non-sexism gloriously enshrined in its constitution yet also shamefully dubbed “the rape capital of the world.” A woman born in South Africa today has a greater chance of being raped than learning how to read, despite the constitution promising her both the right to a life free from gender-based discrimination and violence and a right to education. Such 'contradictions' are expected of 'nascent democracies' and 'developing nations': the rights assured in constitutions are not easily realised, but constitutional rights serve as a guiding beacon in the continuing struggle to secure them.

When Oscar Pistorius shot his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day this year, the Gender Commission pointed out that media coverage of the case tended to present it as “an unfortunate aberration, rather than part of a broader pattern of gender-based violence.” Additionally, coverage of the case mentioning Steenkamp’s good looks and law degree as part of the tragedy raises the question of what media interest (if any) there would have been were she of a different socio-economic background. Three women are killed each day in South Africa by an intimate partner (double the rate in the US for this type of murder), according to a report released by the South African Medical Research Council in August 2012, with rape suspected in one in four of the killings. A total of 200,000 adult women are attacked in South Africa every year, but the South African Institute for Race Relations stresses that the real figure is considerably higher given that most cases are not reported. Instead of asking what makes Pistorius’s case special, then, we might ask why the weapons of rape and gender violence are being used to wage war against women.

 Franco Megannon

The ANC Women's League picket Oscar Pistorius's bail hearing: Franco Megannon

The Basic Education Minister, Angie Motshekga, states the obvious when she says that patriarchy is the problem: “it gives men the sense that they have the right to harm, to the extent of killing, women.” In the South African context, this patriarchy partly has at its core the damaging expressions of masculinity during apartheid. In his 1996 submission to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Anglican priest and anti-apartheid activist Michael Weeder recalls the “hidden lives” of apartheid, including the “young farm boys, young Afrikaners being initiated into manhood by the rape of our mothers behind some lonely koppie [hill].” Manhood initiations continue in today’s South Africa, across colour lines but in ‘ceremonies’ so similar that it is difficult not to see them as a sad and brutal legacy of apartheid.

Acts of gender violence were not only committed by the oppressors. Although it is a fictional account, in David’s Story Zoë Wicomb’s voiceless heroine Dulcie, a member of the ANC’s armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe, is subjected to rape by her commanding officers as well as the brutalised men who enforce apartheid. These experiences are corroborated by factual accounts referenced by Raymond Suttner in ‘Women in the ANC-led Underground’, Jacklyn Cock in Women and War in South Africa, and Hilda Bernstein in The Rift: Exile Experience of South Africans; damaging masculinities were represented by some struggle heroes and gender equality was only formally embraced by the ANC in the latter years of the struggle.

Despite increasingly (and incorrectly) becoming an emblem of non-violent struggle for civil rights, I think that Madiba’s most remarkable example to the world has been in his very human ability to reflect and to change. His own commitment to non-sexism is evidence of this.

Five years ago, on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday and their tenth wedding anniversary, Graça Machel gave an interview to Al Jazeera during which she described the nature of their relationship. She remarks that it is particularly wonderful that someone of Madiba’s age and from his generation should be so unpossessive of his wife, and thus embrace feminist values. After their marriage in 1998, Machel retained her Mozambiquan nationality, her surname, continued her separate work, and regularly travelled to Mozambique to lead a life there without him.

The contradictions of the fledgling democracy are here reflected in its founding father, in his commitment to non-sexism despite previously holding a “traditional” attitude to women – which was perhaps expected, given the era and his aristocratic birthright. However, an unwavering commitment to justice led him, on that now iconic road to freedom, to commit to equality and justice for women. If Machel’s account is anything to go by, this is a commitment he made not just publically, but in his private life, too.

Madiba never denied his past attitude towards women – when David Dimbleby apologised for bringing it up in a 2003 interview for the BBC which was included in Nelson Mandela: The Fight for Freedom, Mandela conceded “it’s history.” And history, to Madiba, is a thing we learn from, remember, overcome – this attitude to the past is what enabled the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and cemented the atmosphere of a reconciliatory South Africa in which the new black president could sit down to tea with the widow of the architect of apartheid.

Part of the blessing of Mandela’s longevity is that he had the opportunity to model reflexive behaviour which changed over time. The change itself is at once an indication of his humanness and his capacity for the extraordinary.

My sister and I were visiting my godparents in Grahamstown in April 2007 when we had the immense privilege of meeting Madiba and Graça Machel. Madiba’s grandson graduated from Rhodes University (where my godfather is Vice-Chancellor) and Graça Machel received an honorary doctorate the following day. In her address at Rhodes, Machel spoke about the giants of the anti-colonial and anti-apartheid liberation movement(s) in Africa, including Nyerere in Tanzania, Mondlane in Mozambique, Mandela and Tambo in South Africa. She characterised them as providing the vision for a free Africa, the mantle which her generation took up and fought to achieve. That year, Ghana celebrated its 50th anniversary of independence, the first African country to achieve independence from colonial powers (aside from the unconquered Ethiopia). Look what had been achieved in the mere space of 50 years, Machel said: the entire continent had liberated itself from colonialism and apartheid. In the space of a sentence, Machel lifted us up through the struggles of the past to stand on the shoulders of these giants and look ahead to what might be achieved in the next half century. She suggested an end to gender inequality, a cure for AIDS, the realisation of universal education.

With a gentle humility, both Mandela and Machel have used their overwhelming charisma to inspire others to continue their struggle for a just world. On the 6th December I listened to a radio broadcast of the service of thanksgiving led by Archbishop Emeritus Tutu and Father Michael Weeder at St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town. During the service, Tutu said that instead of building a physical memorial, South Africans themselves should be Madiba’s memorial. If we are to realise his vision of a non-sexist South Africa, we might re-evaluate the patriarchal values which pervade our own lives and consciences, recognising our own ability to change, while not excusing unjust behaviour on the grounds of age or culture from others, either.

Read more 50.50 articles published during 16 Days: activism against gender violence.

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