South Africa: Gender equality and morality as citizenship

Twenty years after South Africa's first democratic elections, Chantelle de Nobrega explores what we can we learn about sex, gender and morality in democratic transitions

Chantelle de Nobrega
13 March 2014
Medu poster commemorating women protesters in Pretoria in 1955. Widely distributed during the liberation struggle in the 1980s

Poster by Judy Seidman of the Medu Art Ensemble, 1981In April of this year, South Africa will celebrate twenty years since its first democratic elections in 1994. The nation’s transition to democracy, and its ongoing democratic consolidation, opened up the space for the reinvention of citizenship and civic engagement. The feminist and women’s rights movements took advantage of this era of expanded political and civil freedom, and were able to achieve meaningful democratic participation in legal and Constitutional reform, but with more limited success in transformation beyond the formal mechanisms of liberal democracy.

In countries going through significant socio-political changes - such as a revolution - political parties, civil society and individuals are engaging with each other on unfamiliar ground. Questions about identity, representation, and the shifting dimensions of engaging power-holders become increasingly contested. This is particularly true in contexts where countries are emerging from a period of extended authoritarian rule. The development of new governance structures, legal and constitutional frameworks, and the expansion of civil and political rights opens up the space for the reconstruction of ideas about nationhood and citizenship.

Constructing a new nation or a new national identity inevitably entails moral dimensions: if the old order is constructed as morally degenerate, the new order requires the construction of a new morality as a central component of democratic citizenship. This focus on moral renewal or “regeneration” is not a new phenomenon. It was part of the French and Russian Revolutions, and was (and still is) part of South Africa’s journey to democracy, the reconstruction of Iraq, and Egypt’s current political transition.

Morality has historically involved a preoccupation with sex, familial relationships and maintaining gendered identities. This is often fuelled by religious sentiments, or reference to claims of cultural authenticity, which are used to justify regulating people’s choices and limiting women’s control over their own bodies. Attempts to exert control over women’s bodies is often done through legislation and policy, but is also exercised through social pressure and public opinion, which can be used to encourage women to dress in particular ways, resist engaging in behaviours deemed inappropriate for women, or avoid moving around freely in public. A well-known example of this kind of reasoning is the common accusation faced by women who are rape survivors that if they had worn less revealing clothing, had had less to drink, or had not been walking around after dark, they would have avoided being raped.

In South Africa, during the 1991-1993 political negotiations intended to bring an end to apartheid, conservative elements on both sides of the racial divide were hostile to extending legal protection for women’s human rights. For example, traditional leaders delayed the discussions on the basis that the gender equality clause should be removed from the Bill of Rights, as it eroded their right to make decisions about land ownership and customary marriage. Furthermore, the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) voted against the adoption of the final version of new Constitution (the only party to do so), because it enshrined women’s right to access an abortion (as well as included protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation).

Group of women marching

Women protesting apartheid in the 1980s. Photo: ANC archives

This attempt to limit women’s bodily autonomy continued during South Africa’s democratic consolidation. In the 1990s, several pieces of key legislation that had an impact on gender equality were passed, and these were almost always challenged by right-wing parties. During the passing of the Domestic Violence Bill and the Recognition of Customary Marriages Bill in 1998, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) opposed both bills on the ground that it conflicted with their support for the abduction of women who refused a man's offer of marriage, and their belief that domestic violence is seldom a reality in nuclear families and is really fuelled by sexual immorality.

Gender-based violence is often justified with the same logic. Attempts to control women’s bodies has not been limited to legal or policy sphere. Policing women’s dress or behaviour is often mirrored by the public. In South Africa, there have been several instances of women being sexually and verbally assaulted in front of jeering crowds because they were wearing short skirts. After one such case in 2008, passers-by were asked why no one had intervened and had instead offered encouragement to the women’s attackers. Onlookers stated that women were arousing or provoking men which led to rape and other crimes. In addition, in interviews conducted with South African men who have been convicted of rape, respondents said that they targeted women who “asked for it”, or who were “cheeky” and “walk[ed] around like they own the place, and look you in the eye”. This was particularly true of men who had participated in gang-rapes. The rape, torture and murder of black lesbians is also usually carried out by groups of men, revealing the ways in violent men see disciplining deviant women as a central component of masculine identity.

Women, arms raised, protesting. One with a sign 'Stop this war'.

Women protest wearing dresses showing a Casspir, a military vehicle that was used to patrol the townships

Globally, there is a particular fixation on sex, sexual identity and gender roles as the foundations of morality, and chaos and disorder in the nature and society are often positioned as being the result of divine retribution. The rationale of many conservatives is that restricting women’s right to make choices about their own bodies protects the moral fibre of society, which is essential for maintaining social order. The lack of discipline or control exerted over women’s bodies (by women themselves or by others – usually men) become contributing factors to crime waves, natural disasters and terrorist attacks.

In March 2013, the Muslim Brotherhood – the governing party in Egypt at that time – condemned the “End Violence Against Women” declaration of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). Their statement listed ten grievances with the declaration, of which eight were focused heavily on women’s bodily autonomy as it relates to sex, reproduction, freedom of movement and family life, with the two remaining points on women’s control over economic resources. The Muslim Brotherhood’s claim is that recognition of any of these rights – or “subversive immorality” as they prefer to call it – would “lead to complete disintegration of society”. They were not alone in their opposition, as the Vatican, Iran and Russia also opposed the declaration with similar reasoning, indicating that Muslim and Christian fundamentalists are united in their belief that women’s autonomy will be the downfall of society.

Lessons from South Africa

In the early 1990s, multi-party discussions began in South Africa to end apartheid and to form an interim government which would lead to the country’s first democratic elections in 1994. Several attempts at negotiations between liberation movements and parties in government had been made in previous years, but it was not until 1991 that several hundred political parties and civil society groups from all over the country came together to form the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa). Less than five percent of party representatives at Codesa were women, which became a cause that women from across the political spectrum could coalesce on.

Even before Codesa was officially launched, the ANC Women’s League (ANCWL) had been engaged in extensive internal lobbying to in an attempt to ensure that a third of the National Executive Committee of the ANC would be women. Although they were not successful, their passionate and bold attempt to secure women’s participation at the highest level of decision-making structures changed the nature of the debate within the ANC, and by the 1994 elections, the ANC had committed itself to ensuring that one third of the parliamentary candidates on the ANC’s party list would be women.

In 1992, the ANCWL brought together women from different (and even opposing) political parties and trade unions to form the Women’s National Coalition (WNC). In a country where geography, class, race and socio-political positioning had long been determining factors in access to the halls of power, the WNC had the ambitious goal of consulting women from across the nation to ensure that their demands and hopes for a new nation formed part of South Africa’s new Constitution. The WNC reached 3 million women who participated in meetings and workshops that culminated in the development of a Women’s Charter in 1994, which was a key source document during the writing of the new Constitution.

The formation of the WNC coincided with the collapse of Codesa in 1992 and when a new round of negotiations began in 1993, known as the Multi-Party Negotiation Process (MPNP), the WNC was prepared to challenge the fact that women had once again been excluded. The ANCWL organised a protest outside the meeting venue and threatened to boycott the elections, which led to the agreement that all parties to the MPNP would ensure that one of their two representatives would be women.

Despite divisions based on political and ideological differences, which often threatened to derail the work of the WNC, women continued to work together to take advantage of the powerful opportunity created by the political transition. The lobbying of women within their own parties, and the political alliances formed among women across parties (including the National Party, ANC and IFP), played a pivotal role in ensuring that a commitment to gender equality remained a defining feature of South Africa’s Constitution. This, in turn, paved the road for further legislative protections that has given the country one of the most progressive legal frameworks in the world. This includes an explicit Constitutional protection of gender equality, protection of a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy, and domestic violence legislation that covers different types of abuse beyond physical and sexual, and also extends protection to non-marital partnerships.

Unfortunately, from the late 1990s onwards, it became increasingly clear that the gains made at the level of legislation and policy were having a far more limited impact on the everyday lives of women than had been hoped. The overemphasis on demands for legal protections had been flagged right from the start, and was one of the points of contention within the WNC. Partly, this context was enabled by the nature of South Africa's transition to democracy, which focused on legal and political reform. The result was an overemphasis on addressing gender inequality in the state rather than challenging structural barriers to women's liberation, such as gendered identities that promote violent masculinity and position women as being men’s property.

In addition, after the general elections of 1994, there was a relative depoliticisation of the women’s rights and feminist agenda in South Africa. Many feminist activists were either incorporated into the apparatus of government, or were being absorbed into a civil society culture that was becoming increasingly focused on the limited goal of influencing formal policy through collaboration with decision-makers. Civil society initiatives were increasingly expected to be in line with government policy to be eligible for funding, which limited the extent to which organisations could retain their critical distance and oppose policies or programmes that did not promote gender equity or protect women’s rights. This was mirrored by donor funding patterns, as well. Donors from the development and philanthropy sectors that had previously funded more confrontational civil society initiatives began channelling aid towards activities focused on democratic consensus-building, and strengthening the formal and procedural aspects of liberal democracy.

After the 1999 elections and under the leadership of President Thabo Mbeki, the ANC became increasingly centralised. Party members whose political perspective was rooted in a feminist approach that emphasised substantive transformation of gendered power and identities in the public and private sphere, rather than mere accommodation within existing power hierarchies, were soon moved to positions where they would cause less trouble. For example, in 1997, Thenjiwe Mtintso was appointed as the first chairperson of the Commission on Gender Equality (CGE), a Chapter 9 institution. Chapter 9 institutions are responsible for the protection of democracy and human rights, and are mandated to hold the government accountable to citizens. One year later, Mtintso was “redeployed” from the CGE – which she was building into a formidable and independent organisation – and made Deputy Secretary-General of the ANC, a position ANC officials have referred to “as the burial ground for militant feminist activists”.

South African women came together during the political transition in a powerful way and – in many ways – were successful in resisting conservative attempts to deny women access to the democratic gains that were being made. The strong presence of women at multi-party negotiations and the astute utilisation of post-election alliances between civil society and political leaders were instrumental in repelling attempts made by some right-wing factions to use the language of moral renewal and social order to legitimate their attempts to limit women’s right to formal protection, such as the resistance to the inclusion of equality and sexual orientation as a Constitutional provision. The project of crafting a new national identity, however, has not yet been successful in overturning social norms about gender identity and sexuality, or about race and class.

In recent years, individuals, communities and civil society organisations have begun to reclaim the radical space of resistance, such as the activism of 1in9 - a feminist collective that addresses sexual violence, and patriarchy’s intersection with racism and homophobia, or Abahlali baseMjondolo - a shack-dwellers movement. The confrontational methods and anti-hierarchical philosophies of both organisations have drawn criticism from government and other civil society organisations. There is room, however, for both confrontation and collaboration in a country still exploring the multiple dimensions of identity and citizenship. This is particularly important for activists and organisations working to change the very fabric of society through transforming narrow understandings of gendered and sexual identities. Women’s rights and feminist movements that cannot autonomously articulate their interests cannot hope to challenge the structural foundations of power.

The author is writing here in a personal capacity


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