South Africa’s gender lessons (1)

I went to a meeting with various people who work in the gender transformation arena yesterday. The meeting was at the Commission on Gender Equality Constitution Hill offices. Invited to the meeting from the South African side were a few Commissioners, representatives from other offices in the National Gender Machinery, the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities, as well as various people from the feminist and women’s movement drawn from different sectors. The meeting was with a mixed group of women from academia and civil society in Canada, Australia, the USA and New Zealand. Their next meetings were with South Africans from NGOs and community based organisations (CBOs), MPs, community leaders, etc.

My brief input was about the state of gender in the new South Africa, and did not cover some aspects because I did not mean to be comprehensive, but also because other feminists and gender activists who had spoken before me had traced some of the historical developments. Mine, then was really to scan the landscape as many of us, South African feminists, see it. It was also for me to just throw about some ideas about gender patterns as I see them emerging in contemporary SA – one of my favourite topics and the subject of a manuscript I am finalising for the new academic press, S&S (but more on that much later. In other words, watch this blog-space).

I started by refering to the importance of centering gender in much SA discourse and outlined that the legal recognitions and policy framework which sought to do this were invaluable. I know that we often worry and complain about how much of this proto-feminist legislation does not translate into the the law as lived and experienced by most citizen on a daily basis. This is true without a doubt. At the same time, the fact that gender redress is made visible, state responsibility in all legislation shows how much headway has been made in the last thirteen years. It means that gender stays on the national agenda in ways that many feminists the world over are still battling to have recognised in their own countries. It means that our starting point is therefore radically different from those with the same feminist politics who are trying to get specific gender transformative legislation passed.

At the same time, the gap between legislation in SA and practice (lived reality) is no joke. We can all continue to narrow this gap in the various work we do as activists, lawyers, academics, policy makers, therapists, religious figures, teachers, etc. At the same time, it seems that the specific manifestations of the gap — as well as the specific challenges posed by the failure of legislation and policy to change how men and women live gender — are also sites of learning. In other words, we can see these challenges as instructive.

But what lessons can we learn, then? First, that we continue to feel the absence of a large and consistent feminist and/or woman’s movement in South Africa. At the same time, the feminist provisions we have in the founding documents on the new SA were possible in the absence of such a strong, largescale feminist movement. This is because of a few determined and stubborn feminists who worked really hard to ensure that political parties took gender seriously, that women were part of the negotiating team, that many feminist concerns stayed on the agenda and were reflected in the final documents with which South Africa would be negotiating the transition. Therefore, as wonderful as a millions strong feminist movement would be, much work and many successes are possible without it. This energises me and I am sure many others. It suggests that stubborn will changes the world. It also says a lot about feminist strategies that work. We are lucky many of these women continue to walk amongst us and, therefore, that this herstory is available to us.

I am also pleased to be in the midst of a vocal feminist presence in the South African public sphere as well as equipped with the National Gender Machinery.

I am energised by the visible and unapologetic presence of feminists inside and outside South Africa’s government and by the fact that we can see the benefits of some of the feminist work past and present in the following:

a) the ongoing public discourse on women’s empowerment in SA’s public sphere. I am a big critic of the more conservative manifestations of this, but also recognise that the fact that gender is something South Africans talk about publicly and explicitly shows that it is seen to matter. We’ve come a long way from more than a decade ago when this was NOT the case by any stretch of the imagination;
b) a powerful and vocal NGO sector that does amazing work on gender, from ICT and women, to gender based violence, to sexualities and sexual orientation, to reworking and re-imagining masculinities and femininities;
c) radical work on sexualities from organisations such as the Lesbian and Gay Equality Project over the last decade (an NGO which is being resuscitated as we speak after burn out and other complications),the Black lesbian NGO Forum for the Empowerment of Women and Sonke Gender Justice Network;
d) we’ve seen affirmation of the importance of coalition building. Coalitions are really hard work, as many political activists know. I remember how frustratingly exhausting some early Women’s National Coalition meetings were in the Western Cape, where I was then based since politically the women meeting to ensure gender was a central lens in how the new SA was built came from such diverse political ideologies and organisations. Yet, that coalition achieved phenomenal successes in the end – again because stubborn feminists change the world;
e) contestation has become a central part of what constitutes the SA public sphere and identity landscape. Feminists have had a huge part in this, as have activists on other fronts;
f) we have a clearer sense of how patriarchy is buttressed by allusions to religion, culture, education and so on. This needs ongoing contestations because all religions and cultures can work oppressively (e.g., patriarchally) and in liberating and life-affirming ways. They take on the politics of their users; and,
g) there is a shift in masculinities and femininities that is not unidirectional – sometimes this finds expression as a hardening of violent masculinities (in the school system, political arena, popular culture, courts) but we also see a more dynamic expression and imagination of masculinities and femininities (popular culture, creative arts, political arena).

There are more lessons – but you’ll have to read my book for some of these 🙂 or visit my website for an early glimpse in what I’ve already written on this topic. Yes, a little self-promotion goes a long way every once in a while.


Posted on 30 October 2007, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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