South African’s National Liberation Movement

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National Conference​

Discussion Documents

The Need for a Gendered Perspective from the ANC and its Cadres

1 July 1997

The emancipation of women is not an act of charity, the result of a humanitarian or compassionate attitude. The liberation of women is a fundamental necessity for the Revolution, the guarantee of its continuity and the precondition for its victory. The main objective of the Revolution is to destroy the system of exploitation and build a new society which releases the potentialities of human beings… This is the context within which women`s emancipation arises.


Comrade Samora Machel


The strategic objective of the ANC is the transformation of our country into a united, non-racial, nonsexist and prosperous society. (ANC Strategy and Tactics, 1994)

There are many debates within the ANC to understand the concrete meaning of and develop concrete programmes to achieve the key elements that are contained in the above objective. However, when it comes to the issue of non-sexism, there is either a lack of debate, confusion and even ridicule of the meaning and ways of achieving non-sexism. There are no clear programmes to implement gender equality.

And yet, the question of gender equality, as framed within the principle of non-sexism, is central to the ANC`s programme of the National Democratic Revolution (NDR). While women remain on the bottom of the rung in terms of politics, the economy and even in organisation, we will, as a nation, never achieve what we have been struggling for. As comrade O.R. Tambo put it: “South Africa will never be free as long as women are not free”. In fact, many activists have acknowledged that the basis on which to judge the liberation of a country is to note the extent to which women are free. This is particularly true of South Africa where the vast majority of women have been triply oppressed. That is, they have been exploited on the basis that they are black, women and workers.

Because of the centrality and importance of gender equality in the liberation of South Africa, the ANC`s National Conference will have to go beyond buzz words around gender and emerge with policies and institutional frameworks, programmes and mechanisms to promote gender equality. The ANC`s commitment to gender equality will have to be reflected within the ANC itself. We have to critically look at our policies, institutions, attitudes, composition of our structures and our programmes.

This paper will look at some of the theories that underpin the ANC`s understanding of gender equality, suggest some practical ideas on how to achieve this, but is mostly written as a tool to inspire debate in our structures as preparation for further discussion at Conference.

Understanding the conditions of women in South Africa: Triple Oppression and the programme of the ANC

In this section we look at the distinction between sex roles and gender roles and the ways in which gender is constructed in the South African context.

1. Sex Roles and Gender Roles

In understanding triple oppression, it is first important to situate the debate within an understanding of how gender is constructed. In other words, gender is not a natural phenomenon, but is created by societies to order the roles of men and women, and it is bound up with political and economic objectives.

There is a difference between sex and gender. Sex identifies the biological make up and difference between the male and the female.

Gender is constructed socially and identifies the relationship between men and women in the context of power relations. Gender is not natural or god-given, but is created by society through socialisation using institutions such as the family, the church and religion, school and education and the state and laws. Gender relations can therefore be changed by the very society that created them.

Gender roles exist in all spheres of society starting with the division of labour in the family. For example, in the family, women are allocated the role of being child rearers and are given the duties of cleaning and cooking. In fact, women are allocated the tasks of domestic chores as if it were natural for them to have to do this. This work is hidden and not paid for. It is not registered as work within the tools that we use to analyse the working of the economy such as in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) figures. What this hidden, unpaid labour serves to do is prop up the capitalist economy. Workers can be paid less if they do not themselves have to pay for domestic work. For most women in this country, domestic chores are additional to the work that they do outside the house. This means that women have very little spare time. This is known as the “double bind”.

These socially determined roles for men and women are culturally or socially created and are given the status of being natural and normal as if they “have always been” and “will always be”. From these gender roles, certain characteristics are expected of men that are a reflection of what it means to be male or to be masculine while other characteristics are attributed to women as a reflection of their femininity. The notions of masculinity and femininity define how men and women must behave and how they must look. They refer to physical appearance, psychological states, sexual orientations, intellectual capability and emotional states. For example, men are supposed to be natural leaders, decision makers and providers in society beginning within the family while women are the caregivers, supporters and followers of men.

2. Gender Relations

Gender and gender roles define the way women and men behave in society and in relation to each other, the way in which they perceive themselves and their attitudes. Gender relations affect the unequal power relations in society. The essence of unequal power relations is the domination of men and the subordination of women. These gender relations shape the ideas, knowledge, values, culture, attitudes, the structure of society and, in essence, social life itself. Gender roles and the stereotypes that structure the roles of men and women are reinforced in books, history, stories, songs and the media.

3. Patriarchy

Patriarchy is the system of male domination and control at all levels of society based on these socially constructed notions of gender, gender roles and gender relations that we have discussed above.

Not all patriarchal societies are the same and the oppression of women in various formations differs based on the economic and political differences of those societies. For example, patriarchy will manifest differently in advanced capitalist societies to traditional rural societies where economies are structured differently. Patriarchy has not always existed, and can also be dismantled. In addition, patriarchal control is linked up with the type of economy, political system and cultural objectives of particular societies.

Patriarchy is reproduced through a web of laws and private and public institutions such as the family, religious and traditional beliefs, practices and norms. It is also reproduced through ideological apparatuses such as the school, education in general and the media. Violence against women is an expression of an extreme form of reinforcing patriarchal control of women.

In South Africa, while there is the overarching system of patriarchy, different women experience different forms of male domination and oppression according to their class, status, religion, race and even ethnic and cultural backgrounds. For example, white, middle class women will experience patriarchy differently to rural African women. It is because of the understanding of the links between class, race and gender in South Africa that the notion of triple oppression emerged to describe the character of the oppression of black women. For the majority of women in South Africa, oppression emerges in terms of patriarchal control, their relation to the means of production (they are mostly poor workers or unemployed) and the fact that they are black. That is not to say that if black women become richer they will be liberated. The struggle for the emancipation of women must necessarily be linked with the dismantling of all systems that oppress them. Gender oppression is thus linked directly to our movement`s project of the NDR.

In the section below, we outline some of the approaches to the challenge of achieving gender equality.

Different approaches to gender

There are different approaches to gender depending on different understandings of inequalities and how to overcome them. These approaches are:

  • a gender blind approach
  • a women specific approach
  • a gendered perspective.

The first two approaches are limited in their perspective and cannot adequately address the problems of gender inequality. The ANC subscribes to the third approach, a gendered perspective, which more concretely understands the context in which gender inequality exists, and has the capacity to develop programmes to dismantle gender oppression.

The gender-blind approach

In this approach, all human beings are viewed as the same and are seen to be deserving of the same treatment. In other words, society should be dictated to by universal laws and values. This approach does not question what those norms and values are, where they come from and for what purposes they have been developed. In the South African context, this approach argues that the Constitutional provision of equality for every individual is enough. This is similar to the view that says that because South Africa has achieved formal equality through law, blacks and whites are equal and there is no need to address the legacies of the past through redistribution and empowerment. This approach is typical of the liberal worldview and can be seen in the approaches to gender questions of the DP and big business.

The ANC rejects this approach since it realises that because of the historical conditions in our country, needs are not universal and past colonial legacies must be addressed. Redistribution of and access to resources and services must form part of our approach. However, the ANC, especially in some of its documents and debates reflects tendencies of gender blindness through its silence on the impact of gender relations in whatever is being discussed. For example, examine the papers in this edition of Umrabulo and find out whether or not they refer to gender and include an analysis of gender.

The women-specific approach

Women are viewed as a special category in this approach deserving special treatment in order for them to enjoy equality with men. This approach exists in different forms. There is the welfare approach and the equality of opportunity approach which have been identified.

The welfare approach sees women as an isolated category needing inputs into their bodies ­ food, fertility interventions (such as access to birth control), etc. These needs are related to their constructed gender roles and women`s inferior status in society. Women are therefore regarded as dependents for ever more. They are dependent either on their male partners, family members or the state. This approach does not look at dismantling the very systems that oppress women. If taken alone, this approach in the long run will further disempower women since it ignores their intellectual and cultural capabilities, individuality, creativity and sense of responsibility.

The equality of opportunity approach focuses on the creation of opportunities for women to enter the spheres of authority, power and control. Fairness and equity are seen only as the springboards to enter the male domain without necessarily changing the status quo in terms of power, power relations, dominant ideas and values. This approach wants women to engage in masculine activities in a masculine world. The focus of this approach tends to be on how many women are in decision-making positions without also addressing what happens in those positions in terms of how power is defined and exercised and the relations within those positions. It is assumed in this approach that women, by virtue of their sex, are naturally gender aware or that they will automatically represent the interests of all women. Gender transformation is assumed to occur when women enter the fortresses of power.

The women specific approach is complex. It can sometimes be progressive, liberal or conservative depending on how it is used, who uses it and for what purposes. The ANC and the ANCWL in particular, have used the positive elements of this approach. Some of the positive outcomes have been the participation of women in CODESA and the entry of women into leadership structures of the ANC, parliament and government. Identifying issues that are specific to women and ensuring that more women are represented on particular structures is important, but not an end in itself. This approach must extend beyond just a numbers game or a quantitative exercise. It is not good enough, for example, for the women on these structures to be burdened with consistently raising the gender debate. All cadres in the ANC should inform the approach to gender. Furthermore, the danger in seeing numbers as the only strategic objective of gender struggles is the tendency towards opportunism in the call for gender equity. For example, the issue of representativity tends to arise in the build up to conferences or elections of any kind. Sometimes the quota system debate tends to be mechanical where individuals, rather than groups, are promoted.

The gendered perspective

This approach does not look at women and men alone, but at the relationship between them, how societies are structured along gender lines and the impact of these relations in the whole society. This approach explores the subordination of women to men and how this relationship impacts on all aspects of life and society. That relationship is not experienced in the same way everywhere. The context in which gendered relationships emerge and the constantly shifting economic, political and social terrain is always recognised. A gendered perspective is concerned with ensuring a gender analysis with regard to policies, programmes, planning strategy and evaluation. In other words, it looks at fundamentally transforming unequal power relations and changing society.

Towards a gendered perspective

An approach for the ANC

The last approach needs to be seriously considered by the ANC, government and all those committed to democracy. It focuses on practical and immediate interventions that have to be made now, while at the same time pursuing the strategic objectives of transformation of the status quo. In this way, this approach addresses practical gender needs in a patriarchal society. These needs arise from past and existing gender roles which prescribe certain duties to women. For example, in South Africa where women have to perform roles such as child care-givers, caring for the aged and sick, fetching water and wood etc., strategies must be developed to ensure that women are given the opportunities to participate in other spheres of life. Provision of childcare and old-age facilities, water taps and so on goes a long way in addressing the practical gender needs to free women to engage in other economic, political and social activities.

Secondly, women in South Africa, particularly black women, have been at the bottom of the rung in terms of participation in economic, social and political life. Commitment to democratic participation has to be accompanied by capacity building programmes. This includes giving women the necessary skills and creating enabling environments in areas where they participate. For example, child care facilities need to be provided in workplaces and the culture of organisations needs to transform so that women do not have to face abuse and harassment in their workplaces.

Affirmative action should therefore not relate to the subjective level only ­ that is, only placing individuals in positions of responsibility. It has to relate also to the objective level ­ that is, changing the operations of institutions and rules to ensure that the experience and knowledge of the formerly excluded are brought in, as well as ensuring an environment that is favourable for the entry and operation of women. The ANC, for example, cannot look at affirmative action as simply a numbers game. It has to look more broadly at the functioning and attitudes of its structures and cadres which may actually disempower the very members it is meant for.

Importantly, the practical gender needs that are addressed have to take place in the overall context of an endeavour to transform the status quo. That means that the voice, knowledge and experience of those previously marginalised must be found at the centre of operations. The values and culture, the attitudes and traditional practices and all the unequal power relations between men and women must be systematically changed. While delivering on the quantitative practical gender needs, we must always be focusing on qualitative strategic gender interests.

Some of the questions that have to be resolved

  • How does the ANC ensure a gendered perspective in all spheres of its life and work, its policies, programmes and structures?
  • How do ANC institutions and structures reflect that integrated approach?
  • How does the ANC ensure continuous and sustainable political education programmes to change attitudes and work towards the eradication of unequal gender relations? What gender training has to take place at what levels? How does the ANC integrate gender in its political education programmes?
  • uWhat type of structures should the ANC have? Is the ANCWL the best suited structure for the current challenges? How, if it is, should it operate? What is the relationship between the ANCWL and the NEC Gender Sub-committee? How does the ANC ensure that gender and women are not dumped on the ANCWL without a meaningful political responsibility of the ANC as a whole?
  • How does the ANC lead the processes of the formation of a Broad Women`s Movement and what role does it see for that movement?
  • How does the ANC ensure the implementation of affirmative action in a way that ensures access for groups and not individuals, ensuring both capacity for those who enter positions of responsibility as well as the creation of environments and support systems that are conducive for participation? What mechanisms should be used? How do we use targets and quotas that do not create opportunism and elitism? How does the ANC ensure that affirmative action is monitored?
  • What indicators can the ANC set for itself to evaluate its advances in terms of the status of women and gender equality?
  • What inputs does the ANC have to make in all government processes to address gender inequality?