Celebrating International Women’s Day calls for greater introspection, hope & unity

The 1956 women's march in South Africa. Leading women are, front from left, Sophie Williams, Raheema Moosa, Helen Joseph and Lilian Ngoyi.

‘Leading the struggle with nothing in your hands can bring confusion in the family…it was my responsibility.’ 

These lyrics run deep as they express the emotional dialogue between mother and daughter in the movie Sarafina. The scene tries to portray the gender dimension in the struggle of the young people of 1976 in Soweto.

Mme Mariam Makeba plays the role of a domestic worker, duly performing her duties towards the ‘madam’, while trying to pacify her passionate and enthusiastic daughter the young Sarafina, played by Leleti Khumalo. Sarafina is upset with, what she perceives as, her mother’s compliance with the racist and classist system of apartheid, but she also recognises that her conscience for justice, her thinking of liberation and her passion to take up the cause for freedom comes from no-one else but her mother. And so she thanks her mother, the title of the song: “thank you, thank you, mamma!”

This scene, an engagement between two passionate and strong women, though of different generations, comes to mind as we once again ‘celebrate’ International Women’s Day. Indeed, as women of the world, young and old, we have much to celebrate, given the hard fought battles than we have won. For example, the day’s inception, 8 March, traces its roots to when women in the Soviet Union gained the right to vote.

Though some question this, the day is also to said to be the one on which women, as garment workers, in New York downed tools in protest as early as 1857. Before the day was actually declared on 8 March in 1914, many women-led marches, protests and strikes took place and the United Nations only officially recognised the day in 1975. 

What cannot be denied is that the day has its deep roots in socialism; recognising the challenges of women both in gender and class. In South Africa though, we recognise what we call the triple challenge, of particularly African women: gender, race and class.

International Women’s Day, like Women’s Day in South Africa on 8 August, recognises the contributions of women’s struggle but also the challenges that women continue to face in our country and in the world. Yet is the one day that still has the integrity of its origins, women marching for better wages.

Like Mme Makeba, in her role in Sarafina, women constantly live with the paradox of contributing immensely in society but who, at the same time, are also the ones suffering the most.  The ones who carry the most responsibilities today, often by default more than by design, are Black women: in the workplace, in the community, in the home.

In South Africa, we must continue to recognise that despite all the laws ensuring equality and all the legal clauses, women remain at the brunt of men. As women, we have even bowed down to patriarchy and modernised it by internalising its crude characteristics. When sexist and mysoginist jokes are made, we laugh along. We even turn on our own gender and correct each other, as women, when one of us do not play along the archetypal traditionalists who tell us what to do, when and how. 

In our country, we have forgotten the physical, mental and emotional effects of the triple oppressive nature of capitalism. Implicitly we are active participants and promoters of this system. As with the women who founded International Women’s Day, we, as women, must arise! 

The Sarafina dialogue and International Women’s Day, with its struggles and celebrations, reminded me of a young woman that South Africans and in particular young women could have as a role-model. She is one who constantly has to toil to fight the evils of patriarchy, class and racial discrimination but who, despite these daily fights, has emerged as one who is capable and able to empower those around her.

As an older Black woman, one can look at a young Khusela Diko, the newly-appointed spokesperson in the Presidency with pride and point to her as an example to other young Black girls. Not downplaying the enormity and the complexity of the struggles that young Black, and African in particular, women have to contend with, Khusela’s example must shine as star to others that through education, hard work and dedication one can beat the odds. As cliche as these words may sound they hold a deep truth and while they may not solve the deep and harrowing experiences of young Black women, they do make things a bit better.

As the first woman spokesperson in the Presidency in post Apartheid South Africa, young Black women have reason to celebrate. While not necessarily the highest office a woman occupies in our country, Khusela’s commitment to service must inspire other young women activists and public servants. She worked diligently in the ANC’s Department of Information and Publicity or Communications and is the epitome of what it means to earn one’s stripes.

As a woman, one is all too aware of the dangers of romanticisation and we do not want to fall into this trap. Khusela’s story is also a tough one. She knows what it is to beat the odds. If you are fortunate enough, she might sit you down and tell you her story. Yet her story may well be the story of many young Black women in South Africa and it gives us hope to know that the Black girl child still stands a chance in our country and on our continent. 

As we commemorate women like Mme Makeba, who at 18 days old accompanied her mother to prison, and celebrate the achievements of young women like Khusela, we know that these are but two examples of the strong women we have among our number. While the atrocities against women continue to plague our communities, we also recognise that our freedom as women lay in our own hands. Fittingly the United Nations has themed this year’s day as: “(Sekunjalo!) Time is now: Rural and urban activists transforming women’s lives”.

Yet the commemoration and the celebrations also remind us of a song sung by the late Dr Jean Swanson-Jacobs, the former deputy-minister of social development, when she, with her guitar and as a mother, as a woman, sang that song:

“Give back to our children the right to be free,
Give back to our children sweet memories and dreams, 
Give back to our children the right to play,
Stop killing our children…that’s what we say.”

History is jewelled with examples of women that have contributed much to the quest for justice and freedom. Like Rose Schneiderman, we must insist that “the worker must have bread, but she must also have roses, too”. The hardships must be remembered alongside the recognition of achievement. The women who established International Women’s Day, Mme Mariam Makeba and Jean Swanson all knew that to address the rights of society, our children, we as women need to find a united voice.

Jessie Duarte is the Deputy Secretary General of the ANC