As we contemplate another women’s day in South Africa, my mind is cast back to the Greek mythological figure of Medusa. The Roman poet Ovid, it is said, described Medusa as probably the most beautiful between her and her two sisters. It was her beauty, continues Ovid, that eventually “caused” Poseidon to rape Medusa in Athena’s temple. How familiar this sounds: “She asked for it”, “she was wearing a mini-skirt”, “she was irresistible”, “I couldn’t control myself”.
Yet what is also familiar today is the reaction by many women to their fellow sisters. The enraged Athena lashed out at Medusa. She changed Medusa’s lovely locks of hair into venomous serpents. Athena further made Medusa’s face so ugly that whoever (read: man) looks at her turns into stone. Apparently, one Perseus regards Athena’s curse on Medusa justified. We remember the logic: “she deserves it.”
Seemingly, according to some sources and given the sexual violence meted out against her, Medusa is often the symbol and subject of misogyny. A gorgon, Medusa is no doubt used in Greek mythology as an evil person. She is described, as often most women are, as over emotional and even uncontrollable. An enemy of the people; well, men at the time.
Sixty-three years after the march of the women to the Union Buildings, South Africa continues to perpetuate this sexist and misogynic thinking against its women. Patriarchy continues to undergird the neoliberalism, capitalism on which the apartheid state was fortified. This patriarchy is found in every facet of South African life; not just the home where domestic violence takes place or in government where we still have to fight for the representation of women as leaders.
This patriarchy continues in business where the top echelons, senior management and middle management continue to be dominated by pale males. It continues in labour where often women are misused and abused, as Medusa was by Poseidon, by men in senior positions. The patriarchy continues in our civil society and yes, even in the media.
It therefore comes as no surprise that the Financial Mail chose to depict the public protector with venomous snakes in the background. The caption “Enemy of the State” fits in well with the understanding “Enemy of the people” – or is it men? The depiction of the public protector on the cover of the Financial Mail is a direct reference to Medusa, with all its underlying undertones. This depiction must be condemned and rejected with the utter contempt that it deserves.
Again, we can expect no less from the mouthpiece of the capitalist class within our society. As with racism, capitalism feeds off sexism. Instead of working with the ANC, the ANC Women’s League and other progressive forces in our country to fight gender violence and patriarchy, media outlets such as the Financial Mail rather perpetuate this vilification that seeks to drive only the agenda of capital and to protect it at all costs.
The South African Council of Churches must therefore be commended for coming out to condemn this attack on the office of the public protector. In fact, Section 9(1)(a) of the Public Protector Act declares emphatically that no person shall insult the Public Protector. Section 11(1) continues by stating that should anyone contravene Section 9 of the Act that person shall be guilty of an offence. The SACC is therefore correct to call for all to respect the office of the Public Protector but stops short of explaining the Medusa connotation of the Financial Mail cover.
Again, we would think that the self-proclaimed commentators and analysts would jump at the opportunity to condemn this vilification of a woman leader by pointing out the law in the least. Not so, because even our universities have become bastions of racial capital and perpetuating such gorgonisation of women. Little wonder that our university and TVET college campuses have become hotspots not only for racial incidences but places where sexual violence against our young women thrive. The racial and misogynist capitalist system perpetuates and protects itself.
Yet South Africans and women in particular must be assured that the ANC Women’s League will continue to expose these tendencies of gorgonisation and will ensure that we carry on with the agenda to ensure the radical socio-economic transformation of our society through the emancipation of women.
We are aware that we have been vilified in the past and continue to be the target of attacks, especially again by those in the media and pseudo-analysts. Yet we, like the women of 1956, will not be deterred. Those women in 1956 were also laughed at, mocked and dismissed but they emerged to change the course of women in our country.
Long after these pseudo-analysts have been forgotten, women will continue to emerge as leaders in government, parliament and the judiciary because of the insistence by the ANC Women’s League on the 50/50 rule. Today, South Africa is one of the leading countries of representation of women and are streets ahead of democracies that have been freed for hundreds of years when it comes to women representation.
As we are gorgonised and vilified, mocked and dismissed, the Women’s League continues to ensure that this 50/50 rule, fought for and won though sweat, toil and tears in the male-dominated ANC, is implemented. The recent decision to ensure that Gauteng provincial government gets another female MEC is evidence of these battles, small as they may seem for some to be, but which moves our movement, the leader of society, in demolishing this sexist phenomenon that continues to perpetuate.
The achievements that we have been able to realise in the last twenty-five years, especially for women and the girl-child, has been championed and fought for by the ANC Women’s League. Across government whether in economic transition, social transformation, education, science and technology, peace and security and even international relations, the ANC Women’s League has championed programmes and policies, that we as women know, benefit us and our children.
Like the women of 1956, we will not be silenced. Like the women of 1956, we will say to the men of South Africa: when you strike a woman, you strike a rock. We are proud of our women who serve in government, parliament, the judiciary and other chapter nine institutions. For too long, it has only been parliament that has enjoyed women as presiding officers and we insist that the presidency of the country as well as the Office of the Chief Justice must be occupied by women.
Many of these media commentators and pseudo analysts ask of what use is it when women lead yet women are still abused. They are the ones that miss the meaning of the 1956 women’s march message. It is a message to every girl child: that just like every job and career is open to Black people so too every job and career is open to you as a girl. As with Medusa and the women of 1956, we will smash every glass ceiling that these agents of racist, capitalist patriarchy try to impose on us. Even more so, unlike Athena, the time that we turn on our sisters is over.
Matuba Meokgo is the national Secretary General of the ANC women’s league.