When will National Women’s day be more than annual celebratory rituals?

South Africa - Johannesburg - 09 August 2019 Totalsports Womens Race Johannesburg Mary Fitzgerald Square celebration of womens day Bhekikhaya Mabaso: African News Agency (ANA)

When will National Women’s Day and the current Women’s Month become much more than annual symbolic and celebratory rituals that they largely are?

And how helpful and supportive are our public and social policies in satisfying the basic needs of black working-class women and in empowering and developing them to be active participants in both dealing with their daily problems and in forging a better and brighter future?

Most, unfortunately, the poorest black women are up against a neoliberal capitalist system which is protected and managed by the ANC and which cares little about their daily plight and basic needs. That we have a specific ministry for women makes the appalling treatment of black working-class women, the overwhelming majority of women, more disconcerting and hypocritical. 

These women are the poorest people in this country, often without the basic means to take adequate care of themselves and their children, with many or most of them dependent on the meagre social grants they receive, though there are many who lack even this most minimal help. Anybody familiar with South African history will know that such women have been the most oppressed, subjugated and exploited people, arguably not only under apartheid, but in the post-apartheid period too.

This is not only the picture in the rural areas, where black female poverty, unemployment and hunger are rife but the overwhelming reality in the townships in urban areas too. What has the ANC government done to satisfy the basic needs of black working-class women, who are also the majority of the population? Whether it concerns seeing doctors, accessing medicines or reproductive health facilities these women are the biggest casualties of our dreadfully poor and crumbling public hospitals, which is now facing its biggest crisis probably ever.  

They too suffer most from the harsh consequences of the commercialisation and commodification of basic services in the townships. Virtually all the domestic activities involving water and electricity are performed by these women, from cooking to washing and cleaning. 

I am reminded of an elderly black woman who cried in her hands, telling me during my PhD research in Phiri, Soweto, in 2005, that the ANC had ‘’come to take away my water, which not even the whites who ruled us under apartheid did’’, after a prepaid a water meter was imposed in her home, like in the rest of Phiri and many other townships.

These women bear the brunt of all the neoliberal policies which affect the provision of basic services in townships, inflicting terrible hardship on them. With little or no formal education and skills and occupying the lowest rungs of our society, these women are unable to adequately satisfy their basic daily needs. They today often struggle even to find domestic work, that is how bad the jobless and social crisis is.

Those who do find domestic work are still slaving away in homes for a pittance paid by both the white and black elite and their middle-class underlings. They are still the lowest-paid workers in South Africa, worse than black mine and construction workers. These women are also still weighed down often by oppressive black patriarchal fathers, husbands and brothers, who are largely still perpetrators of the most backward sociocultural masculinist and sexist prejudices towards them, which they were themselves raised under for centuries, from one generation to the next.

Assaulted, beaten and raped is often the daily lot of poor black women in townships, with Diepsloot probably being the rape capital not only of Gauteng but of this country. We need to hear the anguish voices from these ordinary black women much more than we do. But as in other facets of public discourse the media is overwhelmingly dominated by the voices of leading black elite and middle-class women, be it in politics, business, the arts and in other areas. And how much have the trade unions done to organise, defend and protect such women? 

But it is to the state that I finally turn and where ultimately responsibility for the defence and protection of the interests, material and otherwise, of these poor women lie. Besides the widespread poverty, unemployment and low wages they suffer it is an unmitigated shame that this supposedly democratic state is unable or unwilling to adequately defend these women against the avalanche of rapes, beatings and killings they daily subjected to in townships. 

Ebrahim Harvey is an independent political writer and analyst.