ANC Women’s League: A history as complex and varied as women themselves

By IAfrica
In South Africa
Jun 23rd, 2014
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When the ANC Women’s League is spoken of today, it is often with a sense of frustration and betrayal. A once-proud movement, one narrative runs, now inaudible on the real issues which threaten South African women. Leaders of the League take up front-row seats at the Oscar Pistorius murder trial, while staying invisible on less high-profile cases involving gender-based violence. The League launches a prominent campaign to protest against the abduction of Nigerian girls by Boko Haram, yet – as EFF leader Julius Malema pointed out last week – they had nothing to say on the alleged presentation of a woman to Hlaudi Motsoeneng.

The same narrative often assumes a golden past era of the ANC Women’s League, where the real work of advocating for women’s rights took place vocally and defiantly. As Wits Politics Professor Shireen Hassim’s intriguing new history of The ANC Women’s League: Sex, Politics and Gender (part of Jacana Pocket History series) makes clear, this nostalgia for an imagined latter-day League is only partly justified. Throughout its existence, the League has struggled to find a coherent mandate and identity.

The African National Congress may have been a movement of liberation, but it was also very much the product of its time when it came to the issue of the emancipation of women initially. In the early years of the ANC, Hassim writes, “the exclusion of black men from power was self-evidently wrong but the exclusion of women was unremarkable”. Women were only allowed to become full ANC members in 1943, 31 years after the ANC’s formation. Prior to this they were denied voting rights, with women seen as being tasked with providing “suitable shelter and entertainment for delegates to the Congress”.

rebecca-WL-book-for-inside.jpgThe notion of the patriarchal family has always been significant to the ANC, and for much of its existence the ANC has itself replicated the form of a family, Hassim suggests: “with the exclusively male National Executive Committee [NEC] acting as the paternal head of the movement, the Women’s League playing the lesser, maternal role and the Youth League treated as a space of radical militancy needing the guidance of the parents”.

A tension between the conception of Women’s League members as primarily mothers and caregivers vs. activists has characterised much of its existence. With the ANC Women’s League suspended after 1960, it was partially replaced with the Women’s Section, in a role that Hassim defines as “the movement’s social worker”. Hassim points out that this “caring maternalist” character does not inevitably lead to conservative politics; it led women to be at the forefront of opposing the presence of the SANDF in townships in the 1980s, for instance. But at other points it defined all women’s interests as being able to be mapped on to the interests of the family.

Yet the emphasis on women’s maternal identity was not carried through consistently. Female members of Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) were forbidden to become pregnant, Hassim records. Women sent to training camps in Angola had contraceptive IUDs inserted as policy. Young mothers and babies were often dispatched to a facility in Tanzania which could be extremely isolating. There was a ban against ANC women marrying foreigners due to the expectation that the woman would follow the man home, rather than the other way round. Corporal punishment was sometimes meted out to ANC women who dated PAC men.

The question of whether the turn to the armed struggle helped or hindered women within the ANC is one still up for debate, Hassim suggests. Albie Sachs argued the latter, saying that it reinforced the masculine character of the movement. Others contend that it gained respect for women, given the high esteem in which MK was held. Though female soldiers wanted to be treated like anyone else, sometimes gender roles were so ingrained that they weren’t easily discarded. Hassim quotes MK commander Jackie Molefe: “In the beginning the boys expected to have their clothes washed, and the girls would do it.”

From the early 80s onwards, the Women’s Section put more energy into the political education of its members. Hassim writes that younger members in particular travelled abroad and were influenced by exposure to women’s movements internationally. Collaboration with global women’s groups brought in much-needed donations, but they were often told there were no funds available for women’s issues.

Around the mid-80s, ANC NEC member Joe Nhlanhla was to voice the concern that “women have become women first then ANC”. They were warned against “sectarianism”. Nhlanhla’s remarks summarised another central identity conflict: whether the Women’s League’s (or Women’s Section’s) primary role should be mobilising women for national liberation or women’s liberation – with the former invariably dominating.

The ANC’s women’s movements may have been mandated to act for women, but that should not automatically suggest that their ideology was always informed by “feminism” per se. After the 1995 Nairobi Conference of the United Nations Decade for Women, Hassim writes, an anti-feminism attitude within the ANC was fuelled.

This was because there was a push from some international feminists there (like Ronald Reagan’s daughter Maureen) to de-politicise the conference to keep it focused on pure women’s issues. The US delegation, led by Maureen Reagan, opposed a resolution against Apartheid, for instance. The attitude of these so-called “liberal feminists” helped harden anti-feminist attitudes, Hassim suggests, because it was seen as “bourgeois, imperialist and irrelevant to the South African women’s movement”.

But at the same time, some ANC women’s leaders had their eyes fixed worriedly on the records of post-colonial African countries. Continent-wide, writes Hassim, “women’s positions did not significantly improve after independence, despite rhetorical commitments by political leaders”.

In the final years of the Apartheid system, with the ANC preparing for government, there were a number of missed opportunities for genuinely progressive gender-related proposals. When the ANC released its ‘Constitutional Guidelines for a Democratic SA’ in 1988, it was proposed that a clause on gender equality should enshrine “the establishment of women’s rights over their own fertility, and for childcare to be equally shared by fathers and mothers”. It also proposed the removal of “patriarchal rights over the family”. But these proposals did not find expression in the final document, which merely acknowledged the need for gender equality in the public and private sphere.

It’s another example of the ANC’s reluctance to critique power relations within the family unit, which Hassim cites businesswoman and former government official Lulu Gwagwa as attributing to the ANC’s reliance on the family “as a mobilising tool”. This attitude is evident to this day in documents like the Department of Social Development’s Green Paper on the Family, which venerates the notion of the traditional nuclear family even as evidence reveals its existence to be an increasing anomaly in a South African context.

After its unbanning in 1990, the Women’s Section reverted to the name of the Women’s League when it returned to the country “on a wave of triumphalism”, Hassim writes. The return of the League saw it effectively swallow up the women’s organisations which had sprung up in the vacuum left by its movement into exile.

One of the side-effects of disbanding these other women’s organisations was that the non-racial dimension to the South African women’s movement was essentially lost. Among those who mourned this departure was former ANC Minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, who told Hassim: “We pointed out [to the returning exiles] how hard we’d worked to build an alliance across class and race, and it was lost…treated as unimportant”.

Another significant moment in the history of the Women’s League saw Winnie Mandela elected president. At the first post-unbanning conference of the League in 1991 in Kimberley, Gertrude Shope was voted in as president and Albertina Sisulu deputy. But Shope had to stand against Winnie Mandela, who as Nelson Mandela’s wife obviously occupied a significant symbolic position within the ANC. However, Hassim writes, by this stage Winnie was a controversial figure, being on trial for the kidnapping of Stompie Seipei and the disappearance of Lolo Sono.

Being Mandela’s wife also worked against her as much as for her, because “many feminists were concerned that the league would simply become another ‘wives’ club’, like other leagues in Africa”, Hassim suggests. Shope ended up defeating Winnie Mandela by 422 to 196 in a secret ballot, though some say the results would have been different if the votes had been public.

But in 1993 Winnie stood again for the presidency, this time successfully. In the view of some feminists, this put the nail in the coffin of the prospects of the League as a genuinely progressive women’s voice, because Winnie would prioritise loyalty to ANC leadership above all other considerations.

The issue of gender quotas in the ANC is one that the League frequently cites as among its greatest successes. It had first raised the matter at the Women’s Section’s conference in Lusaka in 1986, when there were only three women out of 35 of the ANC’s NEC. In 1991 the League called for a female quota on the NEC of 30%, but the proposal fell by the wayside. A report by the Emancipation Commission in 1994 found that “most women on the ANC payroll were secretaries, with little or no participation in decision-making”. There was clearly a long route still to travel. Ahead of the April 1994 elections, the quota issue was revisited, this time successfully. Almost 30% of MPs in the first democratic Parliament were women as a result.

Representation of women in Parliament since then has not invariably meant advances for women, however. Writes Hassim: “The intervention of ANC women MPs in policy debates have been characterised by support for relatively conservative social attitudes that reinforce the view that women are primarily nurturing, caring members of a community rather than citizens with rights and entitlements to social and public resources”.

Former President Thabo Mbeki was a vocal advocate for women’s political representation, and yet the League threw its weight behind rival Jacob Zuma when the leadership tussle picked up steam. Hassim suggests this was not altogether surprising.

Although, politically and legally, women have been the biggest winners of democratisation, they are also the key shock-absorbers of economic failures,” she writes. “Zuma supporters argued that under his presidency the control of the party would return to the branches and an agenda of economic redistribution would be foregrounded, and that this consideration was so important that the implications of his social conservatism and his problematic relationships with women should be set aside.”

Tensions between feminists and party loyalists came to the fore during the trial of Jacob Zuma for rape in 2006 – something which probably did more than anything else to tarnish the ANC Women’s League’s reputation as the defender of women’s rights. Some female ANC supporters held signs outside court which said “Zuma, rape me,” Hassim records.

More recently, in addition to the League’s refusal to challenge ANC leadership, it has seemed that the League simply lacks the power or influence to shape policy. Hassim points out that senior League members like Lulu Xingwana were vocal in their critique of the Traditional Courts Bill, but apparently went unheard.

As a vehicle for gender equality, the ANC Women’s League has been far from a trusty ship,” Hassim concludes. “It is apparent that the League is not the home of South African feminism, however broadly feminism is defined.” But neither can it be dismissed, she argues, as it has a crucial gatekeeper role to play for positions in government and the selection of party leaders – not that it always uses these powers in the best interests of women.

Fortunately, Hassim notes, the ANC Women’s League is not the sole guardian of women’s rights in South Africa. Aside from other political organisations, there is an active collection of civil society groups who are taking up the mantle in defence of true gender equality. It is to these groups, rather than the ANC Women’s League, that women may look increasingly for the upholding of their rights. DM

Photo: Members of the ANCWL singing outside Pretoria High Court during the Oscar Pistorius murder trial, Monday, 3 March 2014 (SAPA)

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