Summit Highlights need for mass based feminist movement


Violence against women and children has reached pandemic proportions in South Africa, and black working class women bear the brunt of it in communities and townships. A few days before the South African government’s Summit on Gender and Femicide (which took place on 1-2 November), the Gauteng Community Health Care Forum (GCHCF) called for a boycott of the Summit because working class women were not included and the way that it was organised showed its anti-working class nature. The lack of an active and mass-based feminist movement meant that even this call was not debated as part of movement building, and instead the focus of debate was on whether the ANC Women’s League was hijacking the Summit or not.

The Summit has come and gone, and a closer look at its composition, orientation and the ‘Declaration of the Presidential Summit against Gender Based Violence and Femicide’ confirms the critique of the Summit as excluding working class women. Almost 25 years of escalating violence against women should be enough proof that the ANC government, the hosts of the Summit, is incapable of ending violence against women and children and gender non-conforming people (VAWC & GNCP) and now, more than ever, working class women and their allies must take their lives into their own hands and organise a grassroots feminist movement and struggle against VAWC & GNCP.

Previous Summits & Gender Interventions by the state

The gender summit of November 2018 is not the first summit, as claimed by its organisers and the press. Indeed, the hosting of summit after summit shows that there is no will to tackle VAWC & GNCP in South Africa, and our challenge as feminists is to understand the sources of this failure as a first and important step towards building a feminist movement.

The first Summit on Gender in 2001 was organised by the Commission on Gender Equality (CGE), a Chapter 9 statutory body provided for in the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa. The first Summit assessed the government’s achievements on gender equity, poverty and women after five years of democracy, and also took into account the Beijing Platform (1995). The Summit sought to examine the effectiveness of the country’s “gender machinery”, or the institutions and laws dealing with the position of women in society. This ‘machinery’ included a Parliamentary Committee of all political parties whose role is to monitor the equality and status of women in parliament. The 2001 Summit’s focus on gender was comprehensive, and included amongst others, land reform, the courts, the economy, sex work, tradition and culture, and violence against women. This summit, which included government and civil society, set the agenda of the what the CGE and the state needed to do going forward.

Over the past two decades the South African government has hosted and/or participated in summits related to gender and women at home, in Southern Africa and Africa. These summits, which also included the participation of civil society, have focused on amongst others HIV/AIDS, Pan African Sexual and Reproductive Rights, African Union Gender Summits, Poverty Alleviation and the Millenium Development Goals. Following policies and resolutions on issues that include gender equity and VAWC & GNCP, a substantial overarching legislative framework was developed.

In 2009, under President Zuma, a new ministry for Women, Youth and Children, and People with Disability was announced under the leadership of Noluthando Mayende-Sibiya (a former President of NEHAWU). The Ministry aimed to promote gender equity and the development of vulnerable groups in society. In 2014, Minister Susan Shabangu was appointed as Minister of Women, and the ministry was moved into the Presidency where it remains, “to ensure its effectiveness”. The current minister who is meant to have oversight of this extensive ‘gender machinery’ in the Presidency is Bathabile Dhlamini.

The CGE held a second Summit in 2015 to ‘Reflect on 20 years of South Africa’s democracy: Celebrating gains and strategising on challenges to attain gender equality’. Amongst other things, the 2015 Summit identified violence against women, poverty and women’s economic empowerment as critical areas for state reform.

A proper positioning of the 2018 Summit against the background of previous Summits is important for a serious assessment of this Summit, and for the role these summits play in the ruling elite’s attitude to VAWC & GNCP. By positioning the 2018 Summit as the first of its kind, the #TotalShutdown activists present a narrative that elevates this Summit as a key and unique intervention in the struggle against VAWC & GNCP, and it also hides the rushed nature of the Summit and the way the #TotalShutdown was captured by the Ramaphosa-aligned elite.

An assessment of the Summit and its outcomes

The problems of the 2018 Summit and its failure to deal with key sources of VAWC & GNCP and the rise in femicide was rooted in the very way it was organised.

How the Summit was organised

The Gender Summit was one of the 24 demands of the #TotalShutdown march held on 1 August 2018; and did not emerge through a process of struggle and/or transparent public engagement that included the working class. [I have dealt with the problems of that movement in a previous article. See Karibu article]. A relatively small number of working class women and progressive feminists supported the #TotalShutdown’s march against VAWC & GNCP, notwithstanding that the call was made by mainly middle class women. This was a recognition that the call for demonstrative action against VAWC & GNCP needed to be supported. The call itself dovetailed with social movements and NGO initiatives and educational work on VAWC & GNCP and on the position of women in society generally. However, the 24 demands of the march did not arise from a broad process of mobilisation and sustained struggle. What should have been the beginning of a series of mobilisations was immediately transformed into a demand for a Summit, notwithstanding the long history of Summits, policies and laws that have failed to address VAWC & GNCP. Indeed, the very idea that this was a ‘first’ already showed how detached the organisers were from the struggle of women over almost a quarter of a century of post-apartheid South Africa.

At the march, a small group of women waited for the President after the march had dispersed, and for all intents and purposes ‘agreed’ with the President about this Summit. The initial timing of the Summit for end of August showed that there was no intention to involve a broader cross-section of society in this process.

The ‘top-down’ and elitist approach continued even after the Presidency agreed to the Summit. Given the enormity of the challenge of VAWC & GNCP, the Summit was not organised to purposefully capture the imagination and support of all women and all other sections of society. Instead, the preparations and pre-summit meeting(s) were organised behind closed doors for select women. Information was not easily available to the public, especially grassroots women and their organisations, so that participation was open to everyone. This top-down approach favours the ruling class, its representatives and middle class women; and promotes patronage where women and organisations are hand-picked from those positioned ‘close to power’. Hence, only certain organisations and individuals within civil society aligned to the ruling elite were invited. No extensive or serious mobilisation took place within the labour movement, notwithstanding the fact that it remains one of the important organisations within the working class. No mass mobilisation took place within churches or any mass based women’s associations. Important social organisations of women, such as stokvels in townships, were not canvassed. Universities have been sites of serious violence against female students, yet no mass mobilisation and mass based representation of women from campuses took place. Schools, which are also sites where violence against girls is widespread, were not canvassed or mobilised. All these and many other sites of struggle are key in any struggle against VAWC & GNCP, and yet the organisers of the #TotalShutdown movement were so focused on being close to the state that all the key traditional constituencies of the mass movement were overlooked and excluded.

Similarly, the development of the Summit’s agenda, orientation and content was subjected to the same process. Hence, issues like the sources of the violence and the ruling class’s violent regime of accumulation, and the ANC’s role and record against VAWC & GNCP, were not on the agenda. The dire social conditions in which the majority of women who bear the brunt of VAWC & GNCP were not discussed. The Summit was designed to show the Presidency (and by extension the ANC) ‘addressing VAWC & GNCP;’ and a few middle class women have been co-opted by being positioned (no matter how temporarily) close to power.

The demands of the #TotalShutdown movement and the subsequent focus on a ‘Presidential’ summit took the initiative for resolving the problems of VAWC & GNCP out of the hands of women and gender non-conforming people, and handed this to a patriarchal and male-dominated state. The #Totalshutdown movement abandoned one of the key principles of the feminist movement, and indeed of any movement of oppressed and exploited people, namely, that only those who are oppressed and exploited can liberate themselves. As a result, the initiative for any interventions by women must be led by women and not handed over to men and a patriarchal state.

The South African state, the ruling class and VAWC & GNCP

The Summit was presided over by representatives of the South African ruling class whose regime of capital accumulation is based on violence, exploitation of cheap black labour, poverty, unemployment and social inequality. [Here the term ‘black’ is used in the BC/Biko sense, to include all previously oppressed people.] The ruling class’s representatives and its beneficiaries – the ANC government, politicians, corporates, ‘super brand’ NGOs, BEE practitioners, academics, and middle-class women, amongst others – support and maintain the existing patterns of accumulation.

After 25 years of democracy, the patterns of capital accumulation inherited from apartheid continues to reproduce social inequality along the lines of colour and class; producing an impoverished black majority and abhorrently wealthy white elites. The role of comprador black elites – in government, corporates and civil society – maintains the ruling class’s dominance. The black elites are tied to the white ruling class by thousands of threads, their very existence depends on their role as managers of a regime of accumulation that continues to impoverish the majority.

The ruling class’s model of capital accumulation, neoliberalism, is based on ‘jobless growth’ and the transfer of wealth from the poor to already wealthy elites. Since 1996 many industries were purposefully restructured and/or destroyed to increase the profitability of capital, and millions were retrenched. Unemployment is officially at 37%. Permanent jobs are increasingly obsolete in preference of contract, casual and ‘volunteer’ labour. In this context, black women workers are preferable as their labour is generally cheaper. Under South Africa’s democracy this current regime of accumulation is the breeding grounds for the escalating VAWC & GNCP.

The Marikana Massacre (2012) demonstrated the violence of poverty enveloping the working class, despite the (platinum) wealth that workers create. After years, workers in democratic South Africa live in squalor and resort to loansharks (mashonisas) to make ends meet. Marikana revealed the state’s violence and preparedness to safeguard a violent regime of accumulation; and the integration of black elites, corporates, government and the state into this regime. In the context of systemic violence, VAWC & GNCP, is therefore a direct product of broken families, demoralised and brutalised men whose self-esteem has been broken, and young women who have to engage in transactional sex in order to survive. Sexual violence and harassment is endemic in South African workplaces and spaces of power. Hardly a day goes by without politicians and corporate bosses being exposed for sexual abuse. Violence against women and girls, against gender non-conforming people is taking place at all levels of society, especially in homes, workplaces and communities.

The physical manifestations of VAWC & GNCP is the tip of the iceberg, and are indices of larger problems as violence takes many forms. These other forms of violence, including emotional, psychological and economic violence, are hidden from view. Women, predominantly responsible for social reproduction struggle to hold together families and households under precarious conditions.

None of the #Totalshutdown demands deal with the link between VAWC & GNCP and the socio-economic conditions of women and girls, and this approach was carried into the Summit. The failure of the #TotalShutdown activists to highlight this link, and to ensure that the interventions of the Summit deal with the social and economic roots of the violence effectively abandons millions of women, girls and gender non-confirming people to the continuation of violence. Indeed, by failing to highlight that it is the social and economic policies of the ANC in power that deepens and sustains this violence, the #TotalShutdown activists allowed themselves to be used to cover-up the complicity of the President, his government and his party in the pandemic of violence gripping the country. No movement forward to resolve VAWC & GNCP will happen as long as the basic sources of this violence are white-washed and hidden.

The 2018 Summit Declaration

The Summit Declaration reflects the ‘solutions’ consistent with the ruling class’s interests, and includes the 24 demands of #TotalShutdown. The “objectification of women, men’s entitlement and normative gender roles” are identified as the sources of the violence and emphasis is therefore placed on changing individual men’s behaviour. But, the violence is too systemic and structural to be the responsibility of individual men; and is sourced from the violent way wealth is created and distributed. The Declaration is completely silent about the prevailing social and economic conditions in the most unequal society in the world. The vague reference to ‘promote women-centred economic empowerment’ is consistent with middle class and BEE practitioners.

The Declaration represents a retreat from the first summit in 2001, which recognised the need to combat (VAWC & GNCP) in the broader context of gender equity, women’s economic empowerment, land reform, tradition and culture, amongst others. The Declaration, a ‘narrow’ form of liberal bourgeois feminism, is ahistorical and ignores the context completely. Class interests have blinded black middle class women to the needs of working class women. The Summit ignores completely apartheid legacies and the prevailing poverty, unemployment, social inequality and lack of service delivery, and its impact and contribution to VAWC & GNCP and in society.

The main aspect of the Declaration attempts to focus on responding to women when violence takes place. The Summit fails to introduces anything ‘new’ – the commitment to safe houses, psychosocial support, Thuthuzela Centres etc is more than 2 decades old, and has appeared in many parliamentary and other reports. It is true that if these measures are accomplished, they would improve the conditions of working women. The real question is why they have not been implemented even though they have been agreed to on many different occasions. Without highlighting how the context of neoliberal austerity stands in the way of implementation, and the need for fundamental structural responses, all the #TotalShutdown activists have done is to provide a cover for the ruling class and its management, the ANC.

The Declaration includes provisions for a national council of stakeholders, budgeted and championed by the President and a national strategic plan. What role will the existing constitutional provisions play in VAWC & GNCP – the Chapter 9 CGE, the Women’s Ministry in the Presidency, the Parliamentary Monitoring Committee? With an analysis that positions neoliberal austerity as a barrier to implementing the declarations of previous summits and many other processes, this proposal seems like just another one that positions additional careerists to move up the governmental and corporate ranks.

Organise a grassroots feminist movement

Some activists argued for the need to work with government and to participate and struggle ‘from within the Summit’. However, there are reasons why this was not a working proposition.

Firstly, my analysis indicates that the regime of capital accumulation is the source of VAWC & GNCP and within society as a whole. Hence, previous Summits, despite wide-ranging and substantial legislation, resolutions, policies and the Constitution have not only been unable to curb VAWC & GNCP, but have witnessed its escalation. Like its predecessors, this Summit is doomed, and will not significantly combat, let alone eradicate VAWC & GNCP.

At this point in time the working class feminist movement is weak and needs to build its forces. In contrast, the ruling class and its representatives (including middle class women), are dominant, outweigh and outnumber working class feminists. In this context, participating in the Summit would have compromised the feminist agenda, autonomy and ability to critique. It is also important for feminists to build democratically, and to accept that this will be slow. There should be no rush to be “within” or “close” to ruling class power. Once ‘within’ the Summit, one would be bound by its majority decisions, resolutions and declarations; and it would therefore be difficult to withdraw or dissociate from the Summit afterwards. Activists who go “within” without the forces to shift decisions simply facilitate the legitimacy of a Summit that would be seen as being ‘inclusive’.

Therefore, being ‘outside’ the Summit provided working class feminists with organisational and ideological flexibility: to organise, to picket, to pamphleteer, to share perspectives and analysis and raise awareness, especially for the working class women who are ‘outside’ the Summit. This approach enables working women (and men) to not be afraid of the implications of their analysis and at the same time to organise and wage the struggle for alternatives. The picket by women from the Gauteng Community Health Care Forum and Simunye Women Workers Forum, which took place at the Gender Summit, was an important experience that assisted in developing the confidence of emerging activists, and strengthening organisation. The dismal outcomes of the Summit have confirmed the correctness of this class conscious approach to organising.

It was also important for working women (and men) to demonstrate their class independence to ensure that their interests are not subsumed by the interests of the ruling class and their middle class allies. Class independence is vital in waging a consistent struggle, and providing a beacon to the working class and progressive middle class individuals who are committed to ending VAWC & GNCP.

This does not mean that the working class or feminists do not ever engage the state. Indeed, working class women – in workplaces, communities and other spaces – engage the state and corporate bosses to improve their conditions. Once working class feminists have a sound organisational basis that includes awareness and clarification on political perspectives, waging campaigns and engaging the state become a matter of course. There has been engagement with government over more than two decades and this is an important experience of struggle to draw on. This experience has demonstrated that the ANC government does not listen to its people and to social protests, which are often violently suppressed, and reveal lengthy histories of communities’ patient engagement with government at different levels, waiting to be heard.

There is a need to raise awareness about women’s position in neoliberal South Africa, and a need for non-violent forms of resistance to deepen this process of consciousness raising. This is crucial in the building of a feminist movement, and in feminising our struggles. Black working class women are the ‘wretched of the earth’, and the most subordinated section of society. They are therefore the primary social force that must lead and drive struggles against VAWC & GNCP. Working class women are therefore objectively integral to struggles to end not only violence against women (and within society as a whole), but to struggle for a feminised egalitarian society.

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