Women’s liberation: struggles to free ourselves and society


After more than 20 years of democracy and a Constitution that boasts women’s rights, the majority of Black working class women of all ages (including children and the elderly) live in conditions of abject poverty, unemployment and social inequality. They lack basic services like housing and healthcare; many live on meagre social grants that prevent complete starvation, but many go hungry. Work for black women is largely precarious and casual. Violence and sexual abuse is widespread at home, work, school and in communities. While South Africa is a rich country, it is unfree for the majority, and black women bear this burden.

While working people have not given up the struggle against social inequality, and black women especially swell the ranks of social movements and struggles for service delivery, understanding the source(s) of social inequality in South Africa and its concrete manifestations is important, to eradicate it. Under ANC neoliberal rule, a patriarchal apartheid capitalism has continued under the control of the white elite, based on cheap black labour. Widespread corruption is a means for the black elite (and others) to access the state coffers.

In the context of neoliberalism social inequality, black single women-headed familyhouseholds bear the burden of social reproduction – bringing up the next generation of workers, acculturated to poverty. It is difficult to ‘break out’ of prevailing conditions as traditional escape routes like education is closed off to the working class because of poverty-induced factors.

The way South African society is organised therefore keeps black women trapped in conditions of social inequality and oppression from one generation to the next; and hence hard-won constitutional rights don’t mean much.

These chains are buttressed by institutional, authoritarian and patriarchal beliefs and values associated with religion, culture and tradition that converge to reinforce and keep women ‘in their place’. These are often reproduced by individuals – men (and women) including family members, fathers, brothers, sons, chairpersons, priests and fellow activists and comrades.

Women are important bearers of patriarchy – within all social institutions, cultures and family relationships. Collectively, the patriarchy in the different spaces reinforce the thousands of threads that chain and oppress women to accept their ‘place in the world’.

Women contribute to their unfreedom by internalising their own oppression, demonstrated at the recent Khanya College Winter School in July this year. The theme of the School, Challenges to feminise our struggles, revealed how the oppressed, after a time accept and believe the chains patriarchal capitalism has imposed on us: women do the lowest paid jobs, women are paid less, and are treated as second class citizens.

Practiced over centuries, this internalisation breeds inferiority amongst women at an individual level, and is also reproduced from one generation to another. Despite their central role within social reproduction at home and in society, in an emotional session the women expressed their low expectation of themselves and for themselves, their low self esteem and general diffidence, and lack of trust in themselves. This process of internalisation explains how women maintain their own oppression, both socially and individually. While the women at the School indicated that the challenges for women’s emancipation are difficult and multi-layered, it was not impossible. Historically, building women’s awareness and a movement for women’s liberation, requires a struggle at the level of the individual, collectively with other women, and must also be combined with struggles in communities and social movements for service delivery.

An important step is to free ourselves, to break the chain and stop the internalisation of our own oppression. This means analysing, ‘seeing’ ourselves and all other women positively, and recognising the work we do individually and collectively in holding together family and community in the face of capitalist patriarchy. Given their important position in society, women have powerful leverage to change society. It means amongst other things, women taking the lead in the struggle against their own oppression, raising women’s awareness, building solidarity feminist networks with other women, raising the consciousness of men and communities in organisations and how struggles are taken up.

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