Support #TotalShutdown on 1 August 2018

The launch of the #TotalShutdown campaign has focused attention on one of the most difficult questions and challenges facing the social justice movement in South Africa. While there are many questions related to the 6week-old #TotalShutdown movement, activists and the workers movement in South Africa and Southern Africa must mobilise and ensure that the campaign against gender based violence is successful on 1 August 2018.

In South Africa gender based violence has reached pandemic proportions. While violence against women and children is rife across all social classes and cultures in this country, it is a daily threat for black working class communities. [In this article we use black in the way Steve Biko used it, to refer to all historically oppressed people in South Africa]. This is played out as domestic violence, sexual violence and the killing of children, femicide or intimate partner violence. It takes place at home, at taxi ranks, within taxis, workplaces, supermarkets, restaurants and schools. Women and children are most vulnerable in their homes, and likely to die at the hand of a loved one.

Sources of violence

The sources of the violence against women and children are multi-layered and linked to patriarchy and the oppression and exploitation of women in society today.

The current phase of capitalism, neoliberalism, is extremely violent as it transfers wealth from the poor to the rich. Since its inception under the GEAR in South Africa in 1996, industries have been restructured and closed, workers have been ripped from their workplaces and retrenched and millions made unemployed in a short space of time. The social and economic disruption has been far-reaching, creating child-headed households which even apartheid did not achieve. It has displaced men from work and has also affected families and given rise to the dominance of single-women headed families. Precarious forms of casual work mean that many (16 million recipients and their families) live on social grants, a hand-to-mouth existence for working people. Fragmentation has affected every fabric of social life and undermined historic forms of solidarity such as stokvels and funeral societies. Under these conditions the daily struggle for survival is generally stressful. The struggle for livelihoods has also impacted on social movements and has led to the demise of organisations. It also induces stress and tensions at the level of personal relations. Within many homes, domestic relations are frayed, fraught by survival struggles, and the responses are often gendered. While black women who are generally responsible for social reproduction, are forced to rise and ensure that children get to school and have food through whatever means necessary, within men this often induces violent behavior as they resort to their physical strength, “culture” and ‘patriarchal right’ to resolve differences and struggles between them and their partners.

Historically, the development of South African society is infused with the violence of dispossession,
spanning hundreds of years. Not only were people dispossessed of land, but they were stripped of culture, way of life, family, and collective memory. This has shaped and informed the collective psyche of all social classes – the dispossessor and the dispossessed. Although SA’s democracy has scrapped much of apartheid’s violent and racist legislation, the violence of the ruling class is endemic and deeply embedded in the collective and the individual’s pysche, maintained and intertwined with the persisting configuration of social inequality. This violence is gendered and expressed against women and children by men.

Challenges of #TotalShutdown

The rise of the #TotalShutdown movement against gender based violence (GBV) six weeks ago has raised 100 000 supporters on facebook and other social media platforms. The aim of the movement is for an intersectional women’s march against GBV on 1 August 2018. This is a women’s only march, and for those who are gender-non-conforming and identify as women. The movement calls on men to support the march by not going to work on that day.

There are many challenges about the #TotalShutdown movement. These include that it is elitist and excludes the majority of black working class women who don’t have access to social media; is largely promoted by black middle class women, young professionals and career women; and it is not oriented to organizing and mobilizing working women at a time when working people, and women especially, are relatively fragmented and defenceless.

The #MeToo Campaign

A similar campaign, the #metoo campaign against the sexual harassment of women, was relaunched on social media by Hollywood actress Alyssa Milano in October 2017. Besides celebrities, including Oprah Winfrey, the campaign resonated with many (white) middle class career women. This resulted in some prominent males like Bill Cosby being charged for sexual harassment.

It is important to note that the #MeToo campaign was first initiated in the United States by Tarana
Burke, a black civil rights activist in 2007 in response to the widespread sexual abuse of women of colour. Burke coined the phrase ‘me too’ to mobilise black women and make them aware that they were not alone; that sexual harassment was widespread; and that they should not be ashamed to speak out. The celebrity nature of the #MeToo campaign in 2017 gained the media’s attention. While the campaign did not become rooted amongst working class and black women, in 2018 Burke received the Voices of the Year (VOTY) Catalyst Award from SheKnowsMedia. This highlights some of the difficulties of mobilising black working women who daily experience sexual harassment. In particular, it shows how a campaign originally directed at black working class women can be taken over and become a middle class campaign.

In South Africa it seemed that the participation in the #MeToo campaign on facebook was routine with little thought to the majority of women in this country that it largely ignored. The campaign seemed to marginalise the experiences of the many who have survived abuse and those who continue to experience sexual abuse. Working women became ‘invisible’, no potential organising initiative arose and the campaign seemed to lack a clear focus on the pervasiveness of sexual violence in this country among the majority of victims.

Opportunities to organise working women

In the context of a relatively weak civil society and social movements amongst the working class, it is understandable that the #TotalShutdown campaign arose on social media. However, despite its limitations the #TotalShutdown moment provides an opportunity in the country and the region to unite and mobilise women (and men) and movements into a grassroots campaign that begins to address the political economy of women in society and organisational questions, and go beyond a social media campaign. The #TotalShutdown campaign is not aligned, is not party political and this allows for a broad mobilization of women, especially working women, to take place.

In addition to the importance of the struggle against GBV in general, the #TotalShutdown campaign is an important initiative in the public domain and it provides the space to discuss broader issues like the sources of the violence, women’s right to their sexuality, the need to organise themselves separately and so forth. While the issue of gender based violence affects all social classes, this is an opportunity for black working women to self-organise wherever they are and rebuild a grassroots women’s movement from below. These local initiatives where women can express themselves and also have the potential of developing grassroots women’s leadership and democracy are vital in ensuring that women organizing achieves a broadbased organisational expression.

This is also an opportunity to purposefully raise awareness about the specific oppression of women under neoliberalism in South Africa. This is potentially an important development in contrast to the anti-apartheid struggle for national liberation where the struggle against women’s oppression was relegated to a “later stage of the revolution”.

Should women organize on their own?

While there is support for the campaign against GBV, there is opposition to a ‘women’s only march’ and the general approach of women organizing separately from men. In the working class Summit held in Johannesburg on the weekend of 21-22 July (2018) this was reflected in debate by some delegates (including women and men), who argued that a women’s only march was divisive and breaks down the unity of the struggle. The debates about whether women should organise separately are similar to debates during apartheid, in particular those involving the Black Consciousness Movement and the need for black people to organise themselves separately from whites. These debates need to continue and are important in the struggle against patriarchy and GBV. The support for the #TotalShutdown movement and the march, however, should not be dependent on the resolution of this debate. It is important that everyone – women and men – supports the call for a #TotalShutdown in the struggle against GBV. A successful march is important to advance the struggle against GBV, to raise awareness about the issues, and to build the confidence of women. A successful march will also deepen organising and organisation.

Previous Trade Unions facing collapse