Women and the Remaking of Politics in Southern Africa: Negotiating Autonomy, Incorporation and Representation

By Gisela Geisler | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
Asserting Women's Liberation within
National Liberation

The Case of the South African Women's Movement

Even though women entered early nationalist movements with a hope of liberating their country and also themselves, nationalist leaders failed to acknowledge women's oppression not only under colonialism but also under patriarchy. The leaders of Marxist liberation struggles recognised the need for the emancipation of women, but saw that need as satisfied within national liberation. This meant that women's specific gender interests were not recognised in post-independence politics, and that patriarchal value systems reasserted themselves even in cases where the conditions of the struggle had started to question them.

In rural Zimbabwe women's liberation came to be heard of only after independence had been won,1 and discourses within SWAPO never questioned existing gender roles during the liberation struggle. In South African liberation movements, the official discourse was no different until the 1980s, when women were able to assert themselves and their specific needs within the ANC to such effect that in 1990 the ANC leadership officially acknowledged women's emancipation as an autonomous aspect of national liberation. The statement of the ANC National Executive Committee which established this recognition, clearly stated that

the experience of other societies has shown that the emancipation of women is not a by-product of national liberation or socialism. It needs to be addressed in its own right within our organisation, the mass democratic movement and in society as a whole.2

This statement opened up considerable political space for women in the transition period towards majority rule in the early 1990s and it encouraged exceptional policy outcomes. Most notable and visible among them was the large number of women who entered parliament in 1994 on an ANC ticket. According to Frene Ginwala, one of the most prominent gender activists in the ANC leadership in exile, who has held the position of Speaker of the South African Parliament since 1994, this for Southern Africa unique result “did not happen out of nothing… it is a process”. Gender policy had become the concern of the party rather than just its women members, so that “it is not as if you have a pol

____________________
1
Themba Khumalo quoted in Staunton 1990: 81.
2
‘Statement of the National Executive Committee of the African National Congress on the Emancipation of Women in South Africa’, 2 May 1990, quoted in Walker 1991: xv.

-64-

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