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

By Gisela Geisler | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER 4
The Women's League Syndrome
A Non-Decision-Making Machinery

The strategies South African women employed in the 1980s were informed not only by the long history of their involvement in the political struggle against apartheid, but also by the benefit of being able to take into account the experiences of women in neighbouring countries. In exile many women had lived in Zambia, Tanzania, and Botswana where they were confronted by state and party controlled women's movements. As women's leagues were characterised by “oversized women dressed in party garb… dancing at the airport… who never cease to sing praises for the president”1 their members had remained powerless “parroting figures”2 with no political influence and no ambitions to promote women's emancipation. Moreover, many women's leagues came to be identified as the only national women's movement, apparently speaking for all women, effectively curtailing the autonomy of the women's movement and the independence of progressive “feminist” voices.

What was considered problematic, also for South African women, was the experience that when nationalist liberation movements moved from opposition to government the parameters of women's involvement often changed profoundly. Liberation movements tended to be more inclusive allowing women political spaces in order to claim their energies for the struggle. While this desire did not change after independence, women's involvement came to be circumscribed as being passive and auxiliary. Political parties developed more particularistic goals, which did not represent the aspirations of all citizens and often no longer included the concerns of women. Autonomous women's movements, not tied to political parties or their particularistic aims alone thus became more important while the interests of political parties and governments to contain, coopt or divide movements grew.

The limitations of being subsumed under political parties were most obvious in situations where the party was identical with the government—worst in oneparty states and bad in countries with large majority parties—but they were not restricted to these. Botswana, with a reputation of being “the shining star of liberal democracy”3 failed to grant women political space to pursue their own concerns until well into the 1990s. In Zimbabwe, nominally a democracy since independence in 1980, the situation has hardly been different. And in Mozam

____________________
1
‘No regrets in wearing Mugabe portrait: Chikwinya’, Zimbabwe Independent, 10 September 1999.
2
Ibid.
3
Ataliah Molokomme quoted in Makan 1997:84.

-88-

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