Walk-on part for women in SA’s liberation epic

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Most high-profile females in media reports are murder victims or beauty queens — in spite of strides in gender equality, writes Rebecca Davis.

Amid this murky landscape of inequality and danger, how does one avoid losing hope?

As I write this, the two events dominating the media are the trials of men accused of killing their partners in South Africa. The circumstances of Oscar Pistorius’s and Shrien Dewani’s cases are very different, but at the heart of both lies an innocent, dead woman.

In June this year, another case will join this dismal group. World-renowned artist and photographer Zwelethu Mthethwa, who has exhibited in New York’s prestigious Museum of Modern Art, appeared in court on Friday charged with beating to death 23-year-old Nokuphila Khumalo in April last year.

A female judge is presiding over the Pistorius trial, which may create a skewed impression about the makeup of the South African judiciary. Earlier this month, the Judicial Service Commission interviewed seven candidates shortlisted for the Supreme Court of Appeal. Not one was a woman.

The apparent shortage of female expertise has also been on display elsewhere in the Pistorius trial: of the 12 expert witnesses called by the state and the defence at the time of writing, none has been female. If we take the role of Judge Thokozile Masipa out of the equation, women, in this narrative, are restricted to roles as neighbours, ex-girlfriends — and, of course, the victim.

But hey, it’s not all bad news. We’ve just crowned a new Miss South Africa, the beautiful Rolene Strauss, a medical student, who was asked hard-hitting questions in her post-victory media interviews.

Like: “How good are you at cooking?”

There was also the Women’s Lifestyle Expo, held in Cape Town last weekend, which was aimed at “recognising and celebrating women’s lifestyles in all of their vibrancy and diversity”, with special tips on “active anti-ageing”. Presumably, we can look forward to the same emphasis placed on moisturising at any equivalent Men’s Lifestyle Expo in future.

It’s hard not to become downcast about the position of women in a country in which some of the most high-profile females in media reports in any given week might be murder victims and beauty queens. But the death of Nelson Mandela late last year provided a welcome opportunity to reflect on the ways in which conditions for South African women have changed tangibly for the better since the advent of democracy.

Although it’s undeniable that it was black people of both sexes who received the brunt of apartheid’s discrimination, women in both the public and private spheres also fared less well under the white-led regime. It’s worth remembering that just 2.7% of MPs were women under apartheid, for instance.

The exclusion of women from the formal economy predated the formal onset of apartheid. In the mid-1930s, there were three South African males in the urban centres to every one female.

When they did work, women consistently earned far less than men. Indian female labourers on sugar-cane plantations were paid half the wages of their indentured male counterparts. By the late 1980s, estimates have it that women made up 90% of the domestic workforce and 36% of the industrial workforce while still earning lower wages for the same job. Women were far less likely to be unionised — a trend that continues to this day. When female unionists tabled a demand for a code of conduct on sexual harassment at trade union federation Cosatu’s national congress in 1989, it was dismissed with hostility and irritation as being inconsequential.

Customary laws endorsed by the apartheid government kept African women at the legal status of minors in relation to the men in their lives. Although white women were substantially better off, legally speaking, in practical terms their situations were often not drastically different. South African cultures of all races have tended to be patriarchal. Sociologist Fatima Meer wrote in 1985: “It is difficult to assess which of the component cultures, African, Indian or European, was the most repressive before the advent of industrialisation.”

Women’s bodies were a battlefield long before the likes of Pistorius and Dewani came along. This was seen in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission revelations that scientists from the old defence force had tried to develop an antifertility vaccine for black women. They barely needed it: healthcare provisions for black women under apartheid were woefully inadequate, leading to one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world.

After Mandela took office in 1994, he declared in his first state of the nation address: “Freedom cannot be achieved unless women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression.” Under Mandela, female representation in parliament rose immediately to about 20% — although there were only two women ministers in his first cabinet.

Some of the most important contributions Mandela made to gender equality were in the field of reproductive rights. The constitution that Mandela helped to usher in states — highly unusually — that the state “may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including . . . pregnancy”. The Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1996 was one of the most progressive pieces of abortion legislation in the world.

But the issue of abortion exemplifies the gulf between what the new democratic era appeared to offer women and the difficulties they face in 2014 in practically accessing their rights. Today, it is estimated that less than 40% of designated government abortion facilities are actually available. A fresh moralistic tide has seen even as well-respected a figure as Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi suggesting disapprovingly in July last year that young girls were “using abortion as contraception”— a claim repeatedly denied by women’s health activists.

Today, we live in a South Africa of gender paradoxes and unfulfilled promises. We live in a land in which the ruling party adopted a policy of 50-50 female representation in 2008, and women’s representation in parliament rose to 44% after the 2009 elections — a far cry from the apartheid years. But it is also a land in which female parliamentarians face derogatory comments about their looks, weight and dress choices.

We live in a country in which the designated women’s minister, Lulu Xingwana, stormed out of an exhibition of lesbian photography in her previous role as minister of arts and culture, deeming it “immoral”. The same minister, a few months ago, hailed as an example of the “good story” of gender the fact that the CEO of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange is a woman — while only 4% of the CEOs of JSE-listed companies are women. The World Economic Forum’s gender gap report suggested last year that South African women earned on average 33% less than men for the same kind of task.

We live in a country in which the transition to democracy brought political emancipation but not bodily freedom. For all the lip service paid to stopping gender-based violence, many South African women remain fundamentally unsafe.

Research conducted in Gauteng in 2010 found that one in four of the women questioned had been raped, although only one in 25 raped by their partners had reported it to the police. In the spaces where they should feel most secure, South African women may be most at risk. Most murdered women in this country are killed by their intimate partners, at the rate of one every eight hours.

The battle against HIV is trumpeted as having been won, but it’s women, again, who are losing. The latest national HIV household survey found that the prevalence rate among teenage girls was eight times higher than for their male counterparts.

Amid this murky landscape of inequality and danger, how does one avoid losing hope?

One clings to the evidence that progress, although sometimes glacially slow, must inevitably come. One takes inspiration from fearless female leaders such as African Union head Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, or public protector Thuli Madonsela.

And one strives to remember the indomitable battle cry of South African womanhood: Wathint’a bafazi wathint’imbokodo. You strike a woman, you strike a rock.

Picture: HALDEN KROGFRILLS OF FREEDOM: Panties hang outside parliament in a protest against South Africa’s rape epidemic.

By Rebecca Davis

Davis is a Daily Maverick writer and columnist based in Cape Town. She studied at Rhodes University.


Article Source: Sunday Times