South Africa: Struggle is the answer to women’s oppression

Ruling establishments have long tried to ‘domesticate’ international women’s day – to shed crocodile tears for the victims of gender oppression

Women are at the forefront of the rising struggles which are bound to challenge capitalism, and all the oppressions which may, as in the case of gender oppression, have originated in earlier social systems. In South Africa, women have defied the narrow space set out for them by brutal oppression, and played a key role in the workers’ and working class community struggles which have shaken the country in the last year.

The publicity around the recent brutal rape and murders of Anene Booysen and Reeva Steenkamp have sparked massive outrage against sexist violence across South Africa. According to the Medical Research Council, only one in 25 rapes are even reported in South Africa. Drawing on police statistics, that means an average of 3,600 rapes per day!

Every year, thousands of women are murdered by the men closest to them. This is virtually a silent war against women. Breaking the silence is a good first step, but not enough. Steps towards liberation for the oppressed are won through struggle, and struggle is what is needed to fight back and eventually defeat the oppression of women. But who can take this fight to victory, and how?

Fighting sexism – no priority of this government

While International Women’s Day does not usually receive much attention in South Africa, this year the public outcry against violence against women has forced the African National Congress (ANC) government to talk about it. Unfortunately, we should not expect anything beyond talk. The same government which calls for the arrest of those who abuse and kill women cannot even provide enough DNA kits to police stations, not to mention ensure that a person reporting rape is not abused again by the police themselves!

While lamenting the violence against women, in his 2013 ‘State of the Nation’ speech, President Zuma declared that ‘violent’ protests of workers would be treated as the priority crime. There will be a special prioritised court roll ensuring that striking workers and community members are locked up as quickly as possible. Suppressing the rising mass struggles that pose a threat to their positions and to the hand that feeds them – big business and capitalism – is a strategic priority for government. Ending sexist violence is not.

While anyone, including politicians, will be moved and horrified by the details of the brutality inflicted and the numbing statistics of what sometimes appears like a war against women, in the end, for the ruling class, these are the unsavoury overheads of a system founded on exploitation, abuse and dehumanisation. As genuine as politicians, business people and celebrities may be in their denunciations of this violence, they do not have the solutions, because they are tied up with a system that cannot help but perpetuate gender oppression. The struggle for women’s liberation needs to be led by working class women, supported by working class men, and replace capitalism with a socialist system that can lay the foundation for ending all forms of oppression.

A class question

The high-profile murder of the rich, famous, white Reeva Steenkamp and the rape and murder of the poor, black, working class teenager, Anene Booysen, have led some commentators to preach about women’s oppression as a universal, eternal scourge against which we must all unite. It is true that both rich and poor women, in all countries, are affected by gender oppression in countless ways, of which rape and murder are the most extreme, but it does not affect them equally. For example, a low-paid woman worker (most likely black) who depends financially on her male partner does not have the same possibilities to control her life as her billionaire woman boss (most likely white). While women in or around the capitalist elite suffer gender-based violence, prejudice and discrimination, they also benefit from capitalism’s dependency on working class women’s low wages, unpaid labour, e.g. in the family, that keeps the economy and society going at the cost of women’s health and lives, as well as the division of the working class along gender lines. Unity in the fight against women’s oppression is either unity under a working class banner, or a sentimental exercise in reinforcing illusions in the system.

The ruling elite’s attempts at explaining the horrific violence against women, therefore, often smack of stale moralism. Zuma, for example, has pointed to, amongst other things, the ‘disintegration of the family’, ‘youth not respecting elders’ and single-parenting as causes. This adds confusion, not clarity. The family, in fact, is the main scene for violence against women. Like Anene Booysen and Reeva Steenkamp, many of the 2,500 women who are murdered every year are killed by their intimate partners. Also in most cases of rape, the rapist is known to the victim – a husband, boyfriend, relative, etc.

Calls for harsh sentences and against bail for suspected rapists, women abusers and murderers, like Oscar Pistorius, are welcome. But violence against women is not carried out by deranged monsters, in the main. In a 2009 Medical Research Council study, in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, one in four men admitted to rape. In a 2010 study in Gauteng, one in three admitted to rape and nearly 80% of men admitted violent abuse of women. A majority of girls’ first ‘sexual experiences’, if rape can be labelled as such, are not consensual. Rape and murder are the most extreme forms of gender oppression, which permeates society in countless ways.

Women’s oppression is not an inescapable evil that has always existed and always will. In the long view of human history, it is still ‘news’! Early human societies, where there was no wealth to fight over, attached equal value to all members of the community. Patriarchy – the social order that puts men on top – arose along with class divisions.

Women workers in South Africa on average earn 18% less than their male counterparts. Black women are the majority of the unemployed. These conditions, which see women dependent on men, having their freedom and self-esteem undermined, constitute the hotbed in which sexism and abuse flourish.

Organising the fight back

Denouncing all forms of gender oppression – for example the silencing of women in rural areas, various forms of objectification and commodification of women, name-calling, wife-beating, rape – is a start. The great work of many women’s groups against rape and abuse should be reinforced with mass mobilisation, where organised workers, both men and women, have a key role to play. The fight against rape and murder of women also needs to be linked to a fight for equal pay for equal work, for jobs for all, for shorter working hours without loss of pay, for decent, free education for all, for childcare available for all, for housing, water and electricity for all, for support programmes for all women who try to escape abuse.

Community organisations and trade unions should organise not only for decent service delivery or working conditions but also against domestic violence, sexual harassment and rape. Not seeing or acting against these realities of women members amounts to condoning them.

The Committee for a Workers’ International’s experience shows that girls and women, together with men, standing up, speaking out, organising and mobilising against sexual harassment and domestic violence can have immediate effects in pushing back the abuse. For example, we have organised school students against sexual harassment – marching and picketing, organising political education schools, feminist self-defence classes, demanding better resources for schools, etc. World-wide, it is in the course of women’s struggle and workers’ struggle coming together that gains have been made – women’s right to vote, to go to school and to work, to decide if and when to have children (free abortion), to marry and divorce – are all advances that have been forced out of the ruling class through struggle.

With capitalism stuck in a dead-end, unable to take society forward, and the bosses looking to secure their rule by leaning on increasingly oppressive practices, there are dangers that such gains can be rolled back. In South Africa, the Traditional Courts Bill, which cements the disenfranchisement of women in the rural areas, is an example of this. Schools punishing pregnant learners with expulsion is another. If such threats are not fought against, the balance of power could shift even further against women. But the South African working class has long demonstrated its ability and determination to fight.

Whether the issue is defending jobs, fighting for a living wage or against electricity cut-offs, our struggles need to have a zero-tolerance against women’s oppression and build maximum unity by addressing the issues that can hold women back. Despite beautiful words from all quarters, there is no other force capable of ending the oppression of women.

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March 2013