Women’s Day in South Africa and the Crisis of Girls

Femficatio News
9th August 2012, 19:00 GMT

March in Pretoria on 9th of August. Photo courtesy of absolutemedia.co.za

On 9th August 1956, the Federation of South African Women marched and sang out in Pretoria, South Africa:

wathint’ abafazi,
wathint’ imbokodo,
uza kufa!

[When] you strike the women,
you strike a rock,
you will be crushed [you will die]!

The 9th of August marks Women’s Day in South Africa, the anniversary of the day the Federation of South African Women (a non-racial organisation which mobilised women in protest against Apartheid) organised a mass demonstration against the imposition of pass laws on women in South Africa – including the right of women to live with their husbands in the towns where they worked.

Progress for South African women is slow going. Today, 9th August 2012, marks 56 years since 20,000 women marched in the streets of South Africa – yet women’s representation in South African government remains marginal, and rape, relationship terrorism and general cultural disparities remain critical issues for South Africa’s women.

Women activist at 9th August march in 1956. Photo courtesy of sahistory.org.za

With new statistics suggesting that 25% of boys saying gang rape is “fun”; 24.4% of girls becoming pregnant in their teen years; and 37% of Gauteng men admitting to raping women; in the hearts of many, the crisis of strong representation and leadership in tackling sexual violence is a critical objective of this years Women’s Day.

In 1999, Patricia de Lille, then MP for the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), caused significant controversy when she alleged top ANC officials were involved in multibillion-rand corruption in the acquisition of weaponry and arms.  This became de Lille’s personal cause, and in seeking justice and keeping anti-corruption at the forefront, she left the PAC and formed the Independent Democrats (ID) in 2003, the first political party to be led by a woman in South Africa.  The ID is in the process of merging with the Democratic Alliance which is led by Helen Zille.  The Independent Democrats are a populist right-liberal, left-wing party with social democracy and liberalism as it core foundations.

Placards at Women’s March in 1956. Public Domain Images

The ID were vocal about the situation of sexual violence in 2009. Haniff Hoosen, Safety and Security spokesman of the ID was quoted as saying, “When we are confronted with a statistic of one in four men admitting to having raped a women, then Government must be honest and admit that we have failed to change the attitudes of men towards women and children,’ which followed with an 8 point action plan.  But that was in 2009 – since then, in May 2012 four teens gang raped a mentally challenged young woman, filming the brutal act and distributing it until it went viral.  The boys were were recently bailed for just $67 each.

The ANC Women’s League (ANCWL) is another woman led organisation working in the interest of protecting, positioning and prioritising the issues of women and girls. Yet it has been met with distinct criticism in the South African community. Ranjeni Munusamy writes for allAfrica:

“The ANC Women’s League (ANCWL) is the most prominent political organisation for women in the country but has over the years developed a reputation as a cheerleading and choral society, without any dynamism in its leadership. It is wholly absent from national debates, and apart from applauding the actions of the incumbents in government and the ANC it recoils from asking difficult questions of the leadership.”

Women’s Day, a national holiday in South Africa, continually becomes more of a “feel-good” commercial holiday, than the day of action in keeping with the aims of the 1956 march. A recent article missed an opportunity to discuss critical issues – instead they spoke about whether mistresses were left out of the festivities. allAfrica reported from The Sowetan:

“While Women’s Day is generally a lonely day for mistresses and makhwaphenis,” says the paper, “this does not mean that they do not get their fair share of celebrations.” Makhwapheni is a term used to refer to a lover you are seeing on the side while in a relationship, loosely translated as ‘The one I keep hidden under my armpit'”

This quote in a prominent South African newspaper read by millions daily, demonstrates that women’s organisations have had little impact on the general populists perceptions of women and real women’s issues.

The current Chief Executive of South Africa, President Zuma, says he is committed to increasing women’s participation in government, stating that:

“The representation of women in Parliament increased from 27.8% in 1994 to 44% in 2009. Similarly, the representation of women in provincial legislatures has increased from 25.4% to 42.4% respectively.”  But as Munusamy reporting for allAfrica countered:

“It is difficult to quantify though how more of women in positions of political power benefits the female population of South Africa. Women elected to national, provincial and local government are there to represent the broad mandate of their political parties, not to champion women’s issues”.

1 in 9 Campaign carrying mock corpses in protest of the commercialisation of the National Women’s Day. Photo courtesy of the 1 in 9 Campaign

This year, 30 feminist members of the One in Nine Campaign disrupted the festivities of the national holiday, carrying “corpses”, with the campaign slogan:


When it comes to electoral politics in South Africa, though there may be more technical “representation” actual progress for women has been slow.  But as the original march was a grassroots initiative, perhaps over-dependency on the mainstream legislative process is not their only option for now. But rather, a strong contingent of women vigorously and vocally fighting to ensure politicians are accountable to the needs and demands of women.

No Cause for Celebration protest by the 1 in 9 Campaign in South Africa. Photo courtesy of the 1 in 9 Campaign

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