- Women's Organizations and Democracy in South Africa: Contesting Authority
In this book the South African feminist scholar and activist Shireen Hassim considers the tension between feminism and nationalism—a vexing problem for many women's movements around the world. Through the lens of a detailed historiography of the South African women's movement, she focuses on the final years of apartheid rule, the transition to black majority rule, and the early years under a new democratic government. In a useful introductory chapter, Hassim lays the groundwork for the rest of the book with a discussion of ways of defining women's organizations and women's movements, the question of autonomy versus integration for women's organizations, and the extent to which external political environments offer opportunities and constraints for women's organizations. Next she interrogates the contesting ideologies—feminism and nationalism—before turning to her rich history of women's organizations in South Africa. In the process she covers a wide range of topics: the emergence of women as a political constituency in the context of the mass democratic movement in 1980s; the struggles of women within the exiled African National Congress; the interactions among exiles from the ANC Women's League and "internals" from a plethora of women's organizations inside South Africa after 1990; the emergence, impact, and demise of the Women's National Coalition in the context of constitutional negotiations and the political transition; and the shift to electoral and bureaucratic politics (engaging the state) after 1994 and the implications of this shift for the goal of achieving substantive equality for women. In the latter category she emphasizes legislative representation and the organization of gendered politics.
Hassim was perfectly poised to write this book. She had observed at first hand, and often participated in, much of what she describes. She had access to the informants and private archives that so enliven the narrative and enrich the analysis. She provides a finely balanced assessment of the many factors at play as women and their organizations, across racial, ethnic, class, ideological, locational, and other divides, sought to bridge the gaps and improve the lives of South African women. She shows how women's organizations in South Africa debated, achieved, and lost autonomy from the national liberation movement in a discontinuous fashion. Though short-lived, the Women's National Coalition (WNC) was a significant political moment and showed that women's disaggregated identities "could be creatively woven into an effective strategy around a narrow set of common interests." More important, according to Hassim, "the WNC's effects were long term, both in entrenching vital gains in the Constitution [End Page 262] and the institutions of the state and in providing a tantalizing glimpse into what a strong women's movement could be in South Africa" (253).
In the posttransition period, the South Africa's women's movement operates at three levels: national policy advocacy, networks and coalitions, and community-based women's groups. Hassim warns us that while engaging the state has been a successful strategy at some levels, it runs the risk of leaving gender issues to a new elite of academics and technocrats who, in the end, may neglect South Africa's black working-class women and perpetuate gender inequality.
Women's Organizations and Democracy in South Africa recounts a fascinating and in many ways inspiring story in a compelling and informative manner. In writing this book, Hassim has done a service to feminists and nationalists everywhere. She has drawn upon a vast body of theoretical literature and practical experience from across the globe. Most important, she has contributed the insights and lessons from women's organizations in South Africa and their valiant struggles and gains and losses over the last quarter-century.