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Women's Organizations and Democracy in South Africa

Contesting Authority

Shireen Hassim

Publication Year: 2006

The transition to democracy in South Africa was one of the defining events in twentieth-century political history. The South African women’s movement is one of the most celebrated on the African continent. Shireen Hassim examines interactions between the two as she explores the gendered nature of liberation and regime change. Her work reveals how women’s political organizations both shaped and were shaped by the broader democratic movement. Alternately asserting their political independence and giving precedence to the democratic movement as a whole, women activists proved flexible and remarkably successful in influencing policy. At the same time, their feminism was profoundly shaped by the context of democratic and nationalist ideologies. In reading the last twenty-five years of South African history through a feminist framework, Hassim offers fresh insights into the interactions between civil society, political parties, and the state.



    Hassim boldly confronts sensitive issues such as the tensions between autonomy and political dependency in feminists’ engagement with the African National Congress (ANC) and other democratic movements, and black-white relations within women’s organizations. She offers a historically informed discussion of the challenges facing feminist activists during a time of nationalist struggle and democratization.



Winner, Victoria Schuck Award for best book on women and politics, American Political Science Association

“An exceptional study, based on extensive research. . . . Highly recommended.”—Choice

“A rich history of women’s organizations in South African . . . . [Hassim] had observed at first hand, and often participated in, much of what she described. She had access to the informants and private archives that so enliven the narrative and enrich the analysis. She provides a finely balanced assessment.”—Gretchen Bauer, African Studies Review



Published by: University of Wisconsin Press

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pp. ix-xii

This book is based on archival research, secondary sources, interviews, and participant-observation. It contributes to existing scholarship on both social movements and gender in South Africa by developing a narrative about the trajectory of women’s politics within the national liberation movement in the last two decades of the twentieth century. To do this I have brought ...


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pp. xiii-xiv

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Introduction: Autonomy and Engagement in the South African Women’s Movement

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pp. 3-19

This book analyzes women’s political participation during a dramatic period in South Africa’s history, when movements for social, economic, and political justice overthrew one of the most vile regimes in history. It traces the ways in which women articulated their political interests within the broader struggle against apartheid and, in some instances, against capital-...

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1. Contesting Ideologies: Feminism and Nationalism

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pp. 20-46

Two broad and overarching sets of debates surround the women’s movement in South Africa. In the first part of this chapter I address debates about the relationship between women’s struggles and broader political struggles. I begin by locating women’s organizations historically, showing how diverse organizations and demands were increasingly drawn into ...

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2. The Emergence of Women as a Political Constituency

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pp. 47-84

The 1980s marked a watershed in South African politics. The nature and scope of resistance shifted from the African National Congress (ANC) in exile to internal and localized forms of resistance to apartheid. The revival of independent trade unions with the formation of the Federation of South African Trade Unions in 1979 provided a crucial avenue for the mo-...

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3. The ANC in Exile: Challenging the Role of Women in National Liberation

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pp. 85-115

The 1980s were “radical years”1 not only for the internal resistance movement that I discussed in chapter 2 but also for the African National Congress (ANC) in exile. New debates about women’s role in politics took place within the movement, with women activists in the ANC Women’s Section and guerrillas in Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK, Spear of the Nation, the ANC’s ...

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4. The Return of the ANC Women’s League: Autonomy Abrogated

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pp. 116-128

On February 2, 1990, the National Party government lifted the bans on proscribed organizations, changing the landscape of politics in South Africa.To some extent the lifting of bans was a surprise to women activists. Although it came barely a week after the ANC’s Malibongwe Conference in Amsterdam, at which the focus was squarely on women’s visions and policy ...

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5. From Mothers of the Nation to Rights-Bearing Citizens: Transition and Its Impact on the South African Women’s Movement

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pp. 129-169

The “success story” of the South African women’s movement in the transition to democracy is by now a familiar one to feminist scholars and activists. Unlike the experience in many other African countries, the transition to democracy after nationalist struggles in South Africa did not lead to the marginalization of women but rather to the insertion of gender equality ...

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6. Political Parties, Quotas, and Representation in the New Democracy

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pp. 185-224

Frene Ginwala’s stirring words, uttered as she stepped down from leading the Women’s National Coalition to take up her position as the Speaker in South Africa’s first democratic Parliament, captured the optimistic mood of that phenomenal moment in the country’s transition to democracy. For Ginwala, as for the many other women activists who moved from civil soci-...

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7. One Woman, One Desk, One Typist: Moving into the Bureaucracy

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pp. 210-245

As I showed in chapter 6, among the far-reaching changes wrought by the establishment of democracy was the shift of women’s organizations from an oppositional relationship to the state to an approach that treated the state as both permeable to women’s interests and influence and, consequently, a desirable locus for gender activism. This chapter examines this ...

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8. Autonomy, Engagement, and Democratic Consolidation

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pp. 246-268

In this book I have sought to engage the broader theoretical debates about the relationship between feminism and nationalism through the lens of a detailed historiography of the South African women’s movement. Rejecting the Manichean choice of characterizing women’s organization in South Africa as either an instrument for nationalist mobilization (and conse-...

Appendix A

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pp. 269-278

Appendix B

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pp. 279-280


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pp. 281-318


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pp. 319-340


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pp. 341-355

E-ISBN-13: 9780299213831
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299213848

Publication Year: 2006