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  • We are all radical feminists1 now: reflections on ‘A bit on the side’2
  • Jo Beall (bio), Shireen Hassim (bio), and Alison Todes (bio)

We published this paper in Transformation 5 (1987) in the cauldron of a particularly volatile period in South African politics. The mid-1980s in Natal was a time of the most enormous violence and uncertainty, a time of civil war and states of emergency. Yet what strikes us most, reading this paper in hindsight, is the tremendous sense of hope and optimism that another world was not only possible but was, indeed, looming on the horizon. Moreover, as ‘academic-activists’ we saw our responsibility as being to help in shaping the nature of that future. Hubris? For sure!

We wrote with the aim of developing a theoretically robust and empirically grounded scholarly argument that at the same time engaged political debates within the national liberation movement. We offered a sympathetic insider critique of the internal politics of the United Democratic Front (UDF) (in which all of us were involved to a greater or lesser extent) and its relationship with the ANC (in which some of us were also involved), both internally and in exile. The ‘woman question’ position adopted by the ANC and linked to the movement’s adherence to the notion of ‘colonialism of a special type’ seemed to us flawed. Our objective was to highlight the weaknesses and limitations of this approach and to insist on the importance of bringing the private into the context of political struggle, experienced differently by women and men as gendered beings. We argued that this would determine not only the nature of politics but also policies, which were never gender neutral.

As activists we were extremely anxious about criticising the movement and in retrospect, consider doing so as having been something of an act of bravery. It was a critical and dangerous moment in South African politics [End Page 95] with the anti-apartheid opposition polarised between what were characterised as the ‘workerists’ and the ‘populists’. We went to extraordinary lengths to legitimise our credentials in the movement, and to construct our argument within the lineages of leftist debate, which explains why it is so carefully plotted and repetitive, to the point of turgidity!

The paper was given its first airing at the Association of Sociologists of Southern Africa (ASSA) conference in Cape Town in 1987. It was decided that as the only black author, Shireen would present it. We were terrified and, as it turned out, not without cause. We came under resounding criticism. When Transformation opted to publish the piece (Hassim et al 1987) we received a visit from a woman representative of the ANC who asked us not to go to press. When Feminist Review asked to republish the article (Beall et al 1989), once again a woman member of the ANC in exile prevailed upon the journal not to do so, again to no avail. What these events served to do was to confirm that we were on to something.

The first – and most damning – camp to which we assigned ourselves was that of feminism. For the next five years that made us targets of criticism from a number of directions in the ANC and the women’s movement. Critiques from the Western Cape, especially the University of the Western Cape, were particularly virulent and challenged our authority to speak at all. Responses from men were varied. For example, a UDF leader commented that our internal criticism was welcome and thought-provoking, while someone who at the time was of the ‘workerist’ persuasion said we had ‘rowed our boat’ to the middle of the river but now needed the courage to land it on the other side.

The most interesting response was silence. For example, the African Women Bibliographic Database,, hosted by the African Studies Centre in Leiden – does not cite the article or other published work of any of the three authors. Similar omissions can be found in many articles on gender written by South Africans that followed ours. Nor, we venture to say, have male writers (with a few exceptions) taken on board our argument that politics is gendered...


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pp. 95-106
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