- The women’s struggle for equality during South Africa’s transition to democracy
Fifteen years ago, I published the above article in Transformation 30 (1996) in a context where some of the optimism about the prospects for change in South Africa’s transition to democracy had already waned – at least among left wing feminist activists. The question I now ask when I read that article, is what was absent from the thinking that informed it. What and how was I thinking? I recall in the 1970s and 1980s, hot debates within the internal South African left about the relationship between nationalism and socialism. Among feminists, there was a deeper criticism that showed that neither approach would address the critical questions of women’s subordination and women’s oppression. I wondered in reading the piece I wrote, whether through my own enthusiastic and committed involvement in the transition to democracy, in the Women’s National Coalition, whether I had forgotten about the left criticism of nationalist movements and their commitment not to revolutionary transformation so much as to the promotion of a nationalist bourgeoisie. If not forgotten, then placed carefully on the back-burner to simmer away and mature! What did this mean for working class and feminist politics and in particular, for the outcome in terms of fulfilling women’s needs and interests? Left intellectuals had been critical of the idea of the two stage theory of revolution anyway, so why was there such euphoria when the ANC came to power in 1994? Was I naïve enough to think that the ANC would be any different in 1992 than it had been in 1982 or earlier, when it attacked any deviation from its ‘line’ and forbad any internal criticism? As a left-leaning feminist intellectual, I had thought much about what it meant to support the struggle for liberation, and I and others on the left, had joined women’s organisations during the 1980s to argue for what we conceived to be a [End Page 107] transformative agenda.
A transformative agenda invoked demands that were in some senses revolutionary – for women’s autonomy in a society that was highly patriarchal, for a participatory model of politics that included the transformation of intimate family relationships in ways that domestic decision-making and roles would involve sharing housework, parenting and working life. A further aspect of this somewhat utopian view was that collective ownership of the economy was also something to strive for. It was a perspective that did not argue for a mere extension of membership of the existing class system, which is the more common meaning behind the term ‘transformation’ in use in South Africa today and behind the idea of Black Economic Empowerment which argues that more blacks (including women) ought to become owners of capital and share in the financial benefits of the existing economic system.
Instead, the utopianism dreamed of a collective political activism that would pierce the public/private divide and along with the other foundational principles of the struggle against apartheid, would lead to the development of a non-racial, non-sexist and more just and equitable society. This perspective was one that criticised the potentially reactionary practices in the national liberation movement, and argued for significant redistributive policies. At the same time that the role of the state was seen as important, it was social transformation that was seen to be the answer to the depredations apartheid had wrought on society. Thus participatory democracy was the driver of any state initiated processes of transformation. Organs of People’s Power from grass-roots upwards was the vision. Within the underground, however, critical debate was not easily tolerated, and the evidence of abuse of power and intolerance of debate and disagreement in exile is found in various reports and accounts of reactions to discontent in exile camps and to life in exile. Thus a lack of tolerance for different points of view was not something that had simply come with Mbeki, they were germane to the ANC in exile and can even be seen in the way in which the UDF operated during the 1980s. Among the women’s organisations, for instance...