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Because transition politics are periods of crisis and thus of intense politicization, they bring new ideas and institutions into political life . . . they provide a rare window on how social structures underlie political structures and practices . . . (Jacquette and Wolchik, 1998: 4). 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 many other African countries, the transition to democracy after nationalist struggles did not lead to the marginalization of women but rather to the insertion of gender equality concerns into the heart of democratic debates. Women’s political participation was extended into the realm of representative government and a range of institutions was created to represent and defend women’s interests in policymaking. In addition, women’s activism ensured that gender equality was protected in the constitution. Unlike the era of national liberation movement politics, during the transition “women [organized] as women and [entered] the democratic era with new agendas for women” (Jacquette and Wolchik, 1998: 7). What accounts for the ability of the South African women’s movement to defy the familiar trajectory of postnationalist reconstruction ? The conventional conditions of social movement sucSOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 69, No. 3 (Fall 2002) “A Conspiracy of Women”:The Women’s Movement in South Africa’s Transition to Democracy BY SHIREEN HASSIM cess were all but absent in 1990. Women’s organizations, which had occupied a central role in mass struggles during the mid1980s (Meintjes, 1996; Cock, 1997), were in decline. Their leadership core had been decimated during two states of emergency, and their energies had been diverted from organizing women per se, to keeping alive the anti-apartheid movement. This leadership weakness was exacerbated when, following the unbanning of liberation movements in 1990, women’s organizations collapsed as semi-autonomous organizations and merged with the African National Congress Women’s League (ANCWL). The merger brought new skills and ideas into gender debates but also imposed enormous costs in terms of the ability of the women’s movement to define and articulate a role outside the framework of nationalism. Apart from structural weaknesses and lack of autonomy, the women’s movement also had a weakly developed ideological framework within which to make claims on broader political processes. Throughout the 1980s, feminism—defined in its broadest terms as the struggle for gender equality—had a contested status in women’s organizations and activists were wary about using the term to describe their aims or their ideology. Radical changes in all three areas—the new political opportunities offered by the transition from apartheid to democracy, the creation of an autonomous organization for representing the women’s movement, and the consolidation of the notion of equality within the African National Congress (ANC), a key negotiating force—dramatically transformed the fortunes of the women’s movement. First, the beginning of a process of negotiated transition to democracy offered new possibilities for the women’s movement to pursue its claims at a national political level. In this article I wish to draw attention to a relatively neglected aspect in feminist debates by exploring the ways in which the nature of that transition—that is, the creation of a liberal democratic state in which citizenship rights were accorded irrespective of race, gender or ethnicity—unexpectedly allowed feminists to articulate an agenda of equality that unseated nation694 SOCIAL RESEARCH alist formulations of women’s political roles. The unbanning of liberation movements allowed the demands for the equality and representation of women and their inclusion in decision making that had previously been expressed primarily within the ANC to be expanded to the entire political system. Furthermore, women’s demands were now made on the grounds of democracy itself rather than the exigencies or internal consistency of national liberation. Second, the creation of a national representative structure for the women’s movement, the Women’s National Coalition (WNC), provided the strategic and organizational vehicle for women activists to articulate these claims independently of the ANC. Although demands for autonomy certainly were not new in the South African women’s movement, the independence of the WNC was a distinctive break from previous women’s organizations . Independence, achieved...


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