Free to do the heavy lifting: after 20 years of democracy South African women remain exploited, brutalized and devalued . Has 20 years of democracy given black rural and urban poor women land, housing, health, jobs, freedom of sexual exploitation, safety and dignity? The Rita Edwards Collective (REC) was born in response to the Marikana massacre of 44 people in August 2012.
We first came together to voice our anger over the massacre and the horrific conditions in which our sisters and brothers have to live and work. We recognized that the massacre of striking mineworkers signaled both the state’s intolerance of workers demanding better wages and living conditions and the state’s role as the protector of private property and profits.
During the same period we read the Bench Marks Foundation report and understood that, while we were in solidarity with the miners’ demands, it was clear that men and women were affected differently and in disproportionate ways. We felt that we could not sit by quietly with the knowledge that our sisters fell prey to sexual abuse, had to sell their bodies to survive and offer sexual favours to hold on to their jobs. Our coming together is a way to break our silence, our isolation, our atomisation and our paralysis. It was here that we began our work of solidarity, understanding, analysis and resistance against all forms of exploitation and oppression.
In March we hosted a Women and Elections public meeting where women voiced their views on the upcoming elections and interrogated politicians on their failed delivery on past promises. From the reflections at this meeting and our work of solidarity with working-class women from across the city, focusing on violence and brutality, we say confidently that the situation of women and their triple oppression is at its peak.
Women voiced their frustration with the lack of delivery in most of the critical areas that affect their lives and wellbeing: housing, employment, disability, transport, access to land and education. The house appeared to be under no illusion about politicians, who were seen to be shifting responsibilities and not answering questions concretely.
An insidious discourse has emerged in which the responsibilities of the state in relation to its citizens (in this case, women) and their rights to basic services are elided and made conditional on their ability to ‘be responsible’. Women are asked to become active, to take action, to demand what the state, by right, should provide. This shifting of responsibility appears in different forms: sometimes the three-tier government system is said to make it difficult to provide services because, for example, national government owns land that municipal government can’t use; at other times government insists on individual responsibility for safety rather than a concerted, collective and state- driven response; and in other moments, government hides behind ‘partnerships’ that absolve the state from providing services and that make access to these services conditional on the ability to pay. The failure to take responsibility deprives citizens of systemic solutions, structured into government programmes, and instead they get isolated, powerless interventions.
Our first democratic elections were a victory against apartheid. Women’s rights were clearly embedded and protected in the Constitution as a result of the gains they won against a horrific system. Many were united for liberation from a government that was oppressive and undermined our being. Women struggled tirelessly for a different society. Today, a month away from our fifth national democratic elections, women are seeking change again. This is a continuation of an old struggle against inequality – one that is driven by an understanding of the changing face of inequality in South Africa 20 years into democracy. We are in solidarity against poverty, brutality and violence – and above all, the strictures
of patriarchy! We represent 55% of the voting power, yet this has not translated into targeted actions that directly benefit women and acknowledge their struggles. Our vote has not equalled an end to the violence and exploitation of women, nor has it led to a dignified life. When will a woman’s vote be translated into improving her lot, not as beneficiary but securing her independence?
As we listened to the politicians dance around what they have delivered and their intended programme of delivery we realised that 20 years into democracy the discourse on women is unchanged. Women are still clustered with children, still seen only in their reproductive roles, male entitlement to our bodies. Some women have never had a steady job since the dawn of democracy; others are constantly in situations of precarious work; many have never been able to find work.
We have observed that in an attempt to regulate the affairs and services in the city, by-laws have become instruments to separate and sort people along racial and class lines. Women are finding that they are restricted in their movements to make a living or simply find shelter or food in the inner city. In particular we see that by-laws relating to informal trading have criminalised and restricted livelihoods that are a source of income for many poor people. Other by-laws relating to streets, public spaces and special rating areas have legitimised the continuous sorting of the poor from the rich in the name of safety and security.
REC is committed to making women’s lives visible and to connectting the political and the personal. We do thisby identifying and analysing the routine ways in which women are undermined, brutalised and ultimately, ignored. Our work has focused on identifying how and why women’s work in the household and economy is made cheap and invisible. Women do most of the work in households and communities, but are still considered weak, unskilled and as dependents
of men. We have questioned why it is considered normal for us to privilege certain forms of love – notably heterosexual relationships –
while devaluing other intimacies. We have shared our dreams with each other, and have had tough conversations about why our dreams – for education, land, good housing, enjoyable and dignified work and safe communities – are so similar to those of our mothers and grandmothers. We have reflected on the forms of work we can adopt to ensure that we work side by side with each other in our collective, rather than creating a sisterhood in
which some of us do the work of cooking, cleaning and childcare while others do the work of talking, writing and shaping the conversation. Who makes us seen and heard? And why is it so easy to make us disappear?
In 1994 the focus was to educate citizens about the political parties and their manifestos, yet 20 years on all we do is cloud the electorate with stories around the Bold and the Beautiful as well as the ‘Bladerunner’s trial’. The dawN of women has not come yet. So we act in solidarity against the horrendous crimes of violence, structural injustices and undermining of our women.