By: Gillian Schutte
As we enter National Women’s month many women are asking what will change tangibly for them in South Africa. They say that women’s month is nothing more than the empty lip service of a neoliberal government that has failed dismally to deliver on issues paramount to the feminine collective of South Africa.
The government gazette outlines the August 2022 theme as:
“Women’s Socio-Economic Rights and Empowerment: Building Back Better for Women’s Resilience!” this year’s Women’s Month is a call to action to all of society, government, and partners to take tangible steps forward in responding to the most persistent challenges affecting the lives of women and girls.”
…Women’s Month allows us to gauge how far we have come in transforming society, particularly the transformation of unequal power relations between women and men. While also focusing on and addressing gender oppression, patriarchy, sexism, racism, ageism, structural oppression, and creating a conducive environment which enables women to take control of their lives.”
This comes less than five months after a World Bank report – Inequality in Southern Africa – said that South Africa is the most unequal country in the world, with race playing a determining factor in a society where 10 percent of the population owns more than 80 percent of the wealth.
In addition, South Africa ranks number one on the Gini Coefficient index out of 164 countries. Studies show that a whopping 64% of South Africans now live below the bread belt – an increase from 55,5% in 2015.
The blame for these shocking findings falls directly at the feet of the ANC government’s neoliberal economic policies and austerity measures. Since Cyril Ramaphosa has been President the austerity programme has become even more robust and as critics have pointed out, has resulted in: “a cut to social spending, a deterioration of public services and social infrastructure as well as the standard of living of most South Africans.”
More and more, social safety nets are removed by these measures, leaving already resource-deprived women and children most vulnerable in South Africa.
For this reason, many women do not buy into this lip service of the government’s women’s programmes anymore. The feeling is that as usual Women’s Month will come and go, but under the current system very little will change for the majority of women and their children in South Africa. The wealthy and middle class will be a little more shocked by the heinous gender-based violence statistics that haunt the psyche of the nation. A few expensive awareness-raising events will happen in economically marginalised communities and middle-class spaces. Women’s resolve and hope will be raised again, but, as with most rights-based initiatives that are driven by the neoliberal government, the donor-funded NGO sector, and the corporate sector, this will have a little real impact on women living below the poverty line in South Africa.
Violence towards poor communities is intrinsic to neoliberal capitalism, and it is women who are most violated by a dispensation that favours profits before people. It is they who carry the biggest social burden and are rendered the most defenceless. Effective eradication of gender-based poverty and violence in a neoliberal capitalist system can only be an incongruity.
This system itself robs the majority of women of their rights by creating the very social conditions that expose women to the abuses that programs such as Women’s Month and 16 Days of Activism seek to shed light on. Until we have a developmental state that provides ample safety nets for its citizens and redistributes wealth, we will always have excessive rates of abuse against women.
Violence against women is pervasive and exists at all levels of society and this must be tackled — but the focus on systemic violence cannot be lost in this call. Systemic violence is also persistent, gender-based, and brutal – and economically marginalised women are its victims.
Women who exist outside of the capitalist economy are the most violated people in our society. It is they who carry the burden of lack of service delivery, lack of sanitation, lack of food security, and lack of personal safety. It is resource-deprived women who are left with the problem of how to feed their children when there is no income — of where to dispose of their family’s human waste where there is no sanitation and how to keep a family safe in a shack that offers no security. It is they who are left with the numerous health problems that are rife in areas that have no services and where children suffer with disease, skin rashes, and sores as a result of playing on land that doubles up as burial grounds for human faeces. It is they who are forced to navigate the reality of filthy temporary toilets that are often not adequately maintained by the municipality, are often more than 50m away from their front door, and are mostly too dangerous to use because of crime and rape.
It is economically poor women who make their way to lowly paid jobs and leave their children with unemployed neighbours or a boyfriend. Sometimes they have no choice but to leave their children unattended. Many women have voiced their fear that their children are vulnerable to abuse under these conditions and how helpless they feel in not being able to protect their children.
These are the women who deal with the scourge of rats and cockroaches that nibble at baby’s extremities if left unattended — or compete with them for their food. It is they who are offered no security by the local police when they arrive home late on a taxi and have to walk over unlit bridges or down lonely roads to get home, vulnerable to being mugged on the way. It is they who walk long distances to find a clean source of water for their family’s hygienic needs and who eke out money to try and pay for school or university fees with the hope that their children can break this cycle of poverty.
As if this is not enough the state expects them to pay exorbitant electricity and water accounts with salaries or grants that can barely feed them and their children.
The life of an economically poor woman in South Africa is the moral barometer of this land. It tells us all we need to know about how inaccessible “constitutional rights” are to those who do not have money and status.
In this democracy, which, ironically, boasts the most advanced constitution in the world, the majority of citizens have literally become disposable in the current economic framework.
While the wealthy have gotten wealthier and a black middle class has expanded over almost three decades, there has been little attempt to bring the poor into the economy. Even workers remain caught in a cycle of dire poverty, earning salaries that are well below the inflation rate. This means that more than half the population, including the working class, have lost the basic right to exist with dignity. In the meantime, the state and its corporate masters become more draconian and brutal towards the poor.
This system continuously works to make already marginalised people invisible, muted, policed, disciplined, and dehumanised. It is their voices that are silenced, their bodies that are shot at or shut away and dumped miles from areas where resourced people live and where they could possibly find work.
Instead, they have to eke out a living on meagre social grants, which the state holds up as proof of their “rights-based” democratic governance.
But these grants are simply not enough to sustain people and certainly do not keep up with the inflation. Basic foodstuff costs have risen exponentially in Ramaphosa’s term and even working people struggle to eat. How much harder this must be for the poor and unemployed of our land when even bread and mealie meal are increasingly inaccessible.
The reality is that the majority of our population is dying a slow death from inadequate access to nutrition and the middle class and elite turn a blind eye to this.
Women are up against multiple violence from multiple sources. They live in a system that gives rise to countless social uprisings and protests around the countless problems rooted in their communities. These uprisings are often led by women and are an explosion of frustration around shoddy or non-existent service delivery. Street action happens after months of one-sided negotiation in which their complaints are often ignored. These protests do not happen in a vacuum of the entire spectrum of what it means to be human. Most times the anger that erupts in these upheavals is to do with existence itself — and the indomitable human spirit that refuses the untenable conditions and lived reality forced upon them. Yet they become the locale of state violence for rising up to claim the rights promised to them in the Constitution.
For the majority of women in South Africa, it becomes mere expedience and insincerity when the government, NGO, and corporate sector run expensive campaigns that speak of non-violence against women. The systemic violence of a neoliberal system is persistent and perpetual. It is directly connected to the obscene opulence of the wealthy corporate class. It is a direct result of macro-economic policies that put white monopoly capital, business, and multinational rights before people’s rights and profits before people. Women’s rights, it seems, are the last on the list.
That these multinationals are polluting the air, and land and dumping toxic waste on vulnerable communities as well as exploiting the resources and enforcing cheap labour, seems to mean little to leaders that have, finally, become the elite themselves. It speaks of a state that seems to not care that the poor do not benefit, nor ever will, from the so-called trickle-down effect of a neoliberal capitalist economy. Neither do they benefit from a constitution that promises to protect all citizens of South Africa.
Women’s month in South Africa will not deliver the systemic change that is required to free the majority of women from the bonds of poverty and violence. What we need is a mass women’s movement that demands a systemic change from neoliberal capitalism to a socialist egalitarian system. We need a President who will actively work towards these values. Only then will authentic inroads be made into improving the lives and personal safety of vulnerable women who happen to be in the majority in South Africa.
Until then there is no way in hell that women’s month, under a Ramaphosa-led government, will be ‘creating a conducive environment which enables women to take control of their lives.’
*Gillian Schutte is a writer, filmmaker, scholar, activist, and social critic.