As we creep towards August the question of women’s empowerment will come to the fore the same way young people become the flavour of the month during June. These conversations will be recycled versions of the conversations that have been happening for many decades in South Africa and will mostly resemble the conversation between Sakina Kamwendo and Prof. Somadoda Fikeni on the After 8 debate which took place on SA fm yesterday.
The conversation began with the same introduction: with the rise of women in powerful positions (Theresa May, Angela Merkel, Dilma Rouseff, the rise of Hillary Clinton, the hope we’ve invested in Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Advocate Thuli Madonsela, Christine Lagarde at the IMF and the whopping 11 heads of state who are women across the world—the list is endless) what does this mean for ordinary women? The conversation always begins positively with the list of successful women who are an example of women advancing the lot of women through their own individual success. Then the conversation points to the problems with patriarchy; the problems in the feminist movement which seems to have declined and then finally—the cherry on top—the problem with women who pull each other down and are even worse patriarchs than the men. The African National Congress Women’s League (ANCWL) is usually referenced at this point and their role in the Jacob Zuma rape trial, their utterances that South Africa is not ready for a female president—“we are not a feminist organisation”. The conversation usually ends of with the recognition that much needs to be done and both progressive men and women must join the party—the gender agenda party—in order to ensure that more women can advance into more powerful positions.
This kind of conversation is boring as it recycles the issue of gender equality with an amnesia that erases the work that has been done to fully understand why it is that women are still at the bottom of the scale and why it is that we keep using “powerful” women as the benchmark for understanding what gender equality looks like. In 1995 Amina Mama published a paper: “Feminism or Femocracy? State Feminism and Democratisation in Nigeria” which tried to explain what the role and position of women is in a post-colonial state. She poses a question in her paper we seem to have been unable to answer: “did all the women and women’s organisations active in the independence struggles simply opt out of public life once independence was achieved, or were they disenfranchised?”. This question can be posed in order to understand the place of women globally and here in South Africa in 2016. What happened to the women who fought for the voices of women in public life? One answer is that they have been replaced by a small group of politically connected, elite women who seem to be the template of what success looks like for women. More importantly, Mama gives us important language for understanding the rise of the powerful women by making a distinction between feminism and femocracy: “feminism is defined as being the popular struggle of African women for their liberation from the various forms of oppression they endure” and femocracy is the “anti-democratic female power structure which claims to exist for the advancement of ordinary women, but is unable to do so because it is dominated by a small clique of women whose authority derives from their being married to powerful men, rather than from actions or ideas of their own”.
Even though the women we use as a starting point for discussing the advancement of women (with a few exceptions like Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, Graca Machel) many of the women aren’t necessarily married to powerful men but often their careers have advanced because powerful men made space for them; the proverbial old boys club made an exception. It is important to think deeper about what the success of a few politically connected women really means for ordinary women. It seems lazy and disingenuous to use wealthy, elite and politically connected women as an example of what is possible for ordinary women who do not have the same proximity to state power. At the moment the rise of politically connected women means lots of NGO work with corporate funding (perhaps some scholarships as well) and many campaigns and hashtags which usually look like door to door visits to third world countries (and poor communities) and leaving the countries without making any structural changes to the lives of ordinary women. Instead, these powerful women further entrench their position of privilege by meeting with heads of state and other influential figures, they deliver public lectures where their voices are seen as being heard but mostly ignored by those who hold state power (which more often than not oppressing ordinary women) and they might invite young, up-and-coming people to a round-table discussion to offer insights on the work they have done.
Instead of being dazzled by a few women and marvelling at their glory, we should be turning our gaze to the many women who bear the brunt of poverty everyday. We should be asking ourselves why is that the state has sought to position women and the issues of women through the Department of Women in the Presidency. By being placed in the central office of the Presidency this suggests a level of importance of women’s issues. The relocation of this department to the presidency aims to remove from our memories the outcry about the Department of Women and children–the vulnerable group. The Department of Women was re-established as an erasure of the women’s movement in South Africa which has a long history beyond the 1956 march. This erasure also continues every year when we watch the ANC hijack the commemoration of the 1956 as though the ANCWL singlehandedly organised the march which is not the case.
By using “women in powerful positions” as a starting point in talking about the status of ordinary women in general as well as the seeming failure of the feminist movement is a very problematic starting point. It is without an analyses of how these women ascended to such heights before we can even consider what their rise to power means for ordinary women without the same access to state power.