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By Zukiswa Mqolomba

As we celebrated International Women’s Day on March 8, I had to contend with the frightening reality that the ANC Women’s League is indeed dead.

I focus on the women’s league because of its strategic location at the centre of political power in South Africa and its historical mission and legacy as embodied by the battles waged by the 1956 generation under the sterling leadership of Ma Charlotte Maxeke. The women’s league has always been at the helm when it came to advancing the progressive agenda of women in SA and the continent. It’s only natural that I would pose the question: what has since happened?

The league’s been silent on women’s rights, particularly in the context of:

• The leadership contests in the ANC, cabinet, parliament and judiciary (as illustrated by the regressive representation of women in strategic sites of power, both quantitatively and qualitatively).
• Polygamy/customary law and institutionalised gender subjugation.
• The appointment of an all-male executive committee by Premier Helen Zille.
• Prostitution and legislative reforms.
• Hate speech against women propagated by politicians (ie the case of Malema).
• The plight of the girl child (ie abuse of girls by male teachers in schools).
• The feminisation of poverty, unemployment and crime in South Africa.
• And the list goes on and on.

The women’s league is absent — “everything about us, without us” has become the order of the day.

To compound matters, the one time the league has decided to use its weight is against the minister of women, youth, children and people with disabilities, Noluthando Mayende-Sibiya. The charge is not based on allegations of incompetence or lack of theoretical clarity, but sustained only on the basis that she has not risen up the women’s league ranks. Secondly, the league was not invited to form part of the delegation to the UN’s Beijing Platform for Action on women’s empowerment.

Spot the glaring contradictions?

The political role once played by the women’s league is now increasingly being filled by civil-society organisations and judicial institutions (ie the equality courts, Sonke, Gender Links, The Women’s Legal Centre, Powa, Tshwaranang). They use the little they have to propagate the same agenda the women’s league has the political clout to advance and sustain.


So what do the black-and-green uniforms represent really? Do they symbolise revolutionary gender progressivism or the protection of and compliance to the status quo? Do they represent socio-political, economic freedom for all women or are they merely used for the purposes of deployment to extend patronage among the connected few?

Has the women’s league forgotten that gender struggles form a key component of a national liberation struggle?

Has the league forgotten that inequalities (historically and materially) in society are produced and reproduced through uncontested power relations?

Have we seen significant and positive shifts in gender power relations in the political, social and economic spheres, particularly under the Jacob Zuma regime?

They must realise that we have already won the war to create a social order in which women are able to fully participate as equals.

So, will the real women’s league please stand up?

Zukiswa Mqolomba is completing her master’s degree in social sciences at the University of Cape Town. This article reflects her personal opinions


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Mandela Rhodes Scholars

Mandela Rhodes Scholars who feature on this page are all recipients of The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship, awarded by The Mandela Rhodes Foundation, and are members...

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