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Will the real ANC Women’s League please stand up?

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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  1. David Watson David Watson 19 March 2010

    I must agree – I am dismayed at how little we see once very progressive organizations take on their allies for fear of not being loyal. It is tragic! Everyone grumbles that they don’t support a particular person or policy but very few people are openly critical (thank goodness for Vavi, Cronin, recently SASCO [although not generally]).

    The women’s league dismay me the most ever since the unconditionally supported Zuma in Polokwane – there may have been very valid reasons to support him but then they needed to be very clear that his conduct during the rape trial was unacceptable and that he needed to set a better public example on gender issues.

  2. tops tops 19 March 2010

    I think my sister you should just complete your masters. Your argument is incoherent and is full of uninformed accussation. you start with the premise that the ANCWL is silent on issues affecting women. Now my question to you would be
    1. Have you attended any of the ANCWL forums
    2. Is the mainstream media covering them?

    After you have answered these question then it would be ideal to engage in this debate. For now this is a non issue, but an attempt to score politically. For a masters student, i had expected you to be able to research and analyse the data you get.

  3. tops tops 19 March 2010

    while they still moderating my comment check this out …

    Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga has called on South African women to remember the women of Haiti who were buried alive during last month’s quake. She was speaking at International Women’s Day celebrations at Mount Frere in the Eastern Cape last night.

    Motshekga has called on rural women to fight for their rights. She has condemned the killing of women at Mandileni Village.

    “As women they should organise themselves and make sure that they fight for equal opportunities, equal access and progress like everybody. They must fight for their rights and must protect the young girls,” said Motshekga.

    Meanwhile, Eastern Cape Premier Noxolo Kiviet has denied allegations by opposition parties that the International Women’s Day celebrations were an ANC Women’s League programme.

    “I would want to dispute that with the contempt it deserves, because this is a government function initiated by both the women’s caucus in Parliament, where all political parties are represented as well as the gender machinery which constitutes all government departments in special programmes units. Therefore, to say it is an ANCWL activity is so untrue that needs to be dismissed with contempt,” says Kiviet.

    Members of opposition parties in the Eastern Cape legislature boycotted the International Women’s Day event yesterday which was held at Mount Frere in the Alfred Nzo

  4. Judith Judith 19 March 2010

    It is very sad that the ANC Women’s League has faded away. However, we have to move forward as women and realise that we are once again on our own. It is not something unique to Africa, it is the truth right around the world. Sisters, our fight is only just begining and that is tragic

  5. Atlas Reader Atlas Reader 20 March 2010

    “Progressive” sounds nice and positive, but it is boiled down to a totally meaningless adjective in a broth of “tradition” and “culture”.

    No womens’ agenda can dream of calling itself “progressive” unless it unequivocally and unambiguously rejects polygamy. Or patriarchy. Or even the slightest notion that the president of the country simply cannot be, or ought to be, a white woman.

    If you hesitate or draw back from that, or devise the sophistry of contextualising caveats, you really aren’t even in the slightest degree “progressive”. You’re no more than a dull, blunt retrogressive throwback.

    There’s the litmus for you.

  6. Serame Serame 20 March 2010

    It is not only thw Women’s League that is silent, it is all the women of South Africa. Where are you when Rome is burning?

  7. spindoctor spindoctor 20 March 2010

    Once again this highlights one of the greatest factors that has hindered our progress as a post-apartheid democracy: Success and relevance as a liberation movement DOES NOT imply ability or competence to govern or administrate. The two, while they may be based on similar intent and ideology, are completely unrelated in terms of execution. The ANC as a whole, including the ANCWL, may have played an undeniably significant role in the liberation struggle, but this cannot be assumed to imply their competence at subsequent governance. The people need freedom first, but they cannot use freedom alone to fill their stomachs, clothe their families, or pay for their childrens education. The ANC has failed dismally at follow-though.

    To its credit, it is better that the ANCWL has been silent in recent times, than vocally wading into controversy (Malema-style), if it does not have the capacity for leadership in womens’ issues. If the membership and leadership of the ANCWL cannot be relevant in terms of the current needs of South African society, rather they be allowed to quietly fade away and be remembered for their struggle legacy, than make a mockery of this legacy by publicly lurching from one disaster to another like the rest of the ANC.

    PS: you omitted the most glaring “contribution” of the ANCWL in recent times: its blind defense of Jacob Zuma against the woman who accused him of raping her.. a glorious day for womens’ rights in the new South Africa indeed..

  8. Duncan Duncan 20 March 2010

    A lot of waffle. If the League is that pathetic, maybe they should just accept they’re not needed and carry on playing dead

  9. Bonkosi Bonkosi 21 March 2010

    @ Tops, its very disappointing to hear ppl of ur caliber and intellectual capacity uttering words like “I think my sister you should just complete your masters. Your argument is incoherent and is full of uninformed accusation” What on earth does her education have to do with this article? A young scholar questioning relevant deficiencies in roles that have lost their flair. In my opinion such utterances are negative and cultivates the “culture of silence” in our young leaders and hence I will say Viva Zukiswa by andvancing Imbokodo!!!!!! we need ppl like u.

  10. Trevor McArthur Trevor McArthur 21 March 2010

    ya thats very true what you are rasing Zuki, I think its by time we start looking at the role of Womans League, however, it is disappointing that they (ANCWL)are; deaf, blind, and dumb! the former speaker responding to your article, attacked you (as always when they fail to critically look at the content of your artcile) anyway, Im glad im not the only one that see the viod, the (ANC) Womans League, is to fulfil.
    I hope they will soon realise the role they could play in the development of woman, children and the disadvantaged.

  11. Squeeza Squeeza 22 March 2010

    @ Zukiswa – Are you a member of the league or any other women’s organisation or club, “everything about us, without us”? What is your contribution to the women’s cause? Is this your contribution? Positive or Negative? Are you making any effort to be part of the solution?
    Justice took it’s course on the rape case. We all know the outcome. Are we saying the court erred?

  12. Zukiswa Mqolomba Zukiswa Mqolomba 23 March 2010

    Squeeza, it’s always unfortunate when people stray from engaging substantively with and contesting issues raised on the basis of evidence, and actual observation.

    It’s always been the strategy of emotively driven “tacticians” to derail attention from substantive issues when they differ, and to reflect attention on the person giving critique, rather that that’s being critiqued by the reader; playing the person, not the ball.

    This for me has always given subtle indication of intellectual laziness on the one hand and/or relativity of bareness on the other, and sometimes even both.Bot often, I’v chosen to give the benefit of the doubt.

    Out of sheer courtesy, I will entertain the questions posed around my involvement.

    Yes, I am actively involved in structures that seek to address the challenges of women, and young women in particular.

    I was once involved in the ANCWL, and have since participated in programs of the gender organs (Commission on Gender Equality, Office of Status of Women) as coordinator assistant of the National Young Women’s Network (NYC), as well as continentally (Southern African Young Women’s Forum, Pan African Youth Union). I’m even mentoring 8 girls from Diepsloot, with the hope of unlocking the dreams that could die on the inside of them etc.

    I‘ve chosen to use many avenues. I write to raise awareness. I write to incite consciousness. As Ahmed B. once said “the ink of a scholar is (as) precious (as) the blood of a martyr”.

  13. shane brody shane brody 4 April 2010

    What role can any woman play in the present fiasco when woman approaching the courts because of alleged rape are told by prominent political leaders that they “enjoyed” such alleged rape?

    Seemingly, the ANCWL is merely another one of the muzzled extensions of a dysfunctional government.

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