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The undignified existence of black women

By Sandile Tshabalala

Black women remain the most vulnerable to the endless socioeconomic realities of our society. In spite of this, we cannot ignore the existence of wealthy, motivated and healthy women. It is imperative to grapple with the right to “human dignity” afforded to all South Africans but barely enjoyed by ordinary black women, 21 years into our constitutional dispensation. This is not tolerable.

As much as human dignity is a predominant value in our Constitution, it remains the most unrealised value in relation to the lived experiences of black women. Apartheid ensured that the dignity of black people was entirely infringed within the socio-political and psycho-spiritual realities. Black women were the most marginalised; their existence defined by the endless struggle to support their families, fear of violence, discrimination based on their bodies, inability to access opportunity and lack of education. Apartheid ensured that the role of black women in society was belittled to domesticity and nurturing. While men were a tough labour force and providers. History set the tone for the gendering of the socioeconomic inequality in South Africa. What has been done to untangle this deeply rooted structural oppression of black women?


Education is paramount in building a society. A reasonable government will set up effective plans to accelerate efforts in educating the most marginalised in order to give effect to development and empowerment. Some governments are successful in putting in place advanced legislative measures and policy documents but fail to implement them. Departments will be named after those vulnerable groups, but the people meant to benefit from the service delivery of those departments will get only promises and be fed with strategic hope.

As poverty continues to strike homes and communities, black women still find themselves heavily overwhelmed with responsibilities beyond their capacities. From girls to great-grandmothers, the human dignity of women is largely undermined by our social structures, it is not enough to give mother’s social grants and not equip them with financial skills so they can use the money wisely. It is not enough to give anti-retroviral treatment without ensuring access to quality water, food and housing. Basically, it is not acceptable to give constitutional rights to citizens without making sure that the relevant mechanisms are put in place so that those rights can be fully realised and cherished.

When a society ignores women, it immediately undermines its essence, its potential and its future. Black women are inseparable from any ideas of transformation and reconciliation. National development cannot be achieved unless the human dignity of black women is restored, respected and protected at all cost. Our daily interactions with women regardless of their language, race and religion should not inform how we treat them. Without women, there would be no productive human existence. As it is often said, “history will judge us by the way we treated our women and children”. May we awaken in each of us the desire to uphold and nourish the inherent dignity of the existence of women in South Africa.

Sandile Tshabalala is a law student at the University of Cape Town.