by Walter Mothapo, SACP PEC member in Limpopo province, and a member of the Ike Maphoto Branch of the ANC in Polokwane.
The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles.
Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, 1848
The context of our liberation struggle
In order for us to dissect the concept of gender we must first understand the nature of the South African liberation struggle. Indeed, ours is, fundamentally, first and foremost a class struggle. It is a struggle of one part of the people against another. It is a struggle between those who own the means of production and those who are forced to toil – expropriated of all means of production and left only with their capacity to labour for a living as wage labourers, the proletariat.
Those who own the means of production adopted and developed national oppression and gender domination, not for their own sake, but for carrying out and intensifying a policy of divide and rule. This involved diving the working class along lines of race and sex. While the working class as a whole, black and white, was exploited, the black working class was, in addition, super-exploited as part of national oppression and gender domination.
‘The Path to Power’, programme of the SACP adopted at the Seventh Party Congress in 1989, clearly articulates the vision of our struggle and how the struggle for gender transformation forms an integral part for the attainment of that vision. ‘The Path to Power’ asserts that the struggle for national liberation must be intertwined with the struggle to overcome the system of capitalism. The document is among the first to point out that “in the case of the majority of South African women, they suffer from triple oppression – as women, as blacks and as workers”.
Therefore the elimination of patriarchy and thus gender domination is both an inherent and integral part of our struggle against the systems and structures of oppression, and is itself a key feature of our national liberation and class struggles.
‘The Path to Power’ further calls upon women to “fight shoulder to shoulder with their brothers against colonialism and exploitation for a united, non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa”. This represents a quest to demystify the notion that gender struggles belong to women only, with an emphasis that it is a struggle for both sexes. The document is succinct in its call for society to stand against the distortion of African traditional and cultural values to legitimise gender domination as characterised by the oppression of women.
Gender perspectives by Engels
In ‘The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State’ written by Frederick Engels in 1884, a point is made that during the early age of societal formation, women were oppressed in a crude and barbaric manner as there was no state, no laws and no instruments to regulate human behaviour. Engels’s analysis shows that even during the era of civilisation as expressed by the existence of the state, the structural oppression of women never changed since the state is an instrument of the ruling class meant for holding down the oppressed – the exploited class. He points out to a paradoxical, structural societal phenomenon that contrasts barbaric and civilised periods in the oppression of women.
What Engels said some centuries ago resonates with the evolution of the truth until now. King Mswati will, for instance, in the name of culture, custom and tradition, abduct an 18 year old girl and forcefully marry her as his wife. You will imagine that a King who benefitted from the First World British education system would think twice before evoking such traditional patriarchal tendencies. But, alas, as a member of the monarchical ruling class in the context of Swaziland, he actually practices, to borrow from Engels, ‘barbaric tendencies’.
Pre- and Post-apartheid gender constructs
Gender scholars often refer to a concept of ‘masculinity’. This happens when men see themselves as having insatiable rights over women. The South African Constitution guarantees rights to dignity for both men and women, but because of the economic muscle and social standing that men have attained over time there are some among them who believe the rights enshrined in the constitution speak to men more than to women. These men believe such rights are for them to exercise, and regard it as the duty of women to comply with them.
Thus, women generally are still regarded by such men as reproductive more than as productive beings. Even at the workplace women are seen to be adding value only if part of their “informal job-description” is to sleep with their male bosses. Some men and their ilk will go to an extent of blaming women for enticing them to commit acts of sexual misconduct or adultery.
In this context, the masculine gender has all the permission and rights to behave as recklessly as they wish while a feminine gender’s duty is to comply. Nothing in societal masculine idiosyncrasy ever points to men as initiators or triggers in cases of sexual misconduct or happenings. Women are always to blame as instruments and social weapons used by sinister forces to overthrow men in their hard-earned positions of power. Actually it is more like “Eve causing Adam a sin”, not vice-versa, to evoke Biblical interpretation.
The colonial and apartheid social fabric affirmed the white male as the “baas” and the black male as the “garden boy”; the white boy was the “klein baas” and had authority over black men. Similarly, the white female was affirmed as the “madam” and the black female as the “kitchen girl”. The whole notion was that the real men and women were whites in contrast to blacks who were demeaned and denigrated as less masculine and less feminine respectively.
It is interesting that in the post-apartheid set-up the concept of ‘masculinity’ has evolved from historically privileged white males to encompass economically well-off black males, some of who now see women as objects who must aggrandise their newly attained socio-economic status. This is exactly what Engels saw as the oppression of women both in the barbaric and civilised epochs.
Our immediate tasks
It is the duty of all those who regard themselves as progressive people or revolutionaries, to advance struggles for the transformation of gender relations, and to ensure that they are multiplied by democratically winning the majority to their side. This must be done with consciousness that these struggles are an essential and integral part of the struggle for complete liberation and socio-economic emancipation, and are simultaneously part of the nucleus of class struggle. This calls upon us to practically undo such constructs as ‘masculinity’ that reinforce the “objectification” of women and lead to a deliberate attempt to confine women in the reproductive rather than release them in the productive spheres of human activity.
Trade unions in particular are inherently central in the dialectical pursuit of gender struggles as part and parcel of the class struggle because the mere insertion of women in the workplace where all sorts of exploitation take place does not do away with their oppression even though it represents a step forward.