Women’s Contribution to Freedom

democracy politics rights women
Tuesday, 30 April, 2013 - 10:43

South Africa commemorated Freedom Day last week at a time when a majority of people, especially women, continue to have little to celebrate almost two decades into our democracy

A few days before Women's Day on 9 August nine years ago at age 14, I placed four pictures on my classroom board. My classmates identified these pictures almost immediately as Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, Oliver Tambo and Albert Luthuli.

I placed another four pictures on the board asking my fellow classmates to identify the people they saw. There was an immediate silence. No one could identify Ruth First, Lillian Ngoyi, Rahima Moosa and Sophie Williams even though they had been the faces of the Women's March, which we were about to celebrate on 9 August a few days later.

Several years later, someone repeated the same exercise at my university and still the faces of those women were met with a deadly silence. I wondered then, as I do today, what hope there was for the thousands of other women who marched that day and the thousands more that organised protests and demonstrations for freedom during the Apartheid struggle.

As South Africans commemorate Freedom Day, for women the struggle for freedom continues. Most versions of history privilege forms of resistance like boycotts, strikes and protests that directly confronted the state or white capital. However, those who wage battles against state oppression today are asking; what about the everyday and whose freedom are we celebrating?

We are certainly not celebrating the freedom of women who are under siege every day in this country, who form the data for the countless number of gender-based violence cases that reduce women to bodies.

While the African National Congress (ANC) sings struggle songs, Abahlali BaseMjondolo and the Poor People's Movement commemorated ‘un-freedom day' in Cape Town, Durban and other parts of the country. Their banner read: No Land, No Justice, No Freedom. Perhaps a better question is; whose freedom and whose agency do these celebrations leave out?

Recently reading Emma Mashinini's autobiography, Strikes have followed me all my life, I wondered how few people would recognise her picture and name today or whether Cyril Ramaphosa's role as secretary-general of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) drowns her out.

Mashinini naturally fell into politics after she left her husband and started working in a factory to support her children. Her everyday experience of factory life made her acutely aware of the racialised system of capital in which she found herself. This awareness later made her an admirable and powerful leader.

Starting out on the factory floor of a clothing company, she went on to start a union for black shop workers - the Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers' Union of South Africa (CCAWUSA), which would become the second largest union in the country after the NUM.

In 1955 at her first political meeting held by the Congress of the People in Kliptown, she says:

"That congress was a real eye-opener for me. That is, maybe, when I started to be politicised. Although there is another thing I have always felt, which is that I have always resented being dominated. I resent being dominated by a man, and I resent being dominated by white people, be they man or woman. I don't know if that is being politicised. It is just trying to say, ‘I am human. I exist. I am a complete person.'"

Despite the challenge of the 1960s, she persevered, going on to receive an award in 1986 for her contribution of women in labour legislation.

As we commemorate Freedom Day, we should reflect on the historical contribution of workers who, through their mass participation and organisation, were the central pillar of resistance that forced the National Party to reconsider its position and we must not forget the women that made up that pillar.

It was indeed the popular struggle of the everyday lived reality of factory workers, women and men, their families and friends that finally brought the country to a tipping point.

We are continually called upon to pay homage to public holidays that are testament to a significant history. However, this not only eclipses the contribution others made to the struggle, but it also obscures the fact that the struggle of the dispossessed continues today. Part of that dispossession is complex truths of marginalised voices and memories about the everyday politics of ordinary people.

As we reflect on what ‘un-freedom' means, we should reflect on the women of Wonderkop and Marikana, where the first post-apartheid massacre took place at the hands of police, on 16 August 2012, leaving more than 34 miners dead. We should reflect on the female faces of the everyday and on-going struggle for freedom in this country. Let us also think about all the contributions, which go unacknowledged and unnoticed because they do not fit the masculine politics of political parties and struggles past and present.

- Camalita Naicker is a freelance writer and politics Masters student. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.

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