Speech notes: 16 Days of Activism

Honourable Madam Speaker, Honourable Premier, Colleagues and distinguished guests.

It is indeed an honour and a privilege to address the house as we prepare to campaign for the defence and practise of equality for all women regardless of the circumstances of their birth, their status or place in our province.

This campaign is a women’s rights activity.  It was conceived by a rape survivor who refused to be a silent victim of the cruel male power game that founds and supports all violence against women.

South Africa is the rape capital of the world.  1 in 3 South African women will be raped.  We also rank as one of the most unequal countries in the world.

This means that resource distribution (including jobs) is uneven.  The most peripheral, marginalised group in South Africa continues to be black, rural women.  As 65% of the people in our province live in the rural areas it means that the majority of the women in the Eastern Cape are excluded from the formal employment sector, the  economy and from up skilling, training and development opportunities.

So effectively, as we celebrate and defend our national constitution, the paper rights it enshrines are unlikely to become real rights for 65% of the black, rural women in this province.

This is a provincial disgrace and an utter tragedy!  We know that women are nation-builders yet for so many their situation is rendered extremely dangerous because they are vulnerable and excluded and because South Africa is a dangerous place to live unless you can afford private security measures.

Having said this, I would like to digress briefly into the philosophical reason that underpins the often misused term of “gender”

If one embraces identity – personally, collectively and indeed nationally as a social construct; i.e. all surroundings of place, people and circumstance create a culture from which identity is developed, grown and constructed.

For example, consider the difference between the identities of rural black women and highly empowered urban executive black women.

This then is “gender”, a construction of identity based on social context.  “Gender” therefore is fluid and in flux.  It is not immutable or permanent.  Sex is biology (male or female) and it is given at birth.

Because this speech is supported by the philosophy of social constructivism and because gender is a construct it is necessary to consider the historical milieu that has influenced women’s identity in South Africa.

So the reality of indigenous and foreign women’s identity in South Africa begins with a diaspora and of relocation, either by dispossession in the case of Khoi and San individual’s choices exercised by immigrants and forced removal in the case of captured and transported women destined for slavery.

It is a fact (Adhikari : 2012) that the first settlers in South Africa were predominantly male and that the first female slaves were shipped to SA to service them and be acculturated into white society based on their approximation to whiteness.

In the nineteenth century a “Rule of Uterine Descent” law enabled men to avoid all parental responsibility as children born of a women of colour and a white man were legally compelled to adopt the woman’s surname and identity!

Sadly, our post-apartheid history continues to reinforce the downtrodden status of South African women of colour.

For example, when our current president Jacob Zuma was on trial for rape, pre-court appearances became a showground in which his female accuser was vilified, humiliated, harassed and cast in the age old role of temptress.

So yes, we have a Gender Commission and a Human Rights Commission but neither of these commissions protected women’s rights when faced with the presence of a powerful male.  Indeed, the pressure was so intense the accuser was offered asylum in Holland after the trial.

The Italian philosopher, Antonio Gramsci, comments that, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born, in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear”.   According to Gramsci and our Nobel author the late Nadine Gordimer, this leaves us living in an interregnum or a state of change and flux.  Hence the shame filled silence and Orwellian inferiority of our past continues to dog South African women and entrench perceptions that some women are better than others or deserve more protection than other women do.

In our South African/Provincial interregnum cleavages and fault lines run on the thin ice of insiders and outsiders as they did in the past.

I put it to this house and my Honourable colleagues that in our current interregnum, women’s status is reflected in many inequalities and our identity (particularly that of black rural women) is as equally earmarked by shame and silence as that of the servants and slaves of our history.

So for example this fifth term of office in the Provincial Legislature opened with a “Sex for Jobs” scandal right here in our own legislature!

“Sex for jobs” is an ancient ritual practised by powerful men who promise jobs to marginalized, excluded women (a leg up out of poverty and desperation) in exchange for reduced status and commodification as meat or goods which can be sold.

This trade-off is identical to the sale of slave women reflected in the ubiquitous “slave books” of our past because women’s identity is reduced to nothing more than the physical.

Indeed, the meaning of such degradation is that marginalized women continue to be assessed like breeding stock!

This is totally out of line with constitutional democracy and it flies in the face of what the “16 days of Activism Campaign against Gender Violence” represents.

The tragedy of this situation in our shame filled house is that we speak with two tongues.  One pays homage to constitutional democracy including the Bill of Rights and the preamble to the constitution. The other subverts the constitution by abusing power and treating women and girls like cattle.

Here are the outcomes of this double narrative:

  1. A soft-voiced and politically correct story published as an official policy. (e.g Sexual Harassment policy document)
  2. An underground narrative of cruelty, exploitation, marginalization and neglect.

The 16 days of Activism against Gender Violence campaign offers us, and the Leaders of our Legislature, an opportunity to commit to genuine gender equality and to circulate one single, true story.

The Democratic Alliance and the DA Women’s Network (DAWN), appeal this afternoon for all findings of the Commission of Enquiry into the “Sex for Jobs” scandal in the Bhisho Legislature to be made public.

For the sake of our women and our constitution, please break the silence!

Show the women of our beloved province that our Legislature defends and honours the constitution and protects women’s rights!

Thank you.