[This is an extract from one of the papers presented at the 2013 Jabu Ndlovu Memorial Lecture, The August Month Annual Series Organised by uMgungundlovu COSATU Local]
The 57th Anniversary of the South African Women’s Day since the year 1956 brings with itself yet another challenge in as far as its contextualisation is concerned. And in celebration of this Day we should also be commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the 1913 multi-group women’s Anti-Pass Law Campaign in the then Orange Free State led by such activist as Charlotte Maxeke.
From 1913 onwards, the South African women’s struggles had mainly focused on anti-pass law campaigns and such has been evidently linked to the resultant conditions which subjected African women into economic and cultural isolation and suppression of their rights as woman and later their exploitation as part of the working class.
With the advent of the 1914 First World War, the international socialist movement broke into two wings, the reformists and the revolutionaries, a split that was further widened by the Russian revolution. Thanks to the revolutionary wing, which after the Russian Revolution founded the 3rd Communist International and maintained the celebration of the 8th March as International Women’s Day
In spite of gender and racial discrimination, African women have borne the brunt of humiliation as the result of both World Wars. As the source of so-called auxiliary labour, these women served as nurses, post-masters and played other roles including mechanical operations, though they were undermined and unrecognised:
“They endured physical discomfort and personal criticism, while many of their contributions were unrecognized and unrewarded. They placed themselves in danger’s path – offering their abilities and strengths to preserve values and ensure [the so-called] freedom,”[i]
Praised be thy names, the 1917 October revolutionaries and the South African women of 1913 (from all walks of life, across racial lines) who spear-headed the anti-pass law campaigns almost a year after the formation of the South African Native National Congress (which became the African National Congress in 1923), and those who took to the streets of Pretoria and to the then Strijdom Square (now called Lillian Ngoyi Square) during the heydays of apartheid South Africa in 1956, 9 August.
These struggles were not merely about protest against the pass laws but were also in pursuit of achieving “fundamental rights of freedom, justice and security”[ii] for generations to come.
Mountains of text and literature had already been produced in reference to these Days, and more still are to be produced in celebration and advancement of struggles for women emancipation. But the ground-breaking truth about text is how it is contextualised with the impending crisis, be they political, economic or class-based, especially because the materiality of the world has demonstrated to all that the advent of class divided societies brought with itself, the advent of gander exploitation, hence the struggle for gender emancipation can never be divorced from working class struggles.
With the focus of this reflection partly placed only on these two historical milestones of our revolutionary history, it suffices to say that a comparative analysis between those women who resisted Pass Laws in 1913 & 1918-19 and those who took to the streets of Pretoria in 1956 for the same cause, presents us with two important realities:
Firstly, that though many of the 1913 women were supporters of the ANC but not allowed to become full members of the ANC; they were, however, able to mobilise themselves against the oppressive regime at the time and consequently even mobilised themselves around what came to be known as Bantu Women’s League led by its founding President, Charlotte Maxeke in 1918. We draw from this revolutionary zeal, a persistent calibre of women who neither submitted to the will of the oppressor nor paid lip service against the appalling socio-economic conditions that were to be paraded by the introduction of the pass-laws, but took it upon themselves to become architects of their own freedom.
Secondly, the enactment of the Suppression of Communism Act in 1950 by the National Party’s government broadly presented heightened conditions for the utilisation of both non-coercive and coercive instruments of the state to suppress and subvert the struggle against all forms of oppression including the Pass Laws. But instead of being demoralised, the women of 1956 – many of them now full members of the ANC and leaders of its Women’s League (before it was banned four years later) – never got weary, they soldiered on in their numbers (20 000), and faced the then SA Prime Minister Strijdom and his government to make known of their demands with their passionate fervour to revolutionary sacrifice and strength, hence their well-known highly spirited mantra: “You Strike A Woman You Strike A Rock, You Will Die”
Important as they are, these historical milestones shall remain shallow if they are only to be commemorated outside the cause-and-effect dialectical dimension of analysis, which compels us to also take a closer look into the causal class imperatives which brought them into light and which remain our bone of contention even today. Henceforth, it would be also limiting to merely delve on the atrocities brought about by the PASS LAWS in isolation of other enabling laws that were enacted to reinforce women oppression within the confines of class exploitation.
Primitive accumulation: the main source of gender exploitation and disparities in South Africa
In Chapter 26 of Das Capital Vol 1 (1867), Karl Marx unveils the founding features of the pre-historic development of capitalism and such a revelation is exemplified by the South African reality as it will be demonstrated later. In this chapter Marx devours the inhuman face and essence of capitalist development:
“…The process, therefore, that clears the way for the capitalist system, can be none other than the process which takes away from the labourer the possession of his means of production; a process that transforms, on the one hand, the social means of subsistence and of production into capital, on the other, the immediate producers into wage labourers
“The so-called primitive accumulation, therefore, is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production. It appears as primitive, because it forms the prehistoric stage of capital and of the mode of production corresponding with it.”[iii]
The South African state of affairs as regards the historical foundations of gender exploitation in is quite clearly depicted by Jo Beall and Luli Callinicos; respectively basing their classic works on the advent of indentured labour in the then Natal, early 20th centuries and the discovery of diamond in Kimberley and gold in the then Transvaal in the late 19th century.
Giving rise to the immigration of Indian labourers into South Africa was the shortage of cheap labour for the ‘planters’ (owners of the means of production) of sugar cane and tea in the then Colonial Natal in order to expand their production and to meet the demand that ensued at the time. Among these labourers were women who were subjected into employment contracts which forced them to work eleven to twelve hours a day and regardless of the fact that some of them were pregnant and on labour:
“During the picking season, which lasted for nine months of the year, women laboured in the fields for eleven to thirteen hours or even more hours a day. For the rest of the time they were engaged in cultivation task hoeing and weeding. Despite their skills they were still (receiving tale wage rates and received half the male rations. […] Apart from the cheapness of their labour, the great advantage of women workers to the planters, therefore, was that they could be drawn into the workforce when their labour was required and back to the barracks when it was not…The confusion surrounding female conditions of service gave employers great latitude to do as they pleased.”[iv]
Beside the above gender-inclined exploitation of women workers, the Natal colony also exacerbated racially exclusive reforms on the status of women by introducing a Bill on Women and Children’s Protection. “The Bill was introduced ‘in interest of womenhood’- but for ‘womenhood’ read ‘white womenhood’”[v].
While exploiting the labour of both migrant Indian male and female workers, the colonial state and the owners of the means of production who were mainly (if not only) white males perpetrated and maintained white supremacy even on social and cultural relations so as to ensure that class exploitation is reinforced by national oppression.
Turning to Luli Callinicos who imprints, quite illustriously, the complementary relationship that existed between the law-making Cape Colony, the then Boer Republics and later the 1910 Union of South Africa and the mining conglomerates in South Africa especially between 1886 and 1924- we are to learn of another dimension of primitive accumulation that also gave rise to gendered, racially skewed and broadly class-based inequalities haunting the South African working class since the discovery of diamond and gold in South Africa post the mid-19th century.
How the pass laws were used as an instrument to control African farmers and subject them into wage labour, is just one example of how the mining gurus (in search of cheap labour) collaborated with these segregationist administrations in ensuring that Africans are administered and controlled through a metal and later a document (a pass or reference book) that they had to carry with them as an essential extension of their whole being.
“The pass was many things: it was special permission to look for work in a certain district; the monthly pass a record of a man’s background and history; it showed if he was employed, where and for what wage; it showed whether he had ever been convicted of a crime, however small; it indicated that he had paid his taxes (otherwise he would not have been given a pass at all) and it also gave a character reference by his previous employers.”[vi]
These were desperate interventions by the colonial state in collaboration with the mining conglomerates to stringently subject the African producers-turned wage labourers – divorced from their indigenous land where they freely produced their means of subsistence- into class exploitation which was to be and still remains the impending structural crisis our economy today.
More so, this historical reality vindicates the Marxist conceptualisation of the state as an instrument of class rule especially under capitalist mode of production. It further crystallises the concept of state power being a tool used to suppress the contending class and in this context being the South African working class.
“Because the mine-owners controlled the gold mines, they also had power over the different governments of South Africa (South Africa was divided into four states at the time; the Transvaal, Natal, The Cape and Orange Free State.) The governments did well out of the gold mines, directly or indirectly, so it paid them to help the mine-owners to increase profits. The Transvaal government benefited most of all from the gold mines. […] They (mine-owners) could even change government policies when they wanted to. One of the most powerful mine-owners, Cecil John Rhodes, used his power to help the min-owners’ interests.”[vii]
It is to be remembered that Rhodes was also a Prime Minister of the Cape Colony while still a powerful mine-owner who passed the Glen Grey Act which introduced taxes paid by blacks as a compelling instrument to force them to wage labour in the mines, abandoning their land from which they earned a living, leaving their families and their loved ones behind only to return as paupers and the sick after years of exploitation in the mines.
And while the Communist Manifesto acknowledges the advent of capitalism as an era in which patriarchy was to be smashed, the South African reality presented quite a different scenario for it perpetrated patriarchy under new modes of production and within both contending class forces. To this effect the owners of the means of production were mainly (if not all) European males and the working class were composed of African males in the main. In itself this arrangement was to be a founding trend to exclude and later to minimally consider the recognition of women labour either as house wives or factory labourers.
“Not until the coming of modern large-scale industry was the road to social production opened to her again – and then only to the proletarian wife. But it was opened in such a manner that, if she carries out her duties in the private service of her family, she remains excluded from public production and unable to earn; and if she wants to take part in public production and earn independently, she cannot carry out family duties. […] The modern individual family is founded on the open or concealed domestic slavery of the wife, and modern society is a mass composed of these individual families as its molecules.
In the great majority of cases today, at least in the possessing classes, the husband is obliged to earn a living and support his family, and that in itself, gives him a position of supremacy, without any need for special legal titles and privileges” [viii]
Compared to African women, African men were viewed by the mining conglomerates as cheapest source of unskilled labour especially when deep-level mining[ix] took effect. African men were a source of cheap labour based on the assumption that firstly; their muscular bodies befitted manual and hard labour, secondly; that they do not bare children like African women who have to take maternity leave and thereby ‘negatively affecting’ mine-owners’ profit and that African women especially in their youth have other biological realities that ‘have a bearing’ on their daily subjection to manual and hard labour as opposed to African men. In itself this reality was at the same time a founding episode of gender disparity within the African family setting where women had to be left in the country with their means of subsistence destabilised and structurally falling victim to structural unemployment as a result of being uneducated.
Gender mainstreaming post 1994 and way-forward
In the face of it and as confirmed by the Statistician General, Pali Lehohla, South Africa has gone some strides in striking a balance in terms of gender representation in parliament, municipal councils and other elitist private corporations where women also occupy executive positions.
But with the structural crisis of gender exploitation being based on class contradictions, it is hopeless to conclude that the struggle for gender emancipation can only be addressed through a quota system alone especially through positions of political power and the economic ladder.
Albeit the above realities, it remains quite appalling to learn that regardless of race, women are still more exposed more than men into doing unpaid jobs in their homesteads and they remain more vulnerable to unemployment than men. Moreover, Statistics SA confirms that South African women in both urban and rural areas remain the face of poverty.
On a similar vein, in its 53rd National Conference, the African National Congress expressed itself on the need to do more as regards woman emancipation and gender advocacy:
“Whilst progress has been made in the development of women, the establishment of a Ministry that focuses on women development, there is still a need to effectively implement programmes and policies geared towards the development of women, in particular those that live in abject poverty, the disabled and the most vulnerable in society this includes access to opportunities, access to free basic services and continue to systematically fight patriarchy in society.”[x]
Beyond institutional intervention in the form of the establishment of the Ministry dealing with issues of women, the ANC recognises and recommits itself to “continue to systematically fight patriarchy in society”
Tempering with the political economy of gender exploitation becomes the integral part of our class struggles. With this conviction lies, in the main, the political education and programmatic imperatives on matters of gender struggles as they find expression within the confines class exploitation.
In this we should never cease to dislodge the purveyors of despair who ride on the plight of the poor and the declassed in pursuance of what the South African Communist Party has coined as a neoliberal anti-majoritarian offensive poised to re-occupy the state power.
This is the very state power that the working class should seize in order to entrench its working class hegemony and utilise it to suppress bourgeois interests while building socialism as direct route to communism (contextually read the SACP’s Five Year Plan, South African Road to Socialism).
The recognition of the so-called house-work as an essential part of paid work which contributes towards the reproduction of the working class beyond house-work itself and with its contributing role in mainstream capitalist production will also go a long way in changing the mind-set of the working class in as far as house-work is concerned as well as gender roles in society and beyond.
Sikhumbuzo Mdlalose is the Chairperson of NEHAWU Harry Gwala Region, SACP PEC Member and YCLSA National Committee Member
[i] Silvia Anne Sheafer, 1996, “Women in America’s Wars.”
[ii] Petition presented to the Prime Minister, Pretoria, 9 August 1956
[iii] Chapter 26 of Das Capital Vol 1 (1867), Karl Marx
[iv] Jo Beall, Women under indentured labour in colonial Natal, 1860-1911
[v] As above
[vi] Luli Callinicos, Gold & Workers, 1886-1924
[vii] As above
[viii] Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State
[ix] Deep-Level Mining began when gold was no longer near the surface ground, miners had to dig deeper and deeper to find gold: 100 metres, 500 metres, a kilometre underground and even deeper.
[x] African National Congress 53rd National Conference Resolution on Women