CityPress - - Business - Terry Bell busi­ness@ city­press. co. za

Equal pay for work of equal value be­came law in South Africa this week. But whether the law will be en­forced is another mat­ter if one looks at the record to date of the labour de­part­ment.

But it is good news for women who tend, in­ter­na­tion­ally, to be paid much less than men for work of equal value.

It is a step in the right di­rec­tion, although a rather be­lated one when his­tory is taken into ac­count. Be­cause be­fore the adop­tion of the Free­dom Char­ter in 1955 and be­fore the 1956 protest march by 20 000 women against the pass laws, there was a Women’s Char­ter that put for­ward an equal pay de­mand.

And while the 1956 march is cel­e­brated as na­tional Women’s Day and the Free­dom Char­ter is loudly trum­peted by the likes of the Na­tional Union of Me­tal­work­ers of SA (Numsa) and the Eco­nomic Free­dom Fight­ers and re­mains iconic to the ANC, the Women’s Char­ter tends to be for­got­ten.

Yet it en­cap­su­lated a range of equal rights now found in the Bill of Rights and much of South Africa’s labour leg­is­la­tion, in­clud­ing this week’s wel­come amend­ment.

Along with equal pay for equal work, Fed­saw also called for equal prop­erty rights and for the ‘re­moval of all laws and cus­toms’ that deny women equal­ity, some­thing that re­mains a prob­lem to­day

The Women’s Char­ter was adopted 60 years ago, in April 1954, when women, many of them trade union­ists, came to­gether to form the Fed­er­a­tion of South African Women (Fed­saw). At this gath­er­ing in Joburg, they doc­u­mented their de­mands for full equal­ity for all peo­ple, ir­re­spec­tive of race, colour, creed or gen­der.

Along with equal pay for equal work, Fed­saw also called for equal prop­erty rights and for the “re­moval of all laws and cus­toms” that deny women equal­ity, some­thing that re­mains a prob­lem to­day. As in­deed do the de­mands made 60 years ago for “child­care for work­ing moth­ers, and free and com­pul­sory ed­u­ca­tion for all South African chil­dren”.

These de­mands be­came deeply em­bed­ded in the con­scious­ness of trade union­ists, car­ried to the rank and file level by or­gan­is­ers such as Ray Alexan­der Simons and Frances Baard. The echoes re­mained, de­spite po­lice re­pres­sion, when the mod­ern labour move­ment emerged in the 1970s and 1980s.

The idea of equal­ity was per­haps best epit­o­mised, at least in prin­ci­ple, in unions such as the Metal and Al­lied Work­ers Union (Mawu) that even­tu­ally be­came the core of Numsa. Elected officials were re­callable by their con­stituen­cies and none re­ceived more pay­ment than the high­est-paid worker in the union.

At the same time, the gen­der is­sue was se­ri­ously ad­dressed, with women of­ten com­ing to the fore­front, even in such male-dom­i­nated sec­tors as the engi­neer­ing in­dus­try. The feisty Rain Chiya of KwaThema was a clas­sic ex­am­ple. She was not only a lead­ing shop stew­ard, she be­came the first woman crane op­er­a­tor in the coun­try.

It was Chiya who ar­gued that while creches and child­care fa­cil­i­ties were es­sen­tial, they should not be re­stricted to women work­ing in the in­dus­trial sec­tor, and should be avail­able to all women in all com­mu­ni­ties. “We must not di­vide woman from woman,” she said.

But ad­e­quate child­care fa­cil­i­ties are still not avail­able, whether in work­places or com­mu­ni­ties.

De­spite the tremen­dous dif­fi­cul­ties of the time, es­pe­cially for trade union­ists, there was wide­spread op­ti­mism. And with­out any of the ad­van­tages of to­day, a num­ber of women, for whom ed­u­ca­tion had come mainly through the unions, went on to play lead­ing roles in var­i­ous fields.

Some, like the teenage un­mar­ried mother and high school dropout Emily Mokoena, be­came an ad­min­is­tra­tor in the Mawu of­fice. “I knew how to type,” says this for­mer 12-year-old street pro­tester of the 1976 stu­dent up­ris­ings.

Mokoena went on to be­come the coun­try’s first black woman sound op­er­a­tor, work­ing on doc­u­men­tary films. But lis­ten­ing to and record­ing life with­out be­ing di­rectly in­volved wor­ried her, so she de­cided to study psy­chol­ogy.

In was a long road, but fi­nally, in 2011, hav­ing com­pleted her first two de­grees with hon­ours, she ob­tained a mas­ter’s de­gree, spe­cial­is­ing in com­mu­nity psy­chol­ogy. To­day she works as a psy­chol­o­gist in the women’s sec­tion of Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town.

We should sa­lute women like these, as well as those who drew up and ap­proved the 1954 Women’s Char­ter (many of whom joined the 1956 march), on Women’s Day. But we should also bear in mind, not just for a day or a month, the prin­ci­ples and hopes en­shrined in what amounted to a char­ter for all in 1954.

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