Bread and roses

The quest for women to go from the down­trod­den grinders of meal to those who have an in­alien­able hu­man right to be treated equally is cen­tral to our at­tempt to live in for all

CityPress - - Voices - Pregs Goven­der voices@ city­press. co. za

The song of women on the march in 1956, Wathint’Abafazi Wathint’im­bokodo, hon­ours the love that en­sures the sur­vival of mil­lions of fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties. One of the mean­ings of im­bokodo is “grind­ing stone”, re­fer­ring to the work count­less women do to pro­duce food. In con­trast to the pro­duc­tion of weapons, cre­at­ing food to nour­ish and sus­tain life is not counted in the gross do­mes­tic prod­uct, the mea­sure­ment of eco­nomic growth.

It is no ac­ci­dent that 21 years into South Africa’s democ­racy, an un­equal and un­just spa­tial ge­og­ra­phy con­demns many to lives of poverty, vi­o­lence and in­equal­ity. South Africa’s apartheid, cap­i­tal­ist and pa­tri­ar­chal state rel­e­gated peo­ple who were black, fe­male or poor to home­lands, town­ships and in­for­mal set­tle­ments. Democ­racy’s un­con­scious choices (the lack of con­scious­ness that Steve Biko tried to trans­form) have not rad­i­cally al­tered apartheid’s con­scious pol­icy choices.

Women are pa­tro­n­is­ingly la­belled as “vul­ner­a­ble” – ob­jects of char­ity, not bear­ers of rights. This la­bel ig­nores the macroe­co­nomic choices that cre­ate un­em­ploy­ment and pre­car­i­ous em­ploy­ment, di­min­ish women’s eco­nomic power and deepen vul­ner­a­bil­ity to rights vi­o­la­tions, in­clud­ing gen­der­based vi­o­lence.

Un­con­scious­ness blinds re­porters, re­searchers and gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials to the con­tri­bu­tions women make or the peace­ful protests they stage when all their ef­forts to se­cure clean wa­ter, de­cent toi­lets, hous­ing or healthcare re­ceive no re­sponse.

In­sti­tu­tional cul­ture and pri­or­i­ties shaped over cen­turies alien­ate the newly as­cended from the peo­ple they are elected by or ap­pointed to serve. An ex­am­ple is the city bu­reau­crat, a young black man who ex­plained that the rea­son there were no lights in a town­ship’s public toi­let that had no win­dows was be­cause the large lights in the dis­tance pro­vide “am­bi­ent light­ing”.

In one of pho­tog­ra­pher Zanele Muholi’s ex­hi­bi­tions, there are pho­to­graphs of women killed be­cause they were les­bian – and they are all lo­cated in ar­eas of poverty. Un­like Muholi, the bu­reau­crat is trained to frag­ment hu­man life, so he does not con­nect the dots.

For cen­turies, only those who were white, wealthy and male were re­garded as full hu­man be­ings with lives of value.

South Africa’s Con­sti­tu­tion promised to cre­ate a so­ci­ety that would “ad­dress past in­jus­tices” and “free the po­ten­tial of each per­son”. In­stead, in­equal­ity has deep­ened. While 64% of chil­dren live in poverty and one in four South Africans go hun­gry, the CEO of SABMiller, Alan Clark, earns more than R122 mil­lion a year and Ni­can­dro Du­rante of Bri­tish Amer­i­can To­bacco earns more than R118 mil­lion a year.

From the south, a hand­ful of African, Asian and South Amer­i­can peo­ple have emerged as bil­lion­aires, ab­sorbed into and per­pet­u­at­ing the old pa­tri­ar­chal or­der. In this or­der, hu­man rights such as food, wa­ter, health and ed­u­ca­tion are com­modi­ties to be traded for max­i­mum profit. The global food cri­sis was sparked by spec­u­la­tion on food by bil­lion­aires who blithely ig­nore the re­sult­ing hunger, malnutrition and death.

The fo­cus by the SA Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion (SAHRC) on the gen­dered im­pact of the food sys­tem builds on lessons from its wa­ter and san­i­ta­tion cam­paign. The cam­paign as­serted the in­di­vis­i­bil­ity of all rights. It linked in­di­vid­ual vi­o­la­tions to the sys­temic prob­lem and iden­ti­fied struc­tural causes such as the fact that 95% of ru­ral wa­ter is owned by less than 2% of the peo­ple (those who own mines, agribusi­nesses and other cor­po­ra­tions). In public hear­ings held coun­try­wide, gov­ern­ment was in­vited to lis­ten to peo­ple worst af­fected be­fore be­ing held ac­count­able for how it would ad­dress the lack of rights. The Public Pro­tec­tor was in­vited to take com­plaints of cor­rup­tion.

The right to dig­nity un­der­pins ev­ery con­sti­tu­tional right. Yet many pol­icy mak­ers and prac­ti­tion­ers seem un­aware that hu­man rights are in­di­vis­i­ble, in­ter­re­lated and in­ter­de­pen­dent.

On an SAHRC site in­spec­tion of town­ship toi­lets, a young woman ex­plained that, to use the toi­let, she had to cross a busy road, park her wheel­chair at the door and crawl into it. Gov­ern­ment could have pre­vented her daily hu­mil­i­a­tion and de­hu­man­i­sa­tion by en­sur­ing that the busi­ness con­tracted to build the toi­let un­der­stood and up­held hu­man rights.

This week, the SAHRC en­gaged a wide cross-sec­tion of or­gan­i­sa­tions, in­clud­ing those that rep­re­sent women who are small farm­ers, farm work­ers and traders, who came to­gether with trade union­ists and other civil so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tions that work for peace, equal­ity and so­cial jus­tice to scru­ti­nise the gen­dered im­pact of the food sys­tem. From seed to plate, gen­der-blind poli­cies that re­in­force gen­der stereo­types while un­der­min­ing the fe­male con­tri­bu­tion were rig­or­ously in­ter­ro­gated.

The es­ti­mated 100 del­e­gates agreed to cre­atively shape an ad­vo­cacy cam­paign to in­volve and mo­bilise oth­ers in their sec­tors. When cor­po­ra­tions cor­rupt or col­lude with many elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives to ad­vance their in­ter­ests, a hu­man rights cam­paign that strength­ens sol­i­dar­ity is es­sen­tial to se­cure po­lit­i­cal will. Trade de­ci­sions that vest the own­er­ship of seed, in­clud­ing that of South Africa’s sta­ple food, in global cor­po­ra­tions such as Mon­santo were sold on the myth that ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied (GM) seed would ad­dress hunger. In­stead, GM seed has con­trib­uted to ris­ing food costs and in­creased hunger. Myths can and must be busted.

The in­sti­tu­tion­alised vi­o­lence of the sys­tem that bru­talises so­ci­ety is di­rectly linked to the preva­lence of gen­der-based vi­o­lence. The wis­dom of those gath­ered at the round ta­ble will shape the fi­nal re­port that will be sent to rel­e­vant Cab­i­net min­is­ters.

The cam­paign aims to se­cure a recom­mit­ment from gov­ern­ment to en­sure that the coun­try’s bud­get (from macroe­co­nomic choices to choices on in­come and ex­pen­di­ture) is gen­der re­spon­sive. Such com­mit­ment be­tween Women’s Day and the 16 days of ac­tivism cam­paign against gen­der-based vi­o­lence will rep­re­sent a con­crete com­mit­ment to women’s rights and will be more valu­able than any amount of rhetoric.

A UN re­port – Progress of the World’s Women: Trans­form­ing Economies, Re­al­is­ing Rights – il­lus­trates that this is a global prob­lem. The cor­po­rate push for gov­ern­ments to dereg­u­late leaves work­ers world­wide vul­ner­a­ble to ter­ri­ble work­ing con­di­tions and slave wages.

This cam­paign is a call to re­assert the cre­ative rev­o­lu­tion­ary po­ten­tial of sol­i­dar­ity, ex­pressed in the cloth­ing union song Bread and Roses: “We come march­ing, march­ing, un-num­bered women dead; Go cry­ing through our singing their an­cient call for bread; Small art and love and beauty their trudg­ing spir­its knew. Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses too.”

Goven­der is the SAHRC deputy chair



On Au­gust 9 1956, 20 000 women marched to the Union Build­ings in Pre­to­ria

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