Gen­der strug­gle was in­trin­sic to SA’s lib­er­a­tion

Last week’s ar­ti­cles should have high­lighted women’s role in free­ing men from pa­tri­archy

Mail & Guardian - - Comment & Analysis - Then­jiwe Mt­intso & Judy Sei­d­man

As women and gen­der ac­tivists who gave in­put into the story pub­lished with the front-page head­line “Lib­er­a­tion leader raped me” (Oc­to­ber 27), we are con­cerned that sen­sa­tion­alised and bi­ased head­lines wrongly con­tex­tu­alise our sto­ries and per­pet­u­ate dis­tor­tions about this im­por­tant is­sue. We do not re­tract or deny what we said; rather, we wish to un­der­line key points that were blurred or lost.

Our story goes far be­yond an un­savoury and painful ad­di­tion to the in­ter­na­tion­ally trend­ing “#MeToo” cam­paign. We need to ex­plore how gen­der lib­er­a­tion in­ter­sected with South Africa’s lib­er­a­tion strug­gle as a whole. We need to as­sess our suc­cesses and fail­ures, and to recog­nise how this his­tory helped to shape gen­der equal­ity and our re­sponse to gen­der vi­o­lence to­day, in our post1994 so­ci­ety.

Sev­eral key el­e­ments of our story have been tram­pled in the rush to print that screech­ing head­line.

First: pa­tri­archy and gen­der vi­o­lence have been en­demic in our so­ci­ety for cen­turies, en­trenched in apartheid and colo­nial op­pres­sion. Oliver Tambo pointed out in 1981: “A sys­tem based on the ex­ploita­tion of men by men can in no way avoid the ex­ploita­tion of women by the male mem­bers of so­ci­ety.”

Gen­der vi­o­lence, es­pe­cially, has been a struc­tural weapon used to keep women silent and dis­em­pow­ered, lit­er­ally for cen­turies. The Mail & Guardian’s sec­ond ar­ti­cle last week, “Deaf­en­ing si­lence on rape in MK camps lingers”, does not men­tion that this “deaf­en­ing si­lence” is part of a larger prob­lem with the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion: the TRC failed to ad­dress gen­der vi­o­lence as a po­lit­i­cal crime.

As a re­sult, that deaf­en­ing si­lence cov­ers thou­sands of sto­ries of women abused, raped and killed by apartheid sol­diers and se­cu­rity forces in the course of re­press­ing our peo­ple’s strug­gles. Our so­ci­ety still needs to con­front all th­ese his­toric abuses. That does not let the lib­er­a­tion move­ment off the hook about our own abuses, of course, but it gives con­text.

Given this his­tory, it is in­evitable that per­pe­tra­tors of gen­der vi­o­lence would ap­pear in the midst of our lib­er­a­tion move­ment. Our chal­lenge, as women and as a move­ment, was and is: How do we deal with th­ese vi­o­la­tions and th­ese per­pe­tra­tors?

Our lib­er­a­tion move­ment did, in­deed, chal­lenge pa­tri­archy and gen­der op­pres­sion. This was done by women lib­er­a­tion fight­ers but also by many male com­rades. Lead­ers such as Tambo, Chris Hani and Samora Machel, and many com­rades at all lev­els, spoke about th­ese ideals and lived them.

The ANC in ex­ile en­acted reg­u­la­tions against gen­der vi­o­lence. The M&G’s “deaf­en­ing si­lence” ar­ti­cle com­ments that Thabo Mbeki in the 1990s “did not spec­ify what the of­fences were or what pun­ish­ment was meted out” — im­ply­ing that gen­der vi­o­la­tions were not, in fact, ad­dressed.

More re­search would have re­vealed that the ANC’s code of con­duct, adopted after the Kabwe con­fer­ence in 1985, listed gen­der vi­o­lence, sex­ual abuse and gen­der op­pres­sion next to racism, as one step be­low the worst pos­si­ble crime (sell­ing out to the en­emy). And our move­ment did take con­crete steps to en­force the code.

Fur­ther: the slan­der that women in the strug­gle were treated as sex slaves or sex toys is just that: a slan­der that de­nies women our agency, our com­mit­ment, belief and ac­tions, as lib­er­a­tion fight­ers. We are proud that we fought for our lib­er­a­tion.

True to the em­bed­ded pa­tri­archy in our so­ci­ety, a few so-called lead­ers and “com­rades” used their po­si­tion to vi­o­late women. Our ex­pe­ri­ence is that th­ese were iso­lated oc­cur­rences and not con­doned. Yes, there were in­stances when women were ex­pected to deny this hurt­ful re­al­ity in the name of not un­der­min­ing our unity and our move­ment.

But many of us be­lieved then, and be­lieve now, that fail­ing to con­front per­pe­tra­tors within our ranks is more dam­ag­ing to our move­ment than deal­ing with this wrong­ness. Our lib­er­a­tion move­ment must cham­pion gen­der lib­er­a­tion. It must never par­tic­i­pate in, cover up or con­done gen­der vi­o­lence.

To con­clude: the frame­work for our story is not “Lib­er­a­tion leader raped me” but comes from the words of Tambo, speak­ing to a con­fer­ence of the ANC women’s sec­tion in Luanda, An­gola, on Septem­ber 14 1981: “Women in the ANC … have a duty to lib­er­ate us men from an­tique con­cepts and at­ti­tudes about the place and role of women in so­ci­ety, and in the de­vel­op­ment and di­rec­tion of our rev­o­lu­tion­ary strug­gle.”

We hope the M&G will con­tinue telling our sto­ries — nei­ther bi­ased and dis­torted to slan­der our move­ment, nor pret­tied up to pro­tect per­pe­tra­tors.

We be­lieve our bat­tles as women within the lib­er­a­tion move­ment form a fun­da­men­tal part of our strug­gle for hu­man lib­er­a­tion. We can learn from this, go­ing for­ward.

So let’s speak out, and tell it right.

Tell it right: Gen­der vi­o­lence oc­curred in­side and out­side the lib­er­a­tion strug­gle, but the chal­lenge was and re­mains how we deal with vi­o­la­tors and per­pe­tra­tors. Photo: Robben Is­land/May­ibuye Ar­chive

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