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Shopsteward Volume 23 No. 3

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COSATU Today  |  COSATU Speeches

Address by COSATU Deputy General Secretary, Bheki Ntshalintshali to the COSATU KZN Women’s Heritage Dialogue

01 October 2011, Durban City Hall

It is such an honour to be addressing this gathering that aims to commemorate the role of women in our struggle and in the creation of our heritage as South Africans. We are meeting here during a very important month, a month marking our heritage as a people.

We are also meeting a few months before the year 2012, which is a year in which the African National Congress will be turning 100 years.

As the oldest liberation movement in the continent, we can safely say that the ANC is an integral and undisputable part of the heritage of South Africa. It is a part of our history, our present and certainly a great part of our future

It is quite encouraging that this indaba is called specifically to mark the role of women in our heritage as a nation.

Our history is littered with examples of such tenacious women – Winnie Mandela, Albertina Sisulu and of course the stalwart that we are honouring today – Phyllis Naidoo.

Phyllis Naidoo is one of the giants upon which the national liberation movement stands tall and secured. Phyllis Naidoo’s work in the legal profession rendered her a mouthpiece for many comrades who were denied their voices by the inhumane system of apartheid.

Hers is a tale of triumph against adversity. She paid a great price for her commitment to the liberation of black people and her communist ideals. For her and many others like her, apartheid brutality was a daily nightmare – marked by house arrests, banning orders and constant police raids and harassment.

Phyllis Naidoo’s story is remarkable in that it shows how a practical experience with racial prejudice can actually transform a human being.

When she was just a little girl, ten years of age, Phyllis attended a South African Institute of Race Relations conference where she was supposed to be assist in serving tea.

She was asked by one of the participant to go call the “boy” in the garden. Of course she was shocked when she realized that the “boy” she was sent to call was an African man old enough to be her father.

This experience with racial injustice and oppression was the reason why Phyllis became such a committed and ardent fighter for the rights of the oppressed majority in South Africa.

This experience later informed her writings against the death penalty and its disproportionate impact on black people. Her book Waiting to Die in Pretoria is an expression of this disdain for injustice.

She also lent her pen to writing about the inhumane manner in which the apartheid system treated black people. Le Rona re Batho is a book that Phyllis utilized to narrate black people’s experiences under apartheid.

Is such an honour to address a gathering that is also aimed at honouring this gallant fighter. One of the women who kept the torch of liberation burning when the liberation movement was robbed of its leadership through the Rivonia Treason trail and the arrests of many of its leaders in the 1960s. Phyllis Naidoo is one of the militants, revolutionaries and activists who continued the task of mobilizing our people under difficult circumstances and inspired hope amongst the hundreds of the oppressed.

Comrades and friends, this is indeed a remarkable occasion. History often leaves blank pages instead of narrating the stories of women or sometimes depicts women’s role in the struggle, especially our own struggle against apartheid, as second fiddle to men.

Looking through history books, one is easily led to believe that the victories scored by women in our struggle came on a silver platter, without a concerted effort to mobilize as women, particularly black women, as a grouping most adversely affected by apartheid and all its injustices.

Comrades, our theory of National Democratic Revolution understood that black women faced a triple oppression from the system of racialised capitalism known as apartheid.

They were, like their male counterparts, regarded as second class citizens on the basis of their race. As part of the working class, black women faced the wrath of the capitalist class and were daily exploited in the homes of the baases and the factories where they worked. Black women were not sparred from being oppressed by men in their own and families.

Black women often had to do the domestic labour in the home – this, particularly in the Bantustans, served to keep the family together in the absence of men who were absorbed into the urban economies as migrant workers. The capitalist class under apartheid immensely benefited from the unpaid labour performed by women. Capitalists in the mines argued that there was no need to pay black male workers a living wage since women in the Bantustans were engaged in subsistence activity to keep their families afloat.

This logic – which basically meant that women’s unpaid labour was subsidizing the capitalist class – made what is called a “bachelor wage” for migrant workers possible. This was a wage only enough to cover the living cost of the migrant worker, without taking into account the needs of his family back home. As a result, many migrant workers resettled and built new families in the cities. Many could hardly afford taking remittances home and the African family was disintegrated by this phenomenon.

Women in the urban areas, as workers in the factories and unpaid workers in the homes, were amongst the first to revolt against the injustices meted on black people by the apartheid system.

Some of the historic moments in our history, such as the opposition to the introduction of passes for women in the Orange Free State in the 1920s, the big bus boycotts in Evaton and Alexandra in the 1950s which ignited the entire country to reject the high standard of living imposed on the poorly paid and super-exploited black working class and the big march against passes in 1956 – all have one thing in common – women mobilized and refusing to sit idle as their living standards and economic conditions deteriorated.

As the people primarily responsible for the domestic labour and for the rearing of children, it is perfectly understandable why working class women were steadfast against rising bus fares, rent hikes for apartheid housing and rates and the rising cost of food and basic necessities in white towns.

Women as active agents of change have also made an immense contribution in the building of a progressive trade union movement in South Africa.

Women like Ray Alexandra, who was a leading member of the ANC and a communist to the grave, helped establish Food and Canning Workers’ Union – a predecessor to FAWU – the founding union of COSATU.

The same union produced Elizabeth Rocky Mafikeng, a leader and an organizer par excellence and Jay Naidoo - COSATU’s first General Secretary

There was an umbilical cord that tied women’s lives at the factories and in their communities. The struggle against apartheid municipal beer halls in the townships is an example of such a link.

Municipal beer halls were formed out of the apartheid regime denying women the right to trade as beer brewers in the townships. Women who sold beer were harassed, tortured and even arrested for this. Seeing beer as a source of revenue for appointed municipal councils in townships, the apartheid state cracked the whip on anyone who sought to undercut this source of revenue by trading the same commodity. As a result, many women were stripped of their means of subsistence.

But another factor that we should bear in mind is that women’s opposition to the beer halls was that their husbands – for whom the beer halls offered a temporary reprieve from their morbid living conditions and exploitation – often spent a great proportion of their meager wages consuming the liquor. This had a direct impact on women as their wives who also relied on the wage to fulfill household responsibilities.

Women’s mobilization against beer hall offered a beacon of hope, that the mighty apartheid regime can be challenged in a robust multifaceted fashion.

The giant COSATU that we have today owes its life to the resilience and the leadership of women in the struggle against apartheid and its shameful treatment of black workers. Emma Mashinini, the first female General Secretary of CCAWUSA now SACCAWU and many other women sustained a big fight in 1986 against OK Bazaars. The courage of CCAWUSA workers and the solidarity shown by workers in other during this period was the practical realization of our motto “An Injury to One is an Injury to All!”

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the OK Bazaars strike. We would be doing an injustice if we did not in some way pay homage to those who led this historic working class action.

Women workers perceived trade unions as part and parcel of the liberation movement. As workers, they understood that they could not fight for workers’ rights without fighting against the apartheid system in its entirety. They also understood that whilst they shared a common bondage from patriarchy as women from different raced, the wage differentials between white women and black women effectively meant that overthrowing apartheid would place women’s quest for equality on a better plank.

Dear comrades, our democracy has matured and is now 17 years of age. We need to make an assessment whether we have indeed made progress in terms of the liberation of women from the bondage of patriarchy.

We can indeed say it with confidence that women have immensely benefitted from democracy. Some of the gains include access to basic services, a democratic dispensation; progressive gender legislation, policies and establishment of gender institutions; new labour laws. Many of the laws that discriminated against women are now only points of reference and history.

But women are still very far from being liberated. We have to admit this as a first step to resolving the problem

The withdrawal of the state from the provision of basic services, as propagated by the neoliberal ideology, has left women with additional burdens and responsibilities. It is women who have suffered under the wrath of privatisation of public services. The neo-liberal emphasis on curtailing social spending has directly undercut the struggle for the public provision of childcare facilities and parental benefits whilst the liberalisation of our economy has made many sectors in which women are concentrated vulnerable to global pressures and competition.

Women, in particular those located in rural parts of the country, are most disadvantaged by the crisis of unemployment. Women are more likely to be unemployed, to be paid less than men when employed, and to perform unpaid labour.[1] Women currently form the bulk of informal, flexible, casual and atypical labour in the country.

It is because of this desperate situation that many women were lured under the pretext of job opportunities by a heartless serial - Thozamile Taki (the Sugar Cane Killer) - who robbed, raped and killed them.

It is a shame that 17 years after the dawn of democracy, hundreds of mothers die whilst giving birth. Rampant neoliberalism in the health sector as well as the impact of HIV/Aids has increased maternal mortality in South Africa to approximately 600 deaths per 100 000 births. For a country that can spend billions in arms procurement and elite projects such the Gautrain, this is more than a disgrace.

Thousands of poor women are also languishing in hospitals awaiting breast cancer treatment. Whilst government has made significant progress in providing Aids treatment to more than a million Aids sufferers, there are still many more who struggle to access these crucial drugs.

These facts should make us even more determined to see the implementation of the National Health Insurance as well as the building of a preventative as opposed to curative healthcare system.

South Africa is a land of inequalities. These inequalities remain significantly racialised. An average African man earns in the region of R2 400 per month, whilst an average white man earns around R19 000 per month. The racial income gap is therefore roughly R16 800 among males. Most white women earn in the region of R9 600 per month, whereas most African women earn R1 200 per month. The racial income gap in monthly incomes among women is therefore R8 400. The race gap is therefore overwhelmingly severe among males. A comparison between African men and White women shows the dominance of race as well. The gap in monthly income between African men and White women is R7 200. These patterns of income distribution determine the future evolution of chances of having a better life.

17 years after the dawn of democracy, women still bear the brunt of discriminative cultural practices. Young girls who are as young as 12 years of age are abducted and have their innocence robbed by men who use culture and tradition as some of legitimacy for their predatory behavior. A practice known as ukuthwalwa has stolen the youth and innocence of many young and poor women. These young girls do not know the joys of childhood and many have to now grapple with the reality of HIV and AIDS. That such a gross injustice occurs daily, with many of us turning a blind eye is simply scandalous! As workers, we must be at the forefront of fighting cultural practices that seek to further dig women’s lives into a deep black hole.

We cannot say that we are a free nation and that everyone enjoys the fruit of democracy whilst hundreds of women continue to suffer the plight of rape. Thousands more continue to suffer in silence and not report rape cases, mainly because of the hostile reception they receive from the police and the indifferent attitudes of many of our judges to the scourge of rape. We would be hypocrites to claim that women have equal citizenship when they daily live under the fear of being violate through rape.

The union movement is also not an oasis where patriarchy does not find expression. The truth is that despite the COSATU 8th National Congress on strengthening women leadership in the union, especially at Shopsteward level, we have not made much progress in this regard. Women leadership in the union is still treated with some suspicion, with some male comrades openly announcing that “I will not be led by a woman”. The vision of making the union a home for women is still to be realized. In truth, women leaders in the union continue to battle with balancing union and family responsibilities. The union culture has not changed to accommodate the greater presence of women in leadership positions. In reality, meetings are held at night, childcare facilities in our gatherings are still luxuries and the “deputy” syndrome – where women are seen as no more than deputies to men as leaders – still haunts the trade union movement. What is disheartening at times it is demands that are central to women that are often compromised during bargaining. Full paid maternity leave is one demand that some unions readily and easily compromise when it comes to bargaining. Sometimes the silence about sexual harassment is almost deafening!

The position of women in South Africa, black women in particular, is not only the result of racial injustice and patriarchy but also intermittently linked to patterns of economic exploitation over decades. The central message is that Black women continue to reel under the burdens of a system of male domination, the legacy of apartheid as well as rampant neoliberalism.

The struggles of the oppressed all over the world teach us many lessons, the most important amongst these lessons is that material conditions shape consciousness and action. The day to day experience of women with patriarchal oppression, economic exploitation and racial injustice must inspire working class women to struggle for a better world. To repeat Samora Machel’s famous words “women’s liberation is not an act of charity” and one might add that it will not come on a silver platter. It’s a constant struggle within a struggle.

This Women’s Heritage Dialogue would go down in history as yet another talk shop unless it recognizes these realities and devises deliberate strategies to overcome these challenges

Malibonge!!!

Issued by:
Phindile Kunene (COSATU Shopsteward Editor)
0824942409/0791679544

Phindile Kunene (Shopsteward Editor)
Congress of South African Trade Unions
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Braamfontein
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Tel: +27 11 339-4911/24
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