Democracy and Feminism in Post-Apartheid South Africa: Parallel Movements

By Emma Tallon.

Can progress truly be achieved if half of a population is oppressed? Former South African president and anti-apartheid revolutionary Nelson Mandela proclaimed in 1994 that “freedom cannot be achieved unless the women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression…and…they have been empowered to intervene in all aspects of life as equal with any other member of society” (Hill). South Africa’s transition to a democratic government did not lead to the marginalization and oppression of women. Rather, it led to an increase in gender equality and placed the notion of gender equality at the core of democratic discussions. Therefore, the growth of a democratic governing system in South African society contributed to progress in the South African feminist movement.

The growth of democracy in South Africa brought with it the notion of representative government, which is a system of government where the whole population plays a role in the governing process, primarily through elected representatives. This system gave women a much-needed clear and coherent voice in the policy making process. Through this democratization, women were able to organize and enter “the democratic era with new agendas for women” (Gay).

However, this drive and enthusiasm that embodied the movement were not always the case. In the 1980s and early 1990s, women’s social movements in South Africa slowed and became rather absent. At the time, women’s energy had been diverted to keeping the anti-apartheid movement alive. Consequently, in 1990, the women’s organizations of South Africa merged with the African National Congress Women’s league. This was extremely impactful on the South African women’s movement as a whole, as it brought new skills to the table and new ideas concerning gender debates. However, the merged movement had some negative aspects as well. Due to the history of the apartheid and its impacts, women found it difficult to define themselves outside of the nationalist framework that dominated South African society at the time. In 1985, a woman named Georgina Waylen, who was a key actor in antiapartheid activism, advocated that women should not be promoting gender equality in the antiapartheid movement, as she deemed it to be “suicide” (Gay). Waylen saw the diversion from racial rights to feminist rights as undermining the struggle for democratization and racial equality and creating even more division in South Africa society. However, this understanding of South African feminism has drastically changed, as many antiapartheid activist women, like Georgina Waylen, believe otherwise. In 1994, with South Africa’s first democratically elected government under Nelson Mandela, Waylen, who initially voiced concerns against the feminist movement, emerged as an enthusiastic feminist. This demonstrates the drastic and monumental societal changes happening in South Africa at the time, and that the shift to democratic governance enabled the feminist movement to eventually reform along with it.

There were three radical changes in the workings of South African society that guided the South African feminist movement. Firstly, there were new opportunities that came with the post-apartheid movement to democracy. For example, it ensured citizens’ rights were upheld, no matter one’s race, gender or ethnicity. Second, the formation of the Women’s National Coalition was a major change. This autonomous organization was created to uphold the fundamental beliefs of the women’s movement. Third, the notion of equality was now embedded in the African National Congress. The Congress became a key negotiator in the movement and dramatically altered its structure, therefore making it more impactful.

In September of 1991, there was a meeting encompassing various political parties, women’s organizations, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). It was titled the African National Congress (ANC) Women’s League. The ANC sought to articulate an idea that would connect women from across racial and ideological divisions, in order to come together in unity to lead the feminist movement. This assembly concluded that despite racial and class-based divisions, there was a common struggle faced by all women. Those in attendance declared that the new-found organization should be a political coalition based on sex. The South African Women’s Charter (1994) is proclaimed that “Conventionally, democracy and human rights have been defined and interpreted in terms of men’s experiences…If democracy and human rights are to be meaningful to women, they must address our historical subordination and oppression. Women must participate in, and shape, the nature and form of our democracy” (Hassim). Although democratic transition in South Africa has been criticized as hindering the development of women’s rights, this is not entirely true. Rather, the post-apartheid democratic South Africa has allowed for women’s rights to flourish with the onset of progressive policies.

However, the struggle for women’s rights is not over quite yet as there is always room for improvement. Currently, women, and black women chiefly, remain economically disadvantaged in South Africa, as they are disproportionately unemployed. Furthermore, South African women are largely employed in lower-paying jobs. South African women are also still at risk of being victims of domestic violence and rape. Despite this, one must remain optimistic that the future progression of women’s rights and privileges in South Africa are progressive and will continue to grow and improve for the good of the whole community.

Works Cited

HASSIM, SHIREEN. “‘A Conspiracy of Women’: The Women’s Movement in South Africa’s
Transition to Democracy.” Social Research, vol. 69, no. 3, 2002, pp. 693–732.

HASSIM SHIREEN. “Texts and tests of equality: The Women’s Charters and the demand for
equality in South African political history.” Agenda: Empowering Women for Gender
Equality, vol. 28, no. 2, 2014, pp. 7-18.

Hill, Leslie. “Redefining the Terms: Putting South African Women on Democracy’s
Agenda.” Meridians, vol. 4, no. 2, 2004, pp. 113–119. 

SEIDMAN, GAY W. “GENDERED CITIZENSHIP: South Africa’s Democratic Transition and
the Construction of a Gendered State.” Gender & Society 13.3 (1999): 287-307.

“Women’s Rights and Representation.” South African History Online. 2011.

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