11 August 2023 | Story Prof Pearl Sithole | Photo Supplied
Prof Pearl Sithole
Prof Pearl Sithole is a social scientist and Vice-Principal: Academic and Research on the Qwaqwa Campus, University of the Free State (UFS)

Opinion article by Prof Pearl Sithole, Social Scientist and Vice-Principal: Academic and Research on the Qwaqwa Campus, University of the Free State.

It is August and I want to bury my head in the sand to avoid being part of what is turning out to be a condescending South African ritual against women – ‘speak justice in August, and practise injustices for the rest of the year’. The requests to feminists to rise up and give talks to dignify yet another August with sophisticated speak about quite a simple moral matter – women are as human as men. The ritual is tiring and it is creating despondency. How difficult can it be to switch to action on equality and fairness towards women as human beings too? How difficult can it be to be fair? How difficult can it be to see that while the unfairness is structural and cultural, it is social will and moral agency that is called into test? And how difficult is it to realise that in fact not attending to this matter of social justice is keeping all the other architecture of inequalities and unfairness intact? 

August in South Africa is used to pour out pity in the name of physical gender-based violence (GBV) and other social strains women experience – pity poured out by people who are in positions of power with voices that merely acknowledge what needs to be done. The same voices will then go to various corners where they practise professional GBV, and thus endorsing women as ‘secondary beings’ used to shoulder a patriarchal and capitalist societal agenda.

Economic empowerment of women

This year the focus is economic empowerment of women. In a government blog published in March 2023 that was written partly to cast a celebratory tone for International Women’s Day, the President could not resist twinning economic empowerment with the potential to escape GBV:

“The economic empowerment of women is an important pillar of our struggle to end gender-based violence and femicide. We have recognised that unequal access to resources and economic opportunity makes it more difficult for women to escape situations of abuse and violence.”

Clearly this is a much-needed spanner in the works to escape GBV. But the fact is that this society still laments a wage gap and pleads for narrowing gender economic differences in order to escape GBV, speaks volumes about the kind of society South Africa is. The institutional culture that sees women as secondary, almost like pets, must be given reprieve from violence even if it takes ‘giving them some economic empowerment’. The lack of transparency on pay scales across work categories; no women ever in certain leadership positions; and more women being unemployed – are not cited as a violation in themselves. Basically, South Africa is an abusive society to women that avoids the mirror by pretending to attend to physical violence through relaxing the rest of the violations. 

Yet the more tokenistic the talk on inequalities every August and thus the endorsement of structural and cultural injustices, the firmer the country proclaims its affinity with inequality. If the maxim “actions speak louder than words” has been promulgated as useful with regards to socialisation and bringing up decent human beings, the current generation of leaders has failed dismally to use it in terms of political and social will to fight injustices. 

Instead they have exercised a practical display that men are the superior species and that women must take charge of the menial affairs of society in daily life. The uproar against physical GBV masks the major omissions on the kind of society South Africa is while it continues to modernise gender inequalities:
  • Leadership is a male affair, with the top and resource-management positions exclusively male through history. The Presidency is a male affair, as well as the portfolios of Economic Development and Finance.
  • The business sector also continues to have higher pay grades for men and not for women. 
  • In sport, women’s teams are paid less, with public scrounging just to lull the complaints for every major event.
  • Committees can recommend women into positions and authorities can exercise the right not to endorse those recommendations.
  • Institutions, including civil society, can legitimise their existence over the concept of social justice and sustain glaring imbalances on gender in leadership positions.
  • Funders continue to have gender and racial leadership preferences in agencies they fund – the rest of the profiles being the subject of never-ending training on funding proposals.
  • Intersectionality of identity becomes visibly toxic when certain members of ‘the inferior groups’ are given a special place on the ladder within the unequal society – like the conspicuous place of white women in the property sector, and the convenient tallying of all women to generate a good transformation profile for institutions.
Society has modernised inequality

In essence society has modernised inequality – and highlights ‘shallow permits’ as women’s rights achievements. South Africa may shout shallow things like: ‘our women can be car drivers’ and ‘women feature in the Constitution’, but the total lived experience of women at all levels of society leaves little to be desired. Men continue to hover over the prerogative to place women or ‘allow’ them in spaces where it makes strategic support to their own positions or to make institutions look good in terms of quotas. 

In professional spaces in South Africa it is not uncommon to see very capable women doing menial tasks designed to hand over professional products for men to shine in leadership. It is almost like the domestication of professional spaces through importing culture and religion – to underpin institutional chauvinism. And yet policies and strategies make a clear and tacit association of culture and religion only with society out there. Beside gender mainstreaming, which is largely grounded on mere inclusion of women, the damaging role of culture and religion on professional relationships is not on the radar of attention within institutions. Thus, a country can marginalise women’s national teams on the issue of remuneration at the back of what is cited as “the best constitution in the world”, and still talk about the importance of women every August. 

The most disappointing stakeholders in all this are the women’s political formations. In the context of South Africa, ageism within these formations is a huge factor. Those senior women are kingmakers of note. They believe in women as living to support men and are afraid to rock the boat for their own placement in professional peripheral positions. It would be interesting to hear them articulate their status of bondage and why it has been sustained. 

For now, one thing is clear: just like other hegemonies that used ideology and culture to root themselves (i.e. imperialism, capitalism and racial inequalities), patriarchy is not going to disintegrate just because those it serves have suddenly developed a conscience and realise they are not ‘better beings’. Agency, advocacy, and political will are key in fighting for justice. No piece of paper implements itself, not even the Constitution. 

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