Women’s Month: Memory over Forgetting and Gender based Violence

Leonard Gentle

The writer argues that the influx control and pass laws of apartheid legislation aimed at providing cheap labour on the mines for capitalist barons destroyed family life and deepened the patriarchal oppression of black women.

As we have seen with the Black Lives Matter movement and the removal of colonial symbols globally – history and its representation matters.

South Africa’s national symbols and public holidays show all the scars and trade-offs of our negotiated settlement. Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika is painfully merged with Die Stem, the national flag was designed by a professional flag designer and our public holidays are a mix of the colonial, various currents within the liberation movement, and the old forces of reaction. We did not win our freedom though a process of a successful revolution but through a settlement in which the sacrifices and triumphs of a strong mass movement had to be compromised into a form acceptable to an extraordinarily wealthy and powerful white elite. The outcome has been while there is much to celebrate in the struggle outcomes there is also a growing de-politicisation of the public holidays and their historical significance for struggles today lost.

Probably the biggest of this de-politicisation is Women’s Day and Women’s Month. Because in this month both the courage of the women marchers on August 9 are celebrated and the surge of Gender-based Violence are correctly bemoaned.

Women’s month gets highlighted by every organisation, institution, media outlet and all forms within civil society- from the very top in the corporate world to NGOs and social movements. Increasingly there is a propensity to celebrate examples of “successful women” (who are supposedly “inspirations” to women) and for enterprising companies to offer special deals for facials and flowers.

At the same time there is a public outcry against Gender-based Violence.

The sources of male violence against women can be found in a deeply entrenched toxic masculinity – which patriarchy has bred over centuries – and the structural oppression of women, which makes for the dependence of many women and often keeps battered women inside these many violent relationships.

The long struggle out of this vice-grip requires a mass women’s movement to challenge patriarchy in all its forms. This is true not only in South Africa but all across the world.

Yet there is a peculiarly South African version of this toxic masculinity-female dependence nexus, which August 9 could be illustrating and is not, because it is being lost under the de-politicisation, trivialisation and commercialisation of August 9.

This is that the march on August 9 was against the extension of the Pass Laws to African women – a demand that was not won. The system of influx control and the Pass Laws has resonance today and feeds into the proliferation of gender-based violence.

South Africa’s system of racial capitalism grew out of the need of South Africa’s mining capitalists for cheap labour to make the gold mines profitable. The pass laws and influx control wrenched African men out of the Reserves (later Bantustans, later Homelands) and housed them in single men’s quarters near the mines. In the compounds they were segregated along tribal lines, policed by indunas and mine police and then plunged into the darkness of deep-level mining. First to implement this system were the diamond barons of Kimberley followed by the gold Randlords of the Transvaal.

The Chamber of Mines commissioned recruiters to scour much of Southern Africa for able-bodied men, compliant chiefs to act as labour brokers and medical staff to screen male workers and ensure that the diseased were repatriated.

The labour was cheap because, unlike other capitalist enterprises, employers did not have to pay for the cost of the reproduction of workers.

Women were left behind to till the land for subsistence and care for children, the aged and the sick. Women’s domestic labour in the Reserves made black male labour “cheap”, which, in turn, made the companies which came to monopolise the South African economy wealthy.

The segregation of the sexes was a matter of state policy under both segregation and apartheid since the end of the 19th century.  The pass laws were only scrapped in 1985- almost a century later.

After WW1 and increasingly during WW2 – thousands of women abandoned the Reserves and made their way to the cities. Up until the 1950s the pass laws controlled the movement of men so some women were able to come to the burgeoning urban townships as rural livelihoods declined. Here they faced racism, violence, slum-clearance legislation from the state and the near impossibility of nuclear family life. While in the new urban environment women also started joining new movements of resistance from church groups, to trade unions, to ANC branches. Some became members of the ANC Women’s League and others were part of forming women’s initiatives such as the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW). Women were responsible for laying the basis of an urban working class.

They tried livelihoods like beer-making, shebeening and occupations like nursing and domestic work for white madams. But whatever their choices one thing was certain – their safety and livelihoods depended on finding a male protector. Even if they shared a male protector across multiple households.

This was not a consequence of “culture” or “tradition” – often younger women were escaping these in the rural areas – but of state policy and practice. The influx control system literally fostered forms of masculinity and femininity that encouraged toxicity in the former and dependence in the latter.

When the apartheid regime and their mining monopolies clients sought to tighten influx control after resistance struggles surged after WW2 they targeted black women by extending the pass laws to African women. This is what sparked the famous August 9 March organised by FEDSAW.

The march did not stop Strydom. Influx control was extended to women and the Pass Laws – along with Apartheid’s other weaponry – continued to ensure cheap labour until P.W. Botha’s reforms in the 1980s.

But even with the formal end of influx control its long reach stretched into Post-1994 South Africa of the democratic era. History often does not have cut-off points or stark lines in the sand. On another day in August, on 16 August 2012, police of the new democratic order murdered 34 workers at Marikana, 18 years after the end of apartheid. Twenty-seven years after the Pass Laws were formally ended by the Botha regime, a platinum mine in the North West was still dependent on cheap labour provided by male migrant workers from the Eastern Cape and Lesotho.

But now they no longer live in men-only compounds. But many have their wives and families at nearby Wonderkop – in shacks and settlements with no running water, on the basis of a “living out” allowance.

August 2012 showed us how the legacy of influx control and racial capitalism continues. That legacy also plays into and nourishes the toxic masculinity which encourages male violence against women as it also exposes the insecurity experienced by many women which makes them have to continue living with violent partners.

Fighting the scourge of Gender-Based Violence is a much bigger and deeper problem than just eradicating forced migrant labour. Violence against women is also pervasive amongst all sections of society rather than just those whose experience of life was shaped by the more than 100 years of influx control.

But in the month dedicated to women and ostensibly about remembering the August 9 march of women it is an opportunity to reflect on what structural changes we still have to fight for and why we need a strong independent women’s movement to be part of leading such a fight.

More stories in Issue 120

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