On the 8th of March WWSOSA brought out a statement in reaction to a number of gender issues in parliament:  

The Child Support Grant has been painted by the previous Minister of Finance as yet another ploy by women who use sex to obtain financial favours. This is no different from the frequent suggestion that successful women have achieved this through ‘sleeping with the boss’… 

How does a national leader adopt a phrase like ‘imali yeqolo’ (‘money earned on one’s back’), which reflects a common stigma against women who apply for a Child Care grant? How does a sitting Parliament find this funny and not call its author to order? How will we as a society ever transform patriarchal culture if our national leaders perpetuate such stereotypes in major public addresses such as a budget speech?

How is it that there has been so little public outcry? How have our faith leaders and most of those driving gender-based violence work remained completely silent about this?

We have normalised the denigration of women, rendered invisible the burden of women’s lack of agency over their own bodies and reproductive health, and often excused violence against women (except in its most extreme forms) with phrases like ‘boys will be boys’. So, we no longer notice it when our leaders make such comments. 

One would have thought this errant behaviour on the part of a key Minister would have been swiftly dealt with by our new President, who in his SONA referred to inequality between women and men as “another grave injustice”. He called for “a fundamental shift in almost every aspect of social life” and committed his Government to building “a nation that is prepared to confront the many different ways in which women are subjugated, marginalised and overlooked – a nation that wages a daily struggle against patriarchy, discrimination, and intolerance”. He went on to mention Government’s “integrated programme of action to eliminate all forms violence against women and children”, to be achieved by “transforming attitudes, practices, and behaviours”. 

We Will Speak Out SA, as a coalition aiming to mobilise the faith-based sector to address its underlying patriarchal, social and gender assumptions, and mobilise its leaders to speak out against sexual and gender-based violence, were excited to hear this coming from the highest echelons of power. Malusi Gigaba’s statement was our first but not the only disappointment…

It took only a few days for President Ramaphosa to directly contradict his promises to the nation, by appointing to the Ministry of Women a woman who has repeatedly shown herself to promote patriarchy in the face of clear evidence of its destructive effects on the women her ANC Women’s League purports to stand for. Remember, this Ministerial role is tasked to lead the charge against this “other form of grave injustice” at the highest level- in the Presidency. Minister Bathabile Dlamini, however publicly defended former Deputy Minister Manana when he assaulted a young woman at a bar, who accosted the young women who challenged President Zuma on the Khwezi rape trial at the IEC, and who recently made stereotypical statements at the ruling party’s NGC meeting about women and leadership. 

So, what do we make of all this? 

On one score the President is right of course: what we need is “a fundamental shift in almost every aspect of social life”. But we certainly cannot rely on Government to take the lead on this. Indeed, as long as we do nothing but wait for Government, we are accomplices in the very patriarchal system that undermines our personhood and ultimately, the freedoms we claim to stand for. 

We as WWSOSA thus recommit ourselves and call on others to join us – to stand up, speak out, and never tire to expose the cracks in the system and call our Government to account on such matters. But it is also our task to work together to transform our lives and communities on a daily basis.

To go back to an old wisdom:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead