The African National Congress (ANC), the oldest political party on the continent, was formed on January 8, 1912, in Bloemfontein, South Africa. It took more than 40 years to recognize women in its ranks. The ANC Women’s League was born in 1956 – the same year it led 20,000 women on a march, against apartheid pass laws, to the Union Buildings, in Pretoria.
Their image has changed little in 60 years.
Fast forward to 2016 and the Women’s League is desperate to modernize its image. On January 7, in Bloemfontein, the eve of the ANC’s 104-year-anniversary celebrations, Women’s League members launched the Young Women’s Desk to rejuvenate itself. On the night of the launch, 5,000 women saw a glamorous fashion show instead of a march.
“The Women’s League is fundamentally conservative; it is structured in a way that is not open to the voices of these young women. It has a kind of an old notion of respect for age and hierarchy. But that’s politics that are not going to work anymore. These young women are not scared of anybody. You saw them in students’ marches. And they’re certainly not going to hold back demands in order to be polite and respectful,” says Shireen Hassim, a political science professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
“We identified a need for integrating young women within the ranks of the organization, so that we could make them politically conscious; understand why women have to be part of the struggle at a young age,” says Tokozile Xasa, spokesperson of the Women’s League, who admits it took 15 years to come up with a plan.
In the past, the Women’s League has been the butt of jokes and criticized for lacking vibrant ideas to improve the circumstances of women. Last year, a cheeky artist, Ayanda Mabulu, painted an image of President Jacob Zuma naked and sexually assaulting a woman. The Women’s League reacted with a protest march to the Union Buildings to protect the image of the president – it was a flop.
“But there are many issues that they could take up. It could take up the issues of the feminization of poverty. It could be marching to demonstrate its concern about gender-based violence in society. It could be talking about not the indignities put upon the body of the president but indignities put upon black women every day. This is a complicated politics that is hard to understand,” says Hassim.
“I just don’t think, as a collective leadership, they have a clear and firm set of priorities. That’s why you get a lot of waffling from the leadership, they haven’t strategized properly about what their core message is and how they are going to move forward. I don’t think individually there’s a weakness – it is collective weakness. They are caught between always wanting to be supporting the men. They need to be much more assertive about women’s leadership,” says Hassim, the author of the book The ANC Women’s League: Sex, Politics and Gender, published in 2014.
A few weeks after the youth desk launch, FORBES WOMAN AFRICA met Xasa, who is also the Deputy Minister of Tourism, at her home in Waterkloof, Pretoria.
“Today, we pride ourselves that young women are breaking into the domain of men… We are able to say this is how far we have gone, relating to issues of our (misogyny) history. If you were following the (university) students’ fees protests (in South Africa), we have more young women who are unafraid to take up leadership. This made us realize that these young women are really going through stuff in those institutions. This desk is able to create platforms to engage them politically in their respective sectors,” says Xasa.
“The Women’s League will continue to play a leading role in transformation, especially on issues that our heroines ma’am Lilian Ngoyi, Gertrude Shope, Charlotte Maxeke fought for.”
Sixty years after the famous march to the Union Buildings, 800,000 of the 1.2 million ANC members are women. Yet, there are few at the top.
“We constitute a majority of membership but men still make it to the top positions, some of them literally use women to get to those positions. We are still grappling to ensure women take positions because it is not an event to change a mindset… We are challenged daily, patriarchy haunts us everywhere. Girls are not brought up as equal as boys, even in homes and schools,” says Xasa.
Despite this, she thinks there’s hope for young women. She defied ukuthwala (a traditional arranged marriage) as a teenager in the deep rural town of Libode, in the Eastern Cape.
Xasa is the face of the Women’s League. She, the sixth of seven children, lost her mother when she was 10 years old and there was no money to study after school. She became a general factory worker for less than a year, but a few years later, Xasa qualified as a teacher and taught for nine years. In 1994, Xasa was part of the first group of ANC councillors and then the first female mayor in the Eastern Cape. In 2001, she was a member of parliament in provincial legislature in Bhisho, Eastern Cape, and then the Deputy Minister of Tourism in 2010. She has a masters’ degree in public administration.
The former MEC for social development raised concerns about the limited access of young women to tertiary education.
“When they don’t have these fees to pay they will go to sugar daddies. There’s an unconfirmed report that the prevalence of HIV/Aids infections in these institutions is at an alarming rate. But what went wrong, because we have been preaching safe sex?” she says.
While there are tangible attempts to reclaim the Women’s League’s space in present day politics, elements of moral decay still exist. A week after the Young Women’s Desk launch in Bloemfontein, a group of irate women stormed the ANC office in Pretoria, protesting against an outcome at their branch meeting in the northern Gauteng township of Hammanskraal. They made the front page of local newspapers baring their buttocks.
“We were appalled. They denigrated all women. No action of that nature can justify any anger or dissatisfaction. Their demonstration was in bad taste and displayed a moral decay. If they are members of the Women’s League they will be subjected to disciplinary processes,” says Xasa.
She also expressed disappointment in the media. Xasa decried the lack of patriotism in the newspapers that published the naked women.
“Here we are trying to build a nation. Those are mothers, they have children. It’s all about journalists positioning themselves and polarizing themselves against the ANC. The level of journalism is disappointing. It’s not about promoting one organization, it’s about nation building… You could have denounced the women’s actions without using the pictures.”
“The ANC is losing the support of feminists. Even though it’s the party that delivered equality, it has not been strong in implementing what feminists would see as substantive equality going beyond having women in positions of political power… As we know there’s gender division of labor, it’s women who end up having to bear gender-based burdens. The government leadership is not seen on that front, it not effectively putting systems in place,” says Hassim.
“Democracy allows people to say things in their own way, so I don’t know how somebody regards herself being a feminist more than others. As the Women’s League we are the only women’s organization that is the voice of women,” she says.
Despite the challenges, the Women’s League prides itself on the achievements of their own. Early this year, the ANC National Chairperson and Women’s League leader, Baleka Mbete, was awarded the King Legacy Award in the United States. The award was named after Martin Luther King Jr, an American human rights activist. It recognizes people who make a significant contribution in race relations, justice and human rights. The former United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, and former US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, are previous recipients.
“We are proud of Sis’ Baleka. No South African had received this award. She’s the first woman in Africa. This was due to her demonstration of leadership qualities,” says Xasa.
Xasa also reveres Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the Chairperson of the African Union Commission. She is the first woman in that position and had served as a minister under three presidents in her country.
“In the African Union, Dlamini-Zuma is going to leave behind a remarkable legacy. As we speak now, we are talking Agenda 2063, it came through her. We are changing the perception of Africa, uniting Africa. We have many more women coming behind them,” says Xasa.
With all these achievements, since 1994, the Women’s League failed to nominate a woman to be president of the country – a topic that is taboo in its ranks.
“We have a fresh mandate from the 2015 conference that women are ready to take up leadership of the country and leadership of the organization. Women have grown and demonstrated they have capacity. When the time comes, we will put forward a candidate. The name cannot be mentioned but we are ready to challenge men.”
Xasa says they have a mandate beyond South Africa. They host other women from the continent at their empowerment programs.
“If you look into the wars on the continent and the impact they have on women and children, it calls for us to really get our house in order to support those women. We were fully behind the campaign to return the Nigerian abducted girls by Boko Haram. Unfortunately those girls have not been freed.”
Sixty years after the march to the Union Buildings, apartheid was defeated but the struggles of women continue.