South Africa: When 'Traditional Values' are a Stick to Beat Women

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Feminist.com

When he opened the House of Traditional Leaders this week, President Jacob Zuma reiterated his call for a national debate on a moral code and on the values of South Africans. He argued that traditional leaders could play an important role in service delivery and rural development. The president quoted Albert Luthuli's famous model of leadership: "A chief is primarily a servant of his people." By Pregs Govender

As a freedom fighter, President Zuma served in the liberation movement under one of South Africa's most respected leaders, Oliver Tambo. In a critical speech in the '80s, Tambo helped many of us think about how our values as a movement needed to guide our actions. The apartheid state manipulated culture, tradition and ethnicity to divide and rule. It reduced women classified as "African" to "perpetual minors".

Against this background, Tambo said: "The struggle to conquer oppression in our country is the weaker for the traditionalist, conservative and primitive restraints imposed on women by man-dominated structures within our movement, as also because of equally traditionalist attitudes of surrender and submission on the part of women."

Tambo challenged us to stop hiding behind "custom" and "tradition" to justify patriarchal practice and to realise that custom must and can be compatible with the freedom and rights of women and men. Despite (or perhaps because of) our patriarchal, capitalist and militarised apartheid past, the drafters of South Africa's constitution ensured the recognition of the dignity of every human being. This recognition moves us beyond the old divides, prejudices and stereotypes to dignity as our birthright.

The constitution upholds the values of "human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms; non-racialism and non-sexism ..." The preamble to the constitution expresses the intention to "heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights". The constitution commits to substantive gender equality and to bodily integrity.

This was no easy feat. The context described by Albie Sachs was the "one truly nonracial institution in SA - patriarchy". Patriarchy, as a globally shared culture, expresses itself differently in local contexts. Black women and girls in the former homelands and in the informal settlements of South Africa were economically, politically and socially the most powerless, due largely to the social engineering of apartheid.

This damage continues long after apartheid's official dismantling: in 2008, white male Afrikaner students at Free State University videoed themselves urinating into food that they then forced black women workers to eat. Their video won the award for best video in their campus competition.

Common to global patriarchal culture is the reduction of women's bodies to property owned and disposed of through rape as well as through daily, banal brutalities. Women's work, time and contributions to social reproduction are not recognised or valued. Women are glorified as mothers and wives while experiencing hidden levels of violence - evident in the high levels of the murder of women by their partners. Women are defined in terms of their reproductive and sexual roles and are not recognised as full human beings with the right to dignity and equality.

In this, the week before International Women's Day (on March 8), the president's proposed debate on values needs to address the constitutional promise to respect and protect the dignity of women. In 2010 women continue to experience high levels of poverty, violence and HIV/Aids because of gender inequality. It is an opportunity to connect the dots between the role of leadership and local and global policies effected through, for example, legislation or trade agreements which increase women's poverty and inequality.

It is time to ask: Whose lives are valued, and whose lives are devalued? Who has the political will to transform apartheid's enduring gendered geographic legacy in the former homelands and in South Africa's informal settlements? What does it mean to be a "servant of the people" when the majority of people in South Africa are black and female? How long will it take us to move beyond our own internalised prejudice and the paradigm of our apartheid masters to see and listen to our own voices?

During the Communal Land Rights Bill hearings in 2003, a member of the Rural Women's Movement passionately argued in parliament that: "If the bill gives amakhosi power over land, our suffering will become worse. We will go back to the old days - yet we have been looking forward to rights of our own. If parliament does not hear us and does not understand that we are talking about our lives and suffering that is happening every day, then it is like the amakhosi - it also does not respect us."

Those with power did not listen and the bill was enacted - but is currently in the Constitutional Court. The Traditional Courts Bill, which rural women argue will further disempower them, is due in parliament this year. Will those with power listen this time?

Perhaps through this debate, the men of our country will challenge the sense of growing impunity with which their brothers abuse women, girls and babies: the students at Free State University; the taxi-drivers in Gauteng who attacked a woman for wearing a miniskirt; the hostel-dwellers in KwaZulu-Natal who attacked another woman for wearing pants; the director-general of a government department who boldly states that he beat his wife (an ANC feminist leader) because she refused to cook for him or iron his clothes. Women are killed or raped and assaulted for being lesbian and not conforming to "culture". Virginity testing is promoted as the way to curb HIV - despite the danger to which this exposes young girls from those who believe that raping a virgin can cure Aids. Girls as young as 10 are subjected to what has been described as a "cultural practice of ukuthwala", where they have been effectively sold in marriage to men old enough to be their grandfathers, and have, many of them, contracted HIV. The statutory rape, teenage pregnancy and HIV of the "sugar daddy" has melded with "tradition" in ways that spell death for young girls.

Tambo's words about "traditionalist, conservative and primitive restraints imposed on women by man-dominated structures" are more relevant than ever.

In his book, Zuma, A Biography, Jeremy Gordin concludes in his chapter "2006: Rape trial": "Besides, Zuma didn't attack her or hurt her; he merely went ahead and had his way with her, as countless men do every night of the week with countless women. It's the way of the world ... I believe it was what happens in real life all the time - the only problem having been that Khwezi simply couldn't or didn't want to deal with the way of the world any more ..." It is time to say No to the global culture of patriarchy that tells our daughters to accept that "it's the way of the world".

It is easy to shift into the paradigm we oppose. Its values are often deeply embedded in our own hearts, sometimes beyond conscious reckoning. We can forget the power and beauty of our inheritance as South Africans: the teachings of the Khoisan who celebrate humanity's deep connection to the earth, sun, moon, stars and all life forms; the African gift of Ubuntu - "I am because we are" - that encapsulates the dignity and interdependence of every single one of us; South African girls such as Velliama Mudaliar, who went to prison as a passive resister and died at 15, and helped shape Gandhi's "force borne out of truth, love and nonviolence", that gave him the courage to say: "We must be the change we want to see."

We forget the 27 years of daily transformative practice in which Mandela reclaimed his own heart in silence and solitude, not as a saint "but as a sinner that keeps trying"; the discipline that enabled him to mirror the best of our humanity (beyond the limitations of learnt masculinity). With such an inheritance we can reclaim dignity as our birthright and build a society which honours that dignity in every human being.

Govender, who writes in her personal capacity, is deputy chairperson of the SA Human Rights Commission, and author of Love and Courage, A Story of Insubordination

This article originally appeared in Times Live.