OPINION: Why do we have a National Women’s Day?

Columnist Norman McFarlane

This isn’t a trick question. Every year, when our National Women’s Day rolls around, this question is obscured by the rhetoric that commences in the lead-up to August 9.

As the torrent of virtue signalling, self-righteous breast-beating, and meaningless platitudes reaches a crescendo then subsides once this discomfiting day is once more behind us, the question remains unasked, and unanswered.

There is an obvious answer, of course. This day celebrates the 1956 march to the Union Buildings by 20 000 women to protest the pass laws which required non-white South Africans over the age of 16 to carry what became known as a “dompas”, literally “dumb pass”, in terms of the Pass Laws Act of 1952, one of the many legislative instruments the apartheid regime enacted and ruthlessly enforced, to perpetuate racial segregation.

The marchers left 14 000 signed petitions on the steps of the Union buildings for then Prime Minster, JG Strijdom, stood in silent protest for 30 minutes, then sang the protest song composed specially for the occasion, Wathint’Abafazi Wathint’imbokodo! (Now you have touched the women, you have struck a rock).

Over the years, the phrase became “You strike a woman, you strike a rock”, the mantra which has come to represent women’s strength, resilience and courage, in South Africa.

That women were particularly heavily affected by the pass laws is axiomatic, since so many of them could get little other in the way of employment, than working as a “nanny” or a “girl” for a white madam in a white suburb.

If she was stopped by a policeman en route to or from work, and didn’t have her “dompas” which authorised her presence, she faced arrest or worse.

It is noteworthy that whereas every non-white South African was equally affected by the pernicious pass laws, it was the women of our country who risked their lives to protest this injustice.

Sixty-four years later, how much better off are the women of our country?

The legislated inequalities of apartheid might have come to an end with the advent of our democratic constitutional order, but can we claim that we are, as our constitution enjoins us to be, a non-sexist society?

The very fact that we have a National Women’s Day and a Women’s Month, suggests otherwise.

According to Stats SA, based on projections of the 2011 national census data, 51.3% of South Africans are women. That’s over half of the population.

But that’s where it ends. Despite the best efforts of the ruling party government to achieve gender equity in the executive, it’s not quite there yet.

Granted, 14 of the 28 ministerial portfolios are held by women, but the president and the deputy president are also members of the executive, bringing the total to 30, and with 16 posts held by men, only 47% are held by women.

In the private sector it is far worse. According to a 2018 Grant Thornton report, only 29% of senior roles in South African businesses, are held by women, and fully one in five (20%), don’t have a single woman in a senior capacity.

I’m not for one second suggesting that an equal gender split ought to be slavishly pursued for purposes of gender representativity only. On the contrary, any person appointed to a position of authority in both the public and private sectors, must be qualified for the role. But the figures in the private sector do speak volumes, don’t they?

Clearly, the gender glass ceiling is alive and well in South Africa, but why is this so?

Is it perhaps because there just aren’t enough qualified and competent women out there to fill those positions?

Or is it because the people who have the power to make those senior appointments, are overwhelmingly men?

Our constitutional imperative notwithstanding, we live in what is still a deeply patriarchal society, in which traditional – and archaic – gender roles remain, in the eyes of many, immutable.

And that plays out in the abundance of qualified and competent women who could be appointed to that multitude of senior positions in both the public and private sectors, being passed over in favour of men.

How else do we arrive at the stubborn imbalances that we see in our society?

Perhaps one of the mistakes we make is assuming that women want to be treated as the equals of men. Question is, has anybody ever asked women?

Perhaps it isn’t about being treated as equals, after all. (As an aside, I have a number of women friends who would take umbrage to being treated as the equals of men, and for good reason.)

Our lexicon is replete with pernicious epithets like “the fairer sex” or worse, “the weaker sex”, which contribute overtly to the appalling manner in which we treat women in our society.

When Police Minister Bheki Cele released the national crime stats on July 312, we learned that overall, sexual offences increased by 1.7%, with incidents of rape up by the same percentage. In addition, rape and sexual assault made up 93.9% of the total number of sexual offences (53 293 cases, up by 873 on the previous year) of which rape was the primary contributor, at more than 79% of the total number of cases.

This is how we treat women in our society, but how do we fix this?

By intoning soulfully that gender-based violence must come to an end, at every opportunity?

If you google “President Ramaphosa speaks out against GBV”, you’ll get over 761 000 results in a half second, the first page of which are news reports from June 13 to the present day.

And it’s not as if this is something new. He’s been making these calls for the last few years, but that’s all they end up being: unanswered calls to action.

We just don’t seem to do anything about the plague which infests every aspect of our society.

And this is why we need a National Women’s Day, a Women’s Month, a 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children Campaign, a “bring a girl-child to work” day, and the multitude of other societal initiatives, to remind us that we treat women as if they were second-class citizens, possessions, chattels, simply because of their gender.

In our heart-of-hearts we all do know better, yet we continue to strike the rock with enduring impunity.