South African women: 'We want to be full participants in society'

June 19, 1991

Gertrude Shope, newly elected president of the African National Congress (ANC) Women's League (WL) "grew up in the struggle". In the '50s she was secretary of the Federation of Transvaal Women. In 1966, she left the country, on the advice of the ANC, to escape police harassment and join her labour activist husband, who had left the previous year. Exiled in Tanzania, she opened the first Women's League offices in Dar es Salaam in the '70s.
In 1973, the ANC appointed her chief representative to Central Africa. In 1981 she was appointed head of the WL, automatically earning a place on the national executive of the ANC. She was elected head of the WL in 1987, and under her leadership the WL's activities in different African countries were linked with local struggles. She returned to the country on June 9, 1990.

Media publicity on the recent WL conference [held in late April] has focussed on the power struggle that won you the presidency [Shope defeated Winnie Mandela in the ballot for the post]. Will you explain the struggle and the issues that brought the WL together?

It is such a pity that it was a closed conference and the journalists could not witness the elections. There was no power struggle, unless of course one considers elections a power struggle.

The purpose of the conference was to consolidate under the WL the women's struggles that took place before the banning of the ANC, those waged in exile and those that continued inside the country.

There were three main concerns. First, reviewing the work and problems of the WL with a view to introducing better communications that will facilitate women's struggles at grassroots level. Secondly, restructuring the organisation to involve rural women, who are the most oppressed sector. We resolved that each of the 14 regions will be represented on the 25-member executive, which includes the five office bearers plus six additional members. And finally, to formulate our program of action.

How does the consolidation of the WL advance the struggle of women in the light of talk of the ANC-inspired Women's Charter? Does this not confine the emancipation of women to party politics?

Our conference delayed discussion on the Women's Constitution and the Women's Charter, which will be incorporated into the national constitution.

As the ANCWL, we are still collecting women's contributions on these, but we do not believe that the Women's Constitution and Women's Charter should belong exclusively to the ANC.

One of the duties of the WL and women of other organisations is to bring together all organised South African women — not to affiliate — but to form a front, or an alliance, that will work on women's issues. We want to complete a women's constitution before the national constitution.

Our approach is informed by our belief that many women in South Africa have got their own groupings such as churches, political formations, burial societies and cultural organisations. We feel this richness needs to be tapped as a national strategy for women's advancement. The time is ripe for us to come together, as women, on issues that affect us and, with one voice, to tackle the problems of the country.

The WL has formulated its strategy in terms that require it to strengthen the struggle for national liberation. Is this not being done at the expense of a progressive feminism that would dispense with patriarchy in South Africa?

When the WL was launched, we were starting from the beginning and we focussed specifically on women's issues. Now that the WL has been re-established, we do not look at issues that affect women only, but at national issues.

We feel we have to start at a higher level with the WL discussing national issues, such as violence. But we recognise that to do so we have to be in a position of strength.

We have established what we call a Women's Emancipation Desk to look at our cultural background, oppressive laws and all aspects that lead to women being trampled in society.

The issue is not to compete with our men, but to come to the same level. It is a quest for the emancipation of women by promoting them and recognising them as full participants in society. I do not think it is a feminist agenda as such.

Does the WL envisage itself adopting the same radical measures that have proven effective in the struggle for national liberation to advance the emancipation of women?

In the '50s, women adopted radical strategies. It is not only radicalism that matters, but the situation we find ourselves in.

The situation has changed now. Everyone believes in negotiation. It is important to note that the South African struggle was advanced with the help of foreign countries which demand that certain standards should be met.

Women can conceivably approach the foreign embassies of these countries to apply pressure to ensure that the standards set by feminist movements in their own countries are met here.

I must point out that we have a lot of support from women of other countries, some of whom are feminists, and we have no problems with them. They are in free countries and can promote feminism. We have a different agenda.

Our belief is that the woman cannot be emancipated in the mind until she is physically emancipated, until she has a house in which she can sleep and think.

What is your vision of an emancipated South African woman?

We want a woman who is a full participant in society. A woman who will bring her concern for the protection of life to such pressing national problems as the endemic violence, and who is able to discuss national issues effectively, such as the ANC's demands for a constituent assembly and an interim government. A woman who will question political strategy, policy and social programs with courage. A woman who will take an active interest in the protection of the weak and promote the rights of children. We want a woman who will take an interest in the health of the nation, who will take a domestic interest in cleaning up the filthy town centres.

Within the ANC context, how are you advancing women's struggles?

The WL demanded the establishment of the Emancipation Desk and other structures and the ANC National Executive Committee responded [positively]. But we want action.

We want at least 30% of the ANC NEC to be women, and we want that in every department. The ANC may reject the demand, but it is a way of alerting them to what we want. The truth is that it is up to us as women, because we can easily have 50% women elected onto the executive.

You have called for a multiparty conference to examine ways of ending the violence. How soon will the conference be convened?

The WL executive will meet before the end of May to discuss our resolutions and our way forward. Then we will invite women from other organisations to come and discuss the topic.

Our approach will emphasise that violence goes beyond the killing. It involves the sociopolitical pressures that force a seven-year-old child to live on the streets and who, by the time he is 21, is made into a cabbage because his rights as a child, as set

out by the United Nations, have been violated.
[From the alternative South African weekly New Nation.]

Issue