By Jen Thorpe
Cape Town, December 16, 2013 – Since Nelson Mandela’s death, the world has been busy commemorating and celebrating a long, meaningful life. But his passing has also left some wondering if the man many endearingly referred to as Tata, for ‘father’, did enough, especially for the rights and emancipation of women.
Madiba is easy to praise. His compassion, reconciliatory nature and generosity inspired the world in 1994 and will continue to inspire people. Yet today South Africa is not as equal as it should be. And the inequality is felt most acutely by women. Many women feel cheated. They were part of the struggle, too.
They fought for equality, too. But as in Orwell’s Animal Farm, in South Africa, some are more equal than others. This inequality is not only entrenched, but accepted to the point of being invisible. Women are treated as second-class citizens both in ordinary life, where they are confined to rigid gender roles such as mother, lover, daughter, and in the political sphere, where female leaders are criticized for their looks or displays of emotions but males aren’t.
The world wants to lionize Mandela, and they are right to do so – he did prevent a civil war. But what about the Rainbow Nation’s war on women? South Africa’s rates of rape, domestic violence and intimate femicide figures are obscene: one woman is killed every eight hours by her intimate partner. In fact, that figure may be too low: 64,514 sexual offences were reported to the police in 2011-2012. A Medical Research Council study in 2009 estimated that only one in nine women reports sexual offences – that puts the figure well over 600,000 sexual offences per year. In 2009, over 200,000 women applied for protection orders – protection from the men they live with. Women in South Africa may have legislative freedoms, but they are shackled everywhere by crime and violence against them. Women make up the majority of the HIV-positive population. Women continue to be paid less than their male colleagues. Women are more likely to work in vulnerable occupations, such as domestic service.
So, does this mean that Mandela failed us? Could he have done more to improve the lives of women?
Laws that embrace equality
Looking at the rights that South African women have because Mandela signed them into law confirms that his political vision embraced equality for women. The post-1994 period saw a substantial amount of new legislation furthering women’s rights, and much of this was formulated and passed during his term as president. These laws furthered gender rights and created legal precedent to ensure that women be treated fairly.
A notable exception was a lack of policy around HIV and AIDS, issues that affected women significantly, particularly the survivors of rape and sexual offences. Mandela’s inaction and silence allowed myths around the virus to spread. It denied life-saving treatment to many South Africans and squandered an opportunity to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV. It’s not clear why: Mandela publically admitted that this was a failure on his part. To his credit, he established the 46664 global HIV awareness campaign in 2002, though his son passed away from AIDS in 2005
Still, I think the legacy for women that Mandela left behind is not just grounded in his policies. But rather, it is his determined effort to recognize that gender inequality was not only bad for women, but also bad for men. In his final state of the nation address as president, Mandela said that the Commission for Gender Equality and the Office on the Status of Women should not be seen as ‘gender police’ trying to make people’s lives difficult. He said that “society as a whole should see them as part of our joint efforts as men and women, to liberate themselves from gender prejudice”.
We have yet to liberate ourselves. But the legacy of striving to do better, to be better, to love more and to exercise compassion in abundance is one that we have the privilege of receiving from Mandela. It is certainly a time to grieve. Part of that grief comes from knowing that Madiba would have wanted more, much more, for women almost 20 years into South Africa’s democracy.
(Jen Thorpe is a feminist writer and researcher based in Cape Town. She writes on issues related to violence against women and sexual and reproductive health. She is also trying her hand at fiction. Read more on her blog FeministsSA )