An edited version of this post was published by “Africa is a Country” under the title “The ANC Women’s League is dead”. This version can be accessed here
Last Friday, Twitter was in a frenzy about the ANCWL’s march against the now infamous Mabulu painting of President Jacob Zuma, which the Women’s League held to “protect the president’s dignity“. Contrary to some, I do not have an issue with the idea of marching against this painting. The painting is disgustingly misogynistic and I have written before on how violence against black women is normalised in South African satirical art. If they were protesting against the disgusting depiction of the black woman in the painting and how we as black women are tired of seeing ourselves beaten, raped, and brutalised in the name of male artists’ social commentary I would have been okay with it. The degrading way in which Jacob Zuma was depicted could have even featured as a secondary issue. What I was not okay with was the fact that Jacob Zuma’s degradation was the only issue the march was focused on. I was not okay with the fact that once again, black women, whose pain and suffering is treated so carelessly by male artists such as Ayanda Mabulu, did not feature, even in a conversation started by other black women.
It was not terribly surprising. These days, the organisation’s silence is often more powerful than their actions. The ANCWL has been noticeably absent when brazen misogyny has reared its ugly head within the ANC party, ranging from serious incidences, such as the Jacob Zuma rape trial of 2006, to the misogynistic comments often made by leaders of the ANC. When male ANC leaders feel comfortable calling women dirty panties, attacking the weight and clothing choices of female parliamentary speakers, and referring to single women as deformities unchecked, it is an indication of a serious lack of dialogue surrounding patriarchy within the ANC.
Most disturbingly, even when the ANCWL does tackle gender issues, many of their efforts still seem to miss the mark. The most recent example would have to be their stance on virginity testing and ukuthwala. While they rightfully condemned ukuthwala, the bastardized Xhosa practice of kidnapping young girls in order to force them into marriages with older men often for her family’s profit, they retracted their earlier condemnation of virginity testing by stating that it is a valid method of preventing HIV infection and teenage pregnancy, and that as a “pro-choice” organisation, they believe that if a girl wants to participate in virginity testing then she should be supported in her decision.
This stance is problematic for a number of reasons. It seems to completely ignore the fact that the areas with the lowest rates of HIV infections and teen pregnancy are areas where comprehensive sex education and reliable birth control are readily available. It places the onus of preventing HIV infections and teenage pregnancy on the girl’s ability to keep her legs closed and not also on the boy who shares half the responsibility. It also fails to problematize virginity testing as a whole as well as the mechanisms at play surrounding a girl’s consent. For example, if I am not comfortable with virginity testing but I know I will be branded isifebe and ostracised if I don’t participate in it, one must question how much of a choice I really have. If one can safely say that this sort of slut shaming does not happen in communities where virginity testing is common in reaction to those who do not to participate in it, then, and only then, can one really speak of a woman’s choice in the matter.
While the ANC has some of the most progressive gender policies, there is a serious disconnect between what the party’s stance on gender is on paper and what its leaders are saying in public. Considering that more people are likely to listen to leaders than they are to read a 33 page document, this disconnect is a dangerous one, and one that the ANCWL should be doing more to address.
It is disappointing to say that the ANCWL in 2015 is a far cry from the anti-Apartheid organisation that earned its place in history under the leadership of women such as Lilian Ngoyi, Albertina Sisulu, and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. The organisation of late has failed time and time again to check misogyny within the ANC and has made shallow attempts at best to check misogyny outside of it. Therefore, if the ANCWL wants to take seriously its role as an official voice for women, some serious introspection is needed.