Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Making Women’s Charters in Egypt and South Africa – part 4

The lesson for the makers of the Egyptian Women’s Charter is that the South African charter came up short not for what it contained but for what it left out.  In capitalist societies such as Egypt and South Africa, the state concentrates power among few, capital concentrates wealth, and both these institutions play a crucial role in maintaining the patriarchal power of men over women, to the extent of nullifying legal victories as we have seen in South Africa. Historically the socialist movement fought to end capital as an institution, and anarchism fought to end the state, while feminism or women’s movements veered between taking on these struggles and maintaining neutrality. The South African Women’s Charter stayed silent on whether capital and the state are compatible with the liberation of women. The present role of these institutions in imposing increasing misery on women arguably indicates that such a silence in the Egyptian Women’s Charter would be a mistake.
Inserting into the Women’s Charter a commitment to struggle against capital and the state would not necessarily spell the end for these institutions in Egypt, and neither would it necessarily have done so in South Africa in 1994. However, this is precisely where the South African experience speaks the loudest. When the demands of the Women’s Charter became part of South African law and policy from 1994 onwards, the Women’s National Coalition disbanded and its leading members took up positions in political parties and the state. When from 1996 the neo-liberal onslaught came, there was no national women’s movement to oppose it. Up to today South Africa has no national women’s movement, which is part of the reason for the confidence behind the reassertion of patriarchy. So no, a declaration in a charter will not end capital and the state, and yes, such a declaration might scare of those activists with a strong attachment to capital and the state, but it will provide a rallying point for a women’s movement that cannot be neutralized by paper concessions. It is in such a women’s movement, and not in capitalist laws and policies, that women in Egypt will find the best protection against the marginalization the men in charge of the state and business surely have planned for them.   
Egypt today, being in a transitional phase, offers vast scope for a women’s movement not just to mobilize political pressure against patriarchy and its supporting institutions, but to launch direct actions and take over significant resources to dedicate to the liberation of women. With the police discredited and the military nervous about antagonizing the people, an action to take over, for example, a hotel owned by a multi-national or by the elite of the Mubarak era and use it as a women’s shelter, communal kitchen or feminist school has more chance of succeeding than at any other time in the recent past. It is such direct actions that will enable the Egypt women activists to transcend the dependence on the state that has proved so terribly costly for their South African counterparts. Of course women activists have to be prepared politically to take such actions. A giant step in such preparation would be to place the necessity for direct actions in a prime spot within the Egyptian Women’s Charter.

part 1

part 2

part 3


What -
A project to start a youth commune dedicated to:
1.       communal living
2.       self-sustenance though agricultural production
3.       integrating education with work and play
4.       participating in youth activism for socialist change
When -
Starting in September 2011
Who -
A joint initiative of Children’s Resource Centre (Marcus Solomon) and Surplus People Project (Ronald Wesso) seeking collaboration of interested groups and individuals. The goal is to establish the youth commune as an autonomous body controlled by its members. Initially we need about 20 members.  
Where -
The youth can come from anywhere but for practical reasons the commune will be based in the rural areas around Cape Town.
Why -
·         To take action against the unemployment, marginalisation and alienation imposed on the youth by neo-liberal capitalism
·         To work in a manner that models the building blocks of a socialist society based on free co-operation and mutual solidarity between equals.
How -
·         Work out a written agreement on the nature of the project
·         Build up literature resources about youth communes and co-operatives. This must include a focus on indigenous practices and knowledge. Possible source: Patrick van Rensburg.
·         Recruit about 20 young people to take ownership of the project. This group must be balanced with regard to gender and ethnic/cultural demographics. There will be no ideological preconditions for membership, although the group will be encouraged to take strong positions against all forms of discrimination and oppression.
·         Produce a media booklet to promote the project.
·         Link up with staff co-operative of the Children’s Resource Centre.
·         Not wait until land is available but immediately start involving the youth in co-operative discussions, education, games and work. For example, combine the first educational workshop with cooking a meal.
·         Identify area for locating the project. Possible locations are Blackheath Rd, Citrusdal, Klapmuts. It should be outside of Cape Town to make security against vandalism possible, but it should also be easily accessible from Cape Town to make the work easier. Other possible spaces are on school grounds. Daniel Plaatjies can be of assistance.
·         Secure land access. At the moment we estimate that 10 hectares should be enough. This can be done through getting government help (land reform processes) or through land occupation, depending on the circumstances and the strength of the group.
·         Build spaces for living, meeting, recreation and a workshop.
·         Start agro-ecological production on the land.
·          Secure money to sustain commune members until the commune generates its own sustenance.
·         Bread production is another possibility.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Making Women’s Charters in Egypt and South Africa - part 3

South Africa’s constitution receives a lot of praise for enshrining human rights. A big part of the reason is its commitment to achieve gender equality by eliminating discrimination against women in the present as well as the effects of such discrimination in the past. This aspect of the constitution, plus the associated laws, policies and institutions making up the National Gender Policy Framework and the National Gender Machinery testify to the great success of the Women’s National Coalition. There is nothing in this coalition’s Women’s Charter that was not inserted in either the constitution or the laws and policies designed to carry it out. A hundred percent success therefore. Why, then, are women’s social conditions deteriorating?
According to the diagnostic overview of the National Planning Commission - a presidentially appointed commission under the leadership of Trevor Manuel, the Minister of Planning, whose task is to develop a long term development plan for the country – the reasons are ‘cultural “norms” and patriarchy’, ‘social fragmentation and passive citizenry’, and unemployment and a lack of access to an enabling social wage, which combine to undermine the aspiration of the constitution towards “Healing the divisions of the past and establishing a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights”. In this diagnosis the problems of women are getting worse in spite, not because of the constitution. Government is not alone in having this view; it is in fact a near universal consensus.

A critical look, however, reveals the central responsibility of South Africa’s constitutional order for the worsening oppression of women here. For a start, take the three reasons put forward by the National Planning Commission. Cultural norms that underwrite patriarchy all depend for reproduction on institutions such as churches, traditional (tribal) leadership and families. None of these institutions were created in South Africa through free association. Christianity was imposed through violent dispossession and racist indoctrination. The current traditional leaders are the political heirs, not of Shaka and Hintsa, but of the chiefs that administered the violently imposed Bantustan system that was rejected over and over by black liberation movements. Families that teach women and children to submit to patriarchal authority also impose themselves through violence, abuse and the capacity to deny care, particularly when challenged; the wife/daughter that obeys out of fear and the one that gets beaten are both victims of this. The constitution ostensibly protects the victims of patriarchy, but it also protects these institutions, which are patriarchy’s perpetrators, and are much richer and more powerful than their victims.    

What are the causes of social fragmentation and the alleged passivity among citizens? Certainly the way the political system is structured plays the major role. The state carefully assigns a particular status to every individual in the territory of South Africa. This status determines the relationship of this individual to the state as a whole – this one is a president, that one a prisoner, that one a police officer on duty, that one an ordinary citizen, and that one an undocumented immigrant. Everyone gets a position in a strictly constitutionally designated hierarchy where power is concentrated at the top. The competition and conflict that this concentration of power engenders is responsible for a major part of the social fragmentation in South Africa and other societies with a similar political structure. It also induces the alleged passivity, because people are not really passive politically, they are (sometimes) pacified by repression or by the frustration of being ignored or fobbed off. The power that South Africa’s political elite uses for socially fragmenting competition for more power, and to repress, ignore and fob off those of lower political status is given to them by none other than the constitution.   

Growing unemployment, poverty and economic inequality are probably among the most acute of all the reasons fuelling the worsening position of women. A large part of the power of churches, chiefs and family heads flow from the fact that women have to submit to misery or face destitution. It is not possible to envisage the liberation of women without a radical redistribution of society’s wealth that would give black women control over most of it, and that would deny patriarchal institutions any of it. The constitution, of course, is dead set against such a redistribution. Instead it protects the property rights of the rich and facilitates neo-liberal policies that take even more from the poor to give to the rich, with devastating consequences for women.  

The constitution and the gender laws and policies contain everything the makers of the Women’s Charter asked for, but it also contains and protects the cultural, political and economic institutions that destroy the hopes of this charter. It is like serving the women of South Africa a meal, full of delicious and nutritious ingredients, liberally sprinkled with poison.   

part 1

part 2

part 4