The Rainbow Nation?
Class, Race and Gender in the New South Africa


Prishani Naidoo

In tackling the legacy of racial oppression in South Africa it becomes necessary to situate the discussion at the intersection of race, class and gender. This article will look at this legacy of apartheid today with specific reference to the situation of the majority of women (poor, Black women) and the role of the present South African government in its stated efforts to deal with this legacy. It will evaluate the role played by the South African ‘women’s movement’ in this process and assess whether the WCAR (World Conference Against Racism), as part of the United Nations system, offers any hope for the majority of South African women in their struggles today. In doing this, it will also evaluate the UN’s Beijing + 5 process, a process dedicated to the eradication of gender injustice.

Today, despite legislative and constitutional commitments to promote racial and gender equality and to reverse the ills of apartheid, its legacy continues in the large-scale poverty, unemployment, social problems of violence against women, alcoholism, drug abuse, crime, lack of access to basic services, such as water, electricity, housing, etc. experienced by the majority of South Africans. Despite a commitment to ‘a better life for all’ (1), the ANC-led government has been unable to commit the resources necessary for the institutionalised inequalities of apartheid to be redressed. And the need for redress is paramount as apartheid was a system designed to under-resource the Black community in terms of housing, education, welfare, health, etc. This failure by government has largely been as a result of the adoption of a neo-liberal macro-economic framework in the form of the Growth, Employment and Redistribution Strategy (GEAR), which has prioritised the ‘encouragment’ of an export-led economy, trade liberalisation, debt repayment, cuts in social spending, cuts in public sector spending, the privatisation of basic services and parastatals, the flexibilisation and casualisation of labour and labour relations, inter alia. Moving away from a commitment to redress, the GEAR has ushered in a macro-economic logic designed to further exploit poor communities, the majority of whom are Black and women. In this context, any discussion of race must consider the role played by the GEAR in structurally reinforcing the inequalities entrenched by apartheid (2).

Whilst the South African constitution and law then reflect significant changes in terms of commitments to equality and non-discrimination, the macro-economic framework in which they exist prevents their realisation. In this way the poor Black majority continues to be exploited, only not as an identified and separate race. In fact, GEAR and the calls for Black economic empowerment by the ANC-government accept the logic that it is only a small Black elite, which will gain access to South Africa’s wealth. It has been in the separation of economic policy discussions from the largely consultative process of constitution-writing and law-making that South Africans have been made to feel part of the process of democratisation without having participated in the formulation of a macro-economic policy which prevents the realisation of some of the principles set out in these juridical frameworks. Instead it has been the needs of international capital, represented by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), which have been prioritised in the consultations before and in the formulation of the GEAR.

The South African ‘women’s movement’ (with the exception of the New Women’s Movement based in the western Cape) has also fallen victim to this separation of issues and struggles. The South African ‘gender machinery’ and Women’s National Coalition (WNC) have been silent in the debates about a macro-economic policy for South Africa. In the recent struggles of communities facing evictions and water and electricity cut-offs, they have also been silent. Instead they lament the lack of implementation of gender policy at various levels of their own bureaucracy – for example, insufficient funds being allocated to statutory bodies, such as the Commission on Gender Equality, or insufficient infrastructure and staff to deliver a justice system sensitive to the needs of survivors of rape or domestic violence, or a lack of shelters for abused women. Whilst such concerns are important, they should be seen in their broader context as the results of the implementation of an economic policy which cannot prioritise the implementation of gender policy except in word. In fact all of the complaints cited above fall squarely within a neo-liberal fiscal policy which prioritises cuts in spending on these areas. Responses of government to the complaints of the gender machinery and to the lobbying and advocacy attempts of other women’s NGOs have included the advice to challenge the private sector to assist with the implementation of gender policy and to begin organising the NGO sector in such a way that it shares skills and resources and buys and sells services to each other and to government in an attempt to become self-sustaining. In fact, advice to allow the market to determine the nature and speed of change in terms of gender, a capitalist market which has historically thrived on the exploitation of women in the home as unpaid labour and which can be shown to change its approach to the gender question based on its own changing needs in terms of its ability to extract profit.

This separation of issues and the failure to engage with the effects of economic policy on the implementation of gender policy is also reflected in the international discussions held within the framework of the United Nations. The United Nations General Assembly’s Special Session (UNGASS) on Beijing + 5, held in June 2000, is one example of the way in which this separation of issues works to draw the ‘women’s movement’ into processes which give the impression that governments, business, the international financial institutions, NGOs, etc., are committed to gender justice, without ensuring that the root causes of gender inequalities and their perpetuation are tackled head on. A closer look at the much-contested ‘Outcomes Document’ of the Beijing + 5 process, highlights some of the contradictions inherent in a process which denies the direct effects of macro-economic policy on the attainment of a gender justice which recognises race as an additional determinant of exploitation.

In reaffirming an international commitment to the achievement of gender equality, as laid out in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (POA), the B+5 Outcomes Document acknowledges certain “barriers” to the full implementation of the POA. ‘Globalisation’, including references to specific manifestations of neo-liberal economic policies (such as trade liberalisation), is cited as one of these “current challenges affecting the full implementation of the Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action.” (3) The document recognises the different effects that macro-economic restructuring under globalisation has had on different groups of women, and the limited funding available at the level of the nation-state for the effecting of policies which favour the majority of women. Yet, it continues to prioritise the nation-state as the protagonist in effecting gender justice. In his closing statement to the B+5 session, the President of the Assembly, Theo Ben-Gurirab (Namibia), stated that “if governments demonstrated the necessary political will and allocated required resources, the goals of gender equality, development and peace would become a reality very early in the twenty first century.” (4) Yet, it is widely acknowledged that structural adjustment programmes, enforced through the international financial architecture, increasingly deny the power of the nation-state as the power of transnational companies determine its agenda and spending. The only reference to the international financial institutions in the entire Outcomes Document calls upon them, together with the UN system, “other international and regional intergovernmental bodies, parliaments, civil society, including the private sector and NGOs, trade unions and other stakeholders”, to “develop complementary programmes of their own to achieve full and effective implementation of the Platform for Action.” (5) Rather than drawing attention to the directly adverse effects of the IMF, World Bank and WTO on the position of the majority of the world’s population, the Outcomes Document argues for the mainstreaming of gender into existing macro-economic frameworks and for the working together with the international financial institutions to increase debt relief initiatives, such as the Cologne initiative for debt relief and the implementation of the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative (HIPC) (6). In addition it argues for the creation of “social development funds” “to alleviate the negative effects on women associated with structural adjustment programmes and trade liberalisation and the disproportionate burden borne by women living in poverty.” (7) Actions to be taken also include “measures to develop and implement gender sensitive programmes aimed at stimulating women’s entrepreneurship and private intitiative and assist women-owned business to participate in and benefit from, inter alia, international trade, technological innovation and investment.” (8) No reference is made to the creation of alternative modes of living and being outside of the current capitalist frameworks, such as collective or co-operative forms of organisation in society.

These are just a few examples of the approach to macro-economic policy contained in the document, which highlight a non-commitment to fighting neo-liberalism and instead a commitment to making the effects of neo-liberalism more ‘bearable’ by the poor. By representing globalisation as a “barrier” rather than as the cause of increasing oppression on a global scale, it gives the false impression that equality for all is possible within a capitalist economy. This approach is not, however, explicit but is reflected at different points in the document in relation to different “obstacles” to the full attainment of the POA. This has the effect of creating a false consensus, which unites people around common ends without interrogating the effects of the means proposed on the very same end result. For example, the goal of free primary education for all might have been agreed to in principle by the international financial institutions, the UN, nation-states and NGOs present at B + 5. However, the very terms on which nation-states might accept loans from the World Bank might require cuts in spending on education, preventing access to education for all young girls. In the framework of the Outcomes Document, this is seen as a failure of the nation-state to implement the Platform for Action and the World Bank is exonerated from blame. Several other examples could be made.

The South African ‘women’s movement’ has, successfully inserted itself into these separate processes within the UN framework through its own bureaucratisation, its own acceptance of ‘mainstreaming’ as a model for change, and through the erosion of any local, grassroots participation of women in its discussions, debates and decision-making. In the name of all women, it has given access to resources, policy debates and well-paying jobs in the formal sector to a few women (Black and white), who have not spoken out in the name of the majority. Yet, it has continued to enjoy the status of a resistance movement speaking for the most marginalised in society. It has been able to do this largely because of the respect gained through struggle over the years against apartheid, and because it continues to speak the language of struggle against poverty and exploitation in spite of its neglect of the effects of economic policy on women. It has also been able to do this because of the kinds of struggle and change valorised by the global ‘women’s movement’. By framing its programmes and strategies for change within a human rights discourse determined through interaction with the United Nations processes, the rule of law and constitutional change, the global ‘women’s movement’ has locked activists internationally into eternal processes of policy formulation and negotiations. These run parallel to processes of economic restructuring, which indirectly determine the success or failure of paper commitments in reality. Outcomes documents, platforms for action and conventions all become meaningless in the context of a capitalist restructuring which prevents any social role for the nation-state other than the facilitation of the extension of the reach and power of the market. A global feminist project, which speaks for all women through processes and structures which do not tamper with the basic exploitative relationship on which the global oppression of the majority of women is based, can only dilute the power of collective struggle against the various local and immediate manifestations of this relation. In addition, it lends legitimacy to the paper commitments to gender and racial equality of governments and international institutions, which do not contest the negative impact of global capital on the lives of the majority of the world’s women and men.

The forthcoming World Conference Against Racism is an opportunity for these contradictions within the governing supranational juridical frameworks to be exposed and for the subversive potential of women and men struggling for a better life for all outside of the circuits of capital and its supportive juridical apparatus to come to the fore.

(1) The slogan “A Better Life for All” has been the call of the ANC in its election campaigns since 1994.
(2) For a detailed and gendered critique of the GEAR please refer to the article, Changing GEAR, in Lola Press May-October 2000. No. 13, by the same author.
(3) Unedited Final Outcome Document (as adopted by the plenary of the UNGASS), 10 June 2000, p.14.
(4) UNGASS Press Release (GA/9725), 10 June 2000, p.1.
(5) Unedited Final Outcome Document (as adopted by the plenary of the UNGASS), 10 June 2000, p. 18.
(6) Ibid., p.42.
(7) Ibid., p. 42.
(8) Ibid., p.36.

Prishani Naidoo has an honours degree in Comparative Literature.
She is currently active in the Anti-Privatisation Forum, the Freedom of Expression Institute and Khanya College, all based in Johannesburg.


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