The decision by the African National Congress Women’s League (ANCWL) to postpone its elective conference has given rise to unfortunate speculation about the organization. This fails to understand the role of internal party dynamics in reaching decisions.
A common misconception exists regarding the role of the organization. Namely that it’s raison d’ etre should be to “speak truth to power” – that power being the ANC itself.
They would also contend that the only bona fide women’s movement in South Africa is to be found outside the structures of government and the ruling party.
And that working with the ANC (and government structures in general) to advocate for gender equality: amounts to co-option and ‘neutralization.’
This is an insult to untold numbers of gender activists in South Africa who have been led by the ANCWL since its formation: including its role in the setting up of the National Gender Machinery in government that continues to represent and fight for women’s rights.
Advancing gender equality primarily through working with the structures of a ruling party is hardly unique to South Africa.
Historically and globally, political parties continue to be the primary vehicle through which women have not only made advances, but attained political power.
The organization was formed to mobilize women around the ANC and support for its programmes.
It has always been, and continues to be what one author rightly describes as “the vehicle through which democratic demands could be advanced.”
The ANCWL, working with other women’s formations, has successfully put in place policies that helped South Africa in the attainment of the high levels of female representation in government that we see today.
These did not fall like “manna from heaven”; they were hard fought for and won by all women of South Africa, led by the ANCWL.
The Women’s League has always played a pivotal role in not just the gender parity achievements that we see and are proud of in South Africa post-1994: but also in mobilizing all South Africans and women in particular during the struggle against apartheid.
To suggest that impressive gender parity attained in South Africa has taken place in spite of the ANCWL – and not because of it, displays a patronizing disregard for the abilities of the many of our members who today occupy high office as Executive Mayors and Mayors, Premiers, Speakers, Parliamentarians, Portfolio Committee Chairpersons and Cabinet Ministers.
Many of us, ANC or otherwise, owe an incalculable debt to the ANCWL whose advocacy and efforts got us to where we are today.
The majority of progressive MP’s in South Africa’s parliament today are drawn from the ranks of the progressive, gender-friendly ANC.
Were it not for the ANC’s policies, parliament would resemble the first (and subsequent) Provincial Executives of the DA.
Most progressive South African women acknowledge this fact. In a recent case in the Mpumalanga Legislature, a DA MP requested intervention from the ANCWL on a case of allegedly harassment from a male MP.
This seemingly small example illustrates the continued relevance of the ANCWL’s role: even by women from the DA.
We have played our part and will continue to do so: without any need for validation from so-called ‘commentators.’
The ANCWL, like the ANCYL and ANCVL are an integral part of the ANC. We are not some ‘feminist’ opposition party.
We are not the DA of the ANC.
Where we differ with the ANC, we deal with it through well-defined, functional internal structures. We do not announce it through the media or channel it through self-styled ‘analysts’ and ‘commentators.’
Since the enactment of the 1996 South African Constitution, the ANCWL has continued to primarily play the role of supporting the policies of this government, led by the ANC.
Notwithstanding this, we have a long track record of independently advocating for women’s rights to be placed at the center of policy-making.
Furthermore, we have not hesitated to speak out against practices that contradict the equality provisions of our Constitution: even if this may involve ‘sacred cows’ : such as we do in our recent policy proposal to be adopted at our upcoming conference.
Among others, these include cultural practices that our women find offensive.
For example, the ANCWL has consistently called for the abolishment of the practice of forced marriage known as ‘ukuthwala’ as well as virginity testing.
Not only this, but we have called for women to play a stronger monitoring role during traditional initiation processes.
This is just one of many positions taken at our National Policy Conference in 2014.
They have been articulated on public platforms, and seen the organization incurring the wrath of cultural and ethnic chauvinists alike.
The ANCWL takes seriously its mandate. Not to serve the interests of a privileged, moneyed, educated minority, but mainly the indigent, voiceless rural women who continue to bear the brunt of poverty and marginalization.
It is true that for a number of reasons, the successes we registered since early days of our democracy have declined.
The National Conference is precisely the platform with which we will strategize how to recover some of that lost ground.
This includes stepping up our lobbying from within ANC structures, to advocate for social, legal and other reforms.
The conference also offers the opportunity for serious introspection regarding the role of the ANCWL in advancing the cause of women: and our intent to strengthen our structures and put measures and policies in place for organizational renewal.
Robust debate on policy positions has long defined the nature of not just ANCWL conferences but of the ANC in general.
It is unclear from where some draw a conclusion that the internal political culture of the organization is defined by “do not rock the boat”.
In further making a case for dismissing this 102 year-old organization as a ‘non-entity’ with ‘no hope of resurrection’, some critics further suggest that the ANCWL should somehow be ‘above’ party politics.
This is naivety – given that the ANCWL is slated to go into an elective conference: where jockeying for positions is par for the course.
The ANCWL has publicly acknowledged on several occasions the need for organizational unity: to protect the organization from falling prey to factionalism and personal agendas.
We will continue to push for the furthering of the objectives of the National Democratic Revolution, for which our organization was founded.
This includes from the sidelines, from internal, within party structures, and within government.
In cases that necessitate ‘speaking out’ we will do so. But ‘speaking out’ should certainly not be the standard by which we should be measured.
Many wrongly assume that our relationship with government and with the ruling party should be an adversarial one.
It does not: for we stand for the same thing: the unequivocal, non-negotiable advancement of the rights of women in our society.
Perhaps this is what these self-styled commentators mean when they refers to the structures of the ANCWL being ‘yes women.’
For indeed we say a resounding ‘yes’ to the progressive, gender-friendly agenda of the ANC.
As we prepare to go into our National Conference later this month, we look forward to robust debate and engagement on the critical issues facing South African women today.
The ANCWL is in no need of being ‘resurrected’: for it has never been gone.
Comrade Edna Molewa is the Head of Communucations of the ANC Women’s League