This article was originally written for socialistworld.net, the website of the Committee for a Workers’ International, by the Marxist Workers Party, the South African branch of the CWI.
The rape and murder of Cape Town student Uyinene Mrwetyana was the final spark that lit a new wave of protests demanding an end to violence against women. She was killed by a Post Office employee who, alongside 300 others, failed a vetting process because of their criminal records. He had a previous rape charge but the case had been withdrawn. However Post Office employers sat on the report for more than a year and Uyinene’s killer used his position to identify and target her. He even bludgeoned her to death using a Post Office scale.
Uyinene’s body was discovered on 2 September following a slew of reports of murdered women. This included boxer, Leighandre Jegels, who was killed by her ex-boyfriend – a police officer. Many of the murdered women, including Jegels, had police protection orders against the abusive partners that killed them.
A mass memorial for Uyinene at the University of Cape Town, on 4 September, showed the depth of feeling and the depth of anger amongst women and young people. Memorials and vigils took place on other campuses and solidarity marches in other cities and towns. Protesters assembled outside the World Economic Forum on Africa conference in Cape Town, the same day, with university and school students at the forefront. The police attacked the demonstration with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons. On 5 September, more than ten thousand protested outside parliament in Cape Town, demanding that President Cyril Ramaphosa come out and tell them what his government planned to do to stop gender based violence.
On Friday 13 September, a protest has been called in Sandton, Johannesburg, the economic hub of the country, outside the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.
In 2016, out of every 100,000 women and girls in South Africa, 12.5 were violently killed. This was five times the global average of 2.6. In 2017/18, this increased to 15.2 – 2,930 murdered women; the slain bodies of an additional 291 women and 29 girls.
Whilst men are five times more likely than women to be murdered, itself a social crisis, it is the fact that so many women are being murdered by men who feel entitled to control and possess women, treating them like personal property, that has led to the outpouring of anger. Uyinene and the other women should not have been abused, raped and killed! The sexist attitudes of their male murderers led them to assume the power of life and death over their victims – to commit femicide.
Gender inequality is rooted in class inequality and emerged with class society. Under capitalism, women are frequently paid less than men, concentrated in low-paid sectors such as cleaning and retail and precariously or casually employed by contractors or as domestic workers. Women are also most likely to be the main carers for children and the elderly and perform the majority of domestic work in the home. For capitalism, this helps keep labour cheap and taxes for social services low.
The foundation of capitalist economy in commodity production – where everything is for sale – commodifies women’s bodies, turns them into objects and encourages the idea that women only exist for the entertainment and pleasure of men. The social conditions of capitalism are a breeding ground for the sexist attitudes that justify the many forms of violence against women – rape, assault, domestic violence, ‘cat-calling’ etc.
Protests have been mobilised under the banners #AmINext, #TheTotalShutdown and others. Young people and students have played a central role. Significantly, protests are being called using appeals to working class methods of mass struggle, e.g. shutdowns and stay-aways.
This points the emerging movement in the right direction. However, at this stage, this language is symbolic, and not based on a conscious strategy to mobilise the working class. For example, #TotalShutdown’s 2018 call for women to stay-away from work was not linked to appeals to workers and their trade unions for the mobilisation and shutdown of workplaces, i.e. united strike action. In reality this limited the call to an appeal for women workers to take the day off.
Many of the protestors are rightly suspicious of the willingness of the ANC government, the political parties in parliament, the police and the courts to seriously tackle gender based violence. They are right to be. The ANC’s Traditional Courts Bill will reinforce gender inequality for millions of women in rural areas, living under so-called ‘Traditional Authority’. These areas are nothing more than the apartheid-era ‘homelands’ re-packaged and re-branded to defend the privileges of the former apartheid-sponsored ‘tribal’ elites. This continuation of apartheid-era policy by the ANC would legalise the oppression of more than half of all women in the country by denying them the right to legal representation.
But one of the main demands of protesters outside parliament was for the government to declare a state of emergency. Whilst this was a demand for a gesture from the government that it ‘gets it’, it was nevertheless incorrect. It would be suicidal for the movement to support increasing the repressive powers of this ANC government and the state in general, including giving any support to the idea of re-introducing the death penalty in the name of combating violence against women.
The last time a state of emergency was declared was in the 1980s by the white-minority regime used to suppress the mass movement against apartheid. An ‘undeclared’ state of emergency existed in the North West in 2012 around the mass movement that led to the Marikana massacre of striking mineworkers.The ANC government used the army to suppress mineworkers’ meetings, protests and strikes. In Johannesburg the police have fuelled xenophobia with their brutal ‘crack down’ on so-called ‘criminal elements’. Outside the World Social Forum last week, protesters against gender based violence (GBV) were attacked by police with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons.
The confusion on these issues reflects a lack of clarity over which force in society has the power to make the decisive difference in the struggle to stop violence against women. Is it women alone? If so, who should they look to as their allies? Is it this anti-women and anti-poor ANC government? Is it the repressive capitalist state? Is it the super-rich leaders of big business whose quest for profit has entrenched poverty?
The answer to this question determines the tactics and strategies that different organisations will pursue. At this stage it is the middle class, especially the NGOs, which are setting the ideological tone of the movement against GBV. They look to work with big business, the capitalist politicians and the state. Protests are to pressure them but not to challenge their control of society and the capitalist class structure they defend.
In #TheTotalShutdown’s ‘24 Steps to Stop Gender-Based Violence’, the demands are entirely limited to legislative reform, improved compliance with legislation, for greater accountability of government departments and some improvements in social services. There is nothing to oppose in these demands. But they do not even touch the underlying class inequalities, mass unemployment and poverty that breed sexist attitudes and violence against women. The press release for the #SandtonShutdown protest planned for Friday appeals to “business to realise their moral, ethical responsibility to the communities where they operate” and calls on “businesses to close their doors and join womxn” on the protest. This points the movement in the wrong direction.
In the Marxist Workers Party we argue that the many women and young people radicalised by the struggle against gender oppression and GBV should rather look towards a united movement of the working class. It is only the working class which has the power to fundamentally transform society, abolishing capitalism and the class inequalities that gender oppression is rooted in. Under the leadership of the middle class ‘shutdowns’ and ‘stay-aways’ can never be much more than symbolic. They can only be given flesh and blood by the powerful social position of organised workers in the economy.
In June, mine workers at the LanXess chrome mine in Rustenburg – members of the NUMSA union – organised a strike and occupation in protest against the sexual harassment of a woman mineworker. Her manager was demanding sexual favours in exchange for a permanent job. This has set a shining example for how workers can take up the issue of harassment and violence against women. Workers have the power to force the removal of perpetrators from the workplace.
But crucially, because of their position in the economy, workers have the power to improve the position of women in society more generally. Every workplace demand and struggle for equal pay, higher pay, against gender discrimination in promotion and job opportunities, for housing allowances, transport allowances and longer paternal leave, increases the independence and choices available to women. Wider working class movements on healthcare, housing, social services, childcare and schooling do likewise.
A mass working class movement can lay the real social foundations upon which gender equality can be built. The struggle for women’s liberation is part of the class struggle and needs to be re-written on the banner of the workers movement.
But workers will not limit themselves to moral appeals to the bosses on issues of GBV any more than they do in wage negotiations. GBV will be transformed into a class issue that depends on organisation and struggle. This will expose the hypocrisy of the capitalist class. In the name of defending their profits, let the bosses refuse workers’ demands for pay rises, increased housing allowances etc., linked to the struggle to improve the lives of women.
The tendency in the middle class-led movement toward encouraging separate organisation according to gender, whilst not inappropriate in every instance, only plays into the hands of the bosses in the class struggle by weakening the bonds of working class unity and dissipating the strength and striking power of workers. It will make no sense to workers. The need for a united working class movement will be obvious.
To prepare the way for such a working class movement the trade unions should launch a Campaign Against Sexual Harassment, Domestic Violence, Rape and Femicide to raise the level of understanding on these issues amongst all trade union members – women and men – and ensure the unity of workers on this issue. Workplace meetings should take the initiative and begin the discussion, passing resolutions to create pressure in the structures and upon leaders. With the poor record of some existing trade union leaders on gender issues, such a campaign will help rejuvenate the leaderships with a fresh influx of militant working class women in particular.
A workers’ programme to end gender based violence:
- For working class unity and leadership against gender based violence! Build a class-independent trade union Campaign Against Sexual Harassment, Domestic Violence, Rape and Femicide. United workers’ action to end sexual harassment in the workplace. Build links with working class community organisations.
- For gender equality in the pocket! Equal pay for work of equal value. Poverty pay IS violence against women. Struggle for a living minimum wage of R12,500 for all workers. Nationalise non-complying big business. If the capitalists cannot afford gender equality, then workers cannot afford the capitalists. Companies and businesses must open their books to demonstrate unaffordability; in proven small business cases, government subsidies to make up the shortfall.
- Expose and fight against the bosses’ gender equality hypocrisy! Place on the table in every negotiation the question of (i) employer subsidised healthcare, (ii) longer paid parental leave, (iii) increased housing allowances, (iv) safe employer provided transport to and from work, and (vi) free workplace childcare facilities.
- Workers’ economic planning to end unemployment! Demand the working week is reduced to 30 hours with no cuts in pay. Share out the work with the unemployed, organised through the democratic control of hiring and firing and the re-design of shift patterns by workers’ representatives.
- Follow the example of the LanXess workers – an injury to one woman is an injury to all workers! Make gender based violence a real cost to the bosses’ bottom line. Strike and walkout to picket police stations and courts in defence of all colleagues who are made victims of gender based violence. Organised trade union participation in Community Policing Forums to fight for community oversight and control of policing and ensure all reports of GBV are taken seriously and dealt with professionally and quickly.
- End the class foundations of gender inequality. Nationalise under democratic working class and community control the banks, the mines, the commercial farms, the big factories and big businesses. A publicly owned and democratically planned socialist economy to meet the needs of all and not the profits of the capitalists.
- Build the fighting unity of the working class in a party of mass struggle. Build a socialist mass workers party to unite the struggles of the workplaces, the communities and the youth as a vital step toward the creation of a mass revolutionary party to lead the struggle for socialism.