It was in the heyday of political activism in the 1980s that a group of inspired young women came together to play their role in the struggle towards freedom in South Africa. These young feminists set out to bring the fight against women’s oppression into the political equation. And they did! AGENDA originated as a child of this context.
The aim of AGENDA was to bring together discussions in academic and activists’ environments around women’s liberation that still revolved around issues of class and race, into the active women’s movement that was playing a concerted role in the 1980s. The collective, as a group of voluntary activists, dedicated their time and energy to developing the concept of the AGENDA journal. They took feminist issues into women’s groups and brought out women’s issues in an organized manner via workshops and forums, initiating debate, and demanding that the rights of women be fully incorporated into the struggle agenda.
Now, 17 years on from South Africa’s first democratic election, the voice and influence of socially conservative and nationalist groupings within government, as well as the general public, seems to be strengthening. These ideologies are inimical to transformative women’s rights’ agendas.
The rise of these social forces within government devoid of strong, feminist voices makes the challenge that much greater. At the same time, structures intended to advance the rights of women are few in number and weak. Dwindling funding makes it more difficult to start or sustain women’s organisations. The women’s sector is also fragmented and therefore rarely functions as a large and cohesive movement. Strategic, long-term planning and action is made very difficult under these circumstances.
Generally, some of the socio-political changes in the South Africa’s gender landscape can be summarised as:
- The introduction of an extensive gender machinery by the state gives the impression that gender equity is on track – targets are set and receive bureaucratic tick-offs (‘state feminism’), whereas the reality appears that gender mainstreaming and budgeting for comprehensive programmatic intervention is neglected. There are for instance not enough shelters for abused women and children, the role of maintenance investigative offers hasn’t been fully developed yet, the newly set up Department for Women, children and people with disabilities hasn’t done any substantial work yet.
- The struggle for gender justice has become fragmented into sectors, such as sexual violence, legal issues, and the land reform sector. There is no unified voice.
- Fragmentation of gender activism has led to technical problem solving, and no longer dealing with the whole person – the personal is no longer political.
- Increase in professionalisation in dealing with women’s concerns has contributed to the fact that there is no unified movement any more.
- The majority of women in South Africa (rural and black) are still getting the worst socio-economic deal and although they make up the bulk of new social movements such as land and informal settlement dwellers, these movements are dominated by male leadership.
- There is a movement and a level of consciousness out there, but it is issue-driven and not sustained. This can be positively exploited for organizing around women’s concerns on a more sustainable basis.