1-2 November saw the hosting by national government and The Total Shutdown movement of the national gender summit. Protests organised by The Total Shutdown movement on 1 August, flowed into the launching of a campaign aimed at addressing the scourge of gender based violence in South Africa. This initiative, through its spokespersons identified “prevention, laws and policies, response and support, accountability and resourcing, co-ordination and support and communication” as the thematic areas government has to attend to. The verdict was already out as to what the outcomes were going to be when the parties in attendance are examined: academics, government, civil society formations, traditional leaders and others – all meeting in a posh Pretoria Hotel. Working class formations like the Gauteng Community Health Forum protested about the undemocratic composition of the summit in that it excluded women representative bodies from rural areas and townships.
A list of 24 demands were drawn up by The Total Shutdown movement and government’s responses in meeting these, were going to be monitored. Already, as expected, certain demands linked to certain deadlines have not been met. One spokesperson, Brenda Madumise-Pajibo promised on-going agitation, advocacy and lobbying in advancing the issue. Failing this, she maintained that women in their numbers can still choose to vote the mostly ANC politicians out of office. Participants criticised the summit for not taking gender-based violence seriously and actions of government not going ‘beyond words’.
Inasmuch as these struggles attempt to solve and address a major social crisis, serious questions need to be asked about its intent and content. Firstly, in reformist struggles, directing demands at government must not mean abdicating control of the entire agenda and narrative to government. At all levels and spheres of South African society government is in fact more willing or inclined to withdraw from social service provision than increasing or improving them. Directing demands to government in equal measure means people’s organisations also assuming responsibility for the realisation of the demands. The building of viable and powerful people’s organisations and using them to independently drive campaigns must be what guides these struggles.
The misdirection of women’s anger and struggle energies is indeed reflected in the misleading name by which the organisers identify themselves. It suggests a nebulous entity with no central command or organising authority. The loose association of individuals and all sorts of questionable organisations around a critical social issue does not lay a solid foundation for consistent united action. The singular lack of a set of central political demands to guide the movement is an additional handicap. This points to a state of political amnesia where all the lessons of past struggles are conveniently swept aside. Its radical sounding tone only serves to obfuscate the real issues: intensified class oppression, suffering and exploitation of millions of workers and peasants. If a ‘total shutdown’ is the objective, then relying on government action, as a partner makes little political sense.
To completely tie the objectives of a campaign to the willingness or unwillingness of a government to meet or not accede to demands is tantamount to running around in circles. The summit’s talk-shop point on patriarchy illustrates how serious social, economic and political questions are conveniently swept under the rug. The minister of Justice, Michael Masutha argued that further examination of this question is required; the state president suggested that an end must be brought to patriarchy; Mrs Baleka Mbete rehashed an old government cliché that ‘ better implementation of sound policies’ is what should happen. How can anyone take these statements seriously when it comes from the very people who perpetuate patriarchy and its associated oppression of women? Surely, a working class political alternative movement is what is required.
The five year national plan of action against GBV and femicide promised to be launched by government, will raise the hopes of many. Many also argue that it amounts to electioneering gimmickry. Women’s struggles must become part of an alternative movement for socialist democracy.