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S. African women caught in a contradiction

By M. S. Prabhakara

CAPE TOWN, AUG. 11. National Women's Day, one of the 12 designated holidays in South Africa following the advent of democracy in April 1994, was observed on Thursday.

The day commemorates the march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria on that day in 1956 by about 20,000 women representing all sections of the South African people, to protest against the decision of the apartheid regime to extend the hated ``Pass Laws'' to cover African women and indeed demanding the repeal of the Pass Laws. The march was organised by the ANC Women's League and the Federation of South African Women. Contemporary photographs of the marchers dramatically bring out in the features of the marchers and the attires they wore the non-racial character of the march - yet another instance of the historic commitment of the liberation movement to non-racialism.

The marchers carried with them a petition bearing over 100,000 signatures which was to be handed over by a representative delegation to J. G. Strijdom, then Prime Minister, known for the assertion that in South Africa the white man would always remain the boss. Predictably, Strijdom did not meet the delegation.

A song composed for the occasion is now part of the folklore of the liberation movement. ``Now you have touched the women, Strijdom, you have touched a rock! You have dislodged a boulder, you will be crushed!''

Coinciding with the observance of the Day, a sculpture in bronze titled The Captive by an Indian artist, Amarnath Sehgal, first designed for the U.N. Conference on Sanctions against South Africa (Paris, 1986), is being installed on Robben Island.

South African women, always among the most militant sections of the population, have come a long way since then.

The explicitly non-sexist Constitution of democratic South Africa as well as other structures emanating from it take cognizance of the historic disadvantages that women have suffered and provide many mandatory safeguards against such discrimination.

Politically, women occupy a very significant space across the political spectrum. Nine of the 27 members of the Cabinet, and seven of the 13 Deputy Ministers and one of the nine provincial Premiers are women. So are the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, and the Chairperson of the National Council of Provinces. Women are indeed prominent in the academia and the media, indeed in all aspects of economic and social life. As against these advances at the superstructural level, much remains to be done to improve the lot of the majority of women, in particular African women working in rural and semi- urban areas. Wage disparities remain, though these are being addressed by organised labour.

A most disturbing contradiction in the status of women is the way even the most progressive legislation has actually impacted on their status. Nowhere is this more evident than in the debates between the so-called moral majority opposed to many of the progressive pieces of legislation and judicial rulings arising from them, as well as in the provisions of the Constitution, and those who argue for ``tolerance and freedom of choice'' - be it on the issue of gay rights, abortion on demand, decriminalisation of prostitution and similar issues. The fact is that both sides are equally trapped in the orthodoxy of the market, which is finally calling the shots.

Thus, the decriminalisation of prostitution may provide an illusion of freedom of choice, but hardly touched the criminal nexus between the woman walking the streets and the vast and powerful international criminal network that controls the industry worldwide.

It is not for nothing that prostitution, pornography and other areas of sex industry worldwide are now being viewed by the international banks quite favourably as areas for profitable investment, and by the governments as yet another source of revenue.

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