Last night I attended a performance of ‘The Color Purple’ at the Johannesburg Theatre. It was a real treat: an excellent cast performing a truly inspiring piece. Based on Alice Walker’s 1982 novel, the play describes life in rural Georgia for African-American women in the 1930s. So much about the production was deeply moving but what really stayed with me was how the story being told could in so many ways describe life in contemporary South Africa.
I was struck, in particular, by how the play portrayed women, and poor women in particular, with few options; their only possible roles being either single, straightlaced teachers or victims of sexual violence.
The characters who strove to be treated equally were portrayed as ‘loose’ women or almost beaten to death. Obviously women can be so much more. So why, in 2018, has this not happened.
The play got me thinking about how we at the RAITH Foundation approach women’s issues in the grantmaking programme at the foundation I lead.
We take our cue from an analysis of patriarchy and its toxic manifestation in our society.
The only way to make sense of South African society, in all its post-apartheid complexity, is through the feminist lens of intersectionality.
There are few opportunities to address the needs of women or advance their interests without taking account of the entire social system that disadvantages and marginalises them throughout their lives.
In our context, women’s issues are everyone’s issues, and we have to be talking about systemic change in a very intentional way if we want to make a lasting impact on their lives.
As a result, our grantmaking programme is entirely focused on changing the social structures and systems that cause and deepen inequality and inequity. In all of the work we support, women are (and have to be) a key target group but, in most instances, not exclusively.
Our analysis is that South Africa’s history and its current economic structure is such that without fundamental and thoroughgoing systemic changes, patriarchy will ensure that women will continue to be oppressed throughout their lives.
Of course there are instances in which the immediate needs of women must be urgently addressed and so we provide grants that seek to address these specific needs.
For example, funding the Women Legal Centre, a non-profit law centre that seeks to achieve equality for women, particularly black women through impact litigation, the provision of legal advice and training.
We also support work that addresses burning issues such as rape in rural communities and access to justice for women, but they are a relatively small part of our overall spend which is focused on the challenging issue of changing an unjust system.
When I think about the role of women in civil society, I realise that many social justice organisations in South Africa are led by women and their staff comprise a disproportionate number of women.
Why this is the case?
One of the reasons might be that civil society understands and is therefore generally better at meeting the needs of women in terms of allowing them the space to balance their roles as mothers with careers who are also often breadwinners, but its also because women have more material interest in changing an unjust and unfair world and are less drawn to the testosterone-glazed allure of power and wealth that comes from a career in the private or governmental sectors.
And yet patriarchy has proved durable and pervasive, even in a sector dedicated to social change. Men’s complicity in maintaining the patriarchal system is a major factor in ensuring its perpetuation, even amongst those ‘well-meaning’ men who believe they are on the right side of women’s empowerment.
The ways this works are often not immediately evident, but in my own career I have seen how women are expected to dress, act and behave like men if they want to progress.
I personally am happy to have arrived at a place in my life where I am no longer intimidated by the micro-aggressions of disapproving men and, for example, I now wear and , mostly, say what I like.
Even worse than the men who keep women back are the patriarchal women who do the same. In their case their betrayal of their women colleagues is often even more painful because ther barbs are so well-targeted and unexpected. In all cases, this situation is worse for poor and working class women.
The work I lead is very driven by a system change ethos but, at the same time, we are very aware of our lack of understanding of how to achieve and consolidate change.
In the 1940s and 1950s, the vision in the UK was of a welfare state that would ensure fairness and equity and in many cases, the generations of women who benefited from this are now changing the face of the UK. That alone is no longer an option and certainly not in South Africa.
The state no longer commands the kinds of resources that would allow it to address historical injustices and new, innovative approaches are required.
This is why we have a major focus in our programme on learning and reflection so that we can draw on experience to reimagine the future; a future in which women can lead full, rich lives and their full potential is realised.
Audrey Elster is executive director of the RAITH Foundation in South Africa.
Click here for more content, written to celebrate International Women’s Day 2018.