UJ: Can we save the ANC Women’s League from itself?

​​​​The ANC Women’s League is a ship that is sinking slowly, according to Shireen Hassim, a Professor of Politics at the University of the Witwatersrand, who addressed the eighth annual Helen Joseph Memorial Lecture at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) on Monday, 18 August 2014.​


Reflecting on whether the ANC Woman’s League (ANCWL) is still a powerful force for change or if it has lost its way, Prof Hassim, sketched some of the paradoxes and puzzles surrounding the issue of the emancipation of women.

“At many points in its history, the sentimental attachment of gender equality advocates and feminists in the ANC to the organisation has pushed them into working with or in the League. Time and again, feminists have retreated, defeated, and regrouped. It is apparent that the League is not the home of South African feminism, however capaciously feminism is defined,” said Prof Hassim.

She suggested that several developments have weakened the League. “Among them were concerted attempts by the ANC to woo traditional leaders at the expense of the rights of women’ through legislation such as the Traditional Leadership and Governance Framework Bill, the Communal Land Rights Bill and later the Traditional Courts Bill, and the alignment of the demand for women’s rights to a narrower project of numerical representation of women through quotas,” she said.

Prof Hassim added: “The Zuma–Mbeki battle was corrosive enough in terms of the collateral damage to the ANCWL. The League could have stood its ground on the importance of addressing the glaring gender inequalities, and either step outside the factionalised leadership struggle or offer up its own candidate.”

She argued that the failure of the League to be the midpoint of feminist enquiry in South Africa does not mean it is utterly incompetent in addressing women’s concerns in the country.

“The League is the main gatekeeper for positions in government and parastatal organisations occupied by women. This is not insignificant in a country where targets and quotas for gender representation permeate all policy domains. It is also symbolically important when it comes to the selection of party leaders. Instead of defining a clear programme for addressing inequalities, and building its political organisation and voice through association with women’s organisations in civil society, the League’s strategic response has been to demand more space for itself within the government,” said Prof Hassim.

She concluded: “Fortunately, the struggle for a different kind of society is not totally subsumed in the organisational form of the League. Outside of the sphere of the state, radical and powerful new voices exist that are accelerating the demand for the recognition of all people, regardless of gender or sexuality, as fully human. In that process, the League has been the loser, as those movements not only organise independently, but at times against the League.”

About the Helen Joseph Memorial Lecture

It is the eighth year that the Faculty of Humanities and the Centre for Social Development in Africa (CSDA) at UJ is honouring Helen Joseph as an iconic figure who has played a major role in the history of the struggle for freedom in South Africa via the memorial lecture. On the ninth of August 1956, Helen Joseph was one of the women who led the anti-pass march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, one of the largest demonstrations staged in South Africa. The list of previous speakers includes Adv Thuli Madonsela, Public Protector; Prof Leila Patel, Director of the Centre for Social Development in Africa (CSDA) and Distinguished Woman Scientist at the 2014 Department of Science and Technology’s Women in Science Awards, as well as the late Prof Kader Asmal.

About the speaker:

Prof Hassim is a lecturer from the Politics Department at the University of the Witwatersrand and the author of The ANC Women’s League: A Jacana Pocket History and Women’s Organizations and Democracy in South Africa: Contesting Authority (2006), which won the 2007 American Political Science Association’s Victoria Shuck Award for best book on women and politics. Her research interests are in the area of feminist theory and politics, social movements and collective action, the politics of representation and affirmative action, and social policy. She is co-editor of No Shortcuts to Power: Women and Policymaking in Africa (2003); Gender and Social Policy in a Global Context (2006) and Go Home or Die Here: Xenophobia, Violence and the Reinvention of Difference in South Africa (2008).​

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