BOOK REVIEW: My Dream is to be Bold: Our Work to End Patriarchy

Reviewed by Jonathan Payn (ZACF)

Book Review: My Dream is to be BoldPublished in 2011 by Pambazuka Press, My Dream is to be Bold: Our Work to End Patriarchy is the welcome result of the work of Feminist Alternatives (FemAL), “a group of feminist activists in South Africa working against sexism and oppression”. The book provides insight into the lives, struggles and ideas of nineteen feminist activists based in South Africa, who organised “to come together over two days and reflect on women’s organising in the context of a patriarchal, neoliberal social and world order”. The book itself is a collection of writings by the nineteen activists, developed during a publication workshop held in Cape Town in June of 2009. The workshop, organised by FemAL, sought “to build collective analysis through speaking to other women, comparing experience, collectively trying to understand that experience and theorise it”.

In the introduction FemAL explain how the workshop – which seems to have been a very interesting experience in and of itself – was structured in order to generate the content published in this book:

“The process unfolded through an initial plenary that set the context, collectively established the collective basis for the work and laid the foundation with regards to the idea of collective publishing, ethics and process. After intense discussion and debate on this as well as issues of political orientation and the underpinnings of FemAL’s work, we moved very quickly in a way that allowed the people present to share deeply. Women divided up into groups of two or three plus a scribe. Participants were given an interview guide with basic interview tips as well as guiding questions. The ensuing conversations/interviews were facilitated and conducted by the women present within the groups whilst the scribe recorded on computer in a pre-designed template, the word-for-word transcript of the interview. Whilst participants took an extended break, scribes tidied up the transcripts in terms of spelling and grammar and the now ‘cleaned’ up interviews were handed back to the groups together with an editing guide so that further editing could take place in order to ensure that each woman present was comfortable and happy with her story. This was done over night.”

In addition to this, an art session was facilitated by South African artist Gabriella Van Heerden, and the whole book is brought to life by full-colour reproductions of the artwork produced by the participants during this session, as well as other photographs both of the workshop itself as well as the day-to-day activism of the people involved.The collection of stories presented in this book provide provoking insight into the lives of the majority of black women living in South Africa, including those who were born on other parts of the continent, seventeen years after the end of Apartheid. One thing this book confirms is that the lives of poor black and coloured women have not improved since the coming of bourgeois democracy and, indeed, due to the gendered nature of neoliberal capitalism, the living and working conditions of women have in many ways deteriorated. Despite the advances made by the struggle against Apartheid in terms of workers’ and human rights, women still suffer the brunt of the oppression and exploitation of the capitalist system. This is evidenced in the fact that, for example, owing to the privatisation, corporatisation and commercialisation of basic services, such as that of water, even greater hardship has been placed on women. After all, in a patriarchal and sexist society such as that of South Africa, with very rigidly defined gender roles, it is the women of a household that are expected to do the cooking, cleaning and laundry – all of which require water. What this means in practice is that women, who are already not recognised by the majority of society for the unpaid work they do in the home (often in addition to some kind of [under-] paid work outside the home), are put under even more pressure as; for example, they often have to walk long distances and wait in long queues to get water – or pay exorbitant prices for the ‘luxury’ of having running water at home.

Another example of the increased exploitation and oppression of women under neoliberal capitalism is cited by Shereen Essof, who talks about her experience struggling against outsourcing and restructuring at the University of Cape Town, where “dodgy gender-neutral policies on health and safety, leave, benefits and salaries” undermine women workers’ rights to decent and dignified conditions. Indeed, according to Essof, it is not only women who are affected by outsourcing – although they do bear the brunt – as, “[f]or most outsourced workers, women and men, their labour has been feminised. The reproductive work performed by women in the household has been extended by outsourcing into the public sphere of the university, and the work continues to remain invisible, undervalued and underpaid”.

Some of the other areas that the contributors elaborate on and which provide for very interesting reading include the notion of corruption in RDP house allocation as a cause of xenophobia, the strength of direct action and unity and the divisive effects of political parties, the continued economic dependence of women on men, bureaucratisation of struggle and the effects of funding and “NGOism” on social movements, forced sterilisation, etc.

Each contribution to this book raises important questions and provides interesting insights into the alternative forms of politics and struggle the women involved are attempting to forge for themselves and their communities. When one considers that although the majority of social movement activists in South Africa are women, the leadership of these movements is by-and-large male-dominated, it becomes uncomfortably clear just how far we still have to go to challenge and rectify this situation. The Sikhula Sonke farm workers’ trade union provides just one possible alternative (which also raises interesting questions around the tactical question of dual unionism versus boring-from-within; although it is not within the scope of this article to address these).

Sikhula Sonke is an independent trade union which aims to gain benefits for women as workers, such as having housing contracts and land ownership in women’s names, having crèche facilities on farms where they organise, equal pay for equal jobs, etc. Wendy Pekeur raises questions as to how democratic and representative the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) really is, owing to its position in the Tripartite Alliance, and states that Sikhula Sonke is not affiliated to Cosatu for this reason – believing that “you have to be outside government in order to be critical of it” – and due to the fact that the Alliance in male-dominated. In contrast, Sikhula Sonke has made a commitment to remaining women-led and, although men are admitted to the union, it has passed a “resolution that the President and General Secretary will always be women”.

Although this is consequence of a legitimate desire to ensure that women, who are the most exploited and oppressed on the farms where Sikhula Sonke operates, remain in control of the union it is probably not a principle that we in the ZACF would fully agree with in that it does not necessarily ensure that the best person for the job will actually do it. On the surface it may appear a bit of a catch-22 situation in that there is an apparent risk that people will be put into positions based on their gender and not on their experience and suitableness for the job; but, at the same time, if a concerted effort to put women into leadership positions is not made, they will always lack the necessary experience due to never having been given the opportunities to gain it in the first place. However, it seems to us that in a democratic mass movement activists can – and should – gain the necessary experience through rotating specific tasks and responsibilities, and not simply by being elected into leadership positions. Indeed, reserving “top jobs” for women can be contrary to this approach in that it puts too much emphasis on the leadership role – as if to suggest that only the leaders are actually responsible for building the movement, falling into the trap of authoritarian vanguardism.

Although we wouldn’t go about it in the same way, the commitment to building women’s leadership in the trade union movement is critical, and something to be supported wholeheartedly. It will be very interesting to see how Sikhula Sonke and its female leadership develop, and what influence this might have on other unions and social movements in the region. The fact, however, that men continue to join and support the union in full knowledge of its policies on women leadership is encouraging.

Although the contributors do a good job of locating patriarchal oppression firmly in a neoliberal capitalist framework, there are one or two statements with which one could take issue. Jean Beukes, for example, states that the capitalist patriarchal system in South Africa is “a system for men by men”. Now, although it would be hard to deny that, to a greater-or-lesser extent, men generally do benefit from patriarchy, it is important to recognise that, despite these benefits, the system of patriarchy and women’s oppression is not actually in the interests of all men – particularly not those of working class and poor men. Indeed, much like racism and nationalism, sexism and patriarchy only serve to divide the poor and working class and, as such, are actually in diametrical opposition to the real interest of working class and poor men – which is to unite with women, as a class, in order to be able to wage an effective and revolutionary class struggle against neoliberal capitalist patriarchy and the state and for the complete social, political and economic emancipation of all people, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Claiming that capitalist patriarchy is “a system for men by men” only serves to reinforce the idea that working class men’s and women’s interests are opposed, and that all men, across classes, have the same interests; which are in opposition to those of all women, across classes, thus undermining the possibility of a united, class-based response: the only response we believe capable of effectively and decisively combating capitalism and the state. It would be more apt to say that capitalist patriarchy is “a system for the rich and powerful by the rich and powerful” and that it is therefore in the interests of everyone who is neither rich nor powerful, the exploited and oppressed, to unite against it as a class.

Another example of a somewhat weak or flawed analysis is the assumption that women in power should naturally be more sympathetic to the plight of other women, more sensitive to their needs and therefore more committed to challenging patriarchy than their male counterparts. This is suggested by Lorraine Heunis, for example, who says when speaking about Democratic Alliance (DA) then-councillor (now Premier of the Western Cape) Helen Zille that, “Zille is a woman, yet she didn’t even think of women’s needs”. The underlying assumption of this statement, that all women share something in common regardless of their social position, fails to acknowledge the very real and very different – even opposing – class interests that different women may have. Helen Zille, for example, has committed to pursuing a neoliberal capitalist agenda, the DA being capitalist through-and-through, and so it is politically naive to assume that she would subordinate her class interests, of accumulating wealth and power, to those based on her anatomy. Indeed, capitalism being patriarchal as it is, it is more than likely that, were she to come out in favour of women’s rights and an end to patriarchy in any way other than rhetoric, she would simply be sidelined by the men – and some of the women – in the DA in defence of their class interests. Besides which, the access to women’s health care, protection from domestic violence and economic dependency on men, etc., that is afforded to her by her class position, mean that Zille experiences patriarchy in a very different way to the majority of poor, black women in South Africa. Heunis’ statement also fails to recognise that individual politicians and councillors have very little power to implement policies and changes that do not represent the overall interests of the ruling class.

One of the overriding themes found in the book is to do with the importance with which probably every contributor views women-only spaces where, “If a women is involved with other women, and hears their stories, it is easier to disclose these things”. Spaces in which women can come together, as women, and share their experiences and struggles and find support from other women, who have of course often had similar experiences. According to FemAL it is in these “sharings” that “women often gain a political understanding which years of activist experience in mixed gender struggles will never give: a raw gut understanding of everything; a space where all parts of each of us are welcome”.

Having never been part of one of these spaces I will have to rely on the word of those that have. My feeling, however, is that as important as these safe spaces may or may not be – although I can appreciate a need for them – I think they also run a risk which must not be dismissed. That is to say there is always a risk that, when you have women-only spaces or commissions that are associated or linked to larger mixed-gender movements or organisations, so-called women’s and gender issues can sometimes be “dumped” on the women’s groups to deal with, consequently sidelining or marginalising the issues, instead of involving the whole organisation or movement. This is a problem in that it does not require the whole movement to take responsibility for a particular problem, nor is it conducive to developing a common understanding between men and women of gender and sexual oppression and thus undermines a united response.

While it may sometimes be easy to appreciate the need for safe or women-only spaces, I feel it is also important that these spaces feed into the broader organisations or movements. Otherwise, as Promise Mthembu says, “[t]he establishment of women’s desks is quite counter-productive to women’s causes”. One such example of this risk materialising was in relation to a rape case within the Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF), where the issue was left to be dealt with by the APF Women’s Forum, Remmoho, effectively absolving the general male membership from taking any responsibility.

Thus, although there seems to be consensus among the authors as to the need for women-only spaces – a right that every anarchist must defend, whether they agree with the strategic or tactical implications or not – it also raises some questions I would have found beneficial for the authors to address: do the advantages of women-only spaces outweigh the dangers? Do they hold the view that women-only spaces need to feed back into larger integrated organisations; or do they consider them a permanent project that will somehow build up its own contribution to the struggle against capitalism and patriarchy? If they feed back into broader organisations, what mechanisms can be put in place to ensure that the entire membership thereof adopts the resolutions of the women-only spaces and commits to their implementation? If they are seen as permanent separate projects how do they relate to other mixed-gender movements and organisations also engaged in constant struggle against domination and exploitation?

Various desires are expressed throughout the book for feminist activists to find or develop new ways of doing politics and struggle; for “building and exercising collective power”. In so doing, the authors propose a number of concepts that anarchists have long advocated: direct democracy, rotation of tasks, free association and mutual aid being amongst them. This is very encouraging, although a couple of concerns remain, such as the question, “How do we create cross-class/race/sexualities solidarities that address issues of power?” This, for anarchists, is the crucial question on which there should be no confusion: cross-class alliances are undesirable, and dangerous to the cause of human emancipation.

As touched on earlier, the idea that all women share the same or a similar experience of patriarchy due to their anatomy (and therefore have the same interests) is incorrect: different women have vastly different experiences of capitalist patriarchy depending on, for example, their race, ability, sexual orientation and, centrally, their class position. As previously stated, a wealthy and powerful heterosexual white woman is far more insulated from the domination, exploitation and violence that is capitalist patriarchy than is an unemployed black lesbian. The idea that these women have common cause is false, and encourages working class and poor women to subordinate their class interests – of overthrowing capitalism and the state, and with them patriarchal domination – to false alliances outside of their class based on their identity and the illusion of common struggle.

The liberation of all women requires the complete destruction of the state and capitalism and their replacement with a new social order – based on solidarity and equality – designed to meet people’s needs. Generally speaking, women who are relatively privileged under capitalism due to their class position are not going to want to give this up. This does not exclude women and men from outside of the broader working class from taking part in and supporting this struggle, but they must do so acknowledging that what is required is the complete overthrow of capitalism and the state through class struggle – thus putting themselves at the service of the working class – and not through trying to make capitalism gender-neutral or less oppressive to women.

In seeking to develop new liberatory forms of politics and struggle we must also be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. “Working by consensus”, for example, “because hierarchy and authoritarianism characterise patriarchy” should be carefully considered as this can lead to the “Tyranny of Structurelessness [1]” as warned against by feminist activist Jo Freeman in her essay of the same name. Indeed, despite often noble intentions, consensus can sometimes have the effect of undermining collective and directly democratic decision-making processes in that, for example, if 99 out of 100 people agree on something, and one person doesn’t, they all would have to deliberate again and try and reach another agreement in order to accommodate the one. This can of course be very time-consuming, and effectively means that the one person in disagreement wields power over the 99.

We should bear in mind that the decision-making process is but a means to an end – the end is a classless, stateless society in which patriarchy and all forms of exploitation and domination have been abolished – and not an end in itself. And, indeed, if one of the principles of the new politics these comrades are trying to forge is free association, then a more democratic and efficient decision-making process could be that, failing consensus – which should at least be attempted – organisations could make decisions by vote: majority being 50% plus one, two thirds or whatever the membership decides. Because affiliation to the organisation is on the principle of free association, members know in advance that at times they may be a minority in a vote, and be expected to carry out a decision or proposal they did not support. This should not be a problem, however, as at other times their proposals might win. See the Zabalaza Books pamphlet Anarchist Decision-making and Organisational Form [2] for more on consensus and directly democratic decison-making structures and processes.

In closing we can say that this publication is an interesting and welcome contribution to understanding and exploring the social struggles and conditions of poor and working class black and coloured women in post-Apartheid South Africa. The book can be bought online from Fahamu Books and Pambazuka Press [3] in paperback and PDF.