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The Goals of Politically Active Black Women

04 Dec 2017Essay Samples

The goals of politically active black women in twentiethcentury South Africa


This short paper has several objectives. It discusses the goals of politically active black women in twentieth-century South Africa. There are several issues to be considered when exploring this theme, but space constraints limit us to investigating liberation struggles. In addition, it explores whether or not black women generally linked their family concerns and wider political aspirations. Did these aims clash? Finally, it outlines the patriarchal constraints in both white and black societies that prevented black women from making lasting contributions to the liberation struggles in twentieth-century South Africa.


It has been said that hope is Africa’s rarest commodity – or at least it has been in previous decades (McGeary and Michaels 03.30.1998, p.1). Women have played a large role in changing this situation into one where hope is no longer possible for the more than 740 million people who live in Africa. This paper will not focus on the continent as a whole. Instead it explores the goals of politically active black women in twentieth-century South Africa. There are, of course, many themes that could be explored under this broad theme. But because of space constraints, we shall limit ourselves predominantly to investigating the theme of liberation struggles. The essay explores whether or not black women have generally linked their family concerns with their wider political aspirations, and outlines the patriarchal constraints in both white and black societies that have limited or prevented black women from making lasting contributions in liberation struggles in twentieth-century South Africa.

My claim is that women, whose lives have been dominated by family life and family responsibilities in traditional African society, have indeed linked their family concerns with their wider political aspirations. This is due to the nature of African society in a historical context. Moreover, as we will see, most of the major daily hardships in South Africa – and in Africa as a whole – are directly linked with the lives of women. For example, consider that poor schooling, poor diets, and medical care are some of the most pressing problems that continue to face South African blacks. Women, as the predominant carers of children and the family face these burdens on a day-to-day basis.

Women in South Africa – political objectives

When Nelson Mandela presented his view of a non-racist, non-sexist South Africa, he was taking into consideration that some 54 per cent of the voting public was made up of women. Half a century of White supremacist government with police terrorism and forced relocations has taken its toll on South African families (Beck 2000, p.1). Women have faced particular discrimination in finding work on the pretense that men are the primary earners. When they do work, they are paid an average of 30 per cent less than men in the late 1990s (Beck 2000, p.1). Women also suffer disproportionately from poverty-related diseases and malnutrition, and chances are that she will see at least one of her children die from the lack of basic nutrition and health-care. Moreover, at least 200,000 women in South Africa are hospitalized every year as a result of back-street abortions, due to the unavailability of safe birth control options (Beck 2000, pp.1- 2). Add to this that South Africa has the highest rape statistics in the world (Beck 2000, p.2). Some of the major issues in terms of liberation struggles here are glaringly obvious.

What have women in South Africa tried to do to improve their plight? McGeary and Michaels (03.30.1998, p.9) have the following comments on the role of women in South Africa:

Women have always labored twice as hard as men in South Africa, tending house, raising children, harvesting their husbands’ fields. When we met Awa Kone [a local woman], she was watering, bucketful by bucketful, young banana and mango trees and small plots of onions, tomatoes and eggplants. This garden in the tiny 10-family settlement…is a cooperative moneymaker for the village wives. The women pool the profits and then loan out the money to each other at 9 per cent interest. No woman has ever defaulted. When they have earned enough, Kone and her friends plan to build a clinic.

This is a good example with which to begin. It demonstrates a theme that has long roots in the history of South Africa. Women have taken the initiative to make changes on the grass-roots level in their village communities. These objectives often have political objectives, however modest. For Awa Kone, it is changing the institutional structure and amenities in her 10-family settlement. Similar projects have been planned and carried out by women across Africa to build primary schools or develop shops or set up water pumps for clean drinking water. These are important political objectives that have made and continue to make a significant impact on the lives of ordinary people.

Women have played a serious role in the liberation struggles, both political and economic, in hope of making changes in medical care, access to food and clean water, education and political freedoms. Though women constitute over half the population in South Africa, their political representation is under 10 per cent (Beck 2000, p.2). Nelson Mandela and his successor, Thabo Mbeki, have attempted to increase the number of female representatives, with the latter doubling the number of females from the previous executive (Khan 1999, p.1). Mbeki reported that ‘Our days and nights will remain blemished, while racial and gender inequalities remain’ (cited in Khan 1999, p.3). Things are currently improving, but we will discuss constraints of black women’s political aspirations in the liberation struggle in the next section.

There is a concept in Africa: ubuntu, which roughly translated, means a complex, highly nuanced precept governing the way individuals relate to the community. It is the organizing principle of the African mind, and defines the interest of the community over the interests of the individual (McGeary and Michaels 03.30.1998, p.13). It relates particularly well to this paper because it helps to explain the patriarchal constraints in black and white societies that have prevented black women from making lasting contributions in liberation struggles in twentieth-century South Africa. In the white supremacist period, black alone were ‘less’ than people. Women were double disadvantaged. But according to the highly traditional nature of black society, women are also disadvantaged in terms of equality within black society itself. The significance of this point cannot be sufficiently stressed.

As we have seen in the previous paper, the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries brought dramatic and revolutionary changes for the people of South Africa in the socio-political and economic spheres. But as this essay has argued, there is also a strong sense of ubuntu, or the traditional idea of entrenched, conventional roles. This attitude has curbed, if not prevented, black women from making lasting contributions in liberation struggles in twentieth-century South 5 Africa. Add to this the White supremacist angle of days gone by. It is only recently that the politics of race interfered with the politics of gender. Remember that under apartheid, women’s liberation movements were discouraged by major women’s groups because they were seen as politically divisive and detrimental to the anti-apartheid movement (Beck 2000, p.2).


Black women have also been unable to make lasting contributions to the liberation struggle because the traditional law has held attitudes in direct conflict with our non-sexist ideals. For example, it is written into the law that women are minors under the tutelage of their husbands or male relations, and therefore require the signature of their male ‘keepers’ to obtain loans, telephones and apartments (Beck 2000, pp.2-3). Things are changing, but that change is painstakingly slow in South African society (Mabandla 1995, see Introduction). Women’s rights do not often come up for political discussion, and how the South African government will reconcile the outmoded thinking in this regard with contemporary ethics, remains to be seen. Our academic writing help always at your service

Works Cited

  • Beck, Ramsey. (2000). ‘Women’s Rights in a New South Africa,’ Africa.html
  • Khan, Farah. (18.06.1999). ‘Women hold major posts in new South African cabinet,’
  • Mabandla, Brigitte. (1995). ‘Women in South Africa and the Constitution-Making Process,’ in Julie Peters and Andrea Wolper. Women’s Rights, Human Rights: International Feminist Perspectives. Routledge Press, pp.67-71.
  • McGeary, Johanna and Marguerite Michaels. (03.30.1998). ‘Africa Rising: A new spirit of self-reliance is taking root among many Africans as they seize control of their destiny. What are they doing right?,’ Time, pp.1-13. 

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