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International Women's Day 2020: Economic Rights: From Words to Action

On International Women's Day (March 8, 2020) I share this in solidarity with a new generation whose love for humanity and our world inspires even those who have become tired and cynical. Your vision for humanity and our planet re-inspires the possibility of a world that is peaceful, just and equal. You see the global system that has enabled corporate power to pollute our air, water, land, food and human bodies. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by their power and to fall into despair or depression. We cannot let you stand alone or be silent while corporations corrupt governments mandated to protect all human rights (economic, political, social and cultural) or when they try to rewrite our histories or co-opt our struggles and our strategies.

This post shares a vision for transformative political power from SA's first democratically elected parliament. In 1994, when SA held its first democratic elections, the patriarchal, capitalist apartheid state fought back through orchestrated, state-sponsored violence. According to the Truth and Reconciliation's reports, in the four years leading up to our first democratic elections, 14000 people were killed and 22000 were injured. Rape was used as a weapon of war, as it always is. Those assassinated shortly before the election, included South Africa's beloved socialist leader, Chris Hani. Apartheid's inequality and injustice was worsened by global capitalism, as the wealthy got wealthier and the poor got poorer. Today SA has one of the highest levels of inequality in the world.

"I'd like to start by quoting the words of Dora Tamana, a veteran of South African struggle, whose words inspire the idea of a Women's Budget. And I quote:

'You who have no words, speak

You who have no homes, speak

You who have no jobs, speak

You who have to run like chickens from the vulture, speak'

The Women's Budget is an attempt to ensure that women's voices are heard, that we break the silence and invisibility of women's contribution to society, and in particular, to the economy. South African women are not a homogeneous group. Our oppression is mediated by race, class, rural, urban, age and many other divides, yet women are the overwhelming majority of the poorest in our country, the majority of the landless, the homeless, the unemployed, the violated.

South Africa's women, like women all over the world, have a proud history of not accepting the status of 'powerless victim'. In unrecognised struggles or invisible campaigns women have continually reclaimed our power. In the face of the worst aggression and excesses of apartheid, capitalist and patriarchal South Africa, women have fought and struggled and wept, but we have also laughed and danced and celebrated our victories.

The measure of South Africa's collective success or failure must be measured by change in the life of the woman who wakes at the crack of dawn to collect wood and water, who cleans and cooks and cares, who works for survival wages in industry, subsistence farming or in the so-called informal sector, who experiences one of the highest levels of violence in the world.

The budget is the most important economic policy instrument of government. As such, it is a potentially powerful tool of transformation. The budget reflects the values of a country; who it values, whose work it values, who it rewards; who and what and whose work it does not. It doesn’t require detailed disaggregation to see that the so-called ‘average citizen’ targeted by apartheid’s budget was white, male and Afrikaans. Yet in South Africa the ‘average citizen’ is actually black, poor and female. (The term 'Black' is used here to refer to people united by Steve Biko against Apartheid division and classification as 'African', 'Indian', 'Coloured', 'non-European' and 'non-White')

Disaggregation exposes how taxation, education, tariffs, trade, industrial relations etc. impact on women, due to their different position and power in the family and in the economy. In gender-responsive budgets, Departments need to table clear reports which show what has or has not changed and for whom. Departments will not be allowed to separate race from gender or they will say, as some of them have done, that they are making ‘good progress on gender’, meaning white women, but ‘not enough on race’, meaning black men. Black women did not even feature. Departments will need to decide their internal priorities and cost these. The DTI (Department of Trade and Industry) budget, which up until the last budget, spent over 50% on subsidising big business through GEISS, the General Export and Incentive Subsidy Scheme, and only 2% on small, medium and micro enterprises, will have to ensure that it will begin to reach those at the survivalist level, where most women are.

South Africa faces the challenge of removing many divides in society and in ourselves. Not least of these is the divide between the public and the private that isolates and undervalues the reproductive arena and keeps so much of women's contribution and oppression silent and hidden. As we have begun to engage in the economic debate we have met dismissive responses that say that issues such as poverty or lack of childcare are irrelevant to the macro level. The mythical neutrality of the economy is difficult to maintain in South Africa. We know, for example, about the invisibility of millions of women in homelands who kept children alive, who according to the minimum living level statistics, should have been dead.

(Pregs facilitated an interactive exercise to illustrate the power of our individual and collective leadership)

Thank you very much. I can see there is lots of energy. There are many ideas that can emerge for a detailed in-depth discussions if we had the time after such an exercise. Unfortunately, we don't.

I would like to pull out just three points. One is the notion of transformative leadership, that involves leading and following, and the deepest of respect to be able to listen and to follow closely; to recognise and respect one another, and the potential of each of us to be a leader. The second is to break out of the spaces we are put in, and begin to redefine, for ourselves, who we are. To recognise and exercise our power, energy and ability to take control of our lives. And finally, that women can use their resources well, as you have just done, to engage the budget and the economy. That there is no need for fear, that we can listen and learn from each other, that there are possibilities for laughter and victories between work and struggle."

This is an edited version of Pregs Govender’s presentation at:

AWID's 'Beyond Beijing (1996) From Words to Action' opening plenary panel:

In SA's 1994 Budget debate (Hansard, SA) Pregs proposed that SA develop a 'Women's Budget', which by 1998 secured Government commitment, including several pilots in SA's National Budget.

Global corporate institutions such as the IMF, ensured neo-liberal economic policies in SA and elsewhere, ending SA's commitment and co-opting gender budgets in many countries and institutions. Today, new generations in SA and across the world are reclaiming the transformative potential of gender budgets as they fight for humanity and our planet.

Pregs Govender is a writer, teacher and author of Love and Courage, A Story of Insubordination.

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