How Racism has Negatively Impacted what it Means to be a Black woman in South Africa

On the 9th of August, South Africa celebrated National Women’s Day, which commemorates the national march of women in 1956 to petition against legislation that required African people to carry the ‘pass’. The ‘pass’ was an identification document which restricted a black South Africans freedom of movement under apartheid and allowed them to enter ‘white’ areas. The ‘pass’ had come into force under the Urban Areas Act (commonly known as the pass laws) of 1950. As part of the march, 20,000 women left petitions containing more than 100,000 signatures at prime minister J.G. Strijdom‘s office door,  stood silently outside his door for 30 minutes and then sang a protest song that was composed in honour of the occasion: Wathint’Abafazi Wathint’imbokodo! (Now you have touched the women, you have struck a rock).

As a way of celebrating this day in history, South Africa dedicated August towards commemorating and celebrating women. However, with the current state of the economy and the social constructs that perpetuate sexism and racism, is there anything worth celebrating?

Growing up in South Africa within structural racism has had a detrimental effect on how black people perceive themselves. Beyond the ambit of race, gender puts black females at the bottom of the “food chain”. Not only are women subjected to racial profiling, they are subjected to living in a patriarchal society which inhibits their growth and potential.

If you are familiar with the recent #menaretrash movement, you may have noted the level of rage expressed by women who have been exposed to constructions of gender that reinforce traditional roles and in some cases perpetuate the occurrence of gender based violence and the lack of accountability from those responsible for these actions. According to Statistics SA, on average, one in five South African women older than 18 have experienced physical violence. The picture of gender-based attacks varies according to marital status and wealth. Four in 10 divorced or separated women reported physical violence and one in three women in the poorest households reported the same.  Furthermore, women can relate to other subliminal ways in which sexism presents itself such as cat calling and requests for sexual favours in exchange for job promotions. As if that is not enough, there is an unspoken level of competition amongst black women, competing for a seat at the table. There are many of us but not all of us make it to prominent positions. According to the McKinsey & Company Women Matter Africa report released recently,  5% of CEOs in the private sector in Africa are women, compared to 4% globally.  Furthermore, Earnings before Interest and Taxes (EBIT) for companies with at least a quarter share of women on boards was on average 20% higher than the industry average.  Women make up 42 percent of the South African workforce and less than 10 percent of chief executives and chairpersons of boards.

It is quiet notable that black women have been marginalized and this is bound to have a detrimental effect on driving our economy forward. Statistics indicate that 26% to 31% of households in the Eastern and Western Cape are headed by women.  For these families to thrive, this calls for active and extensive participation of women within the workforce and actively holding companies accountable for women in prominent positions using the BBEE scorecard as a  method to redress such imbalances.  It is without question that the exclusion of black women in the economy is based on gender and race more than anything.

When it comes to merit, it is quite evident that black women are at the forefront in terms of skills and the education needed to thrive in these various sectors. The University of Pretoria, one of the prominent universities in South Africa had 13 732 graduates in 2016. Of those students who graduated, about 59% were women.  Furthermore, in 2013, there were 573 698 women enrolled in the public higher education sector. This constituted 58% of the total enrolment for that year, much higher than in previous years.

On a balance of probabilities, we can draw a range of further implications that stem from such exclusions in the economy. For example, if the pay gap, which is currently between 15%-17% in South Africa persists, this implies that a South African woman would need to work two months more than a man to earn the equivalent salary that a man  would earn in a year. A South African woman would never catch up with her male colleague. Ultimately, she loses out on a pension and other benefits that come with her basic salary. Other than the financial losses that women incur, the emotional fairness of the pay gap is quite difficult to accept. Employers are benefiting unduly from a historic system of undervaluing women’s skills and workplace contributions.

What can truly counter act this is going beyond dialogue and engagement and actively being engaged in various spheres of influence. As it stands, each generation that is tasked with breaking such social constructs leaves the next with a herculean task of establishing structures that can allow women to freely and positively make an impression on various spheres.  Speaking about something is vital in bringing a shift in someone’s mind-set but it is through active change that we can bring about positive improvement. The law for example needs to be vigorous and robust in dealing with perpetrators of rape and other means of sexual violence. Furthermore, the BBE scorecard, which is the method used by companies to include black females within the labour force should be revisited to ensure that it truly reflects the reality of having an inclusive workforce and thus an inclusive economy.

The odds may be against us, but through active representation and cultivating what we believe to be our story for future generations to come we will redress these disparities among women of colour.


The 1956 Women’s March | SA history

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.

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