Talking right and walking left: feminist experiences in the progressive movement

I have been flooded with nostalgic feelings as I was reading, thinking and refining my thoughts for this article. It took me back to the days of old, of exciting student activism. It was such an exhilarating thrill to be an advocate of student rights and confronting our government with that much vigour and energy.

All this was under the guidance and leadership of the Swaziland National Union of Students (SNUS). Radicalism and fearlessness was always accommodated and embraced in the progressive camps. Picture it like this; you are a young activist, see all this injustice around you, you are angry and want to make the world a better place.

Then one day you stumble on this union whose views and ideologies align with your own. It feels like home, you are very much enabled and your hopes for a better future do not feel like hopes anymore but start to look like a certain reality in the future. This, however, is only until you start to talk about feminist politics.

The author Nothando Ngety Khumalo (on the left) during her student activism days.

The resistance from our male comrades was a bolt of shock! A betrayal even. How could it not be when the people you believed understood and had experienced oppression (and were in fact fighting it) but were now dismissing you as you sought to fight against your own oppression in the way you saw fit and proper?

Disillusioned, I then sought to understand what the qualm about feminism was from my male comrades. The responses varied from the misconception that feminism advocated for matriarchy, a hatred of men (deceitfully garbed as advocacy), a ploy by ‘penis envying lesbians’, a movement of ‘ugly, bitter and sexually starved women’ eager to discredit men.

This was disappointing. The most hurtful thing was realising that beyond the student movement the progressive movement more broadly was dominated by people who held the same views as our political (read Tinknundla) opponents. In fact, they were not different from the layman with no political consciousness. Graduating from student politics into union life, I realised little had changed there.

It does not come as a shock to realise, a decade later, that the same thinking still dominates progressive spaces. The resistance and dismissal of feminism in the progressive camp is still just as strife, (save for a few reasons in the glass of milk of course). The question is why? Why are comrades so antagonistic towards feminism? Is this not the same theory that wants to elevate women to an equal status to men? A theory that dedicates itself to fighting against all forms of gender oppression for a truly equal society? Perhaps the answer lies in the context or location in which progressive organisations exist–Swaziland.

Swaziland is a deeply patriarchal society. The gripping tentacles of patriarchy reach as far as the church, schools, workplaces and governance. To put it into perspective think back six years ago,  2013 elections to be exact, where out of 55 Tinkhundla voting centers, only one female was elected into parliament.

This was despite that the Swazi government had committed to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) call for a 50 percent women representation in parliament. Of interest was how the “Khetsa Make” (vote for women) window dressing campaign became a spectacular failure after only one woman was voted into parliament.

The ‘Khetsa make’ campaign was a sponsored project aimed at influencing voters to vote for women.  How they aimed to achieve this, given Swaziland’s electoral process, which is patriarchy’s best buddy, beats me. While the elections process allows women to stand for election, they must first cross the chief’s hurdle.

Aspiring parliamentarians must first be approved by their local chiefs to stand for elections. The chief, as the gate-keeper of patriarchy, has all the powers at this stage. Here I would reference Jennifer du Point who was forbidden by her chief to stand for elections because “abemnyama,” (in mourning gowns).

Chief Magudvulela of Ludzibini went on to threaten his subjects with eviction if they nominated du Point for elections and reminded them that Swazi Law and Custom was supreme. This was despite the fact that the Swazi constitution allows women the liberty to choose if they want to mourn their late husbands or not.

Because of such things, the Tinkhundla system of governance is dominantly male. Women are just spectators in a game they should be playing. Unfortunately, this means decisions that touch on the livelihood of women have for the longest time been taken without the contribution of women. Women are standing on the sidelines.

Men, the sole beneficiaries of patriarchy, are assigned the responsibility to make decisions for women. And let’s face it; they have not done so well there too. An example is how long it took the government to pass into law the Sexual Offences and Domestic Violence (SODV) bill that this country desperately needed. The only explanation I can come up with for this delay is that the bill threatened the power of patriarchy in this country. Parliament, being the Big Boys’ club that it is, defends what benefits them.

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Chief Magudvulela. He refused to have a female aspiring Member of Parliament elected because she was supposedly still mourning her husband

Now, factor in the unions and progressive organisations that exist and recruit in this toxic political environment and you understand why feminism is struggling to take root. I will do a quick scan of the leading progressive organisations to check the ‘feminist’ credentials.

We will start with the Swaziland National Union of Teachers (SNAT) which is arguably the biggest union in the country with a large portion of their membership base being female. It is common knowledge that the National leadership of SNAT is predominantly male.

This is true of the branch leadership too. This is not coincidental nor is it a mistake. The tentacles of patriarchy are indeed far reaching. I am reliably informed that the union allows for all its branches to have Gender and Human Rights Officers who are all led by the National Gender and Human Rights Officer.

The office’s mandate is to recruit women, educate the membership on gender issues and empower female teachers to feel and be equal in all spheres of SNAT’s influence. A close acquaintance disappointedly told me that in her view the Gender Portfolio was simply to add members to the committees and nothing else.

Her despondency is based on her observations that this is beautiful in words on paper not in practice. In fact, she charges that the same gender officers post rape jokes on their social media. Disconcerting as this may be my strong contention is that by having a Gender Desk, the union is on the right path, but now needs to strengthen its feminist politics.

I will now talk about political parties, the leaders of the new society we want to build. Political parties were banned in 1973 and operate underground hence getting their literature is a tad difficult. However, this is not to say they do not exist. They operate with elected leadership and policies in place to guide their practice and visions for this.

One such is the People’s United Democratic Party (PUDEMO), Tinkhundla government’s pet peeve. The party makes available its beliefs and strategies of bettering the country in various documents. In the “Strategy and Tactics,” document the party claims, “Sexism and gender based violence against women and children are rampant in the current system and that such things are an inevitable outcome of a deeply patriarchal and sexist society.”

Sounds good right? But the question is whether PUDEMO is as good in practice as she is on paper. They answer the question in the same document where they state, “The history of the Swazi struggle demonstrates that there is very little that as progressives we have done to raise the centrality of the fundamental question of confronting patriarchy and oppression. Even where we make rhetorical commitments, practice fails us dismally…” perhaps we should appreciate the honesty there.

I argue that unions and progressive camp more generally must not mirror Tinkhundla in denying women their agency. Utterances such as ‘by virtue of being a freedom fighter or human rights activist you hate all forms of oppression, including that of women’ are common but not practised.

This is why SNAT has no clear ideas on how to fight the many forms of oppression that female teachers face at the workplace because what is important now is fighting for Cost of Living Adjustment otherwise known as CoLA. What the union must pay equal attention to is the sexual harassment faced by female teachers, how we are not allowed to wear pants in the workplace, and the leadership roles that female teachers are (not) given at schools.

With so much little participation of women in unions and political parties, no changed attitudes and improved rights are coming for women, ever. Not because men do not care per se, but because these are not their realities, so it is easy for things to slip through the cracks.

I must conclude by saying that women do not need to get permission from their male comrades to participate in the struggle against their oppression. I make a clarion call that we too rise to the occasion, take up space and cement ourselves as equal forces in this struggle. In the words of Winnie Mandela, ‘singay’susa noma nini’.

NB: Nothando Khumalo is a former leader of the Swaziland National Union of Students (SNUS) and also a member of the teachers’ union. She writes in her personal capacity.

Nothando Ngety Khumalo

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