As South Africa marks the day millions headed to the polls to cast their first vote in a free and fair election in 1994, we do so in the grip of one of the deadliest challenges to our nascent democracy. While South Africa and the world are scrambling to flatten the curve of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is little surprise that scant attention is paid to the women, the mothers, daughters and sisters, who shoulder the burden of the outbreak.

The news channels and main stream media narratives have been dominated by talk of masks, gloves, hand sanitisers and ventilators and hospital beds, as if these interventions are disconnected from the daily reality faced by women across the country, but more especially those who are condemned to the margins of society`s gaze.

These are the women who are required to labour daily, from sunrise to sunset, caring and feeding, cleaning and nurturing the children, youth and men of society, without compensation and often without appreciation.

In our deeply unequal and patriarchal reality, women’s bodies and their labour are the sites through which the mass exploitation of women are played out daily. Often the mass daily mass exploitation of women is policed through violence and coercion meted out through the social, cultural and economic practises which often escape the scrutiny of constitutional injunctions.

The Covid-19 pandemic, and the imposition of lock-down regulations, has exacerbated and amplified the already toxic and dangerous conditions faced by women. Often, it is women who are left to face the life-or-death pressure to care for and feed children, parents, partners and grandparents.

Women must do this while navigating what was an already strained household income to one that is now non-existent in the context of the lockdown. Yet these women who brave the dangers of a violent and patriarchal society every day, are deliberately unseen and relegated to the side-lines of socio-economic and political policies. Their emotional, physical, social, economic and nutrition needs are wrapped up and made invisible in grand narratives of Billion Rand economic packages and grand claims of food distribution efforts.

Lost in the grand narratives of big government and big business, are the stories of Young Tholakele who lives in the deep rural parts of Kwazulu Natal. Tholakele, a young woman barely past her teen years, is left to survive in a mud hut with her family of 4, while trying to do a university degree at the University of Zululand, with no income and support.

The grand narratives of billion rand packages do not tell how these top line feeding schemes for the rich and political elites will deal with the struggles faced by Mam Moloka in the Free State, who lives in shack with 4 others, sharing 1 bed in a sparse shack devoid of any of the basic essentials most South Africans take for granted.

While food parcels are welcomed, especially by those who live on the edge of starvation on a daily basis, it is abundantly clear that the trickle down economics of Billion Rand economic packages which do not seek to empower women and society at the grassroots level, are doomed to the same trajectory that has produced one of the most unequal societies in the world.

In an effort to recognise and enhance the dignity women in mining affected communities, and to build their agency at grassroots level through solidarity actions and collective organisation, WAMUA & MACUA are building branches across the country which focuses on building the agency of women and communities in the face of an unrelenting paternalism which condemns women to footnotes in the grand narrative.

The unrelenting paternalistic approaches to the idea of development has entrenched the very inequalities that a new regime was aimed at overcoming.  On the one hand, government is keenly aware of the systemic nature of the ongoing inequalities and resultant public discontent. Government has in its National Development Plan (NDP), which “aims to eliminate poverty and reduce inequality by 2030”, acknowledged that achieving the goal of eliminating poverty and reducing inequality can only be achieved through the “transformation of the economy and focused efforts to build the country’s capabilities”…while “ensuring that the the economy must grow faster and in ways that benefit all South Africans.”

The NDP goes further to prescribe that government must “make it easier for citizens to hold public servants and politicians accountable, particularly for the quality of service delivery” and to… “mainstream citizen participation”.

The NDP also calls for “An inclusive society and economy. This means tackling the factors that sustain inequality of opportunity and outcomes by building capabilities and redressing the wrongs of the past” . This it says can be achieved by an “active and responsible citizenry”. According to the NDP, “participatory governance is a central tenet of post-apartheid legislation on local governance” and “encourages municipalities to find ways of structuring participation to enhance, rather than impede the delivery process”

However, the upshot of paternalistic top down development, is that the developmental outcomes, are more often than not, the type of outcomes that deepen inequality. Our experiences in the field and various studies we have undertaken strongly indicates that the promise of progress and development are not evident, and the evidence points to a far more systemic process of excluding the voices of affected communities.

This type of exclusion which we experience on a daily basis, produces a structure within which the social and economic outcomes are experienced as a violation against the person of those affected.

These exclusions and outcomes are what we consider to be a form of structural violence which is manifested through the “structural inequalities that systematically deny some people their basic human needs.” This constitutes “a structural violation of human rights in that structural violence yields a complex picture of inequality.”

According to scholars such as Katherin Ho, “structural violence is the avoidable disparity between the potential ability to fulfil basic needs and their actual fulfilment”. According to this theory, the unequal share of power to decide over the distribution of resources is the pivotal causal factor of these avoidable structural inequalities.”

The creed of WAMUA & MACUA: ‘Nothing About Us Without Us’ is central to the redesigning of a truly just and equitable reality. The need for movements at grassroots level to centre the voices of women and those who are structurally excluded from the power to decide on developmental trajectories is crucial if we hope to ever overcome the deep structural and historical fault lines which threaten to rip our country apart.

As we mark Freedom Day, let us remember the words of Winni Mandela: “If you are to free yourselves you must break the chains of oppression yourselves. Only then can we express our dignity, only when we have liberated ourselves can we co-operate with other groups. Any acceptance of humiliation, indignity or insult is acceptance of inferiority.”