The femocracy of the ANC Women’s League: limitations of a feminist revolutionary take over

The femocracy of the ANC Women’s League: limitations of a feminist revolutionary take over

By: Siphokazi Magadla*

Angie Motshekga, the president of the Women’s League of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa, gave a game-changing response in November 2012 to questions regarding the failure of the women’s league to nominate a woman to be president of the ANC. The answer? –“we are not a feminist organisation”. This was in light of the ANC’s Mangaung elective congress which saw the re-election of Jacob Zuma as party president and a largely male national executive in December 2012. Motshekga’s six word response brought into question the decades of collective action of the women of the ANC who always maintained that the struggle for liberation was manifold – dedicated to destroying imperial domination of the Africans and also dedicated to destroying the patriarchy which denied women full citizenship. The archive of the ANC certainly demonstrates this to be the case because at the formation of the party in 1912, women in the party were not recognized as full members but as “auxiliaries” who had no right to vote but were designated the role of providing “suitable shelter and entertainment for delegates to Congress”1. It was only in 1943 that women gained full membership to the party.

The pronouncement by Motshekga that the objectives of the Women’s League are divorced from the global struggle for women’s emancipation from a patriarchal structure was shocking because it seemed to immediately undermine the long battle that the women in her very movement fought in order to be recognized as equals to their male compatriots. When one revisits some of the debates that informed the formation of the women’s section of the ANC in 1943, one will find they included very fierce contributions to debates by women like Josie Mpama, who argued back in 1937 that they, the women of the ANC “can no longer remain in the background or concern [themselves] only with domestic and sports affairs. The time [had] arrived for [them] to enter the political field and stand shoulder to shoulder with their men in the struggle”2. It seems ahistorical, then, that more than half a century later the Women’s League would then position itself as not informed by the popular struggle to liberate women from all forms of oppression, known as feminism.

This moment also makes pertinent to examine whether supposed ‘interests groups’ like the Women’s League have the potential to use state power for the benefit of political, economic and social equality for ordinary women. Indeed it becomes even more urgent to ask, who and what then does the Women’s League actually stands for? If the Women’s League is not a feminist organization, is it a femocracy?

Amina Mama in her seminal paper, “Feminism or femocracy? State feminism and democratization in Nigeria” (1995), defines feminism as “the popular struggle of African women for their liberation from the various forms of oppression they endure”. Femocracy, on the other hand, is “an anti-democratic female power structure which claims to exist for the advancement of ordinary women, but is unable to do so because it is dominated by a small clique of women whose authority derives from their being married to powerful men, rather than from any actions or ideas of their own”. She further defines femocracies as merely exploiting the “commitments of the international movement for the greater gender equality while actually advancing the interests of a small female elite, and in the long-term undermining women’s interests by upholding the patriarchal status quo. In short, femocracy is a feminine autocracy running parallel to the patriarchal oligarchy upon which it relies for its authority, and which it supports completely”.

Certainly history tells us that women in the ANC before the organization captured power have not derived their power from merely being married to the male leadership, although several of the top women have been and some are married to fellow male members. I am more interested in the second and third attributes that Mama points to in the definition of femocracy which positions itself on behalf of women, yet largely, if not only, benefits a small group of women. It is true that women and men in South Africa have legal equality which resembles the aspirations of liberal feminism that is oriented within a nationalist discourse. But day-to-day life in South Africa, as demonstrated by the 2011 national census, depicts a pretty depressing picture for the women as they continue to experience the highest levels of economic, political and social oppression. Beyond structural deprivations, if one examines direct violence in this country, it seems to be true that South Africa is one of the most dangerous places where one can exist as a woman due to harrowing levels of sexual and gender based violence.

So, in many ways, if one looks at the disjuncture between the lives of elite women like Motshekga and those of ordinary South African women, one can argue that perhaps she was correct that the ANC Women’s League is not a feminist organization but rather a grouping of elite women who are not particularly married to the special advancement of other women and nor should they. I am, however, not sure nor convinced that Motshekga’s view is representative of the diverse views of the league, which today seems to be deeply divided. Thus I see it undesirable to paint the league as a definite femocracy as a result of the direction that has been taken by the current leadership which seems at odds with the league’s own history which is more feminist than femocratic.

I do think that the ambivalence of the grouping of some of South Africa’s most powerful women demonstrates the difficulty of using power for transformation. What is it about the working of power that would push an organization like the Women’s League to divorce itself from its own history? Is this tension in the movement a reflection of the self-defeating paradox that John Holloway points to regarding the impossibility of using power to simultaneously dismantle it?

Examining the ability of some women to rise from levels of oppression to the echelons of power presents an exciting lens through which to view revolution in the context of state power because women are the subaltern of the subaltern (bottom of the bottom). This is because, as Anna Julia Cooper once argued, “only the black woman can say when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole race enters with me”. Looking at present gender politics in South Africa, it becomes even more difficult to convince oneself that the nation will deliver us into dignity.

*Siphokazi Magadla is a regular Bokamoso Leadership Forum Contributor. Read her short biography and previous articles here.


Siphokazi Magadla

Siphokazi Magadla is a Lecturer and PhD student with the Department for Political and International Studies at Rhodes University, South Africa. She is a Fulbright scholar holding a Master’s degree in International Affairs from Ohio University, USA. She was previously named one of the Mail and Guardian’s Top 200 Young South Africans.

2 Responses to The femocracy of the ANC Women’s League: limitations of a feminist revolutionary take over

  1. Thank you for introducing me to the concept of “femocracy”. As I am reading this article I am thinking of a question a friend of mine has been asking for some years now “what is the role of the ANC Womens League?” In an article you wrote last year you argued that the question is not whether the ANC would be better if it had a female president or not? Reading this article and linking it to your previous article I then think that the role of the women’s league probably is not to fight to get a woman to be president of the organisation but rather to change “character of leadership” within the organisation. The ANC does not need a female president to show transformation but there should be change in how the members of the ANC define leadership.

  2. Thank you Amu for this thoughtful comment. I agree with you that the number of women in leadership position is only one part of transformation. Real transformation will be to change the patriarchal culture of the organisation opening a space for the creation of a leadership culture that is against all forms of oppression, race, gender, class and otherwise. But this is of course a very tricky position because if the role of interest groups like the women’s league or the youth league is not to ensure the greater participation of women and the youth in high structures of leadership, then what becomes of their role? I realise that the numerical inclusion of these ‘groups’ is only one aspect, the destruction of toxic power relations that inform resource distribution is the ultimate goal. This is why Holloway argues that in the long term what is ideal is a politics that is anti-identity, this is to mean a politics based on the universal values of humanism instead of age, gender, race or class. I like that Holloway subverts the question, instead of asking where is power, he suggests that we ask, where is dignity? In the end all groupings, political or otherwise who posit to stand for certain ideals have to be able to tell us how they expanded the circle so that more people can live dignified lives. The women’s league has to be able to respond to this question too.

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