Empowering women activists : creating a monster : the contentious politics of gender within social justice activism

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

This Master's Research Project has sought to investigate the discursive space for 'gender struggles' within contemporary South African class based social justice activism. It has done so in the form of a qualitative case study, analysing particular 'gender' interventions designed by a left-wing popular education organisation during 2006, and how these are theorized and contextualised against this specific moment in time in post-apartheid South Africa. The research has looked at how and why the organisation is presently trying to challenge gendered power inequalities in its internal and external work, strengthening women activists in the Community-based organisations and Social Movements which it targets, and contribute to putting women's strategic gender interests on the agenda of these movements, while simultaneously seeking to theorize the meaning of 'political' gender work in relation to its dominant perspective of class justice. The researcher has followed a specific empowerment initiative targeting women activists during the year, and has also engaged closely with the institutional dynamics in the organisation under study. The data has been gathered through interviews with staff members and women activists, and through participatory observation in educational events and office meetings. The theoretical framework for the study was designed in relation to Shireen Hassim's investigations of the "discursive space" for South African feminist groups to articulate their demands while continuing to work within the dominant, male-led resistance movements (Hassim, 2006:14-19), and to Amanda Gouws' theorizing of citizenship as including 'embodied' participation in political processes and activism (Gouws, 2005:1-16,71-87). It furthermore builds on contemporary theories on social movements and grassroots mobilisation in South Africa (recaptured by Ballard et. aI., 2006:3-19), on feminist consciousness-raising (Kaplan, 1997) and on organisational change for gender equality (Rao and Kelleher, 2003). Some of the suggestions made, while analysing the data against this theoretical framework, include; That the conflict which has emerged in the organisation under study in relation to the new 'gender programme' is indeed a contestation over the meaning of 'political' gender work, and over who can be a legitimate 'political actor' (Hassim, 2006: 17); simultaneously and contradictive, there is an awareness in the organisations that the nature of the 'working class' is shifting in pace with neo-liberal globalisation processes, and that rank-and-file members in working class organisations are now the unemployed or the casual workers, a majority of them being women (although leadership structures largely remain male territory), which theoretically should also prompt a shift in the focal organisations approach to 'political' gender work, but in practice, this is still a struggle; the empowerment programme which the research has followed closely throughout the year has led to women participants being ostracised, after surfacing issues of sexual harassment in the movements, but the rational/intellectual, spiritual and emotional learning which has happened in the group is analyzed as having been empowering on both an individual and collective level, inspiring new women's network to develop within movements of both men and women. The study suggests that engaging 'gender' and expanding the notion of 'political work' and who can be a 'political actor' is crucial if left-wing education and support organisations seek to remain relevant within a rapidly changing context.

Includes bibliographical references (p. 160-167).