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Shopsteward Volume 27: Special Bulletin

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Conferences  |  COSATU Speeches

Address by Willie Madisha, COSATU President to the COSATU National Gender Conference

5 July 2000

Comrade Chairperson
Comrade delegates
Distinguished guests

Permit me to greet you in the name of your federation COSATU, and to wish you the best of luck in your deliberations in this conference. Over the next three days, this august gathering will be faced with momentous challenges - challenges which summon all participants to actively debate and redefine COSATU`s gender policies, the proper participation of women in the federation and its affiliates leadership structures, reaffirmation of our positions on total women`s emancipation and the removal of gender-based stereotypes.

These momentous challenges are best encapsulated in the theme of our conference, entitled "Women crush poverty for self-emancipation and socialism"

For us to best understand the challenges before us, and appropriately respond to the theme of the conference we must know the realities that women face on a daily basis - both on the home front, society and organisation - and these realities are best summarised by Lenin when he wrote in 1919 that:

"Notwithstanding all the laws emancipating woman, she continues to be a domestic slave, because petty housework crushes, strangles stultifies and degrades her, chains her to the kitchen and the nursery; and she wastes her labour on barbarously unproductive, petty, nerve-wracking, stultifying and crushing drudgery. The real emancipation of women, real communism, will only begin where and when an all out struggle begins (led by the proletariat wielding state power) against petty housekeeping, or rather when its wholesale transformation into a large-scale socialist economy begins."

This comrades, was a significant statement and describes the major problems womenfolk face in society.

But it is further important to understand the statement Lenin makes again on 23rd September, 1919 at the Non- Party Working Women Conference, where he says "In order to be active in politics under the old capitalist regime special training was required, so that women played an insignificant part in politics, even in the most advanced and free capitalist countries. Our task is to make politics available to every working woman…… the participation of every working woman is essential - not only of Party members and politically conscious women, but of the non-party women and those who are least politically conscious….. The work that Soviet power has begun can only make progress when, instead of a few hundred, millions and millions of women… take part in it. We are sure that the cause of socialist development will become sound."

These words, said by one of the elders on whose practical theories we base our revolutionary onslaught against capital greed, still hold true today and should guide our debates over the next three days.

These words justify our long-held understanding that women`s emancipation and the removal of gender inequality can be attained only when two things happen, and that is when women are brought fully into social production and when private domestic labour is replaced by socialized services and a thorough-going conscious struggle against the bourgeois culture and social psychology of sexism.

For this conference to respond to the question "What does socialism mean to women?" it becomes important that we revisit what the various socialist states did to deal with the problems women faced when those states took power. As an example, we have proposed to look at the Soviet Union, China and Cuba when these three countries attained their socialist revolutions. It will be good for this conference to understand what has been achieved, or not achieved, in respect of the literacy of women, laws governing abortion and marriage, and how women were brought into positions of leadership both at Party, union and other levels of responsibility. From the outset, we must point out that these states were guided by the vision of Engels in propagating for the removal of a class-based division of society that led to the exploitation of women, and thus put his theory into practice.

Today, there are very important lessons that we can learn from those revolutions. In the Soviet Union, although the initial efforts to free women from class exploitation were limited by the lack of state resources, the peasant economy and legacies of state underdevelopment, very important advances were made.

Those gains and advances were made because even men themselves, unlike men in capitalist societies, were prepared to embrace and advance such gains and advances. In Russia, the revolutionaries led against the gender-backwardness amongst the masses. This was made possible because revolutionaries had an understanding that both the foundations and character of class oppression had to be fought from all directions, and thus mobilised the masses. This fight took place n the Party and in broader Russian society.

That was the "first wave" of women struggles and it ensured victory for women`s equality in respect of the vote, access to tertiary education, the right to control their own money and property.

Together with these advances, the Party in Russia ensured that through a Congress resolution in the Party Congress of 1921, it directed every member to strengthen the working women against all forms of stereotypes, to fight all forms of prejudices against women by the proletarian men, increased the awareness of both working men and women that their interests were the same against Capital.

The Party, through these struggles, emphasised Lenin`s idea of "agitation and propaganda through action". This gave women courage to recognise their abilities and ensured that they were drawn into practical work as part and parcel of the working class. Women were encouraged to occupy leadership positions in the Party and as shop stewards in the unions. That revolution teaches us that the battle to address women and gender problems cannot be an issue for women alone, but that the battle must be fought by both men and women united. All women`s problems are important to the entire revolutionary struggle; and the struggle cannot ever be won unless women, and not men alone, are free.

The 1917 revolution ensured complete equality of men and women under the law. It, for instance, made abortion free and legal at any stage of the pregnancy; it abolished the legal rights of a foetus; it legalised homosexuality; forbade employment on the basis of gender differences and decriminalized prostitution; only civil marriages were allowed and divorces were allowed at the request of either partner. If a single mother could not identify a single father, all men identified were forced to pay paternity/ maintenance. Child-care facilities, laundry and kitchen facilities were supplied.

These were the gains of the Russian revolution in addressing some of the gender problems and difficulties faced by women. These gains were an advance compared to what capitalist states such as the USA did to its women many decades after the Russian revolution, where men were given tax discounts if their wives did not work and stayed at home; and single mothers got penalized for not being dependant on the fathers of their children. These examples of the Bolsheviks revolution in Russia were followed during the revolution of Cuba, where these gains were enacted and improved. Vietnam, Nicaragua are other examples. China too made some limited advances. But in all these countries today, workers, particularly women workers, still believe, and rightly so, that more must be done.

Unfortunately, these gains were reversed when Stalin came to power, in particular in 1936 when he made divorce difficult, abortion, prostitution and homosexuality criminal acts and promoted the joys of motherhood.

We must therefore emphasise that although in the initial stages of the proletarian revolutions at the turn of the century, humanity made enormous strides as represented by Russia, the later stages up to today have been characterised by women oppression and gender inequalities.

That is why this conference is so important. It is important because it must respond to our shared understanding as the South African organised working class that gender inequality leads our country to a situation where the ideals of our revolution cannot be realised. It is important because it must serve to liberate every worker, and not only women, from this unequal treatment, which is indeed only equal to a severe loss of dignity. It must also liberate male workers who must understand that gender discrimination does not serve the working class, but it serves the owners of Capital, as it assert and strengthens the divisions within the working class, thus allowing Capital and employers to dictate the future and the lives of the working class.

Therefore liberation must be the liberation of men and women as components of one and the same class called the working class, although blockages to women`s emancipation must be elevated in our proper societal development.

We must call on this conference, as you proceed to discuss the issues before us, to also look into other points associated with our broad gender development as workers, such as the still unresolved problems of:

  • maternity leave, home work, equal pay for equal work and migrant labour
  • GEAR and women
  • Hidden work done by women, such as looking after children at home which is unpaid, whereas workers in a crèche are paid for the same work

These are areas that still have to be ratified by numerous ILO conventions, and it would help if this conference could breathe on these issues, so that you can give the next COSATU Congress direction on them.

(Here Cde Madisha expressed his disquiet at the fact that the SA government had refused to vote on the maternity leave issue at the ILO in Geneva.)

In the South African perspective, high levels of poverty and unemployment hits women the hardest, particularly the rural women. These are the women who are subjected to home work, in kitchens, on farms etc. That is why our struggle to alleviate poverty and unemployment must also be seen as the struggle for gender emancipation.

This conference is tasked by our federation to ensure that the same, and even more benefits are achieved as those availed to women workers at the turn of the century - before the horrendous takeover by Stalin.