The Status of Citizenship for Black Women in Post-Apartheid South Africa

As we reflect on the celebration of International Women's Month in March and motion towards the upcoming 2024 elections, which will be held on 29 May 2024, it is a significant time to critically reflect on Black women's citizenship and positionality in post-apartheid South Africa.

Brief history

Historically, Black people have experienced second-class citizenry within the social, economic, and political South African landscape. During apartheid, racial division was the primary strategy of 'otherness' that was exampled by racialised citizen status that was reserved for white races, while the Black majority were systemically excluded from the imagination of the state. Equally, gender played a role in the divisions of labour, access to resources, and experiences of systematic violence that show apartheid as equal parts racial and equal parts gendered.

Throughout Black liberation and consciousness movements, women have confronted the reality of being oppressed by the racial and gendered system of apartheid that oppressed Black men but also at the hands of Black men themselves. Placing Black women in a position where they had to struggle against national oppression and simultaneously subvert patriarchal relations.[1] These realities provide us with a glimpse into the interlocking[2] nature of experiences confronted by Black women within racist and heteropatriarchal systems and how layered the quest for citizenship and belonging was and continues to be, even within the post-apartheid era.

Contemporary South Africa

African feminists such as Amina Mama, Pumla Gqola, Lyn Ossome and Oyeronke Oyewumi to mention a few, have long mourned the disingenuity of the post-colonial African political project for African women and its inability to dislodge itself from its colonial framing. Patriarchy has endured through both the post-colonial and post-apartheid age and has resulted in Black women continuing to exist under hegemonic patriarchal, capitalist, and colonial norms that exclude them from realising the post-colonial identity of the citizen.

From this context, we are propelled to inquire about Black women, who make up most of the South African populace, and their socio-political and economic positioning for both today and the next five years. And to truly question the government's inaugurated commitment as the leading body to provide protections against the discrimination and historical injustices experienced by Black women.

The intersectional bearing of the South African black women's identity forces us to observe 'security' from a multi-dimensional perspective. According to the literature and President Cyril Ramaphosa, Black South African women hold the title of the "face of poverty", with Black women presently bearing the brunt of unemployment, which currently sits at 39.8%, above the national average of 32.1%. In her exploration of South African inequality, Mlaba records that Black professional women earn 24% less than their white female counterparts and 36% less than their male peers. This is despite proven expertise that, in some cases, they fare better than their peers in academia and expertise.

This economic disenfranchisement translates to their economic exploitation within the formal and informal labour market, faced with conditions of unpaid and precarious labour participation and furthering their status of feminised poverty in the country. Equally, the socio-political and economic conditions of COVID-19 have retrenched and widened existing inequities, resulting in black women finding themselves on the fringes of South African society. The domino effect of institutionalised and "feminised" poverty results in education insecurity, food insecurity and poor housing and also exposes Black women to structural vulnerabilities.

These economic conditions are further entwined with the social environment, with experiences of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV).  The rampant severity of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in South Africa has resulted in it becoming a public health issue. According to the latest crime statistics, 13,000 cases of sexual assault were reported in the third quarter, and more than 14,000 women fell victim to assault with the intent to inflict grievous bodily harm. The root causes of such violence are manufactured through the existence of patriarchies that have systemically interwoven themselves into contemporary society.

These are evident patterns of how patriarchy continues to subjugate Black women under both the state and men. Such patterns call for the subversion of inequities, which continue to be deeply entrenched within our societies and state institutions, as their current manifestation excludes women from both the vision and realisation of the "new" South Africa and the social contract it has with its citizens.

Social Contract and the democratic obligations in post-apartheid South Africa.  

In South Africa, the government's connection with its people is based on the social contract's principles of state security and justice. The constitution adopted in 1996 embodies this 'social contract,' emphasizing values like equality, inclusion, and democratic freedoms for all. As discussed earlier, achieving equality, particularly for women, demands a detailed exploration of the challenging path to realising this goal. This scrutiny becomes crucial as election season approaches, offering Black women an important political choice to make.

These political choices should entail advocating for women's rights and addressing persistent gender inequalities with a deeper understanding than the simplistic approach often seen in the single paragraph that touches on gender issues within most political manifestos. Effective manifestos would integrate power analyses, highlighting how power operates across economic, political, social, and cultural spheres. Such manifestos would aim to reveal the intricate relationships and structures that influence these dynamics and identify opportunities and strategies to redistribute power more equitably when it concerns race and gender.

This approach would demonstrate the intended strategies that directly confront the interlocking issues that Black women face. Providing modes of redress towards the inherently violent nature of existing institutions, be it state or grassroots, towards Black women. This approach, in turn, could potentially translate to the quality of freedoms that speak to their full experience and expression of citizenship.


The article was originally published on AfricLaw

[1] Siphokazi, Magadla. Guerrillas and Combative Mothers: Women and the Armed Struggle in South Africa. Taylor & Francis, 2023.

[2] Extracted from Molara Ogundiphe-Leslie's work Re-creating Ourselves African Women and Critical Transformations, where she describes the 6 mountains on women's backs and how they interlock and contribute to their experience of oppression within her society. These six mountains include tradition, backwardness to do with colonization, race, patriarchy, the global order and, lastly, herself.

Sinqobile Makhathini

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