August is always a month which leaves us with a feeling of profound ambivalence, as we are reminded how broken our society is. Women’s month. On the one hand we celebrate the histories of women’s struggles in our country and the narratives of their continuing contributions to societal transformation. We celebrate women. On the other hand, we are forced to look in a mirror which shows us that the struggle for equal rights is disturbingly far from over and that, if anything, the levels of violence experienced by women are increasing. The ravages of this violence – which is both systemic and personal – leaves a bitter taste in our mouths as we reach for the celebratory. At the Foundation, this year we have workshopped the sense of ambivalence, searched for a way of ‘doing August’ meaningfully.
For some years now we have ensured that gender is a cross-cutting theme in all the work that we do. And, not surprisingly, identifying and combatting the vectors of oppressive power experienced by black women has become a constant focus of our Dialogue and Advocacy programme, especially in relation to its work on early childhood development, racism, land, and poverty and inequality more broadly. What has become clear to us is that the issue we are grappling with is not "gender" as such; rather, it is patriarchy – that apparatus of power which excludes and in other ways oppresses women and people who are gender non-conforming. Patriarchy, of course, can and does privilege male presenting people, however they identify. And it also oppresses men, binding them into narratives that construct them as emotionally absent, violent and potentially monstrous. What we have come to realise, as an institution and as individuals, is that we still have a lot to learn. Our commitment is to keep grappling – internally and publicly - with what are complex questions, always with an eye to finding helpful lines of enquiry and building solidarity in the quest for a liberatory future.
Patriarchy, like racism, oppresses people despite the Constitution and the laws which have been passed to give it expression. As have learned over and over again since its introduction in 1996, if the Constitution is to become a lived reality for people rather than merely an elevated expression of an ideal, then it needs to be rooted in a robust, practical, values-based and liberatory social contract. This is not a uniquely South African challenge. In the aftermath of two world wars in the twentieth century, the world thought it had found the basis for such a social contract in the framing provided by democracy, human rights, international law and the concept (and an institution) of united nations. And yet, as we heard from United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres during the Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in July, the world is desperately in need of a new social contract. This was a message reinforced at a Foundation dialogue forum in August by World Health Organisation Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus, who disclosed elements of what such a contract would look like in the realm of public health.
That the world needs a new social contract – a new economy of exchange, if you like, a new basis on which people can associate and in other ways engage with one another – is beyond question. The month of August, over and over again, has made this clear to us. It was uppermost in our minds as we – together with other structures of civil society – met with the leadership of the African National Congress to discuss the scourge of corruption, even in a time of Covid-19. We need a social contract which will protect us in ways that the law cannot from politicians, corporations, public representatives, bureaucrats and others intent on looting the public purse. It has been uppermost in our minds as we tried to absorb the shootings of Nathaniel Julius in Eldorado Park and Jacob Blake in Wisconsin. It has been uppermost in our minds as we’ve wrestled both with what is happening in Zimbabwe and with what is happening to Zimbabweans who are living in South Africa. What we are seeing is a social fabric torn, and being shred, piece by piece. And every piece is a human life damaged, or broken, or discarded, or snuffed out.
This point was driven home sharply in the last week during a visit I made to Mpumalanga, engaging with communities in need. I encountered a gogo who has been trying unsuccessfully to get an identity document for many years. She shared with me how some of her friends who were on this journey with her have passed away. Then she told me that recently her firewood and water supply were stolen. And I was paralysed with rage, wondering how anyone could commit such a callous act against an old, vulnerable woman like that. It reminded me of those who are stealing Covid-19 relief funds without a second thought! Where is any semblance of solidarity with the poor and the weak and the oppressed? The challenge is to channel this anger into the work of building more accountable and transparent systems which will put these thieves behind bars at the same time as creating ways in which our society can find healing.
It is one thing, of course, to see a problem. It is another to work out a sustainable solution. For the Foundation, contributing to the finding of a new and liberatory social contract, for our country, for our world, will be a focus in the months and years ahead. This was one of the resolutions to emerge from the August meeting of our Board of Trustees. We look forward to working with our many partners, institutional and otherwise, on this project.