Inside Labour: Women who gave us a charter for all | Fin24

Inside Labour: Women who gave us a charter for all

Aug 08 2014 06:22
*Terry Bell

EQUAL PAY for work of equal value became law in South Africa this week. But whether it will be enforced may be another matter, given the record to date of the labour department. However, it is good news for the female half of humanity that tends, internationally, to be paid much less than the male half for work of equal value.

It is a step in the right direction, although a rather belated one when history is taken into account. Because, before the protest march against the pass laws of 20 000 women in 1956 and before the adoption of the Freedom Charter in 1955, there was a Women’s Charter that put forward that equal pay demand.

And while the march of the women in 1956 is celebrated as national Women’s Day and the Freedom Charter is currently being loudly trumpeted by the likes of the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and remains iconic to the ANC, the Women’s Charter tends to be forgotten.  Yet it encapsulated a range of equal rights now found in the Bill of Rights and much of South Africa’s labour legislation, including this week’s welcome amendment.

The Women’s Charter was adopted 60 years ago, in April 1954, when women, many of them trade unionists, came together to form the Federation of South African Women (Fedsaw).  At this Johannesburg gathering they documented their demands for full equality for all people, irrespective of race, colour, creed or gender.

Along with equal pay for equal work, the Fedsaw women also called for equal property rights and for “the removal of all laws and customs” that deny women equality, something that remains a problem today.  As indeed do the demands made 60 years ago for “childcare for working mothers, and free and compulsory education for all South African children”.

These demands became deeply imbedded in the consciousness of trade unionists, carried to rank and file level by organisers such as Ray Alexander-Simons and Frances Baard. The echoes remained, despite police repression, when the modern labour movement emerged in the 1970s and 1980s.

The idea of equality was perhaps best epitomised, at least in principle, in unions such as the Metal and Allied Workers Union (Mawu) that eventually became the core of Numsa.  Elected officials were recallable by their constituencies and none received more payment than the highest paid worker in the union.

'We must not divide woman from woman'

At the same time, the gender issue was seriously addressed, with women often coming to the forefront, even in such male-dominated sectors as the engineering industry.  The feisty Rain Chiya of Kwa Tema was a classic example.  She was not only a leading shop steward, but also became the first woman crane operator in the country.

It was Chiya who argued that while creches and childcare facilities were essential, they should not be restricted to women working in the industrial sector, they should be available to all women in all communities. “We must not divide woman from woman,” she said.  But adequate childcare facilities are still not available, whether in workplaces or communities.

However, despite the tremendous difficulties of the time, especially for trade unionists, there was widespread optimism.   And without any of the advantages of today, a number of women, for whom education had come mainly through the unions, went on to play leading roles in various fields.

Some, like the teenaged unmarried mother and high school dropout, Emily Mokoena, became an administrator in the Mawu office. “I knew how to type,” says this former 12-year-old street protestor of the 1976 student uprisings.

But Mokoena went on to become the first black woman sound operator in the country, working on documentary films.  However, listening to and recording life without being directly involved worried her, so she decided to study psychology.

In was a long road but finally, in 2011, having passed with honours her first two degrees, she obtained a masters degree, specialising in community psychology. Today she works as a psychologist in the women’s section of Pollsmoor prison in Cape Town.

It is women such as these, and those who drew up and approved the 1954 Charter (many of whom joined the 1956 march) that we should salute on Women’s Day.  But we should also bear in mind, not just for a day or a month, the principles and hopes enshrined in what amounted to a charter for all in 1954.

Add your voice to the ongoing labour debate, ask Terry any labour-related questions, or pay tribute to an outstanding woman.

 - Fin24

* Terry Bell is an independent political, economic and labour analyst. Views expressed are his own. Follow him on twitter @telbelsa.

terry bell  |  inside labour  |  labour  |  women's month


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