Women, often recognised as unpaid caregivers and providers of food and fuel, are predicted to be disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis. In South Africa, 59% of women run out of money by mid-month due to household costs. Yet, considering rising expenses, they still face up to 27% lower wages. So, where do we begin building resilience when climate change is predicted to leave millions in a vulnerable state? There is hope in reflection and this piece aims to commemorate the women who stood for justice in 1956 South Africa, by adopting a feminist outlook on the fundamental injustices of the climate emergency.
On the 9th of August 63 years ago, with growing oppressive measures by the Apartheid state, over 20,000 women marched in solidarity to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to demand justice. As early as 2am, Mam’ Albertina Sisulu stood at Phefeni train station buying tickets for women who had left behind children, chores, and husbands. The march, organised by Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa, and Sophia Williams, collected over 100,000 signatures protesting pass laws, and though then Prime Minister JG Strijdom refused to receive it, the women stacked the huge bundles of signed petitions outside his office door.
For the Apartheid state, it was imperative that women’s mobility be controlled and monitored by forcing them to carry passes. The pivotal petition stated:
“We, the women of South Africa, have come here today. We African women know too well the effect this law has upon our homes, our children. We, who are not African women know how our sisters suffer. For to us, an insult to African women is an insult to all women”.
The historic march of 1956 became a turning point in the history of South Africa, setting a precedent for mass politics in the liberation struggle. Apartheid South Africa was, at its core, an infamous system of hatred and injustice that exploited the national black population to benefit a white minority. The Apartheid architecture strategically infiltrated all aspects of life from mobility to education and homes where interracial marriage and sex were criminalised by the Immorality Act. This system of racism had a layered impact on Black women during Apartheid, who often bore the costs of taking care of the home when their husbands migrated for work, and as founding member of the Federation of South African Women, Dora Tamana said in her powerful address to fellow protesters, “We have seen it with our men. Who will look after our children when we go to jail for a small technical offence – not having a pass?”
The daring protesters refuted the already outdated stereotype of women as politically inept, conservative, and tied to the home, in the ground-breaking achievement that would change the face of gender inequality in South Africa.
The consistent efforts of dedicated women to organise and mobilise relentlessly ensured that their voiceswere central to the formulation of the Freedom Charter. Women’s material concerns, from the care of children, to livelihood and food access, were front and centre in the organisation of their movement and directly attributed to the Apartheid government who systematically underdeveloped Black homelands. This example sets a precedent for challenging an exploitative system that perpetuated itself through oppression, by mobilising a collective voice that prioritised the day-to-day struggles of the most affected.
The unequal distribution of the effects of the climate crisis places the highest burden on those least at fault, and studies highlight that existing inequalities and injustices are predicted to worsen. Globally and nationally, we are facing unprecedented levels of inequality. A capitalist system ensures a concentration of wealth amongst the world’s 1% whilst an entrenched patriarchal system divides this along gendered lines. Understanding the climate crisis as the fundamentally unjust outcome of our global system is to acknowledge that the most vulnerable bear the brunt of the costs and reap none of the benefits of capitalist production.
Our economies have a needy and outdated relationship with fossil fuel energy, and South Africa is the 14th highest carbon emitter in the world. Statistics estimate up to 54 deaths a day due to the dirty air we breathe in South African cities. Citizens are exposed to pollutants through extractive industries, and at the same time face energy poverty, forcing them into alternatives like burning coal or wood as energy prices increase. Some consider this an inescapable outcome of overpopulation, yet this argument harbours a racial subtext of which populations are the problem. These biases must be exposed if we as a country are to achieve social justice through climate movements.
Holistic solutions to climate change must be transparent and participatory to guarantee that basic needs are met, and centring women in these dialogues would put emphasis on solutions and policies that are gender inclusive. Similarly, we cannot forgo the combined impacts of race and class, particularly in South Africa. When feminism does not condemn racism and when anti-racism refuses to challenge patriarchy, they often end up reinforcing the other. We must be cognisant of and confront acts of injustice wherever they may occur; whether it’s dismantling patriarchy or calling out white supremacy. With this perspective, we applaud the acts of school strikes and extinction rebellion, but equally remember the activists in the global south who have not been met with global recognition, but face death threats and abuse. Responses to the climate crisis must include all of society equally, and adopt bottom-up approaches to radical systemic change.
Climate change threatens the social fabric that we know, and women have carried the burden of weaving those threads. The climate crisis must be framed systemically and adopt a feminist outlook that illustrates the structural power dynamics of gender inequality and resilience building that places material conditions at the centre of all alternatives. We must be aware of the modalities of our responses to prevent further inequalities, even within the climate movement. We call on all in South Africa, and the world, to reflect on how they might see the climate crisis through the eyes of a feminist. As the world sees a rise in fascism, we must learn from past struggles for women’s agency over their bodies, movements and agency. To fight a system means to challenge existing narratives and frame the climate crisis as a crisis of justice, by standing up to acts of injustice everywhere. In solidarity, “Wathint’ Abafazi, Wathint’ Imbokodo”, you strike a woman, you strike a rock.
What could be some next steps?
1. Unlearn: What does it mean to have a feminist perspective?
b. Engaging with community councillors, political leaders or the legislatures. Get to know how to engage with your elected representatives in Parliament or Provincial Legislatures with the Action 24 – Active Citizens for Responsive Legislatures booklets. Or engage through social media; for instance, the #TipsForBarbara campaign invited citizens to address issues directly to the Minister of Environmental Affairs, Forestry and Fisheries.
d. Finding and supporting deep alternatives: According to Professor Jacklyn Cock, “reclaiming feminism and achieving gender justice means challenging capital’s dependence on women’s unpaid labour in social reproduction and experimenting with alternative social forms, institutions and practices outside of capitalism such as: collective arrangements for childcare; cooperatives; bulk buying; decentralised, community-controlled forms of renewable energy; the development of “people’s restaurants”, community food centres andseed sharing.”
Alia Kajee works as an adviser implementing projects in South Africa’s national climate change response policy. Kajee co-authored this topical feature in her personal capacity.
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