4 May 2010

Organising the Working Women - Reminder


Organising the Working Women

Re-written introduction:

Women are not a separate class, which can be organised against men. Women are not exempt from class struggle, but are as divided by class as men are, and divided into the same classes as men are. Yet women, and working women in particular, do have a common basis for organisation as a distinct and self-conscious mass.

We meet in the UJ Doornfontein Library. The next session will be as follows: 
  • Date: 6 May (Thursday)
  • Time: 17h00 sharp to 18h30 sharp
  • Venue: The Library, University of Johannesburg, 37 Nind Street, Doornfontein, Johannesburg (former Technikon Witwatersrand). Cars enter from the slip road to the left of the bridge on Siemert Road.
  • Topic: FEDSAW yields to ANCWL on NEC and membership, in 1955 

A clear understanding of women’s mass organisation in general and women's role in the National Democratic Revolution in particular leads to an unavoidable conclusion: a democratic, constitutional, national, working women's movement is a political revolutionary necessity in South Africa at this time.

This week's excerpt from Cheryl Walker’s 1982 book “Women and Resistance in South Africa” shows how this logic came into play in the 1050s, but the initiative of Ray Alexander [pictured above] and others was turned aside by the action of bourgeois-oriented women who wanted to subordinate FEDSAW, through the ANC Women's League, to the ANC.

The ANCWL had been founded in 1948. The ANC was an Africans-only organisation until the 1969 National Conference of the ANC in Morogoro, Tanzania. There was therefore an objective need to organise women on a wider and more non-racial basis than that of the ANCWL, as women, or as working women. It did not happen that way. An argument developed and then stalemated around the FEDSAW constitution, until the ANC WL got its way, so that only organisations could join FEDSAW and not individuals, in conditions where the ANC WL was vastly bigger than any other organisation was or could hope to become.

So the ANC WL dominated the FEDSAW and the goal of a true women's mass movement was not achieved. Women's collective agency was never organisationally established in South Africa. The ANC WL was the placeholder for that hope, but it was a hollow placeholder. 

In reality, as we will see again in later sessions, the ANC WL was never a women's organisation so much as it was a junior ANC for the women, ruled by the ANC and not by the women.

Here is some of what Walker has to say about all this:

“There were two alternatives. Either the FSAW could seek its own mass membership or it could base itself on a federal form, acquiring its members indirectly through each of its affiliated member organisations. The matter was not settled at the inaugural conference. A draft constitution proposing the first alternative – a mass, individual membership – was circulated but failed to win overall approval. Ray Alexander, and later the NEC based in Cape Town, supported this constitution, but Ida Mtwana and, it would seem, the ANCWL in the Transvaal, wanted a federal structure.

“In opposing Alexander, Mtwana spoke on behalf of the Transvaal ANCWL, acting, apparently, on the instructions of the provincial ANC. Their main fear was that, if the FSAW were constituted on the basis of an individual membership, it would compete against the ANCWL to the detriment of the latter. In taking this position, the ANC revealed a degree of ambivalence towards the FSAW that it would never entirely overcome. While supporting and welcoming the entry of women into the national liberation movement, it was anxious to retain control over their activities – a control it could exercise effectively over the Women’s League but not so successfully over an independent FSAW.

“At the heart of the debate between these two alternatives there thus lay a matter of central importance – the relationship between the FSAW and ANC; the relationship between the women’s movement and the senior partner in the national liberation movement. The ANC was adamant on the issue and finally, reluctantly, the individual membership group yielded towards the end of 1954. They conceded not because they had been convinced by the other group’s arguments but because they realised that without the support of the ANC, the women’s movement would be isolated from the Congress Alliance.”


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