​When Colonialism and Feminism Clash: Looking Towards an Empowered Future in South Africa

“Freedom cannot be achieved unless women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression ... unless we see in visible and practical terms that the condition of the women of our country has radically changed for the better, and that they have been empowered to intervene in all aspects of life as equals with any other member of society” -Nelson Mandela 1994

Nelson Mandela understood that in order to transform society such that anyone was to achieve freedom, all forms of oppression need to be systematically undone. His visionary leadership helped lead South Africa out of apartheid and set up a constitution which enabled modern day South Africa to have the 10th largest percentage of women in parliament. Yet even with 40% of parliament being female, women in South Africa suffer from some of the highest levels of rape and domestic violence in the world.

So while certain women have achieved representation and are seen as empowered, many others continue to be disproportionately marginalized and experience high levels of violence.

White women have sometimes been charged with usurping the voice of black women for the cause of gender empowerment, making it difficult for some black women to identify as “feminist” because this label is often seen as a term taken by white, relatively privileged women who are unaware and/or uncaring of the multiple levels of oppressions black women face in South Africa. Such bias can be seen when western women working in NGOs or South African white woman reference themselves as the norm in feminist discussions, framing all other women as their deviations. Apartheid and colonialism influences remains within this train of thought, even though many of the laws from that time period have been replaced. These histories have allowed and continue to allow white women to maintain dominance over feminist discourse and frame South African traditions as ahistorical, unchanging, and misogynistic.

A precedent setting case that demonstrates how latent colonial views can be detrimental to the feminist movement was seen when a sixty-five year old African National Congress (ANC) member of parliament, Tinyiko Nwamitwa-Shilubana, defended her traditional right to be restored as chief of her community. She is the rightful heir through her father’s royal line and won the vote to be chief by the tribal council, but the Pretoria high court and the Appeals Division ruled that under customary law, she could not be appointed chief (South Africa has a dual legal system where secular and customary law co-exist but secular law takes precedence over customary law in the case of any dispute between the two legal systems).

By unanimously appointing Shilubana, her community and its council had in fact acted in accordance with the South African constitution and the memorandum on traditional leadership, which states that customary law should evolve in line with the South African bill of rights. Essentially, her own community was voicing their support of a female chief, but the South African court system argued that their vote violates their own traditional law, thus she should not be allowed to be the chief. In post-colonial form, the South African courts ruled that tradition cannot change with times, and forced a patriarchal view onto Shilubana’s tribe, not only dictating the forbiddance of a female chief, but asserting a greater power over traditional affairs than her own, tribal community.

However, Shilubana finally won her right to chiefdom after winning her case in the South African Constitutional Court. Continuing to break convention and promote growth, she has gone on to use her position as chief to engage in innovative new HIV/AIDs youth outreach within her tribe. Shilubana story is a reminder and motivation for many of us to check our own biases and to not underestimate the power of a strong women.

To support other strong South African women, you can find the wares produced by our South African artisan partners here.