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  • Thandiwe Ntshinga

What is feminism in South Africa?

“Women are clearly both empowered and victimised, seen and unseen, included and excluded in different ways.[1]- Ronit Frenkel

What is feminism?

Contrary to common beliefs and misconceptions, feminism is not about placing one gender above the other, rather it is about ensuring all genders are treated equally and are able to exercise their rights equally. This is in line with everyone's human right to be treated equally before the law under section 9 of the Constitution.

Feminism in South Africa concerns the organised efforts to improve the rights of girls and women. These efforts are largely linked to issues of feminism and gender equality on one hand, and racial equality and the political freedoms of African and other non-Black South African ethnic groups “of colour” on the other. Feminism in South Africa has been shaped by struggles for political and racial equality, as well as by national and transnational struggles for gender equality. Women in South Africa have historically faced a myriad of state-facilitated and socially-practiced discrimination including pay discrimination. One example was the inability for all women to vote until 1983 and cultural sexism manifesting through severe gender-based violence and rape culture.

Ambiguous positionings of women (like the favourable representation of women in parliament while South Africa has the highest femicide rates in the world) central to African feminist scholarship reflects both the position of women and feminism in South Africa today – where women are victims and oppressors, seen and unseen, included and excluded in the imbricated cultural sites that make up South Africa.

Successful feminist law reforms

In South Africa, the struggle for women's suffrage started in 1889 and was mainly driven by the Women's Enfranchisement Association of the Union. White women were given the right to vote by the Women's Enfranchisement Act of 1930. The first general election at which white women could vote was the 1933 election.

The Matrimonial Property Act 88 was passed on November 1, 1984, and overruled the economic, social, legal and property and subordination of white, Indian and coloured married women to their male spouses. Prior to this act women were seen as legal minors in the eyes of the law once married, which stripped them of any legal protections or individual social liberties and outlined that all economic or property assets be passed through male lineage. On December 2, 1988, the Act was amended to also protect African women in civil unions.

After the country's first democratic elections in 1994, many discriminatory statutes in South Africa were scrapped and replaced with the Domestic Violence Act of 1998. The 1994 Constitution also established the first Commission on Gender Equality to make sure that the rights and protections outlined in the new constitution were respected, followed and adapted to suit the evolving needs of South African women.

Prior to 1989, it was allowed for one to have non-consensual intercourse with one's wife, and not be constituted as rape. In 1987 a law was proposed which would criminalize marital rape in South Africa. The Minister of Justice introduced the bill to a preliminary committee who refused the draft, which stated marital rape as a crime. The bill was revised to make marital rape an aggravating circumstance of conviction for assault. This newly drafted bill was accepted by parliament and passed in 1989 becoming part of South African law. The reason parliament did not want to initially criminalised marital rape is because it would potentially increase the already high divorce rates in South Africa at the time. It was viewed by South African law that marital rape was not as serious as “ordinary” rape, therefore should not have harsh consequences.

In 1993, South Africa passed the Prevention of Family Violence Act. This act criminalised marital rape, and other domestic violence. Marital rape has now been classified and incorporated into the offence of rape. This act also abolished the “cautionary rule”, which allows a judge to decide the credibility of a rape survivor.

The Domestic Violence Act 116 of 1998 was purposed to protect victims from domestic abuse. This is the state of South Africa announcing, and committing to stand against domestic violence. The Act requires police to report any act of domestic violence and gives them the ability to arrest any potential offender. It states that any complaint can be filed as a protection order for court. The Act also states how the court system must handle such orders.


Due to the patriarchal structure embedded in South Africa's cultural norms and governing bodies, women have faced adversity in the fight for equality, particularly Black women who, because of the unique racial history of the country, have faced even greater disadvantages due to apartheid. Early feminist efforts concerned the suffrage of White women, allowing them to vote in elections from the 1930s, and significant activism in the 1950s to demand equal pay for men and women.

'The white man's misinterpretation of African custom was assisted by and contributed to Black men's manipulation of tradition to perpetuate male domination’ (Motsei 2007:28)

One of the challenges of South African feminism has been to rid itself of such racialised stereotypes and practices, where in this context white women have sometimes been charged with usurping the voice of Black women within the name of gendered empowerment. Another challenge for South African feminism has been to incorporate varying traditions within a woman-centred agenda that respects different ideas of tradition, be these traditions struggle-based or part of indigenous practice. In most histories of colonial conquest, the colonising power refused to negotiate with women or acknowledge women as leaders in a public context. The collusion between colonial powers and indigenous male leaders led to female exclusion from higher structures of power across colonial sites from Africa to Asia to the Americas (although women were central to the colonial project's ‘civilising mission’, as they were often the agents for the transmission of Christianity and western ‘values’ in the domestic sphere). The colonialists were thereby able to incorporate local male leaders within their enterprise to varying degrees, while indigenous male leadership could consolidate power and exclude women from such operations. History, or tradition in this light, has therefore been rewritten. The stranglehold that colonial and apartheid stereotypes continue to have over our understandings of race and gender.

Some have argued that feminism in South Africa was often associated with white, middle-class women. For Black South Africans, feminism may often be a highly charged position to take up; it has been seen as a colonial importation, white and middle-class. Broadly, feminism in South Africa has been met with varying responses. Some support the effort and see the advancement of women as a parallel issue to the advancement and liberation of the nation. Others reject the feminist movement because it is perceived to threaten customary patriarchal practices and male authority in South Africa characterising African cultures as intrinsically oppressive. Nompumelelo Motlafi, lecturer in the Department of Political Sciences at the University of South Africa writes that “both white and black women’s rights activists need to realise that, for black women, demands for equal dignity and fairness do not necessarily entail a desire to do away with male leadership in the home, community and country”.

The diversity of feminism

African feminism is a type of feminism innovated by African women that specifically addresses the conditions and needs of continental African women (African women who reside on the African continent). African feminism includes many strains of its own, including Motherism, Femalism, Snail-sense Feminism, Womanism/women palavering, Nego-feminism, and African Womanism.[1] Because Africa is not a monolith, these feminisms are not all reflective of the experiences African women have. Some of the feminisms are more specific to certain groups of African women. African feminism is sometimes aligned with, in dialogue or in conflict with, Black Feminism or African womanism (which is perceived as by and for African women in the diaspora, rather than African women on or recently from the continent) as well as other feminisms and feminist movements, including nationally based ones, such as feminism in Sweden, feminism in India, feminism in Mexico, feminism in Japan, feminism in Germany, feminism in South Africa, and so on.

Intersectional feminism- Intersectionality is an analytical framework for understanding how aspects of a person's social and political identities combine to create different modes of discrimination and privilege. Intersectionality identifies multiple factors of advantage and disadvantage. Examples of these factors include gender, caste, sex, race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, religion, disability, weight, physical appearance, and height. These intersecting and overlapping social identities may be both empowering and oppressing.

Intersectionality broadens the lens of the first and second waves of feminism, which largely focused on the experiences of women who were white, middle-class and cisgender, to include the different experiences of women of colour, women who are poor, immigrant women, and other groups. Intersectional feminism aims to separate itself from white feminism by acknowledging women's different experiences and identities.

The term was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. Intersectionality is a qualitative analytic framework developed in the late 20th century that identifies how interlocking systems of power affect those who are most marginalized in society. Activists use the framework to promote social and political egalitarianism. Intersectionality opposes analytical systems that treat each axis of oppression in isolation. In this framework for instance discrimination against black women could not be explained as a simple combination of misogyny and racism but something more complicated.

TERF is an acronym for trans-exclusionary radical feminist. First recorded in 2008, the term was originally used to distinguish trans-inclusive feminists from a group of radical feminists that support the rejection of the assertion that trans women are women, the exclusion of trans women from women's spaces, and opposition to transgender rights legislation. Trans-inclusive feminists assert that these ideas are transphobic. Use of the term TERF has since broadened to include reference to people with trans-exclusionary views who are not necessarily involved with radical feminism.


[1] Feminism and Contemporary Culture in South Africa, Ronit Frenkel (

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