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Back | Project: Racism and Public Policy

Abstract of Paper by Jane Bennett

  • Project from: 2000 to 2001

Gender, Race and Public Policy in South Africa

Policy approaches to identity have historically segregated “gender” from “race”. The reasons for this can, in part, be located in the complexities of particular contextual moments through which issues of discrimination and injustice have catalysed political attention. While this paper recognizes the importance of careful historicization, it argues that the separation of “race” from “gender” (or sometimes, “sex”) within policy development targeted at changing discrimination against women largely fails to change the life circumstances of those suffering discrimination, and in so doing effects an inevitable racism. This position is argued through feminist legal philosophy (drawn from both African and international sources), and more importantly, through reflection on the process of developing, and implementing, policies against sexual harassment in South Africa. The paper concludes by exploring perspectives on current heterosexualities in South Africa which offer a framework for the discussion of policy-making in this arena that does not rely on the segregation of “racial” identity from gendered identities.

For over twenty years, discussions of U.S.-based jurisprudential approaches to equity have illuminated the dangers of theories that imagine a universal “female” as a starting point towards legal reform and policy-making. As early as 1989, Kimberle Crenshaw, for example, argued that legal thinking and policy initiatives have created and sustained “single-axis” thought, segregating “gender” from “race,” and in the process erasing the material realities of those most in need of recognition by policies seeking to redress historical disadvantage. Debates initiated through the Yale Journal of Law and Feminism in 1990 have come to constitute a body of work known as “critical race theory”. This explores from multiple angles the fact that epistemological approaches to redress that imagine rights through single-lensed identity should probably be understood simply as what Patricia Williams has described as late twentieth century’s discursive rehearsal of the “spirit-murder” of black people, especially black women-people.

The story of South African engagement with Western-oriented legal approaches to equity is an extremely complex one. Simply put, on the one hand 1994 saw, within South Africa, an indigenously grounded, and indigenously developed, set of convictions about the need to completely transform State policies, so that “democracy would be brought home.” On the other hand, the translation from convictions into language has systematically been influenced by Western liberal approaches to equity. The development policies concerned with equity has also been marked by relative incoherence, the need for rapid and visible change, and the implications of engagement with global economies that do not sit easily side-by-side with the country’s developmental priorities.

Suffice it to say that the sustained critique of U.S.-based critical race theorists of equity approaches that de-linked “race” from gender went un-noticed by South African initiatives. Despite the fact that the ANC’s Reconstruction and Development Programme (published in 1994) made it explicit that those most drained and depleted by apartheid’s deeply racialized and gendered policies (namely, poor black women) were to be the most immediate beneficiaries of development, all subsequent policy approaches have expressed intentions around “gender equity” as something separate from the need to erase racism.

The paper examines briefly some case histories of policy development through review of some South Africans’ analyses of the Employment Equity Act, policy work in land reform, and energy. The review highlights the complexity of raising issues of gender equity per se in many contexts, and notes the conclusions of other analysts that even where the need to focus on what is happening for people gendered as women in a particular area is obvious, to do so as though they were “only women”, is to doom the implementation of new policies to failure. Such failure inevitably deepens racism: it is – on the whole – black women (often poor) who experience the new policies as added awkwardnesses and barriers in their lives.

It then goes on to look at a particular area of policy-making – initiatives designed to handle cases of sexual harassment in the workplace, so that discrimination against women is tackled. The history of approaches to sexual harassment in South Africa is described, and particular cases are unpacked in some detail in order to illuminate the effect of failures to think through the multiple identities within South Africans’ lives.