Violence against women in South Africa: how should organised workers respond?

Fighting for women's rights in South Africa, photo by Marxist Workers Party (CWI South Africa)

Fighting for women’s rights in South Africa, photo by Marxist Workers Party (CWI South Africa)   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Marxist Workers Party members South Africa

The rape and murder of Cape Town student Uyinene Mrwetyana was the final spark that lit a new wave of protests demanding an end to violence against women.

She was killed by a Post Office employee who, alongside 300 others, failed a vetting process because of their criminal records.

He had a previous rape charge but the case had been withdrawn. However Post Office employers sat on the report for more than a year and Uyinene’s killer used his position to identify and target her.

Uyinene’s murder followed a slew of reports of murdered women. In 2016, out of every 100,000 women and girls in South Africa, 12.5 were violently killed.

This was five times the global average of 2.6. In 2017-18, this increased to 15.2 – 2,930 murdered women; the slain bodies of an additional 291 women and 29 girls.

A mass memorial for Uyinene at the University of Cape Town, on 4 September, showed the depth of feeling and anger among women and young people.

Memorials and vigils took place on other campuses and solidarity marches in other cities and towns.

On 5 September, more than ten thousand protested outside parliament in Cape Town, demanding that President Cyril Ramaphosa come out and tell them what his government planned to do to stop gender based violence.

While men are five times more likely than women to be murdered, itself a social crisis, it is the fact that so many women are being murdered by men who feel entitled to control and possess women, treating them like personal property, that has led to the outpouring of anger.

Gender inequality is rooted in class inequality and emerged with class society.

Under capitalism, women are frequently paid less than men, concentrated in low-paid sectors such as cleaning and retail and precariously or casually employed by contractors or as domestic workers.

Women are also most likely to be the main carers for children and the elderly and perform the majority of domestic work in the home.

The foundation of capitalist economy in commodity production – where everything is for sale – commodifies women’s bodies, turns them into objects and encourages the idea that women only exist for the entertainment and pleasure of men.

The social conditions of capitalism are a breeding ground for the sexist attitudes that justify the many forms of violence against women – rape, assault, domestic violence, ‘cat-calling’ etc.


Protests have been mobilised under the banners #AmINext, #TheTotalShutdown and others. Young people and students have played a central role.

Significantly, protests are being called using appeals to working-class methods of mass struggle, eg shutdowns and stay-aways.

This points the emerging movement in the right direction. However, at this stage, this language is symbolic, and not based on a conscious strategy to mobilise the working class.

#TotalShutdown’s 2018 call for women to stayaway from work was not linked to appeals to workers and their trade unions for the mobilisation and shutdown of workplaces, ie united strike action.

One of the main demands of protesters outside parliament was for the government to declare a state of emergency.

While this was a demand for a gesture from the government that it ‘gets it’, it was nevertheless incorrect.

It would be suicidal for the movement to support increasing the repressive powers of this ANC government and the state in general.

Outside the recently held World Social Forum, protesters against gender based violence were attacked by police with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons.

The last time a state of emergency was declared was in the 1980s by the white-minority regime, used to suppress the mass movement against apartheid.

At this stage it is the middle class, especially the NGOs, which are setting the ideological tone of the movement against gender-based violence.

They look to work with big business, the capitalist politicians and the state. Protests are to pressure them but not to challenge their control of society and the unequal capitalist class structure they defend.

In the Marxist Workers Party we argue that the many women and young people radicalised by the struggle against gender oppression and gender based violence should rather look towards a united movement of the working class.

It is only the working class which has the power to fundamentally transform society, abolishing capitalism and the class inequalities that gender oppression is rooted in.

Workplace role

In June, mine workers at the LanXess chrome mine in Rustenburg – members of the Numsa union – organised a strike and occupation in protest against the sexual harassment of a woman mineworker. Her manager was demanding sexual favours in exchange for a permanent job.

This has set a shining example for how workers can take up the issue of harassment and violence against women. Workers have the power to force the removal of perpetrators from the workplace.

But crucially, because of their position in the economy, workers have the power to improve the position of women in society more generally.

Every workplace demand and struggle for equal pay, higher pay, against gender discrimination in promotion and job opportunities, for housing allowances, transport allowances and longer paternal leave, increases the independence and choices available to women.

Wider working-class movements on healthcare, housing, social services, childcare and schooling do likewise.

A mass working-class movement can lay the real social foundations upon which gender equality can be built.

The struggle for women’s liberation is part of the class struggle and needs to be re-written on the banner of the workers movement.

A workers’ programme to end gender-based violence

  • For working-class unity and leadership against gender based violence! Build a class-independent trade union Campaign Against Sexual Harassment, Domestic Violence, Rape and Femicide.
  • United workers’ action to end sexual harassment in the workplace. Build links with working-class community organisations
  • For gender equality in the pocket! Equal pay for work of equal value.
  • Expose and fight against the bosses’ gender equality hypocrisy! Place on the table in every negotiation the question of employer subsidised healthcare, longer paid parental leave, increased housing allowances, safe employer provided transport to and from work, and free workplace childcare facilities
  • Follow the example of the LanXess workers – an injury to one woman is an injury to all workers! Make gender based violence a real cost to the bosses’ bottom line.
  • Strike and walkout to picket police stations and courts in defence of all colleagues who are made victims of gender based violence.
  • Organised trade union participation in Community Policing Forums to fight for community oversight and control of policing and ensure all reports of gender based violence are taken seriously and dealt with professionally and quickly
  • End the class foundations of gender inequality. Nationalise under democratic working-class and community control the banks, the mines, the commercial farms, the big factories and big businesses.
  • A publicly owned and democratically planned socialist economy to meet the needs of all and not the profits of the capitalists
  • Build the fighting unity of the working class in a party of mass struggle. Build a socialist mass workers’ party to unite the struggles of the workplaces, the communities and the youth as a vital step toward the creation of a mass revolutionary party to lead the struggle for socialism