It’s a New Day for S. African Women

By MICHAEL O. ALLEN, Daily News Staff Writer | Sunday, May 8, 1994

JOHANNESBURG—Zodwa Tshabalala, her left leg shattered at the knee, crawled through an open gate as neighbors who heard her screaming clustered around her.
“I’ll kill you if you are not gone by the time I come back,” her fiancé told her before he drove away.
Thembi, the fiancé, spent this March afternoon battering her, punching her face, kicking her prone, injured body. He then threw her and their eight-month-old daughter out of the home the couple bought when they decided to marry months earlier.
It has been two months since the attack.
Tshabalala is still wading through indifference by prosecutors and police who refuse to file assault charges against her fiancé because, they said, it was a “domestic” incident. And they refuse to take his harassment of her and his threats to kill her seriously.
But for Tshabalala, who is now on the run from her fiancé, her most painful ordeal is that she is still enduring her family’s scorn over the separation.
The family had grown close to the “sweet, vulnerable man” she was going to marry. Her family didn’t know the monster who pushed her around, told her their impending marriage would not be a partnership because he was head of the household, and who got jealous because she made more money than him.
“My father came to the hospital and said he could not understand why I filed charges against Thembi,” she said. “He told me I did not respect men, that I deserved the beating I got, that he should have done it himself a long time ago. When my father came into the casualty ward that first day, I looked at him and felt almost as if he had died, as if I didn’t have a father. I cried bitter tears that day.”
As South Africa celebrates the end of racial inequality, the cause of gender equality looms as a glaringly unfinished revolution.
The issues are many: shocking indifference by the nation’s judiciary and society at large to violence against women; sexual harassment in the workplace; rape; hardened cultural attitudes about relationships engendered in a traditional system called Customary Law; and disenfranchisement of married women because, despite laws that ended the practice, most banking institutions insist they need their husbands’ consent to open bank accounts, take out loan, or get a credit card.
Nina Romm, whose Women’s Rights Peace Party fared so dismally in the elections it won just 6,434 of the more than 19 million vote cast, said women lost a great opportunity to strike a blow for gender equality by not voting for either of the two women parties in the elections.
“A lot of women voted for liberation from apartheid first,” Romm said. “I think they didn’t wake up fast enough because women issues will become marginalized now.”
Democratic Party’s Dene Smuts, the lone high-profile woman campaigning in elections dominated by Nelson Mandela, F.W. de Klerk, and Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi, argued against Customary Law being recognized in the interim constitution.
The law is especially hard on black women, who are most likely to be married under it, Smuts said. It prevents them from owning land, or inheriting their husband’s property.
As a result of efforts by women groups, equal status for men and women became an entrenched principle in the new bill of rights, which declares that “every person shall have the right to equality before the law” and that no person may be discriminated against because of gender.
Smuts said ANC women in parliament hold the key and she hopes to work with them to draft legislation that would clean up Customary Law, if not do away with the system entirely.
Carole Baekey of Durban said when she got married into a white Zulu-speaking family in 1991, she had to sign an ante-nuptial contract that allowed her to keep her adult rights.
“Because of the culture, everyone expected my husband to tell me to quit my job, or for him to come in and manage the place,” she said. “People still come up to me and ask, ‘how did you get him to let you keep your job?’ ”
Philippina Mabuntana of Umzimkulu got married in 1953 to a man she loved, a fellow teacher at the high school, then immediately became his servant. “When visitors come, I would go into the kitchen and talk with their wives,” she said, “unless he calls me in to come and say hello, or he wants something. I put up with it because that is what is expected of me.”
Mabuntana, a member of a council of Zulu women formed recently to teach women in 15 rural communities about their rights, said: “We are oppressed first as women by our men, we are oppressed as black women by law and white society.”
Zodwa Tshabalala, 30, said women like her mother and Philippina Mabuntana led noble lives but failed her generation by putting up with abuse.
“It was a life of giving and giving and never expecting anything in return,” she said. “They thought of their lives in terms of mothers of sons and wives of husbands. They made martyrs of themselves and they expect us to do the same thing. ‘It is not nice to rock the boat.’
“They place the utmost importance on finding a man and keeping a man, no matter what. It is almost as if you are worth anything on your own.”
Tshabalala’s job as assistant travel director for the Transition Executive Council, the organization that ran South Africa’s transition from apartheid to a fledgling democracy, kept her away from her infant daughter and created tension between her and her fiancé.
But even then, she said, women need to respect themselves enough to know that nothing justifies the kind of beating she experienced.