How about some real change, next time round?

Posted on March 15, 2021


There has been much said and written in recent months about how there will be no going back to normal in the wake of Covid-19; that the gross inequalities highlighted by the pandemic mean that change must come. But, if history is any guide, we could face more of the same, only worse.

As such we should, mainly within the labour movement, look back and learn from history, especially in March, perhaps the most important month in the South African human rights calendar. For March is Human Rights Month, named for the 1960 massacre at Sharpeville that signalled the start of the long battle that led to the collapse of apartheid.

That tragic day, March 21, is now commemorated as Reconciliation Day although, for many, it will remain Sharpeville Day. But, internationally, March is also increasingly known as Women’s History Month and, as anyone within sight or sound of a media outlet over the past week would be aware, March 8 was International Women’s Day (IWD).

Because there was the usual media barrage laden with hypocrisy and laced with hyperbole that promoted a blinkered view of the past while encouraging a narrow vision of the future. There was, of course, little mention of the fact that March 5 was the 150th anniversary of the birth of Rosa Luxemburg, one of the foremost political theoreticians and fighters for democracy who was murdered, in 1919, aged 47.

Luxemburg advocated “the most active, unlimited participation of the mass of the people, unlimited democracy,” and was a close friend of Clara Zetkin, the driving force behind the 1910 conference that gave rise to IWD. Although she did not attend that conference, Luxemburg supported the statement agreed at the meeting that “It is a matter of indifference who is the ‘master’, a man or a woman.”

The aim of the original IWD was to campaign for equal pay for equal work while realising that this could only be achieved in a truly egalitarian society; that gender as well as race, religion or any other differences could be used to divide the working majority and entrench minority rule and exploitation.

This was in line with the idea first proposed in the 1830s by French human rights campaigner, Flora Tristan. She maintained that women could only attain equality through “the emancipation of the working class majority”.

Her campaigning influenced many workers, including the bookbinder and strike leader Nathalie Lemel who became a prominent figure when, on March 18, 1871, the rebellion of the Paris Commune began. The communards demanded a future where there should be “no masters by birth, title or wealth, and no slaves by origin, caste or salary”.

Lemel fought on the barricades during the “Bloody Week” when Prussian and French government troops crushed the commune and she and other arrested women communards were dragged through the streets to prison, deportation or death. On their way, as French historian Edith Thomas, wrote: “Wealthy society women lined up to abuse women prisoners and beat them with their parasols.”

The media of the time, especially in England, had a field day with the Pall Mall Gazette describing the female rebels as “hideous viragoes — furies intoxicated with the fumes of wine and blood”. The Times of London bewailed the fact that rebellious women had lost “their sex and their gentleness”.

It was with knowledge of this background that Zetkin and others drafted the principles behind what became IWD. But this threatened the status quo and IWD was gradually colonised by business interests and by those who wished to maintain the exploitative nature of the global economy.

This year was no exception, with individual women being told to “Choose to Challenge” apparently for “Leadership”. Among the sponsors for this IWD was the fast food giant, McDonalds that has a less than glowing labour relations record internationally. Also punting the commercial line of sanitised IWD feminism was Northrop Grumman, makers of the B-2 stealth bomber and other weapons of modern death and destruction.

In the process, the history of the day and of the women who created it, continues to be obscured by slick advertising sponsored by a range of international corporations and one university. They provide the dominant narrative at a time when even more millions of children the world over face what has been called “the slow violence of malnutrition” and millions more workers have joined the ranks of the desperate unemployed.

Perhaps, by the next Human Rights Month, democratic citizens everywhere, supported by the organisational strength of the labour movement, will remember the goals set by the first IWD. They could then not to “choose to challenge” but to demand real change.

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