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Hassim, Shireen  (2004) Voices, Hierarchies and Spaces: Reconfiguring the Women’s Movement in Democratic South Africa. A case study for the UKZN project entitled: Globalisation, Marginalisation and New Social Movements in post-Apartheid South Africa : 1-24.

Transitions to democracy do not only result in a re-shaping of the formal institutions of the state. They also have the potential to radically alter the relationship between the state, political parties and social movements. From the perspective of relatively weak women’s movements, such as in South Africa, these relationships to state, parties and other social movements are crucial in delimiting political possibilities and shaping ideologies and strategies for change. Changes in what social movement theorists refer to as political opportunity structures and universes of political discourse thus have profound impacts on the nature of gender politics. In examining the South African women’s movement, this paper seeks to understand what strategies have been employed by women’s organisations to negotiate power vis-à-vis the state and other social movements, how these strategies have been shaped by the context of democracy, and what kinds of equality outcomes can be claimed as the product of women’s activism. Although the paper is most concerned with the period since 1994, it locates the contemporary women’s movement in the context of its emergence during the early 1980s.

This paper argues that the South African women’s movement must be understood as made up of heterogeneous organisations, rather than being viewed through the lens of a single organisation. It seeks to examine the extent to which this heterogeneous movement is able to ensure that the gains made in the transitional period of the early 1990s, when the post-apartheid state was designed, will be made real. This assessment of the women’s movements is made against a particular definition of a ‘strong’ social movement. A strong social movement has the capacity to articulate the particular interests of its constituencies, to mobilise those constituencies in defence of those interests, and is able to develop independent strategies to achieve its aims while holding open the possibilities of alliance with other progressive movements. This definition suggests that a strong social movement requires a degree of political autonomy in order to retain its relative power within any alliance. In addition to these organisational capabilities, the ideological influences of feminism are vital in building robust women’s movements. A long term view of the South Africa women’s movement against this definition of movement strength suggests that the movement is relatively weak, apart from a brief moment in the early 1990s.

The argument proceeds by firstly outlining the theoretical and strategic debates relating to definitions of the term ‘women’s movement’ in the South African context. I then sketch the interests, strategies and forms of the women’s movement as these emerged during the 1980s and in the period of transition to democracy in the early 1990s. In the third section of the paper, I map the current terrain of the women’s movement, identifying and classifying different forms of organisation and strategy. The paper concludes by addressing the relationships between social movements, the democratic state and the women’s movement, examining in particular the impact of the institutionalisation of gender on the women’s movement.

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