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Benjamin, Saranel  (2005) The Feminization of Poverty in Post-Apartheid South Africa : a story told by the women of Bayview, Chatsworth. Centre for Civil Society : 1-22.

The day democracy dawned in South Africa, a bright light shone on a country that had spent over a three hundred years in darkness. At the Southern most tip of the African continent, South Africa was held prisoner to “the dismal socio-economic legacy of five systemic periods of white political domination and economic exploitation” (Terreblanche, 2002:371) that spanned 350 years. The year 1994 was seen as a turning point away from political and economic oppression to freedom and democracy for all. After the first democratic elections in 1994, millions of South African’s turned to the first democratic government to fulfil their promises of a better life for all.

The story of post-apartheid South Africa was supposed to be a happy one filled with anecdotal accounts of how life got better for the majority of people living in the new democracy. However, since the beginning of this year alone, poor communities in urban townships all across South Africa flared up in protests1. Most of them were women and youth. The protests were an angry, desperate articulation of their frustration of living in worsening poverty: their pleas were for proper housing, for water, for electricity. The government wondered why the protesters didn’t have the patience to wait for the delivery of basic services2. Most had already been waiting their entire lives.

The scenario in the Western Cape is replicated in townships in Gauteng, Eastern Cape, Free State and Kwazulu-Natal. It is no different to the people living in Bayview, an impoverished community nestled in the inner recesses of a middle to upper income Indian township called Chatsworth. Just 20 minutes from the city centre, a community of people in Bayview live in dilapidated government-owned flats. Most have their electricity and water reconnected illegally after the state disconnected them and almost all of them live in fear of being evicted from their homes. The majority of the people living in the flats are unemployed without any possibility of getting another job. Almost all of them say that their economic situation worsened after 1996.

This paper was written with the assistance of women who live in the Bayview flats. What started out as a focus group with women from the Bayview Flat Residents Association has now developed into “The Women’s Group” that meets once a week to talk about “The Women Problem”3. With the burden of day-to-day survival falling on the shoulders of the women in the household, these women have dedicated their time to this research project and have spoken candidly about their struggle to survive. They have talked about the poverty they are caught in and how things spiralled out of control after 1996 when the democratic government introduced its neoliberal macroeconomic policy for the nation and what measures they had to take (and continue to take) to make sure their families don’t go hungry. Amidst their poverty struggles they have fought off and continue to fight off a strongly patriarchal structure of the family with abusive and oppressive husbands and partners. They fight daily the struggles against a patriarchal state that has increasingly, through its austere neoliberal economic policies, feminised poverty in post-apartheid South Africa.

The first section of this paper will introduce the reader to the phenomenal women I have met and have grown to know, love and be inspired by every single day and whose stories I am trying to tell with the greatest sensitivity and respect. The second section of the paper will examine the post-apartheid democratic government’s shift in economic policy and the embracing of neoliberal globalisation. It will also examine the failure of the state to deliver basic services in post-apartheid South Africa due to the constraints that the neoliberal economic policy created. The third section of the paper will examine the impact this has had on poor women in these township and the struggles they engage in to survive. The final section of the paper will examine the organisation of poor communities into community movements, a move that has given strength and courage to people that are being pushed to the outer-reaches of humanity.

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