South Africa - One Woman's Eyeview

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November 5, 1996 EvaS: Our guest this evening is Julie Orvis, aka JOrvisICE. Julie spent six months in South Africa and she's here to tell us about it. Welcome, Julie!!:D

JOrvisICE: Hello, everyone! It's great to be here.

EvaS: Julie, tell us, why did you go to South Africa? What were you doing there?

JOrvisICE: I went to South Africa on a sabbatical from work. I went to investigate land reform and community development activism. Also, it seemed like the right time to go with the current transformation. And maybe even to have some positive impact on that transformation. Even if very small.

EvaS: Julie, some sabbatical! Work on your vacation?? :) Six months, right?

JOrvisICE: Really! I did work on my vacation. I was actually in SA for five months. I took a week before to move out and a 3 weeks after to move back in. The work was very interesting and inspiring.

EvaS: Julie, where did you live? Who did you stay with?

JOrvisICE: I stayed in Cape Town. The most beautiful city in the world, I think. I stayed with a 65 year old white woman, June. She had been in an organization called the Black Sash. The Black Sash is an organization of white women who opposed apartheid starting in 1955. They have a long and illustrious history in the struggle. They stage protests, mostly silent vigils in front of parliament and they run advice centers to help people deal with the hassles of the apartheid system. Her home, where I rented a room, was in a suburb of Cape Town.

EvaS: Julie, did you find what you expected to find there? Or was it different?

JOrvisICE: I expected a great disparity in wealth and income and found it. Cape Town is a very European city. Johannesburg and other cities are also affluent. The townships are extremely poor...not like what we see in the US. I should say the Black townships are extremely poor. People often live in corrugated tin shacks. Coloured townships, on the other hand, sometimes reminded me of low income communities in the US. Especially public housing. I was also impressed with the great hope and spirit that people had about the future. People also still feel a great deal of pain about the past and it would come out in conversations I had with people. During the time I was there, the truth and reconciliation commission was holding hearings. The purpose of the commission was to allow the victims of violence to tell their story and for perpetrators to come clean. People could apply to get amnesty. This was controversial and just beginning to happen when I left.

Rae4129: What an emotional experience this must have been for you, Julie!

JOrvisICE: Yes, Rae, it was.

Artax97: Julie, did it have any positive effects, that you could see?

JOrvisICE: The TRC? The truth and reconciliation commission?

Artax97: Yep.

JOrvisICE: Mixed. I think for victims it was cathartic. People were also wanting to move on. Occasionally, especially white people I met, thought it was just keeping old wounds open.

EvaS: Julie, how does the position of women compare with here?

JOrvisICE: Well, the ANC definitely has a strong women's contingent. The power still lies mostly with men though.

EvaS: ANC?

JOrvisICE: ANC = African National Congress. In Nelson Mandela's party, for instance, women and other progressive lawyers had to lobby hard to get women appointed to judgeships of courts. I worked with a group called the Legal Resources Centre, a public interest law firm. One of the lawyers, a woman named Shinaz Meer, was appointed to the Land Court...a new court. This was only after heavy lobbying by a group called NADL, National Association of Democratic Lawyers. There is a lot of interest in gender issues, however.

EvaS: Julie, so there is a women's movement there as here?

JOrvisICE: Yes, I was only briefly exposed to it. There were several events centered around Women's Day, which is in August. It commemorates a famous march of the Federation of South African Women (FSAW) in 1956. FSAW is the women's arm of the ANC. I had a chance to meet women from other African countries at one workshop. I think there is real concern about the status of women because in Zimbabwe, women have really struggled for recognition.

EvaS: Julie, what do you feel is the greatest difference between living there and living in the US?

JOrvisICE: Well, the depth of poverty, the isolation that rural people have and the fact that most people speak two languages was noteworthy. Also, I was struck by how provincial we Americans appear abroad.

LynnCSE: I'm late...have we talked about medical care, birth control, contraception and choice yet?

JOrvisICE: No, not yet, but those are good questions, Lynn. Health care is in an abysmal state. Like here in the US, there is no national health care. If you have "medical aid," as they call it, or health insurance, you are fine. Otherwise, you have pay as you go or rely on overcrowded hospitals. Abortion is legal in South Africa. I am unfamiliar with the availability of contraception, as I did not investigate that. AIDS is present and there was a major controversy going in the administration that was heading the education campaign concerning it.

LynnCSE: How does a single woman get "medical aid?"

JOrvisICE: Through a work place, or individual account. The same as in the US.

EvaS: Julie, in the many letters you sent...which we posted in the International Issues folder, and now have under the promo in this area... you talked about the lack of privacy. Did you ever get used to it? Did you find it exhausting never to be alone?

JOrvisICE: Yes, I rented a room from someone. I've lived by myself for a long time and it was hard for me. I realized how lucky we are. I had more privacy than most people because I had my own room. In the townships, most families live in one room shacks. Sometimes they have 2-4 rooms. In some cases, whole families live in a bedroom in a migrant labor hostel. This continues today. Housing is a serious problem and the greatest need.

LynnCSE: Do they have access to contraceptives thru medical aid?

JOrvisICE: I expect so, but I don't know the details of the medical aid programs. At the LRC (Legal Resources Centre), the employees definitely had issues with their medical aid and they had one of the better plans. But again, I don't know the details.

LynnCSE: For any woman to become more powerful, she must be able to control her own body.

EvaS: Lynn, for sure. You're right about that.

LynnCSE: That's why I have been asking these questions.

JOrvisICE: Yes, I agree. I am subscribing to a women's publication from South Africa and I hope that I will get more of these answers. Let me say one other thing on women's bodies, which is one of the things that I think is indicative of the position of women and the continuing prevalence of racism. Black women use very harmful skin products to lighten their skin. This is extremely common. They are concerned that they will loose their men if they are not beautiful. Especially in cases where the women live with men in labor hostels. This is a serious problem. The work of economic empowerment and women taking control of housing is an important aspect of the liberation of women.

LynnCSE: Same here, only we lie in the sun and get cancer in the name of beauty and holding the man.

EvaS: Lynn, I see far fewer women doing this now than twenty years ago, though. But we do other're right.

JOrvisICE: Yes, absolutely.

EvaS: Julie, what is the predominant religion there?

READ MORE ABOUT IT: South African Women (rev. 11/04/96 - jlc)

[NOTE: These brief bibliographies are intended to serve as introductions to a topic, rather than as in-depth studies. -- JLC]

Kaplan, Temma. Crazy for Democracy : Women's Grassroots Movements in the U.S. and South Africa. New York, Routledge, 1996.

Maconachie, Moira. Promoting Personal Safety For Women : Women Set an Agenda for Policy Formation. Pretoria, S.A., Human Sciences Research Council, 1994.

Ramphele, Mamphela. Mamphela Ramphele : A Life. Cape Town, D. Philip, 1995.

Ridd, Rosemary. Where Women Must Dominate : Response to Oppression in a South African Urban Community. In: Women and Space : Ground Rules and Social Maps. Oxford, Berg, 1993.

Simons, H. J. Struggles in South Africa for Survival and Equality. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1996.

South African Feminism : Writing, Theory, and Criticism, 1990- 1994. New York, Garland, 1996.

South African Feminist Review. Harare, SAPES Books, 1995- [serial]

South African Women : A Select Bibliography. Johannesburg, South African Institute of International Affairs, 1996.

White, Caroline. Gender on the Agenda : Will Women Gain Equality in the New

South Africa. Johannesburg, Center for Policy Studies, 1995. Women's Organisations in South Africa : A Directory. Braamfontein, South Africa, The Programme, 1995.

Women's Rights in South Africa : A Guide to National Organisations With a Gender Face. Pretoria, HSRC, 1995.

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