Women in South Africa
- Jill E. KellyJill E. KellyDepartment of History, Southern Methodist University
Gendered processes produced and sustained families and labor in southern Africa from the first hunter-gatherers through the present, but these processes were never static or uncontested. Archaeological, oral, and ethnographic sources suggest that southern Africa’s first hunter-gatherers experienced tense contestations of social and sexual roles and that the division of labor was more fluid than is normally assumed. Some 2,000 years ago new ways of life—pastoralism and agriculture—organized societies according to gender and generation, with young persons under the control of adults, and older women able to wield control over children-in-law as well as political and spiritual power. For agriculturalists, the home was a political space. During the centralization of states in the region, leaders tightened control of women, coming-of-age practices, and marriage as well as militarized age sets.
After the onset of colonialism, gendered violence and contested social relations shaped and maintained a gendered and racialized capitalist society. Enslaved, dependent, and free African women’s labor unfolded in the service of white settlers along European ideas of women’s work, and a consensus emerged among officials, missionaries, and African Christian converts over the centrality of educated women converts to the making of Christian African families. Authorities enacted legislation to govern sex and marriage and to differentiate by race and culture. The developing system of migrant labor relied upon women’s agricultural work in the reserves. The apartheid state, too, intervened in social relations to control labor and produce not only racialized but also ethnicized persons in the service of separate development. Across the 20th century women shaped nationalisms, often using their association with social reproduction, and mobilized both within larger nationalism movements and specifically as women. Their political and social activism continues in the post-apartheid era.