There is something very special that happens in our proud land, South Africa, once a year, every year.
No! I am not referring to the seasonal call of the pre-emigration white to boycott Woolworths/Naspers/Sweetie Pies. (See where that got us.) No! I am not referring to the happy annual occasion on which Jacob Zuma adds a buxom young woman to his overflowing bride basket. I am not even referring to the once-yearly tradition of a drunken South African celebrity embarking on a racist rant in public. (This year, the sensible money’s on Desmond Tutu.)
No, the special annual treat I am referring to is today. Today, for the benefit of Zimbabweans who have border-hopped since Mugabe stole Christmas, is Women’s Day. It’s a 24-hour period – which, by the way, is every pre-menopausal woman’s dream! Pardon my French, but those are the kinds of jokes we women are allowed to make on Women’s Day.
Where was I? It’s a 24-hour period for women, or in aid of women, or because of women, or in spite of women, or something. None of us are quite sure, but we go along with it because it means we can drink more on a school night.
I’ve been a woman for 31 years, so I suppose you could say I’m quite used to it by now. There are bits about it that I think I really prefer to being a dude, like being able to wear makeup on a hangover without people thinking you’re auditioning for Rocky Horror, and being able to show affection to members of the same sex without people thinking I’m gay. (I am gay, though, so the joke’s on you, homophobe.)
Then there’s other stuff I really don’t like. I hate it when men on the street tell me to ‘Smile’, or ‘Cheer up’, or ‘It can’t be that bad’. Actually, it is that bad, I always want to snap back. My whole family just died in a shark attack. All of them. Gone. Just like that.
This happens to me loads, because my face in repose is a rictus of anguished melancholy. But I’ve never heard a strange man say ‘Cheer up’ to another strange man. It happens to women because in a weird quirk of science, the borders of our individual selves are entirely invisible.
We’re accessible, in other words, like the Salad Valley at the Spur, before the pre-emigration whites decided to boycott that too and ruined it for everyone.
I’d like to be a man for a day, I think, and only partly because it would make for a hilarious body-switch caper movie. (Leon Schuster – call me.) I’d like to know what it feels like to move through certain spaces without fear, or pick a movie from the DVD store at random and know that the odds are that almost all the biggest roles will be played by people with a penis like me, or run for political office without anyone commenting on my looks or my weight. Or urinate in a nightclub without waiting for twenty minutes, of course, but then I wouldn’t have a chance to plot the feminist revolution with my sisters in the queue.
I’m not saying that being a man is a picnic. If it is, it’s sometimes those awful picnics that you see people having on those weird apartheid benches in laybys on the side of the N2 because they don’t realize that if they just get round the corner, there’s a Blue Flag beach ahead. Masculinity is oppressive in different ways, but it can be its own fear-filled prison too.
And then, in South Africa, there’s the override switch of race. Because it cannot be denied that my life as a white woman, in the majority of cases, is still easier than the life of a black South African woman or a black South African man. It is, in particular, practically impossible to speak of a coherent “feminism” in South Africa when the outcomes for the average white woman and black woman are still so vastly different.
In a generation’s time, perhaps this will be different. In a generation’s time, perhaps we won’t need a Women’s Day – as much as we appreciate a whole 24 hours with our label on it.
Perhaps we won’t even need one special government ministry devoted to more than half the population. Until then, I’m going drinking on a school night.
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