Feminism is an ideological commitment to advancing women’s equality, but it is also a commitment to the realisation of other rights that together form the basis of a just and equitable society. These include the rights to universal education and healthcare, as well as reproductive rights and marriage equality for all sexualities.
The South African Constitution provides the legal foundation for these rights, but their enactment is a function of the state. One means for analysing a political party’s true commitment to human rights is to measure the ways in which it has pursued, upheld and championed the human rights that are enshrined in the Constitution.
The African Christian Democratic Party (ADCP) is singular within South Africa’s political landscape as the only political party that voted against the adoption of the Constitution. This was due to the ACDP’s opposition to reproductive rights (including access to safe, legal abortion) and for the protections it offers to people of different sexual orientation. While opposition to the ruling party is a central part of a functioning democracy, it is revealing that the ACDP’s most important political work has been to advocate against the realisation of key democratic rights enshrined in the Constitution, as well as the ratification of the Constitution itself.
Spreading homophobic hatred
The ADCP lobbied fervently against the Civil Unions Bill, the intent of which was to recognise the right of same-sex unions. After the South African courts passed the Bill in 2006, the leader of the party, Reverend Kenneth Meshoe, said that the Bill would ‘provoke God’s anger’. [It’s an irony that Meshoe was given an honourary doctorate in the field of ‘Humane Letters’. It’s an embarrassment that he uses the title.]
While the number of women in positions of power may not be a perfect proxy for an organisation’s commitment to the advancement of women’s rights, a snapshot of those in charge does provide a picture of who is making key decisions and of where the locus of power resides. In the ACDP, only one out of six executive positions is occupied by a woman – the MP Jo-Ann Downs. While Downs showed some political savvy and a commitment to women’s rights in her engagement in the draft content of the Sexual Offences Act, from the perspective of a broad-based commitment to human rights as a feminist benchmark, her women’s rights credentials are nullified by her comments in 2012 about how holding the final for Mister Gay World on Easter Sunday was a deliberate provocation for Christians. She stated: “if homosexuals want to proceed with their agenda, they shouldn’t do it on the holiest day of the Christian calendar.”
The ACDP often advances claims about the ‘homosexual agenda’, of how a global conspiracy of ‘homosexual activists’ are trying to tear apart the fabric of society. ACDP Steve Smart commented in April 2013 that ‘many homosexual groups around the world are working aggressively to lower the age of consent’ because these ‘homosexual activists… want access to boys’. The conflation of homosexuality and pederasty is a long-established tactic for soliciting homophobic hatred. Were gay rights groups in South Africa not busy enough trying to seek justice for survivors of homophobic violence, the ACDP’s political rhetoric could provide years of prospective work in the form of complaints to the Human Rights Commission on the basis of its homophobic vitriol.
Opposing reproductive rights
Abortion is perhaps the single most inflammatory issue at the core of the globalised culture wars. Abortion is the source of such enduring political controversy because it is not just about a single issue – the termination of an unwanted pregnancy. Rather, it incorporates a range of concerns relating to sexuality, the family and the social role of women.
The ACDP opposes the right of women to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. An article on their website written by MP Cheryllyn Dudley explained this in revealing terms:
Sadly and shamefully South Africa is callously murdering her unborn children, flooding homes with every kind of debauchery, teaching children to disrespect authority, betray their own bodies, embrace homosexuality and aspire to prostitution.
From this perspective, abortion is not a matter of health or of human rights – the necessity for women to terminate an unwanted pregnancy in a safe and legal way – but rather both cause and effect of society’s moral dissolution.
The ACDP is entitled to campaign against abortion – political opposition is imperative to democracy – but should it be allowed to make false claims, to lie to the public, in order to generate support for this position?
The ACDP’s online articles about abortion are filled with errors that echo some common and pernicious misperceptions. The first is the allegation that abortion is practiced indiscriminately in South Africa, by immoral and irresponsible women. Meticulous research has shown that most women seek an abortion on socio-economic grounds, because they cannot afford to have a child. This is an expression and an enactment, rather than a negation, of maternal responsibility.
Contrary to the ACDP’s claims, the legalization of abortion in South Africa has had a beneficial impact on the health of women. One study found a 91% decrease in abortion-related mortality between 1998 and 2001, attributable directly to the provision of legal abortion in the public health sector (Jewkes and Rees, 2005). Another study found massive reductions in both the number of women presenting with incomplete abortions and the number of deaths from backstreet abortions (Mbele, Snyman and Pattinson, 2006). These heath benefits were both attributable directly to the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act, an Act which the ACDP worked extremely hard to oppose.
Supporting failed HIV interventions and opposing evidence-based ones
The ACDP supports abstinence-only programmes for HIV prevention and opposes the public provision of condoms. The evidence that consistent condom use is effective at reducing the risk of HIV transmission is incontrovertible. By contrast, there is little evidence that abstinence-only programmes delay sexual initiation or reduce pregnancy and the transmission of sexually transmitted infections (Collins et al., 2002).
In South Africa, high rates of coercive and transactional sex mean that many women are unable to abstain from sex. The ACDP’s opposition to condoms, and to contraception more broadly, denies this fundamental reality.
‘Women of Destiny’
The ACDP has a special organisational arm devoted to ‘Our Women’. Possessive pronouns aside, this arm of the party ‘aims to implement ACDP policies in a practical way, applying the Biblical principles of the party in various hands-on empowerment projects.’ Its work is more reminiscent of a church women’s league than a political party, functioning essentially as an outreach arm for the ACDP. The message here is clear: leave the policy-making up to the hard-nosed politicos, the men – while you concern yourselves with volunteering.
The ACDP claims that it does not mobilise electoral support along racial lines, and eschews the violence in the rhetoric used by other political leaders. However, its own rhetoric is steeped in violence and alarmism. Its website states: ‘The ACDP calls on all South Africans to recognise the insidious enemy, thriving in our midst, and rally to eradicate it. This enemy, protected by legislation, murders unborn children in broad daylight, pollutes the minds of the youth, and cripples society, all with the approval and encouragement of government and even some churches.’
The ACDP has replaced appeals to racial bigotry with appeals to religious dogma in its pitch for political power. Its language is as violent, and its organisation as reliant on ideological fault-lines, as those that the ACDP claims to oppose.
- Jewkes, R. and Rees, H. “Dramatic decline in abortion mortality due to the Choice in termination of Pregnancy Act.” South African Medical Journal 95.4 (2005): 250.
- Mbele, A., Snyman, L. and Pattinson, R. “Impact of the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act on maternal morbidity and mortality in the west of Pretoria.” South African Medical Journal 96.11 (2006): 1196-1198. http://ari.ucsf.edu/science/reports/abstinence.pdf
- Collins, C., Alagiri, P. and Summers, T. Abstinence only vs. comprehensive sex education: What are the arguments? What is the evidence? (2002) University of California, San Francisco: AIDS Research Institute. At http://www.avert.org/abstinence-sex-education.htm#sthash.tismvKoD.dpuf