The recent humiliation at work of four black women over their menstrual cycle is part of a systemic problem that, for decades, has stripped black women of their rights to dignity and privacy.
Three weeks ago, New Frame reported that the four women employed at JA Floral Distributors in Port Elizabeth were taken to the staff toilet and allegedly told to remove their underwear for inspection by their white manager.
This brazen and demeaning invasion of the women’s dignity has resulted in sexual harassment charges being laid against the manager, Natasha da Mata-Correia (née de Freitas), who runs the family-owned De Freitas business.
But Da Mata-Correia, according to the women, is not the only complicit family member. Her brother, Dominique, had earlier in the day allegedly summoned the four women to the company kitchen telling them that one of them had left menstrual blood in a toilet and didn’t flush it. He went on to say that person was a “pig” who would be caught and exposed.
The indignity and shame they have suffered is reminiscent of tales of menstruation-related humiliation experienced by black activists during the apartheid regime, says Shanthini Naidoo, author of Women in Solitary: Inside the Female Resistance to Apartheid. “Women’s natural bodily functions have long been used as a tool to further oppression,” Naidoo said.
An old problem
For her book, Naidoo interviewed Joyce Sikhakhane-Rankin, a former journalist and anti-apartheid activist, who said menstruation was used against female anti-apartheid prisoners to “increase their agony”.
“In detention I was determined to continue to be counted with those who stood for humanity. In the clutches of the Special Branch I had to suffer indignity in order to survive. For example, as a woman you dreaded the commencement of your menstrual period, because it became so public under the notice of your interrogator, who were all Afrikaner males. You had to ask them for sanitary pads,” Sikhakhane-Rankin said in the book.
She said it was part of their torture and detention to withhold sanitary pads so that the women bled through their clothes and onto their sisal mats, which were never washed.
“Winnie Mandela has also written how she was given toilet paper during her cycle, or told to ‘go and use your big fat hands’. The warders purposely made menstruating women stand as punishment. She wrote years later, that: ‘The feel and smell of the sticky blood was a reminder of imminent slaughter at the hands of your torturers,’” Naidoo said.
The deliberate use of a woman’s menstrual cycle as a tool of humiliation was described by a family member of one of the affected women as “an act of cruelty”.
Nandi Vanqa-Mgijima, a feminist activist and staff member at the Casual Workers Advice Office, warned that “the dehumanising act would have a damaging cumulative effect on the psychosocial health and self-esteem of these women, and may result in depression, suicidal tendencies and an overall fear of going out in public”.
“Colonialism and apartheid encouraged white South Africans to believe that whiteness is supreme and privileged. The white woman manager at JA Floral Distributors is oblivious of how as a white person she erased black women workers. She deserves no mercy as she has belittled and undermined their dignity,” Vanqa-Mgijima added.
The ANC government was also to blame, said Vanqa-Mgijima, for “failing dismally to deal with structural racism, white privilege and supremacy. Instead, its policies and ideologies have whitewashed the pain of black people. The racism we see here is a direct consequence of the betrayal by the ANC in forcing black people to ‘forgive and forget’ and subscribe to ‘rainbow nation’ ideologies while doing very little to address the racist political economy.”
Long history of abusing women
In a Freudian slip, Dominique de Freitas said in a statement that the company had “reacted with expediency” by dismissing the manager involved. He failed to mention that the manager allegedly involved was his sister. He hasn’t been disciplined for calling the women pigs. De Freitas referred to the underwear probe as an “unfortunate incident”.
Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party deputy general secretary Vashna Jagarnath says the case was indicative of a long history of black women being denied the right to traditional white notions of respectability. “It is incredibly outrageous that this form of abuse has to take place at a workplace and indicative of a larger systematic problem where black women workers have not had privacy over their bodies or sexuality.
“When we think about the sexual abuse and scrutiny that Sara Baartman was subjected to during the same period in history where white women were afforded the luxury of not even showing their ears because of notions of respectablity, there is a long history of this problem.
“When we focus on harassment in the workplace, stories like this, or stories about the harassment of domestic workers or the female mineworkers who had to pay for jobs by performing sexual acts, get very little time in the media,” Jagarnath said.
It appears the company was less concerned about the weight of historical abuse of black women and more concerned about present-day negative publicity. Once the story broke, the local Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) branch announced its support of the women, holding three consecutive protests at JA Floral and asking to negotiate trauma counselling and compensation for the women, who are not unionised.
This was immediately rejected by JA Floral, which had its attorney, Anton Bakker, write to the EFF to say the company would not negotiate with a political party.
“Your demands will not be entertained. Any aggrieved employee is invited to pursue the remedies available to them in terms of employment law and their conditions of employment but are cautioned at the same time not to politicise the matter,” Bakker wrote.
Bakker would not tell New Frame how the workers had been “cautioned” against politicising their matter or what legal basis he had for insisting that workers not discuss their case with political parties. Two weeks ago, the company stopped speaking to the media, with owner and family patriarch Jorge de Freitas only saying that Bakker was investigating.
Meanwhile, protesters from the EFF and Nelson Mandela University were met at JA Floral Distributors by a contingent of white members of the Boerelegioen, a military-style group the Hawks have previously described as “right wing”.
The Boerelegioen was established by former police and army members, and “strives to restore the spiritual and moral integrity of the ‘Boere’ nation”. According to its website, Boerelegioen aims to “equip the ‘Boere’ nation spiritually and physically, in order for them to prepare to fight the current and future attacks and face the difficulties with the same resolve and courage shown by our ancestors, whose legacy and reputation we proudly hold, during times of great hardship and various wars.”
The site also sells fake military rank badges and camouflage uniforms.
At a second protest, about 25 police officers charged at 40 black protesters who were seated on the road at the time. The police detonated stun grenades, chasing protesters through the nearby bushes and dragging a female EFF activist, Nosisa Mpati, across the road until her pants slipped down her legs. It was yet another incident where the privacy and dignity of a black woman was disregarded by the police, who also knelt on the neck of the EFF regional spokesperson Luvuyo Ponase while pinning him to the ground.
“We came here because this company abused those women by making them take off their panties. They must not do that to blacks and even if they had done it to whites, it is totally not right,” Mpati said.
Several protesters were arrested but no charges were laid against them. On 17 September, the EFF laid charges of violation of Covid-19 regulations and assault against white police leader Simon Barkhuizen who did not wear a mask and has previously been described by local media as “controversial”.
At the protest, Barkhuizen had shown the protesters a piece of paper, telling them that the document banned them from protesting. But the document turned out to be a copy of a letter from Bakker and not a court order.
“We can’t be stopped when there is no court order. Police are supposed to be neutral, not in cahoots with company managers. They are behaving as if they are the private security for JA Floral,” said Ponase. A third protest took place on 21 September and the store remained closed for several hours.
The affected women have laid criminal charges of crimen injuria, sexual harassment, humiliation and discrimination against Da Mata-Correia. She appeared in court on 23 September and the case was postponed to 7 October.
Karen Roberts, a Port Elizabeth attorney and advocate for human rights, gender equality and the empowerment of women, said there were several other legal avenues open to the affected workers.
“Aside from a criminal complaint, a victim can also instruct an attorney to assist with a civil claim for compensation against the person or people who have caused the harm,” Roberts said.
She added that “the alleged conduct of the employers is unconscionable in our constitutional democracy and indeed in any society that displays even a modicum of regard for human rights. It is wrong today and would have been wrong 30 years ago. I am compelled, and we all should be as a society, to insist that those responsible for the degradation and abuse of these women be brought to book and made accountable for their actions.”
Meanwhile the matter is no closer to a resolution because JA Floral has not offered trauma counselling or paid leave to the affected workers and instead allegedly told them to come to separate individual meetings to “resolve the situation” without any of their supporters, which they are too afraid to do. The workers have asked the EFF to come with them to meet management but the De Freitas family has said it will not negotiate in the presence of the EFF.
It has been an overwhelming time for the women workers who continue to experience headaches and have trouble sleeping. All four women are now on medication for anxiety and have been declared medically unfit for work at the moment.
“We are still at home. They haven’t even organised any psychologists for us. Instead they are sending us messages trying to intimidate us, trying to make us scared that we will lose our jobs. They show no remorse, nothing,” said one of the affected women.
The Department of Employment and Labour sent two labour inspectors to the shop on 29 September, but a worker who asked to remain anonymous said the JA Floral management handpicked only certain, newly hired employees to talk to the labour inspectors.