The Continued Struggles for Women’s Equality in South Africa

Tsitsidzashe Bvute, The Star, 13 September 2017.

South Africa commemorated women’s day last month in recognition of the 20,000 women who marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria on 9 August 1956 in opposition to the extension of Women’s Rules of Procedure, which came into force under the Urban Areas Act of 1950. This historic march became the symbol of the role of women in the struggle for liberation in society in general. Since then, the struggle for women’s equality has left a mark on the history of South Africa’s liberation struggles. However, women remain under-represented in key decision-making positions. While women may play a leading role in the public sector in South Africa, in the private sector the situation is dire: women hold only 22% of top management posts and a third of senior management posts. Statistics South Africa notes that only 44% of professional posts are held by women. Women make up 51% of South Africa’s population of 56.5 million. On 24 August 2017, the Institute of Pan African Thought and Conversation (IPATC) at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), held a public dialogue on “Women’s Continued Struggles in South Africa”. The speakers were Colleen Lowe-Morna, Executive Director of Gender Links, Johannesburg; and Shamillah Wilson, a gender activist. The dialogue was chaired by Shahana Rasool, Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Social Work at UJ.

During the dialogue, Professor Shahana Rasool noted that poverty often has a woman’s face. The World Bank estimates that 1.29 billion people live in absolute poverty; and about 70% of these are women. In addition, Professor Rasool observed a gender “triple burden of care” which firstly, confines women to reproductive work (domestic work, child caring and adult care, and caring for the sick). Secondly, this burden confines them to productive work (earning income and subsistence, including work in informal sector enterprises either at home or in the neighborhood); and thirdly, women are restricted to community management work (activities primarily undertaken by women at the community level around the provision of items of collective consumption). This triple burden perpetuates the subordination of women and prevents them from achieving their full potential and enjoy full rights within South African society.

Collen Lowe-Morna argued that many South African girls and women still struggle to access quality education and to excel at most levels. However, she observed that the gender equity paradigm in South African higher education can be credited with having recorded some formidable achievements in terms of the increased enrolment of female students. In 2014, girls made up 58.3% of total student enrolment.

Lowe-Morna further noted that the end of apartheid in 1994 has seen a significant increase in the participation of women in politics due to the policy changes and organisations set up to secure women’s rights. Data from United Nations Women – headed by South Africa’s Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka – has shown that South Africa has done well in enabling women to play an active role in government since 1994. At present, women ministers make up 41% of the cabinet, with 47% deputy ministers and 41% of women parliamentarians in the National Assembly. Even though the number of women has increased in the government, they still suffer marginalisation from their fellow countrymen. South Africa has the highest rate of violence against women in Africa. Cases of rape are widespread, and South Africa’s Medical Research Council (MRC) reported that 1 in 25 women have reported rape in the country. South Africa’s political terrain is also fraught with violence, maiming, assassinations, threats, blackmail, intimidation, humiliation, and rape.

Another glaring example of gender discrimination is former Financial Mail editor, Barney Mthombothi’s, characterisation of former cabinet minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in the Sunday Times; “Somebody seems to have convinced [Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma] that she’s presidential material. She will be awful. She’s bland, colourless and incoherent. She has nothing to commend her to the job except that she’s paid her dues to the party.” No doubt, these comments are based on patriarchy that cannot imagine a woman making independent decisions at such a high level of responsibility.

During the UJ dialogue, Shamillah Wilson weighed in on the discussion to observe that patriarchy is still a ghost haunting women in a seemingly civilised society where some negative traditional norms and practices are being abrogated in law, if not always in practice. In most cases, this has resulted in women shying away from participating actively in politics because they feel that the game of politics is for men and an arena that they dare not enter. Outspoken Nigerian feminist and author of the book We Should All Be Feminists, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, observed that there are few women in positions of leadership or influence in diverse sectors of society. She further noted that, in many institutions, there are fewer women in higher positions.

Interesting to observe also is that even women who are mostly victims of patriarchy are subconsciously behaving like the patriarchs.  This is evidenced by the recent incident of the wife of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, Grace Mugabe, who allegedly violently attacked a South African model, Gabriella Engels, who was in the company of Grace Mugabe’s two sons in a hotel room in Sandton. Instead of Grace Mugabe disciplining her two sons, she reportedly attacked Engels instead. Media portrayals of the case, especially in Zimbabwe, and responses from various social media platforms, demonstrate how society “sanitises” male figures. Engels was widely portrayed in the Zimbabwean media as a whore and a drug abuser.

To deal with these negative stereotypes, women must own their own bodies, advocate against gender-based violence, and patriarchy must be defeated. Women’s equal participation in decision-making and politics is not only a demand for simple justice or democracy, but a necessary pre-condition for promoting the interests of women in society more effectively. Since women constitute half of Africa’s population, it is wasteful for society not to utilise these skills fully.

  • Tsitsidzashe Bvute is a Research Assistant at the Institute of Pan African Thought and Conversation (IPATC) at the University of Johannesburg.