IT was around this time of the year, 15 years ago, that Thabo Mbeki was elected the 11th president of the African National Congress. Two years later, in 1999, he succeeded Nelson Mandela as president of the Republic.
Much has been written about Mbeki’s tenure and the legacy he bequeathed the ANC and the country. Little mention has, however, been made about his role in the arduous struggle for the emancipation of women. Yet Mbeki, more than most presidents worldwide, contributed immensely to this struggle.
Time and space allowing, an examination of his role would surely commence with the ANC’s gender policy, with its origins in the Bantu Women’s League and the 1956 women’s march to the Union Buildings.
Suffice to say that at the heart of the Bantu Women’s League’s struggles and later the ANC’s gender policy was a challenge to the entrenched system of patriarchy which, in the South African context, resulted in the double exploitation of black women – as black people and as women.
Mbeki genuinely believed that our democracy would not be sustainable without the emancipation of women. After all, women constitute the majority of the population.
His presidency saw a substantial increase in the number of women in the political and administrative spheres of government, and the general orientation of government policy and social services to easing the burdens which women face.
Under Mbeki, gender policy was championed from the ministry in the Presidency, the idea being that it must permeate every fibre and artery of the government. So, rather than addressing gender issues as a stand-alone matter, he inserted them as a core theme into the entirety of government policy such as health, trade and industry, water, sanitation and social development. This enabled gender issues to gain the necessary traction.
One got to experience this approach first-hand in the work of the Presidential Working Group on Women (PWGW), which met four times a year with the president and various cabinet ministers. The PWGW was among the eight working groups established by Mbeki to communicate with and draw on board the suggestions of specific stakeholders.
Given the diverse historical backgrounds of South African women, the PWGW was the biggest of the working groups. Its membership included 59 organisations, such as the Afrikaanse Dameskring, the South African Domestic Workers Union, the Girl Guides Association, the Planned Parenthood Association and the SA Black Social Workers Association.
Alet Vorster, president of the Afrikaanse Dameskring, recalls that in the course of the PWGW’s interaction, Mbeki’s “compassion for the cause of women was sincere. He demonstrated vision, enthusiasm and commitment to assist in solving the challenges that were tabled. If ever there was a person with the drive and the zest to push through with tough and demanding assignments, it is Mr Mbeki”.
The PWGW divided its work into two clusters: economic and social.
The social cluster devoted its energy to finding practical solutions to the challenges of water and sanitation provision. This was found to be the most difficult and desperate area of delivery, impacting women in all other aspects of life.
With the backing of the Presidency, the PWGW traversed the length and breadth of the country to engage relevant players in search of innovative solutions and submitted a report to the Presidency which would have enriched practical government efforts in water and sanitation provision.
The economic cluster, on the other hand, sought to complement government efforts towards the economic empowerment of women. One such area was women and retirement. The case for the nonexistence of retirement provision for domestic workers was well articulated by the South African Domestic Workers Union, an affiliate of Cosatu.
The pressing issue was the absence of a retirement plan for domestic workers. This was the case in part because domestic workers do not have a single employer and, in large measure, due to decades of neglect for this vulnerable section of working people.
After decades of working as a domestic, they would quietly retire, destitute and vulnerable. The PWGW felt that the economic cluster should find an urgent solution for the creation of a retirement plan for these workers.
In doing so, it worked closely with the Department of Labour and other stakeholders. The fruit of these labours saw the launch of the first ever domestic workers’ pension fund in 2007, laying the ground for other such offerings to emerge from the private sector in later years. It was considered the working group’s biggest success.
Recalling her tenure on the PWGW, Eugenia Mbekeni, president of the Girl Guides Association, said: “We would like to see this initiative continuing; it is important to the effectiveness of government in its socio-economic development initiatives.”
She credits Mbeki “for taking practical steps in support of women and finding effective ways to work with civil society during his presidency”.
In a male-dominated world, gender policy is more difficult to implement than others. Thus, it would have been so easy for the policy to gather dust on government, and indeed private sector, shelves.
If the current discussion on the legacies of ANC presidents is worth anything, current and future generations would be advised to take note of Mbeki’s ability to straddle the abstract and the practical.