SA’s black women at the top face gender-based inequities that are alive and kicking

Madame Ruth Mompati, who fought for equal rights. Picture: Dumisani Sibeko

Madame Ruth Mompati, who fought for equal rights. Picture: Dumisani Sibeko

Published Mar 22, 2024


The cause of a fire at the South African Parliament has not hitherto been established and the presumably mentally disturbed Zandile Mafe remains the lone suspect.

This is a subject that when brought to statisticians to shed light on, would result in more damage. Statisticians will need more parliaments to burn in order to make the appropriate inferences on what caused a fire at the South African Parliament.

A sample of one does not suffice for statisticians. Statisticians are notorious for creating more fires. This is in order for them to create a bigger sample to understand the cause of the fire as the power of one is a difficult outlier to contend with.

Statisticians are not ones who believe in one swallow making a summer. However, lawyers can always prove, either on the balance of probabilities or beyond reasonable doubt, that one swallow doth summer make.

More recently, outlier cases are visiting our land. They are a subject of contestation. One such case concerns Professor Sibongile Vilakazi, the suspended president of the Black Management Forum (BMF).

Agreements and disagreements in institutions, such as families, societies, associations and governments, are a regular occurrence. Social mores, practices, codes of conduct, constitutions and laws are enacted to resolve disagreements. To this end, systems and structures are created to mitigate and adjudicate such contradictions and normalities as they may occur.

Systems are powerful human artefacts. They are created by human beings and yet human beings, independent of their will, become victims of systems. When the contradictions reach zenith temperatures, human beings advocate change and become liberators of themselves from these human artefacts.

Whilst the idiom “one swallow doth summer not make” often holds true, the converse to this, “one swallow doth summer make” also holds true. The isolated case of the power of one, as the case might be, in the context of an observable dominant narrative rooted specifically in the past, is not one to ignore. It is part of a complex tapestry born out of social relations that Karl Marx defines as those often happening independent of the will of the participants.

The metamorphosis taking place in South Africa’s arena during the past 30 years is not only a marvel for research, but remains a deep puzzle that requires even deeper attention. The lens of scenarios as a framing concept assists to shed light on some of the deep-rooted sins of the past and evolving scenes of a nation under construction.

In its depiction of South Africa, the Indlulamithi Scenarios Trust has pointed to a deteriorating situation in South Africa. It is sliding deep, from a demoralised land of disorder and decay into an abyss. It is one that embodies a nation torn between immobility and restless energy described in a metaphorical song and dance referred to as Gwara Gwara.

Indlulamithi, in its 2018 version of the scenarios, labelled South Africa as a Gwara Gwara nation. The state of affairs has been deteriorating, and in its latest version, Indlulamithi judged South Africa as a vulture in its 2023 vintage.

In a country conscious of the divisions of the past, the cleavages of which run so deep in terms of race, class, region, religion and more importantly gender, the observation and spotlight has fallen on gender.

A number of female black South Africans who have reached the heights as leaders have conspicuously been in the news reflecting a tug of war at the top. That it has involved, in particular, black females who have risen is suggestive of a highly improbable but ponderable notion that this can escape the race-gender lens more broadly, and the gender lens specifically, even within one race.

The rise of women to the top seems to, in a subliminal way, represent a challenge to traditionally held notions of masculinity, whiteness and ageism. The subtleties of the nexus of the three in institutions is not a matter that can be brushed away. It is one worthy of attention.

The triggers of discontent are various, but it’s suffice to mention the acrimonious departure of the vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng; the failed attempt to get at Professor Puleng Lenkabula, the vice chancellor at Unisa; and another failed attempt to put Unisa under administration, which are all instances of one swallow that doth summer make against a historical template that sets the context.

Recently, in a chain of events emanating from her previous employer, Wits University, Dr Sibongile Vilakazi entered into a fray with her new institution, the Black Management Forum, that had elected her as its president.

She has been suspended, and she is not taking this lying down. She has taken this matter to a court of law. In the list of matters raised, the aggrieved Vilakazi states matters of governance and a mad rush to appropriate the silver trough by her tormentors.

Our courts, as adjudicators of justice, may yet again prove that one swallow doth summer make and that the question of gender-based bias and persecution is not just a lingering artefact and a figment of imagination by females. It is not just a subject of statistical outliers, but one that is alive and kicking.

Our courts and the indefatigable spirit of women to fight at great financial cost and possible persecution may shed light on the birth pains that the bearers of life, the female counterparts, have to endure in their different spaces to regain their sanity and freedom.

Maybe, just maybe, we shall begin to understand and better respond to the quiet malice of gender-based inequities everywhere and our active acquiescence to it as a society.

This reminds me of the conversation we had with the late veteran of the struggle Madame Ruth Mompati when she reminisced about the just-in-time fight and victory for 50-50 representation on the eve of the 1994 breakthrough and how that is being betrayed. Men, she lamented, are now fronting women in their political escapades.

Dr Pali Lehohla is a Professor of Practice at the University of Johannesburg, a Research Associate at Oxford University, a board member of the Institute for Economic Justice at Wits and a distinguished alumni of the University of Ghana. He is the former Statistician-General of South Africa.