Every year, the celebration of Women’s Day in South Africa calls to mind the Chinese proverb “women hold up half the sky”. The Chinese revolutionary, Mao Zedong, coined the phrase. History remembers his brutality, but he got one thing right by increasing women’s participation in both the workforce and the Party.
In South Africa, 65 years after more than 20 000 women marched to the Union Buildings in protest against the pass laws, there is still too little progress in the transformation of our economy, particularly when it comes to the empowerment of women. I know this from my own experience, but it is also confirmed by research, including a Women in Agriculture study published by the Sustainability Initiative of South Africa (Siza) and the Western Cape Department of Agriculture in 2020.
The study shows that while women constitute 60-80 percent of smallholder farmers, they make up only 15-20 percent of landowners in sub-Saharan Africa and receive only 10 percent of available credit. In South Africa, men make up between 78 percent and 80 percent of farm owners in every province.
In almost every aspect of farming operations men far outnumber women. Women comprise only 34 percent of general workers, 24 percent of supervisors, and 16 percent of farm managers. The majority of full-time employees are men, though 52 percent of seasonal workers are women.
While there is a smaller disparity in the gender pay gap at the general worker level, female farm managers and supervisors still trail men’s earnings. Female farm managers and supervisors earned 66 percent above the minimum wage while male farm managers and supervisors earned 75 percent and 74 percent above the minimum wage.
This persistent pay gap is especially infuriating, when one considers the impact women’s income has in communities and families. Studies have shown that R1 earned by a woman has the same social impact as R11 earned by a man. In an economy where families rely on women’s ability to stretch meagre resources, paying them less simply makes no sense.
These research findings highlight the urgency of action to ensure greater participation by women in the economy. It is not enough to pay lip service to diversity and inclusivity. Our industries have an obligation to take positive steps to encourage, equip, and support women in the broader economy and in the agricultural sector, including the vital sugar industry, on which 1 million livelihoods depend.
This is why SA Canegrowers have taken up the challenge of addressing these inequalities in the cane growing sector.
There are no easy fixes and taking shortcuts will only hurt women more. SA Canegrowers, for its part, is committed to ensuring greater representation in its leadership ranks and creating opportunities for women at the entry level.
I was proud to be elected Vice-Chairperson of SA Canegrowers, in June 2021. Former Vice-Chairperson and fellow board member, Dipuo Ntuli, now heads the vital Stakeholder Engagement and Communications Committee, guiding canegrowers’ engagements with government and industry stakeholders. My female colleagues and I, on the SA Canegrowers’ board work to bring our unique perspectives to the table that benefit of women growers.
A key focus of the board is to drive programmes within SA Canegrowers that empower a new generation of leading women in agriculture.
One example is SA Canegrowers’ Youth Internship Programme which provides aspiring farmers with both theoretical and practical training working on farms in Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal.
We are extremely proud that 80% of the class of 2020 were employed by the farms on which they had trained. Even better, the programme gives preference to women candidates. This is especially important given that both education and difficulty gaining work experience are barriers for women in agriculture.
SA Canegrowers is also in the process of registering a women’s co-operative which will represent the interests of all women in each mill area. In particular, the co-op will assist women to access funding for projects in their areas – addressing another key barrier. The co-operative is designed to support small-scale and land reform growers in the industry.
The co-operative will provide a support system and an avenue for the exchange of knowledge and ideas. The Siza study found that women struggle with cultural, patriarchal, and traditional stereotypes as well. Women enjoy less respect than their male colleagues, and because of these norms, they sometimes also see themselves as less capable than their male colleagues. In the co-operative, women will be able to discuss questions they may not ask male colleagues for fear of being perceived negatively.
These initiatives are important for empowering in the industry, but they are not enough.
We all need to encourage the girls in our lives, our homes, and communities, to take up space in male-dominated industries. We also need to address the unequal access to funding for women, enabling them to take advantage of opportunities and become entrepreneurs. This empowers women both at work and in their personal lives.
Finally, we need government to come to the table with critical interventions like prioritising women’s access to land, and also to tackle any barriers that can be addressed through legislation, regulations, and policy. Industry associations, the financial sector, and government working together can bring to fruition the goal of transformation and gender equality in our economy.
Mao’s famous words were recently made popular by the book Half the Sky authored by Pulitzer Prize winning duo Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas D. Kristof. That book is subtitled Turning Oppression to Opportunity for Women Worldwide. This our responsibility too.
As we remember the women who marched to the Union Buildings in 1956, to free us from oppression, we have a duty to ensure that their descendants can benefit equally from the opportunities in every sector of the economy, including the vital agricultural industry.
Nolusizo (Kiki) Mzoneli is a small-scale canegrower and the Vice-Chairperson of the SA Canegrowers Association.
* The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL or of title sites.
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