Hundreds of women and men marched to Parliament to honour Womens Day and womens rights. They released pink balloons when they marched back to Zonnebloem. Picture: Jason Boud

Katherine Robinson writes that we have come some way in the quest for women’s rights, but the election is unlikely to gain ground for gender equality.

While South Africa celebrates 20 years of democracy this year, the country will also be holding its national election, the first since 1994, without Madiba. If the past two months are anything to go by, we will surely witness one of the most interesting, perhaps entertaining, elections yet.

With a likely drop in the vote for the ANC, we will also see a decline in women’s high representation in government, hampering this major stride made in the past two decades.

Mamphela Ramphele’s recent floor-crossing fiasco between her own party, Agang, and the official opposition DA, has squandered any potential increase in women’s representation that Agang or the union may have brought to the elections.

Although the Women Empowerment and Gender Equality (WEGE) Draft Bill would not have made a difference to the upcoming elections, the probable decline in women’s representation may compel naysayers to eat their words.

In line with the SADC Gender and Development Protocol that South Africa has signed and ratified, the WEGE aims to ensure 50 percent representation of women in all decision-making structures in government and private entities.

Last week, the Cape Chamber of Commerce and Industry snubbed the bill.

Chamber president Janine Myburgh said: “It is time Parliament stopped wasting time on unrealistic legislation like the Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill and dealt with the real problems of the country.”

Even more problematic, she implied that it was “natural” that some careers would be more appealing to men than to women.

After 20 years of democracy, only 23 percent of women occupy economic decision-making positions and make up only 4 percent of chief executives of private companies. Women constitute 59 percent of those infected with HIV. More than 77 percent of women in Limpopo, 51 percent in Gauteng, 39 percent in Western Cape and 37 percent in KwaZulu-Natal have experienced some form of violence in their lifetime.

These are just a few reasons why gender inequality is a real problem in this country.

There are some valid arguments against the bill. In addition, there are many gaps that fail to address the root causes of gender inequality. Furthermore, it seems absurd and counterproductive to have the Traditional Courts Bill, which seriously threatens women’s empowerment, pending at the same time. The primary argument against the WEGE is that it offers nothing new and better implementation of existing legislation is rather the key to gender equality.

Proper implementation of the many laws that have bearing on gender equality, such as our all-encompassing constitution, the Equity Act, Domestic Violence Act, Sexual Offences Act, is undeniably the answer. However, this bill aims at enforcing implementation and does in fact offer something new: legislated quotas for women. Legislated quotas are anything but a “waste of time”. Evidence from all over the world shows that special measures are needed to ensure greater representation of women in politics.

Through mapping voluntary, constitutional and legislated quotas across Southern Africa, the 2013 SADC Gender Protocol Barometer shows that in both local government (37 percent) and parliament (38 percent), countries with quotas have a far higher representation of women than those without (16 percent for parliament and 9 percent for local government).

South Africa has no legislated quotas. The ruling ANC adopted a voluntary 30 percent quota for women in 2002. In 2007, they raised it to 50 percent at both national and local level. The ANC also adopted a 50/50 quota for national elections in 2009. It is the only party that has a voluntary quota for women.

Since 1994, women’s representation has steadily increased, primarily due to the ANC’s quota. Women’s representation in Parliament rose from 28 percent after the 1994 elections, to 30 percent in 1999, 33 percent in 2004 and 44 percent after the 2009 elections. Local government representation followed a similar trend. However, in the 2011 local government elections women’s representation declined from 40 percent to 38 percent, because of a decline in the ANC’s majority.

The ANC will almost certainly lose votes in the upcoming elections due to widespread dissatisfaction with leadership. The discontent is attributable to lack of service delivery, brutal and excessive force at the hands of police, corruption, e-tolls and President Jacob Zuma’s R209 million private Nkandla homestead built with taxpayers’ money. For similar reasons, in December the National Union of Metal Workers (Numsa), threatened to break away from Cosatu and the tripartite alliance, saying it wouldn’t support the ANC in the next elections.

Former ANC Youth League president, Julius Malema’s newly formed Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) has gained ground with youth and workers. Despite Malema’s poor track record and opportunistic electioneering, the EFF is bound to garner votes that would have gone to the ANC.

These developments and the probable distribution of votes away from the ANC are very positive shifts within our political landscape. It also demonstrates people’s desire for substantial change in this country. But because parties have not taken gender parity in their political structures seriously and have snubbed quotas as they have the WEGE, all this will come at cost. As always, women will bear the brunt. The over-reliance on the ANC’s majority to shore up women’s representation will demonstrate just how costly it will be in the next election.

Considering this country’s history, in 20 years South Africa has come exceptionally far. But with the inequalities and social injustices that persist, we have to admit that it has not been 20 years of democracy, but rather 20 years - ostensibly - towards democracy. When it comes to gender equality, it has been two decades of strides, steps backwards and stagnations. Although numbers do not guarantee the achievement of gender equality and do not ensure change, critical mass remains a pre-requisite for transformation.

* Katherine Robinson is the editor and communications manager at Gender Links.


** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers

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