Gender parity dealt a cruel blow by incoming government

Frene Ginwala was among South African women to break the gender disparity when she became the first female Speaker of the National Assembly. Picture: Supplied

Frene Ginwala was among South African women to break the gender disparity when she became the first female Speaker of the National Assembly. Picture: Supplied

Published Jun 9, 2024


By Tswelopele Makoe

THE fight for gender equality in South Africa is once again taking one step forward and two steps backwards.

In the aftermath of the 6th democratic elections of 2019, women constituted 46% of MP’s in the National Assembly.

Last week the Chairperson of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), Mosotho Moepya, presented the official list of the newly- elected representatives of the National Assembly, and revealed that the newly designated seats are comprised of 43.5% women, with members ranging from the young age of 20, to 79.

I find it disheartening, as a young South African, to still be engulfed in the fight for equal representation in our leadership and governance. Gender equality and gender discourses in South Africa have had their fair share of highs and lows, particularly at a social and legislative level.

Ultimately, we must acknowledge the importance of women in leadership, particularly in SA, where women have been critical to the plight for independence, and the construction of our democracy.

Over time, there have been no doubt significant improvements in women’s representation in our parliament. Prior to the dawn of democracy in 1994, female representatives in government was a meagre 2.7%.

Immediately in Mandela’s government following the April 1994 elections, the seats occupied by women increased to 27.7% and rose steadily in the subsequent administrations.

In subsequent years, there was a plethora of women elected to parliament, some to really significant positions such as the first female Speaker of the National Assembly, Frene Ginwala.

Women had remained a small minority in the government of SA. Picture: Phando Jikelo/Independent Newspapers

The trend continued as women continued to occupy important roles in government and society, with the first female to ever serve as the Deputy President of South Africa, Dr Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, appointed in 2005.

What this teaches us is that South Africans have undergone a gradual magnification of the valuation of women in positions of leadership. This gradual process was inevitable, considering the constant and continuous conscientisation and public awareness that has engulfed our rapidly democratising society.

My main concern is that, today, the representation of women in the National Assembly has dangerously dwindled. This is a seriously perilous position for our nation to be in, particularly in 2024, 30 years into our democracy.

This is not particularly a fair representation of our society, but rather of our imperfect political structures and institutions. Parliament is an institution that is wholly responsible for the enactment of our national laws. It is place where our unique societal challenges are addressed and redressed, meaningfully, and effectively.

There is an inherent need for women in spaces where laws are constructed, and revolutionary changes are enacted. These are spaces where women are enabled to fight gender violence, gender biases, and gender inequalities effectively and meaningfully, and at an institutional, socio-political, and legislative level.

The recent 2024 elections have been pivotal to our nation, in more ways than one. The restructuring and redistribution of power in our National Assembly means that some parties, who value equal gender representation in leadership structures, will be devastatingly outweighed by those that do not.

This deals a devastating blow to the plight of women in South Africa, particularly in achieving gender equality, equity, and combating gender-based violence and femicide (GBVF).

My personal viewpoint is that any political party or structure that dismisses the significance of equal representation in their leadership has no role to play in the actualisation of our democracy. They do not recognise the momentous role played by women in our society. They do not value the astute, unique contributions and qualities bestowed by women in our society.

As such, they have a distorted view, not only of our contemporary society, but of the future that South Africans are trying to actualise.

The very tenants of a democracy are built upon the participation of every member of our society.

In South Africa, over half of the entire population is comprised of females. As of 2022, Statistics SA and Discovery Life reported that almost 43% of all South African households are female-led and contain female breadwinners.

In addition to this, 2024 reports have confirmed that women still earn approximately 30% less than their male counterparts. This inequity is far greater for black and coloured women.

Ultimately, the gender pay gap is one of the key proponents of poverty, particularly for female-led households. This is also a societal challenge that can be best challenged from legislative perspective out of the National Assembly, by having more female MP’s instead of less.

The effects of the gender pay gap can be extensive, both personally and professionally. It leads to demoralisation and despondency in female employees. It exceedingly worsens economic insecurity, health challenges, food insecurity, proper housing, and infrastructure, to name a few.

It further exacerbates criminal and gang activity, illiteracy, exploitation, toxic stress, conflict, and instability.

Personally, economic inequality can directly exacerbate physical and mental health challenges such as depression, anxiety, malnutrition, debilitating phobias, and overall development, not only for breadwinners, but for children in the household as well. Additionally, this can also fuel familial conflicts such as domestic violence and divorce.

Ultimately, the gender pay gap is directly linked to the reduction in women’s lifetime earnings and also affects their pensions, leading to precarious rates of poverty in their latter life.

Overall, there are countless reports linking those living in abject poverty, with a much lower life expectancy, with a disparity of up to 15 years between the richest and poorest individuals.

I raise these pertinent issues to illustrate the hidden but disastrous effects that emanate from poor female representation in public life. It is critical that the lack of representation of women in the National Assembly be highlighted.

The women in the National Assembly are not merely voting in new laws, they are shaping the religious, institutional, socio-political, and cultural systems that impact women in significant ways.

They are directly advancing women’s rights, improving the quality of life of women, and influencing the processes of policy-making and social security that directly impact women.

It is further pertinent to position women in spaces of leadership and law-making processes, as this is a space in which their inherent rights to self-determination, choices, opportunities, resources, and much more, can be protected.

It is a space where the transformation of the structures and institutions that perpetuate inequality and gender discrimination can be effectively dismantled. It is a space where women can be supported into becoming more empowered, healthier, productive citizens of our society.

Women are crucial to leadership, in any form or structure. It is not only their inherent leadership traits, but also their dauntlessness and ingenuity that make them instinctual in positions of power.

When women are represented in parliament, their voices are centred in the challenges that predominantly concern them, the quality and nature of policy processes readily reflects this.

Women’s representation in parliament and governance shows society that women’s voices and perspectives must be considered. Women, particularly in Africa, face a distinctly unique set of challenges and experiences that must be reflected and addressed accordingly.

When women are removed from spaces such as the National Assembly, it allows toxic masculinity and patriarchy to flourish.

It encourages the systemic exclusion of women, not only from positions of influence, but also from their inherent right to shape their society. The majority of the South African population is comprised of women, and our leadership should reflect this, regardless of personal or party objectives.

There are still innumerable societal challenges that must be addressed by our ensuing National Assembly. It is critical that they recognise the immense contribution of women in shaping our ideal society, one that is safe, united, and inclusive.

Women are often shaped as emotional figures whose strong suits are empathy and multitasking, but women are decisive, transformational, resourceful leaders that think more dynamically and creatively than most men. Decades of studies have shown that women’s leadership enhances collaboration, productivity, and inspires organisational dedication and fairness.

Women in leadership improve the lives of women in all aspects: social, economic, religious, cultural, political, and legislative. It is a privileged position to be in a space where policy is executed, and legislative programmes that are shaped to improve the lives of citizens are enacted.

To the many women that have been bestowed the honour of serving our nation in the coming 7th administration be forewarned that: with great power, comes great responsibility. This is a unique opportunity, and an immense responsibility, to enhance the lives of millions of women that you lead, and represent.

During this, remember the words of author and female empowerment leader Sheryl Sandberg: “Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence, and making sure that impact lasts in your absence.”

Tswelopele Makoe is a Gender & Social Justice Activist, published weekly in the Sunday Independent, IOL, Global South Media Network (GSMN), Sunday Tribune and Eswatini Daily News. She is the Editor at the Global South Media Network, and an Ethics Tutor in the Arts Faculty of UWC. She is also an Andrew W. Mellon scholar, pursuing an MA Ethics at UWC, and affiliated with the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice. The views expressed are her own.