South Africa

South Africa

Analysis: The ongoing myth of true gender parity in SA politics

Analysis: The ongoing myth of true gender parity in SA politics

Most South Africans are women. You sure as hell wouldn’t think so, though, when looking at the ANC’s list of Premiers or the DA-run Western Cape government’s list of MECs. The two largest parties have both proved deeply disappointing, from a gender perspective, in picking their teams for the truly powerful provincial positions. The ANC at least acknowledges there’s a problem. Helen Zille, apparently, does not. By REBECCA DAVIS.

Tuesday’s announcement of seven male ANC premiers in the eight provinces the party won in the 7 May elections proved to be a slap in the face for gender activists,” ran one media report. In reality, it’s not a slap in the face for gender activists. Instead, it’s a justification of the ongoing need for gender activists.

Just one woman will run one of the ANC’s eight provinces: the Northern Cape’s Sylvia Lucas. Explaining why the Premiers Club was going to be an almost total dude-fest, the ANC’s Zweli Mkhize said that it was necessary to prevent “the problems presented by two centres of power”. What he means by this is that they’ve picked their Premiers from the current crop of provincial secretaries and chairpersons, who are all males. He did not explain why the current crop of provincial secretaries and chairpersons are all males, however; so as far as excuses go, it’s not exactly watertight.

But the ANC was at least quick to concede that this situation is far from ideal. ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte called it unacceptable. “The fault is with us,” she was quoted as saying, and she indicated that the ANC’s NEC would consider reviewing the nomination process in future to prevent a repeat of this gender imbalance.

The DA did not release a statement condemning the gender inequality of the ANC’s Premier picks. This was interesting, since the opposition never normally allows an opportunity to criticise the ANC to go unused. But when Helen Zille announced her Western Cape Cabinet, things became a bit clearer: out of 10 MECs, just 2 will be women.

Unlike the ANC, Zille seemed unrepentant on this front, if news stories on the announcement are to be believed. Introducing the other eight MECs, she was reported as joking: “It won’t surprise you to know they are men.” It isn’t remotely surprising, given that her last Cabinet was all male. “We now have 200% more women than we did before,” she told journalists, reportedly to laughter. It is, of course, always a hilarious caper when women are finally given 20% representation.

Media reports had her continuing, with regards to the male members of her previous Cabinet: “If they did a good job, I’m not going to fire them because of a chromosome.”

It’s a canny line, guaranteed to appeal to many DA supporters who share Zille’s apparent belief that the world should be run along essentially meritocratic lines. Here’s the thing, though: meritocracies only work as they should when the playing field is level in the first place. And it’s not. Men – and particularly white men, obviously, in South Africa – have had the opportunity to develop decades of impressive leadership knowledge and experience because women have faced significant barriers, both formally and informally, to entering spheres like politics. It’s worth remembering that during Apartheid, women constituted just 2,7% of the South African Parliament.

Zille’s all-male former cabinet did a great job, in her estimation. We have no idea how women in those positions would have performed, because she never gave any women a chance. Now the men have done so well that she says there’s no justification for changing the majority of the Cabinet. This is an argument which can be used to sustain the status quo in various contexts into perpetuity.

The fact that Helen Zille is a woman in politics who has made it against the odds perhaps occludes her vision when it comes to issues of female representation elsewhere – despite having lovingly mentored a female Parliamentary leader. As shockingly unbalanced as the ANC’s Premier list is, the ruling party has at least pledged to pair each male Premier with a female Speaker, and is sending more than 40% female MPs to the National Assembly. The DA has managed just 30%. Other smaller parties have no female MPs in the National Assembly at all: the lower the number of seats available, it seems, the less chance of women being involved.

This is not a South Africa-specific problem. In fact, South Africa is doing substantially better in this regard than many other countries. A 2014 report by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) found that just 21,8% of parliamentarians worldwide are women. At the current rate of progress, women won’t achieve equal representation in US politics for almost 500 years.

Why aren’t there more women in politics? Contrary to the answer demanded by a meritocratic worldview, it is not because they aren’t good enough. Neither is it necessarily because they don’t want to be involved in politics. For centuries, of course, it was because women were formally blocked from political participation. Now that these barriers have thankfully been lifted in most parts of the world, the obstacles are likely to be less obvious, but no less real.

At least we are not South Asia, for instance, where a recent study conducted by UN Women found that more than 60% of women do not participate in politics due to entirely justified fears of violence resulting from their involvement.

Elsewhere – which likely includes South Africa – the reasons may be more subtle. One defence which is often aired is that women are simply less likely to make themselves available for political office. But this doesn’t just happen in a vacuum. Research undertaken in countries like Tanzania has shown that women exclude themselves from politics at least partly because of messaging which has convinced them that the political sphere is one that men have greater entitlement to.

Speaking in April, Lesotho’s Minister of Gender made this point, saying that Lesotho women were not keen on getting involved in politics because they “seem to think that politics and governance is a preserve of men”. Who can blame them: the Minister of Gender is a man.

In 2013, a report on the gender gap in young Americans’ political ambition, pithily titled Girls Just Wanna Not Run, identified five factors contributing to why young women were less likely than young men to consider running for public office. They included: young men are more likely than young women to be socialised by their parents to think about politics as a career path; young women are less likely than young men to receive encouragement to run for office; young women are less likely than young men to think they will be qualified to run for office.

Bill Clinton wrote in his memoir that he was 16 years old when he decided he wanted to enter public life as an elected official. And why not? He had two centuries’ worth of evidence that aspiring to be US president was a perfectly reasonable ambition for a young man. In the words of feminist Soraya Chemaly: “Young girls can’t be what they don’t see”. Research shows that the more visible female politicians are, the more likely adolescent girls are to express an active interest in politics.

In South Africa, there are other reasons why women won’t just necessarily pop up, waving their hands and clamouring for office, if we leave the political status quo to its own devices. One is that South African women still overwhelmingly carry the burden of childcare and household support, conveniently freeing men up to do most of the politicking. It is more common for South African children to live only with their mother than with both of their parents. (Only 4% of SA kids, according to the SAIRR last year, live in a solely dad-headed household.)

A patriarchal society isn’t something that we can easily legislate against; it involves a complex shift of social attitudes and behaviours. But we can certainly pay more attention to issues like, for instance, childcare provisions in parliament – for parents of both genders. In an interview with the Guardian in February this year, Lindiwe Mazibuko spoke of the many problems facing female MPs in Parliament, who “seem to be regarded as an aberration,” she said.

We’re constantly challenging these problems, from maternity leave to facilities for female MPs who have children, to paternity leave for fathers who have children – this notion that only women MPs are parents is ridiculous,” Mazibuko said. “It’s very much an uphill battle; as much as we have overcome Apartheid and racially the institution has changed, I think in terms of gender it’s still very much treated as a boys’ club.”

It is important, in direct and tangible ways, for women to receive just and equitable representation in Parliament and other political office. One, already mentioned, is the power of role-modelling: young women need to see women visibly succeeding in politics to learn that it is a space they are entitled to join. Beyond this, people want to see people who look like them speaking on their behalf, because otherwise there is understandable doubt about whether the representative in question can ever truly share their challenges or authentically lobby for their interests.

Evidence exists to justify this doubt: international studies, including by the IPU, have found that women Parliamentarians more frequently lobby hard for issues like parental leave, childcare, pensions and gender-equality laws. The manner in which women and men move through the world is different in ways that even extremely perceptive, feminist men may occasionally be blind to. Women may experience greater fears for their safety in environments where men may feel perfectly at home, for instance.

There’s a full list of research in the appendix to this study showing the difference made by female elected officials. It’s American, so it’s difficult to know how much would translate to a very different South African context, but it still makes for interesting reading. Other than aspects you might expect – that female legislators are more likely to lobby in favour of reproductive rights, for instance – there are some you might not; that female city council members were more responsive to their constituents than their male counterparts, for instance. Again, states which have visible female political candidates also see higher levels of political engagement among women.

As a final thought, consider this anecdote from a Washington Post journalist trying to understand the secret behind Finland’s phenomenal educational success as a delegate on a trip to that country.

In their conversation with the Finnish parliamentarians, one of the delegates asked what political powers were behind Finnish early childhood policies and the central place that wellbeing has in schools. The answer was short and simple: “Women.” They were told how gender quotas — at least 40% of each gender — in public boards, committees and councils have been in force in Finland since the 1980s. The Finnish parliamentarians argued that unless there had been an equal representation of women in the Finnish legislature and every political and professional taskforce, today’s advanced maternity and childcare laws, and strong focus on wellbeing in school would never have come into being. By extension, if child wellbeing had not been regarded as so basic, the Finnish education system would never have evolved into today’s success story.”

We need women in place throughout the political food chain, from grassroots structures to the highest echelons of power. In the rare instances where able women are genuinely unavailable to fill such posts, we should be doing some searching interrogation into the historical and current social conditions that have given rise to this problematic and avoidable lacuna. DM

Read more:

  • Why Does the US Still Have So Few Women in Office? In The Nation

A group of women’s rights activists protest for women’s rights with their main focus on recent attacks on women wearing mini skirts at local taxi ranks, Johannesburg, South Africa, 4 March 2008. The most recent attack was on a women waiting to take a taxi and she was attacked by taxi drivers for wearing a short skirt. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK


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