South Africa


Women in South Africa’s local government elections: Equality and representation lessons for 2021/22

Women in South Africa’s local government elections: Equality and representation lessons for 2021/22
In 2016 in South Africa, just 33% of ward councillors elected were women, whereas 48% of Proportional Representation Councillors were female. (Photo: Gallo Images/Sharon Seretlo)

While questions around the date of South Africa’s next local government elections remain, what is certain is that past local government elections haven’t been gender-inclusive or representative. Will the next elections be any different?

South Africa is often lauded globally for its gender representation in government. As of June 2021, the Inter-Parliamentary Union ranks South Africa 11th in the World for women’s representation at a parliamentary level, the second-highest in Africa (after Rwanda). Similarly, the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Gender Gap Report scored South Africa 14th in the world in terms of political empowerment in 2021.

Whilst these achievements are certainly impressive, they do not measure up to South Africa’s international commitments. In 2008, South Africa signed the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Protocol on Gender and Development and ratified it in 2012. Article 12 of the protocol commits States Parties to achieve 50% representation of women in decision-making bodies in the public and private sectors by 2015. Six years after that due date, South Africa is yet to achieve the 50:50 target, or to introduce any compulsory special measures to encourage political parties to do so. Performance is worst at the local government level.

There are no legal barriers to women’s participation in elections or to them becoming representatives for political parties. Women register and turn out to vote in higher numbers in national, provincial, and local elections. But, at the local government level, women’s representation has stagnated, particularly at the ward level. In 2016, just 33% of ward councillors elected were women, whereas 48% of Proportional Representation Councillors were female.

“The local level is the most difficult level for women to function as politicians” explains Professor Amanda Gouws, Professor of Political Science and Sarchi chair in Gender Politics. “They face sexism, patriarchal attitudes, and sexual harassment. It is very difficult for them to make a difference by putting women’s issues on the agenda.”

More often than not, what determines whether women are elected and represented at any level of government is party lists and these rarely include equal numbers of men and women. Only two parties, the ANC and the EFF, have voluntary quotas for party lists but in the last local government elections, even these parties failed to meet their own goals.

Dr Thabo Rapoo, Head of Research at the Commission for Gender Equality suggests that it is institutionalised political patriarchy that limits progress in this regard. “A key barrier is internal party-political practices and the willingness to see women as party leaders, or in leadership positions. Local government structures are ward-based and the ward position is the one that women are finding it hard to break through — proportional representation (PR) positions are defined by the party, so they can determine who is on the list. Local contexts and constituencies that are patriarchal will make it more difficult for women to win positions or nominations to ward and local levels. Those local party structures that candidates have to go through and be vetted still tend to be dominated by males or male power brokers who make it difficult for them to get through such structures. Patriarchy in parties reflects what is on the ground.”

Data from Gender Links from 2016 highlights the stark gender gaps. Although the proportion of women candidates on party lists increased from 37% in 2011 to 41% in 2016 political parties listed fewer women candidates at ward level.

According to Gender Links, “this is singularly responsible for SA not achieving gender equality in the elections.” The highest proportion of women on ward candidate lists was 44% (Cope), with all other parties having less than 40% women, and the IFP (24%) and FF+ (22%) having the lowest representation of women. At the PR level, the representation of women on lists was better, however, only two parties had a majority of women on their lists — the ANC with 61% and the EFF with 60%. Gender Links’ report concludes “in the absence of a quota mechanism, South Africa relies entirely on the commitment of individual political parties to promote women’s representation.”

In other countries, quotas for gender in government have worked to promote more equitable gender representation — at least on the descriptive level. In Africa, women’s representation at local level is highest in PR electoral systems with a constitutional or legislated quota, for example, Namibia and Lesotho. But whether quotas for women’s representation would make much of a difference to South Africa’s gender representation at this level is unclear.

“The CGE supports the introduction of a quota,” says Rapoo, “but quotas must include the zebra stripe principle”, that is, men and women at alternate places on the list. If number one on the list is a male, then number two must be female and so on. “Without the zebra stripe principle, if you have a quota of just 50 50, often a party can put all the women candidates at the bottom of the list, which ultimately affects the chances they have of getting a position.”

Gouws, in contrast, is sceptical. “The voluntary quota of the ANC makes no difference and most of the other parties (those with less than 1% of the vote) are too small — they may only have one or two candidates. A quota may, however, force parties like the DA and EFF to consider more women” says Gouws. In the 2016 elections, the DA fielded 35% female candidates on ward lists, and 34% on their PR list — the second-lowest proportion of any party.

Whether those women who are represented actually promote the interests of gender equality, or have a duty to, is a far more complex question. Descriptive equality has not always translated to substantive equality, or a meaningful improvement in women’s lives.

A recent global review showed that in developed countries, higher female representation has not affected public policies as measured by spending patterns but may have induced changes in parliamentary deliberations and specific policy choices that are more difficult to measure. In developing countries, increasing women’s representation was linked to improved education and health provision. In both contexts, increasing the presence of women had a positive impact on the strength of public institutions, reducing corruption and rent-seeking.

However, in South Africa, elected representatives, for the most part, are elected to stand on behalf of a party and must promote party positions above personal positions on gender equality if these come into conflict. Women have been represented in government throughout the last decade of state capture, and despite high-level commitments from government at all levels, women’s collective social and economic positions have worsened over the last decade and gender-based violence levels remain high. Certainly, South Africa’s high representation of women has not prevented corruption.

At the same time, all elected representatives, regardless of their gender identity, have a duty to uphold the values of the Constitution including promoting non-discrimination and gender equality — not just women representatives. “The public is usually more disappointed in women for not advancing gender equality than they are in men, and that’s part of the problem” suggests Rapoo. When women are held to a higher standard than their male counterparts, is this gender equality? And if the representation of women doesn’t make women’s lives better, does gender representation in elections actually matter?

The CGE believes the answer is not to abandon the commitment to equal representation, but instead to provide equal access to continued support and training. “Many of our municipal councillors — male and female — lack awareness of the gender policy framework and the law and imperatives that need to be pushed. And that needs to come for regular training for these councillors. CGE’s position has always been to ensure the involvement of gender activists and gender-based organisations to support women’s candidates and support the necessary training so that they stick with women all the way from the local level all the way to appointment and election.”

A look at party constitutions and manifestos is also one way to guide decision-making when it comes to voting. If parties determine the agenda, then if gender equality is not in parties’ electoral manifestos it will not be a point for discussion in local councils, and the status quo for women at a local level is unlikely to change. Disappointingly, although the next local government elections may be just months away, none of the leading political parties had published their electoral manifestos on their websites so it’s impossible to get a sense of whether gender is on the agenda.

However, a look at the 2016 election manifestos of South Africa’s leading political parties leaves the reader with a sense that most parties don’t have a clear vision or targets for improving women’s lives at a municipal level, or even think of women as constituents at all.

In 2016, Cope was the only party with a concrete target — that all ward committees should have sub-committees to deal with the issues of women, children, youth and persons with disabilities. The ANC committed to advancing women in all sectors of society, creating sustainable work opportunities for all people (especially youth and women), and working with all sectors to end violence against women and children. The IFP said that we could trust them to respect the rule of law and create secure communities so that “our women and children” should feel safe in our streets. The DA, FF+, and the EFF didn’t mention women at all.

Perhaps this is why, for Gouws, the solution might be to avoid voting for parties altogether. “I think women could do well by voting for independent candidates that they know will fight for women’s issues, or they should put forward women who are independent candidates. These candidates are not beholden to political parties, and they can hold the balance of power, putting them in very powerful positions where they can demand trade-offs for their support for the issues of other parties.”

Whether the elections happen in October, or only in 2022, it remains unclear whether they will make any difference to the lives of women unless political parties make meaningful commitments, and ensure that all of their candidates, regardless of gender, commit to gender equality on paper and in practice. DM/MC


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