Defend Truth


South Africa’s sixth democratic Parliament must show it can deliver meaningful change for womxn and young people


Zukiswa White is a Pan-Africanist and feminist activist and independent social justice consultant. This article was published with the support of the Heinrich Böll Foundation. The views expressed in this article should not be taken as a reflection of the views of the Foundation.

We have a crisis in South Africa when young people are unable to access the job market or any other meaningful economic opportunity. We have a crisis in South Africa when womxn have to choose between economic opportunity, in the form of jobs and promotions, and sexual violations, in the form of being made to perform sexual favours. It is worse when you are both young and poor.

The sixth democratic National Assembly in South Africa opens on 20 June 2019. But the validity of its claim to be a “People’s Assembly” is yet to be affirmed.

Beyond better proportionate gender representation of Members of Parliament and a 50/50 split of ministers, will the People’s Assembly commit itself to more gender mainstreaming and to gender-responsive budgeting that we have not seen in the past five Parliaments? Will it demonstrate the political will and imagination needed to solve the crisis of youth unemployment and education for its majority youth population?

And, in a context where we are seeing a resurgence of right-wing conservative politics, what does a People’s Assembly mean, and what should its priorities be in the five years ahead? How do we hold its stakeholders accountable, and to what degree, for commitments made in their political manifestos? Particularly those made to womxn and youth in a country where both of these constituencies are in deep crisis?

After political scandals including Marikana, Life Esidimeni and the approval of the Xolobeni mine on the Wild Coast, the sixth People’s Assembly must deliver beyond the elections. Along with the rise of fierce resistance by feminist movements in the country, South Africans are readily moving past the point of collective amnesia and the manipulation of empty rainbow-nation politics sustained by a culture of rhetoric, grandstanding and minimal accountability.

The time for weaponising the People’s glorious history of resistance against white minority rule, through the centuries of colonialism and the abhorrent system of racial segregation, seems to be passing swiftly. The People want a government that truly embodies their collective aspirations and governs over these with meaningful policies and effectively implemented programmes.

Simply put, the People want a government that works, and that demonstrates its capacity by addressing social inequity and driving development in ways that go a little further than prioritising the interests of big business and investors. At a minimum, the People want their land, economic opportunity, and social and physical safety and security. Will the sixth People’s Assembly, finally, meet this expectation?

In the 2019 elections, womxn constituted 55% of registered voters: There were 122 womxn for every 100 registered male voters. In terms of age, the largest concentration of voters was the youth, aged 20 to 29 years old (10.4 million). However, only half of this age group heeded the call to register and even fewer actually showed up at the polls.

Owing to structural socioeconomic and political imbalances, womxn and young people are the most marginalised constituencies in South African society. The top three political parties had an opportunity to take them seriously in their political manifestos and their activism — but they did not. And where an attempt was made, it was not consistent or far-reaching enough.

When half the country does not bother to show up at the polls, we must seriously question how meaningful South Africa’s parliamentary electoral system is in the lives of ordinary South Africans. If abstinence from voting is indeed a political choice — if, that is, the People have rejected the ballot box and not merely missed it because of circumstances — their disillusion with politics would be vindicated by their devastating reality.

One in four South Africans suffers from hunger on a daily basis. Young people contend with the frustrating reality of an unemployment rate that sits at 28%, with “expanded unemployment” metrics moving this number to around 38%.

Statistics on sexual violations in South Africa are on par with war-torn countries, and the murder rate for womxn increased by more than 110% between 2015 and 2016-17. Every other day, poor communities take to the streets to display their anger and disdain for a political elite that is power-driven, neglectful and uninterested in delivering basic services such as water, sanitation and housing.

Just three weeks after the elections, people who had to erect shelter for themselves were violently evicted from these structures, and the little property they owned completely destroyed. The majority of those affected were womxn and children who have been left without an alternative for accommodation. This is contrary to Section 26 of the Constitution, which guarantees housing as a right and socioeconomic justice as a national political priority.

I am a 26-year-old voter who is both black and womxn. I have participated in two local elections and 8 May 2019 was my third national one.

The local government election in 2016 affirmed that democracy, at least in the form of electoral politics, works in South Africa. Following that, this was by far my most interesting election period. It was interesting because of its potential to foreshadow a situation where our national democratic life is characterised more strongly by coalitions and shared power.

That could be considered a win for democracy, but it also makes it increasingly difficult to decide whom to vote for. This is not because we have the luxury of too many exciting options to choose from, but the exact opposite: No single political party, if one is honest, truly stands out.

Even though I am politicised and active in the political life of the country, these elections left me with more questions than answers. I am deeply concerned that there is not a single major party that is able to claim full resonance with the majority of the youth and the majority of womxn and this is especially the case for young black womxn.

Those of us who belong in both categories must contend with the alarming reality that we are simply not a political priority. In their manifestos, the political parties treated the issues that face young people and womxn as a footnote — which is, unfortunately, on brand with their behaviour between elections.

We have a crisis in South Africa when young people are unable to access the job market or any other meaningful economic opportunity. We have a crisis in South Africa when womxn have to choose between economic opportunity, in the form of jobs and promotions, and sexual violations, in the form of being made to perform sexual favours. It is worse when you are both young and poor. All that you are offered by political-party policy is to be treated — sorry, to be “empowered” — as a recipient of socioeconomic services, but not as an active, capable socioeconomic participant who can contribute meaningfully to your community and society.

None of the three major political parties now in Parliament is convincing, especially where gender sensitivity and mainstreaming is concerned. In their core issues, as espoused by their campaign messaging, the African National Congress (ANC) leads with jobs and ending poverty; the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) with land and jobs; the Democratic Alliance (DA) with the economy and fighting the ANC.

None offer anything specific to address womxn’s unemployment or the social factors that keep womxn out of the job market. They do not offer any clear strategies to increase womxn’s representation, training and employment, particularly in sectors dominated by men, or even to address the gendered wage gap.

This is unjustified in a country where employment and unemployment, like most socioeconomic and political issues, are so obviously gendered. Gender disparity continues to increase, as is reflected in sky-rocketing levels of gender-based violence and violence against womxn, as well as income disparity, and the scarcity of womxn in leadership in key sectors of society.

It is just not enough to simply make mention of issues affecting womxn. Political rhetoric and empty sympathy will not cut it anymore. What is required is a demonstration of proper analysis of the concrete situation, strategies, resources and accountability mechanisms.

This criticism is especially true for the ANC, which has governed for the past 25 years. It is not offering anything new, nor does it account for how its policies and commitments will fare differently under this new dispensation.

The DA, even in its anti-ANC messaging, leaves out this particular failure of the ANC.

The EFF makes a better attempt to be gender-sensitive and to address the issues affecting womxn head-on. This effort is undermined by elaborate promises that are unaccompanied by any plan or identification of resources for implementation.

Womxn Forward, the country’s only political party to exclusively give a voice to womxn, did not perform as well as it expected to, but its campaign messaging did resonate.

Whether the Sixth People’s Assembly will deliver beyond the vote is yet to be seen. When it comes to gender, political parties must wrest themselves from their limitations and ignorance. Gender-based violence and violence against womxn, while urgent and important political problems, are not the only drivers of womxn’s poor socioeconomic and political status, and this violence is in any case not divorced from other drivers of socioeconomic inequity. Their analysis and response must be far-reaching enough to account for this.

Furthermore, while representation is a positive step forward, it is for the same reasons not enough on its own to elevate the lives of ordinary South African womxn. If the sixth People’s Assembly is to effectively reverse the marginalisation of youth and womxn, this must be understood as a critical aspect of driving national development in the country.

I am encouraged by greater representation and, because the bar is generally low, I was also encouraged that, at last, issues affecting me as a womxn were rightly politicised.

But the People do not live on hope alone — we want to see effective policy-making and implementation that can reverse the grave consequences of a neoliberal economy incapable of presiding over a society whose sharp intersections of race, gender and class result in a pervasive culture of violence and exclusion. DM