Womens leadership roles in SA is essential for the better life we seek as a nation

FLYING THE FLAG: The ANC Womens League marches to the Union Buildings to celebrate Womens Day. Gender inequality continues, even today. Picture: Oupa Mokoena

Speculation that Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is a contender to become ANC president and by default South Africa’s president and its first woman president is almost always underscored by the emphasis that she is President Jacob Zuma’s ex-wife and that it is he who is behind the campaign to get her elected to the highest office.

Her attributes as a leader and her various high-profile designations (head of the African Union) are mere footnotes in the patriarchal narrative.

At the other end of the spectrum, violence continues to be perpetrated against vulnerable (mostly poor) young women in South Africa by men for whom patriarchy, power and perverse sense of self-worth is informed through their violent behaviour against females. 

Gender-based violence remains a significant issue in South Africa with intimate partner violence accounting for 40 percent to 70 percent of female murder victims At least 77 percent of women in Limpopo province, 51 percent of women in Gauteng, 45 percent of women in the Western Cape and 36 percent of women in KwaZulu-Natal have experienced some form of violence at the hands of men.

Equality and women making progress is prefaced on the idea that their ambition would not be fulfilled if it were not for the role men had played in ensuring they get there.

For in our everyday use of language and ingrained phrases – behind every man there is a good woman, for example – psychologically and intrinsically the woman as support role player continues to persist, no matter how far we have come as a society or how progressive our constitution is.

The fact of the matter is this: the majority of women continue to fight a different struggle to men in South Africa. 

The invisibility of women is easily traced to an omission in mainstream history books of information and recognition of women and their part in politics, the Struggle for rights and gender equality.

And the older the history books, the less representation of any group except white men would be writ large – waxing lyrical about their exploits either on the battle field or in the boardroom.

It was a simple and simply oppressive construct – men held authority in society and women’s role were one of support and a primarily domestic one.

But with the growth of towns, industrialization, the industrial economy and a migrant labour system, attitudes and conventions toward women started to change.

And while it is accepted that there are many Dlamini-Zuma’s in the making in our society, there is  still a huge chasm in how women’s role in shaping our history and how women are shaping a future South Africa is documented and told as opposed to how history still favors the male bias.

As one observer noted on how women are perceived in South African society: 

“South African society remains a pluralist one with huge cultural diversities, and there are many challenges ahead. Furthermore, in modern-day South Africa women are faced with a wide range of issues such as the high crime rate, domestic violence, child abuse, HIV/AIDS, poverty, poor local government delivery and unemployment. 

“Motherhood is still central to most women’s lives across the board and women’s role in family life is still the basis of a morally sound, orderly society. Although great strides have been made, gender discrimination still takes place in the workplace, and while there are notable exceptions, women are as yet poorly represented in top managerial and executive posts country-wide.” 

“However, women have shaken off the shackles of the past and in their determined struggle against political oppression and gender inequality they have earned themselves a place in the sun in the new South Africa.”

But to what degree?

The government has produced a number of policies and legislation in pursuit of women’s empowerment and equality.

The Constitution includes Section 9 which promotes equality for all persons and freedom from discrimination and the Employment Equity Act, No 55 (1998) which strives to achieve equity in the workplace by promoting fair treatment in employment. But are we serious about women in South Africa?

For example, there is no clear indication that the budget is genuinely gender responsive. Also, women own only 1 percent of the land in South Africa. And have a far lesser success rate when it comes to trying to secure loans.

Research by women advocacy groups have shown that women receive 7 percent of the agricultural extension services and less than 10 percent of the credit offered to small-scale farmers. 

In terms of women’s political empowerment, South Africa experienced a minor setback in its 50/50 by 2015 Campaign for women’s representation in parliament. There was a 4 percent drop in women’s representation in parliament in the May 2014 elections.  According to international advocacy group One, this was actually a setback as 44 percent women representation had been achieved in 2009. 

“The African Union (AU) declared 2015 as the Year of Women Empowerment and Development towards Africa’s Agenda 2063. The declaration is a display of AU’s renewed political commitment and support for the women’s empowerment and the gender equality agenda. Whilst this is  a welcome move, it is important that African states must go beyond talking and match its words with concrete action and allocate appropriate resources if there is going to be any meaningful change in the lives of African women and girls,” the group challenged.

We, as South Africans, project an image of a collective consciousness wrought out of our innate sense of justice and equality, yet behind closed doors our actions against, especially women, tells a different tale.

Let us use everyday as the opportunity to reflect on us as a society and the role each one of us can play by aspiring to a common collective born out of the ideals of a non-racist, non-sexist, gender equal society.

Meokgo Matuba is the Secretary General of the ANC Women’s League