‘Add Women and Stir’

January 14, 2008

South Africa: Women’s Movement & the Upcoming Presidential Election

By John Bavoso 

14 January, 2008: Looking in on South Africa during the run-up to the 2008 presidential race the data regarding gender equality within South African society seems strikingly contradictory. On one hand, due to policies such as the quota system enacted by the African National Congress (ANC) following democratic transition, South Africa has one of the highest percentages of female parliamentarians in world–easily ahead of many more developed countries. On the other hand, on the individual level women remain disadvantaged economically. South Africa has one of the highest rates of reported sexual and domestic violence against women in the world. Now, as the country moves towards a change in public figures, it becomes more important to look critically at existing policies regarding gender equality and what still needs to be done to bring about real positive change.

The disconnect between the high level of female representation and gender inequality within society effectively mirrors and highlights a fundamental debate occurring within international relations scholarship–especially within the realm of feminism. The two sides of this debate have been referred to by scholars such as Shireen Hassim–professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and noted political activist–as “inclusionary” and “transformational” feminist approaches.

The inclusionary approach is generally characterized by its belief in the efficacy of the policy sometimes referred to as “add women and stir” meaning that simply adding more women to places of power will make the government more representative of the population and push gender issues to the forefront of national dialogs. South Africa’s democratic transition was a major example of the effective implementation of the inclusionary approach. When the ANC took power, the women who had worked so hard for the revolutionary movement were rewarded for their efforts with a quota system ensuring that 30% of all ANC elected parliamentarians were women. The results were undeniable: in 1994, in the first democratic elections, 111 women were elected to parliament–taking South Africa from having one of the lowest percentages of women in parliament to one of the highest in a matter of days.

The other half of the debate is made up of those who subscribe to the transformational approach. This perspective views itself not as opposed to the inclusionary approach, per se, but rather as a logical and necessary continuation of it. In this view, getting women into positions of power is important, but not the ultimate goal–it must serve as the catalyst for true societal transformation. In the transformational view, such change can only be brought about with the help of a strong women’s movement within civil society.

One may think that, given the number of women in government, a women’s movement would be obsolete. Despite the striking statistical results of such policies, the effectiveness of this approach’s attempts to bring about true improvements for South African women has been repeatedly called into question. Scholars agree that merely having women in power doesn’t guarantee that gender issues will be their priorities–especially in South Africa. South African women have many identities in addition to their gender: their race, locality, and nationality, to name a few. It is often seen as unpatriotic to focus too heavily on gender issue.

In an ironic twist of fate, the quota system has effectively taken civic leaders away from the women’s movement and put them into public office–leaving the movement for the most part devoid of leadership and cohesion. In addition to this, women have been kept outside of politics for so long that many women have needed time to adjust to their new roles. As one woman said, following her election to parliament in 1994, “I never wanted to be a Senator, because I did not know what a Senator is in the first place.” For these reasons, in addition to many others, a strong women’s movement whose sole purpose is to advocate for gender equality is desperately needed for society to be transformed.

This is not to say that there is no women’s movement in South Africa or that the women’s rights groups don’t work tirelessly. What needs to be highlighted, however, is the danger that comes with quota systems: once the inclusionary policies have been put into place, people tend to feel that parity has been reached and therefore neglect the more revolutionary measures needed to transform society. Some critics go as far as to claim that the quota systems are an appeasement tool used to stall measures aimed at transforming society and traditional attitudes towards women.

While South Africa’s history may be unique and noteworthy, it is the country’s present and future that may determine its legacy in terms of gender equality. If the 2008 presidential race is any indication, advocates for women’s rights may be in for a challenge. It has been widely reported that earlier this year Jacob Zuma won the title of ANC party leader, making him poised to become President in 2009. What has been less frequently reported on is the dismay felt by many women’s rights activists upon hearing this news.

Zuma’s own personal past with women is at best “interesting”–he has two wives and his infidelities have been well documented in the press. Last year he was charged and acquitted of rape while scandals surrounding his ex-wives have repeatedly appeared in the media.

But it is Zuma’s policies regarding gender issues which have many South Africans truly concerned. While the ANC’s National Executive Committee, a group of the top officials in the party, must have equal numbers of men and women represented, the party, under Zuma’s contol, has indicated that it does not feel that this same parity should apply the party’s top six positions. With this in mind, it becomes even more shocking that the ANC’s Women’s League officially endorsed Zuma for the ANC presidency. Critics say that this was done for reasons of in-party politics, rather than in promotion of women’s equality. This instance alone provides perhaps the strongest arguments for the need of the existence of a vigorous women’s movement within society that spans racial and political divides and unites all South African women.

Heading into the 2008 presidential race, there is an opportunity to make true strides toward significant gender equality in South Africa. However, the important lesson to be learned from South Africa in the past decade is that if a true transformation in the nature of society is to come about, it must be accomplished both by those working inside and outside of the existing government machinery. While Zuma’s eventual election to President of the country may be a forgone conclusion to some, the way in which women’s groups react during and after the election may be the true test of the vitality of the women’s movement in South Africa.


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