South Africa’s women in politics


The role of South African women in politics has increased since the end of apartheid through policy changes and organisations set up to enable women’s rights. Data from United Nations Women has shown that the country is faring decently in enabling women to take an active role in government.

South Africa has made great headway in the representation of women in parliament, housed in Cape Town. (Image: Wikipedia)

Priya Pitamber

Women have made strides in all sectors of society – the economy, engineering, science, technology, academia, media, and many more. In politics in particular, South African women have come incredibly far.

Before the arrival of democracy in South Africa in 1994, there was a mere 2.7% representation of women in parliament; since then, though, things have changed.

“Currently women ministers comprise 41% of the cabinet, women deputy ministers make up 47% of the total number of deputy ministers and there is a 41% representation of women in the National Assembly,” says the South African government.

Leadership positions in politics were previously dominated by men, and women’s entry into the sphere has been included in South Africa’s globally acclaimed narrative of triumph. “One of the success stories of our democracy is that of the representation of women in political and decision-making positions,” it adds.

“The new government and parliament have undertaken various measures to advance the position of women and to promote gender equality in all spheres,” wrote Mavivi Myakayaka-Manzini in the article Women in parliament: beyond numbers for the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA).

By South Africa’s 1999 election, she added, women accounted for 29.8% of the elected public representatives. That placed the country in the “top 10 in terms of representation of women, and giving it second highest representation in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region”.

Minister of Women Susan Shabangu
Minister of Women Susan Shabangu launched Women’s Month under the theme “Women united in moving South Africa forward” at the Union Buildings on 30 July 2015. (Image: South African Government, Flickr)

It starts with the Constitution

South African women were active in calling for change, which led to policy shifts. And it started with the country’s internationally lauded Constitution. Women made sure their rights were included in the document.

“This was not an easy task as they had to convince not only their parties but also the entire constitutional assembly,” wrote Myakayaka-Manzini. “The new Constitution protects many critical rights for women, including the right to equality; the right to freedom and security of the person (including the right to freedom from violence); the right to make decisions concerning reproduction; and the right to security and control over one’s own body.”

The Women’s Charter, a document enshrining women’s rights drawn up in 1954, was also taken into account and adopted under the Women’s National Coalition campaign in 1994. “The Constitution also contains a clause which enables women to take the Women’s Charter and other charters forward so that they can be adopted as government policies,” wrote Myakayaka-Manzini.

In relation to policy changes, a number of organisations and departments were set up to ensure policy translated into reality. The Presidency set up an Office on the Status of Women (OSW) to oversee and co-ordinate policy on women at national level.

In addition, the National Commission on Gender Equality started its work in 1997. “The task of this commission is to promote gender equality in society and to ensure that government and other non-statutory bodies implement their commitment to gender equality.”

With more women in parliament, structural changes were also made to the building itself. “When women came into parliament in such great numbers there were few facilities for them, including toilets in some of the buildings or floors,” observed Myakayaka-Manzini.

“Some male toilets were converted to female toilets.” A parliamentary day-care centre was also set up so women were able to do their work while their children were cared for in that facility.

Global comparison

UN Women
Data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and UN Women show that while the number of women in government is increasing, it is at a slow pace. Click on the image for a larger view. (Image: UN Women)

According to United Nations Women (UN Women), women entering politics is progressing slowly. “The snail’s pace of progress on gender equality and women’s participation in public and political life will need to be tackled head-on for the overall success of the new goals,” the organisation said.

In its report on the participation of women in politics, it said “women government ministers grew from 670 to 715 in the 12 months since 1 January 2014, that figure represents only 17.7% of all government ministers in the world. Since 2005, the percentage of women ministers has only increased by 3.5 points.”

The data also revealed that only 30 countries had 30% or more female ministers, with Finland, Cape Verde, Sweden, France and Liechtenstein occupying the top five places in the global rankings of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), respectively.

However, there are only eight countries – Bosnia Herzegovina, Brunei, Hungary, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Slovakia, Tonga and Vanuatu – that have no women in their governments.

In Africa, there are only three countries – South Africa, Cape Verde and Rwanda – where women account for more than 30% of ministers in the cabinet. “In absolute numbers, South Africa has the largest number of women ministers – 15 accounting for 41.7% of all ministers,” said UN Women.

“We are a long way from where the world needs to be on gender equality and women’s political participation,” said IPU president Saber Chowdhury. “This data should be a wake-up call to mobilise political will to change mind-sets and take action that will spur progress on this issue.”

The executive director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, called for renewed commitments and investments to meet the Beijing Platform for Action’s now 20-year-old target of gender balance. “If today’s leaders front-load gender equality, if they start now to make good on those 20-year-old promises, we can look forward to gender equality by 2030 at the latest,” she predicted.

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