The Power to Change: How influential are women in the post-apartheid decision-making in South Africa?

AGORA moderator's picture

In the past few years, as a result of gender-sensitive policy reforms in South Africa, the political representation of women has improved in the parliament. This said, South African women still face challenges to their full participation in the country’s public and political life.

International comparison shows that when it comes to women’s political participation, South Africa is one of the world’s top performers. With a female share of 45 percent in the Parliament, the country prides itself as the role model in terms of political opportunities for women]. While women´s numerical representation in the Parliament has increased significantly during Jacob Zuma’s presidency, they still face numerous obstacles, due to open and indirect mechanisms of exclusion and discrimination in political institutions.

Across African democracies, many have successfully implemented both voluntary and mandatory quotas in their legal systems and party platforms to promote gender balance in elected bodies. South Africa, where the African National Congress (ANC)1 introduced quotas already in the first post-apartheid democratic elections in 1994, is considered the forerunner for voluntary party quotas on the whole continent. Nowadays, there are two types of political quotas that require a certain number or percentage of the membership of an elected or appointed body - whether a candidates list of a political party, members of the parliamentary assembly, parliamentary committees, or a government body – to be women. Through voluntary party quotas parties commit to nominating a certain percentage of female candidates for electoral lists. The second type of quotas, candidate quotas, are mandatory and mean that a certain number of elected positions must be reserved for women. In regional and local elections, they include conditions on the position of women on the electoral list, for instance by requiring that every second entry on the list must be a woman.2

The quota system places the burden of recruitment not on the individual woman, but on those who control the recruitment process. The core idea behind this system is to recruit women for political positions and to ensure that women are not isolated in political life.

The introduction of electoral gender quotas has shifted the pressure to advance women’s political participation by facilitating the election of female candidates onto political party leadership. It has certainly been a numerical success. But more recently, feminists have questioned the extent to which the Women’s Empowerment & Gender Equality Act has truly improved the participation and representation of women in politics and, as a consequence, has contributed to better living conditions of the female population.

Many South African women continue to suffer from various political, social and economic disadvantages. They often do not have access to the same financial resources, education, employment opportunities and basic services as their male counterparts. The above Act, introduced in 2013, was meant to offer women access to policymaking processes by providing a comprehensive legal framework women empowerment and gender equality. However, it soon became evident that the Act perpetuates selective mechanisms and would not lead to greater inclusion. For one, it lacks effective enforcement mechanisms to warrant

compliance. It further requires designated private entities to promote and fulfil certain fundamental rights, which remain the duty of the state and for which women have been historically fighting. Concretely, the responsibility for providing basic services such as healthcare, education oraffordable food and energy has been shifted to the private sector, which creates different levels of barriers to women’s participation. Finally, the Act does not make any reference to existing legislation which seeks to protect women and promote gender equality, thus effectively creating a fragmented, incoherent and vague framework. The example of the Women’s Empowerment & Gender Equality shows that women’s participation in political life has amounted to getting women into elected and appointed offices but has not resulted in more gender inequality outside politics.


How influential are women in the post-apartheid decision-making in South Africa? Are there genuine opportunities for women to participate in the political life?

The political representation of women and their social role are inseparable. Historically, South African women were active in the anti-apartheid movement and formation of the first two democratic parliaments. Their commitment to the fight against the apartheid state, for example, by organizing campaigns and mass demonstrations against racist laws, had strengthened their position within the ANC to this day.

The introduction of a 30-percent quota in the 1994 elections has contributed to the success of the South African women and permanently changed the political landscape of the country. Women’s movement in Africa is one of the main factors which have led to an increase in the number of women in politics. These groups have often successfully lobbied for women's political leadership pushedfor legislative and constitutional transformations. The women's movement was the driving force behind the concept of a “national machinery for women”, that is, a set of institutions inside and around the state that would articulate women's particular policy interests and hold the state accountable to its commitment to gender equality.

However, these early successes of the ANC have been weakened by increasingly hierarchical and centralist tendencies within the party in the last years. The ANC is now pressured to undergo major structural shifts, by changing the rules and conditions of its recruitment. Rather than relying on positive discrimination strategies the ANC needs to manage to establish a political system that pervasive gender justice and representation of women in political and decision-making positions Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as preferred candidate for the presidency in 2017.

The case of South Africa shows that large numbers of women in elected offices do not necessarily have to translate into policies sufficiently promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment. As women in politics and outside continue to face a multitude of impediments to participation, some important gaps still need to be addressed.

Quotas have been the most effective short-term strategy for facilitating access for women to parliamentary seats. However, this participation has often been limited to the Lower House of the parliament, leaving the Upper House dominated by men, as is the case in most African countries with bi-cameral systems. The issue is also that of portfolios. Women tend to chair committees which deal with the so-called ‘soft’ portfolio areas, such as woman affairs, family affairs, health care or education. The process of appointing women to committees, both as chairs and as members, tends to be based on conventions rather than explicit merit-based rules. There is a need for the parliament to develop ways of matching leadership positions with members’ abilities, diverse working experience, and the objective of achieving

gender equality both within the parliamentary institution and through gender-responsive legislation, policies and budgets that it passes. This can ensure that quotas will result not only in addressing the exclusion of women from the public and political sphere, but also in improving the equality and empowerment of women outside politics.

Stefania Vittori,intern at AGORA Portal for Parliamentary Development