Women As Standard-Bearers Of SA’s New Dawn

On 8 March, countries around the world observed International Women’s Day in acknowledgement of the achievements of the women’s movement in advancing gender equality in social, cultural, economic and political spheres across the globe.

We have great cause to celebrate. The world has come a long way from a time when women were denied the suffrage, equal opportunity in the workplace and their advancement was otherwise impeded as a result of culture, religion and other social mores.

This day has historically been marked by progressive formations in both the developed and developing world and has its genesis in the labour movements in North America and parts of Europe; more specifically among women garment workers.

Although South Africa marks Women’s Day separately, the African National Congress marks this day in line with its commitment to progressive internationalism. The day was adopted by the United Nations in 1975.

South African women have taken significant strides towards achieving gender equality under the ANC-led government.

However, International Women’s Day gives us cause to reflect on an apparent paradox not just within the ANC, but other progressive organisations worldwide: Namely that they cannot necessarily be counted on to be progressive when it comes to advancing gender equality.

With regard to the adequate and effective representation of women across party structures, particularly in the highest echelons of leadership, in many instances, we have regressed and are not where we would have hoped to be.

A number of factors have contributed towards this anomaly; part historical and part contemporaneous.

In seeking to understand them, we draw on an event recounted by the renowned liberation struggle stalwart and trade unionist Emma Mashinini in her extraordinary 1989 autobiography Strikes Have Followed Me All My Life.

It was the mid-1980s, and after four years of talks, the progressive unions had agreed to unite and form the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu).

She was then the General Secretary of the organisation she founded, the Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union (CCAWUSA), and had seen it grow from a union with no members to one with over 80,000.

She observes:

“I had seen how all the men were very happy to consult with me because of the size and importance of my union. It didn’t matter then that I was a woman.”

But when the time came for names to be put forward for the National Executive of the new federation, she recalls, all of them were men, even from her own union.

As Mama Mashinini writes, there was “worse to come”; of all the logos proposed for the new union, not one contained the image of a woman. She describes her disappointment at this symbolic snub, saying “(our presence, our efforts, our work, our support, was not even recognised”.

Ultimately, Cosatu’s now iconic logo incorporated a representation of a woman carrying a baby – to highlight the triple challenges of race, gender and class oppression of women.

But at the time, she recalls, “we had to speak up for the very rights we had fought for from the employers”.

The experience of Mama Mashinini and many other women like her of encountering sexism and patriarchal attitudes, even within trade unions, has resonance today.

Although we have come a long way since the days when political contestation was once the exclusive preserve of men, it is men who still dominate the upper echelons of our organisational and leadership structures.

This is neither a reflection of the demography of South Africa nor of our commitment to the principles of gender equality and non-sexism.

The government we lead has a better track record.

Our Cabinet is 46% female. Both houses of Parliament are headed by women. South Africa ranks second out of the G20 countries in terms of women’s representation in Parliament.

Thirty-six percent of the seats in South Africa’s superior courts are occupied by women. Contrast this with one of the world’s oldest and most established democracies, the US, where of the 114 Supreme Court justices in the court’s 230-year history, all but six have been white, male and Protestant.

When it comes to gender representation, our government fares even better than the private sector.

Despite progressive affirmative action policies, most skilled posts are still filled by men.

Less than 30% of senior roles in South African businesses are held by women. Women are underrepresented at executive and board level in nearly all of our major companies, despite amendments to JSE listing requirements to include the promotion of gender diversity. In 2018 there was only one woman CEO among the top 40 JSE-listed companies.

Taking the above into consideration, critical questions must be asked as to why the ANC, deeply committed to non-racism and non-sexism, does not adequately reflect this key aspiration.

This necessitates an introspection as to what is impeding or inhibiting the succession of women to positions of leadership in the organisation.

Despite the ANC’s 50/50 gender representation policy that requires women to comprise half of all candidates to deployment lists, historically it has been men who have been nominated in far greater numbers than women by our structures.

If one considers that a large percentage of the ANC’s membership are women, it is moot whether they support the 50/50 policy and are nominating female candidates over males.

Over time, a number of theories have been postulated – among them that party structures reject the “determinism” inferred by a 50/50 gender policy – as it removes their agency in nominating candidates of their choice.

Another theory, that is more supposition and conjecture, is that the policy is hamstrung by a dearth of suitably experienced and “credentialled” women leaders, especially at a provincial level.

Another explanation, as difficult though it may be for us to countenance, is that many of our members continue to cling to a patriarchal world view content to see women as note-takers, organisers and community mobilisers, but not as provincial chairpersons, premiers or national office-bearers.

These hard-wired sexist attitudes are what is preventing the ANC as a movement from moving in the direction we want when it comes to furthering and entrenching gender equality.

They are wholly out of step with the organisation’s outlook and policies.

The ANC can be justifiably proud of its achievements over the past 25 years in furthering its transformative and progressive agenda.

The ANC’s Manifesto for the upcoming national elections lays out the party’s plans for building on these achievements across a range of fields from the economy, to international relations, to service delivery and social spending.

As the ANC we must consider whether we are doing enough to make gender equality in our organisation a demonstrable reality.

It is no longer good enough to blame our shortcomings in this regard on the pernicious influence of patriarchy.

We must develop a clear road map towards greater representation of women in our organisation’s leadership.

This would entail among other things consciously mentoring and grooming women for leadership positions, and providing skills training and coaching.

It would also entail ensuring that the voices of women across our structures are heard and amplified and that they are given opportunities to hone their leadership skills, especially our younger women cadres. After all, leaders are made, not born.

The 2019 elections present an opportunity for us as a movement to give effect to our progressive policy on gender representation – the only policy of its kind of all the political parties contesting this year’s polls.

We are, as the 2019 Elections Manifesto proclaims, a movement dedicated to building a united and democratic South Africa free from all forms of racism, sexism, xenophobia and hate crime.

It is time to transform our consciousness, as individual members of the ANC and as a collective.

There is no place in our movement for sexism and any other forms of chauvinism that relegate capable, loyal and committed cadres to the periphery on account of them being women.

The ANC owes its position to a public mandate given to us by our communities whose interests we have undertaken to defend.

Having more women in positions of leadership in the ANC sends a clear signal that our commitment to gender equality extends beyond rhetoric.

As the liberation stalwart Mama Ellen Khuzwayo said in a 1992 interview with the women’s periodical SPEAK Magazine: “We have women who are good leaders… leaders must come from their own communities and it is women who know their own communities best.”

Women – their efforts and their contribution cannot be airbrushed from the ANC’s history, as much as they cannot be erased from our country’s history.

Just as these efforts and contributions are considered when it comes to gender parity and personal advancement in the government we lead, so too should it be the case within the organisation itself. 

  • Cyril Ramaphosa is President of South Africa

OPINION: Cyril Ramaphosa