On the 29th of May, President Cyril Ramaphosa made the much-anticipated reveal of his new Cabinet. Apart from being slimmed down, half of the new Cabinet is now comprised of women; a move that has earned the President applause from the local and international community alike. The gender-parity achieved in the new Cabinet is commendable, especially considering that the South African political field is largely male-dominated.
Calls for the increased representation of women in spaces of power and influence have become more and more prominent from all corners of the globe. Increased female representation is hoped to initiate meaningful dialogue on key issues concerning the advancement of women’s rights and not just to be seen as token appointments. Women are usually given the task of bringing about these issues with the assumption being that they are conscious of the systems that affect and oppress their agency.
For the representation of women to have a meaningful impact, those that ascend to those positions should be bold to advance the issues and challenges faced by women and not be afraid to upset the apple cart. This is assuming that those leaders are aware of these issues and challenges. Never has it been more crucial for women’s issues to take the forefront, especially considering that the country has some of the highest rates of gender-based violence and femicide globally. Data from the World Health Organisation shows that the femicide rate in South Africa is almost five times the global average. Women also make up a disproportionate section of the unemployed and often earn less than their male counterparts for the same jobs.
However, we should guard against assuming that increased representation alone advances the wider gender equality agenda. While increased female representation remains a key issue, the attitudes and actions taken by those put in positions of influence matter even more. Lest it be forgotten, some of our female politicians have in the past displayed an alarming lack of understanding and empathy for women’s issues. When asked to comment on the allegations of rape against former President Zuma’s during her ANC Presidential campaign trail, Lindiwe Sisulu stated the she “believes [Fezekile ‘Khwezi’ Ntsukela Kuzwayo] believes she was raped”. While her comment sent shockwaves throughout the country, what was even more shocking was her silence on the issue prior to her aspirations of taking up the ANC Presidency.
Gauteng MEC for Community Safety, Faith Mazibuko, chastised a woman for applying for social grants for her children, telling her to keep her legs closed and not have any more children. That particular episode cost the taxpayer R350 000 in an out of court settlement. The ANC’s Women’s League (ANCWL) has often found itself on the wrong side of history in the fight for women’s rights. With the body being the ruling party’s women’s wing, their thoughts and positions on women’s matters are often considered vital. The body’s support of former President Jacob Zuma during his 2007 rape trial is just one example of their willingness to support the party’s controversial male leaders at the expense of a supposed women’s agenda. When a group of female activists stood in front of former President Zuma at the IEC results announcement in 2016 with ‘Remember Khwezi’ posters during his speech, the ANCWL leaders present sat back and watched while the young women were forcefully and violently removed from the premises. The actions of Sisulu, Mazibuko and the ANCWL speak of a wider lack of awareness and sensitivity around women’s issues from the very same figures meant to represent them.
The fight for gender-parity and against patriarchy still has a long way to go. The conversation cannot end with representation alone. Regrettably, it is possible for women to be the gatekeepers of patriarchy and work against the advancement of women’s rights. While men stand to gain the most from the entrenchment of the system, women are as likely to perpetuate it, knowingly or not.
Beyond simply placing women in positions of power, perhaps the next step is determining whether those selected are indeed committed to fighting the status quo and for fellow women to hold them to account should they feel that they are not doing so. It is also worthwhile to consider that the responsibly of affecting change should not rest on the shoulders of women alone. The structures and institutions that these women exist and operate in should be dedicated to initiating and accepting much-needed change. The responsibility also lies with the governing party to prove their dedication towards a non-sexist society through real and meaningful reforms.