Political change threatening gender commitments?

Date: January 1, 1970
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While South Africa has made all the right moves towards reaching the Southern African Development Community (SADC) target of 50% of women in all areas of decision-making by 2015, it has still failed to achieve parity in any area of political decision-making. Though SADC leaders reaffirmed the 50% commitment this past August when they signed the regional Protocol on Gender and Development, progress remains slow.

If South Africa is to honour this commitment, the next two elections must see a large increase (18%) in women’s representation. With trends showing only a 3.9% increase since the first democratic elections 14 years ago in 1994, it seems apparent that there is a need for drastic measures.
Recent events in South Africa have seen some substantial shifts in the political arena. While the African National Congress (ANC) has been the best performer to date in terms of women’s representation in all areas of decision-making, there are some worrying trends.
National progress towards the 50% target largely results from the ANC’s voluntary adoption of the 50/50 principal in all elected structures within the party, and the large majority they hold. If this majority is lost, in the absence of commitment from other parties to parity or a legislated quota, there is a high probability that women’s representation will decrease.
Calls from the new ANC splinter party for electoral reform to move from the proportional representation (PR) to the constituency based electoral system is an additional factor that could see the gains of the past decade lost.
Election results in the region and across the globe show that the constituency system, also known as first-past-the-post (FPTP), is far more hostile to getting women elected. The PR system is more conducive to increasing women’s representation because the electorate votes for political parties, which are then allocated seats in parliament according to the percentage of vote they received, as opposed to FPTP where citizens vote for candidates, who represent the party in a constituency.
Four of the five SADC countries (Angola, Mozambique, South Africa and Namibia) that have achieved or exceeded 30 percent representation of women in parliament follow the PR electoral system; they also all have voluntary party quotas implemented by the ruling parties. Tanzania is the exception to this rule as it has a FPTP system, but the country has a 30% legislated quota.  The remaining SADC countries, which follow the FPTP system, have failed to achieve 30% women in the legislature.
At 32.3%, South Africa ranks 17th in the world and 3rd in the SADC region in terms of women’s representation in parliament. No other political party in South Africa has adopted a quota; in fact, most opposition parties publicly oppose quotas, citing that they are undemocratic.
However, the Lesotho Court of Appeal set a precedent when it upheld a High Court Ruling that a temporary and rotating quota was not unconstitutional. The ruling found that, in fact, quotas were reasonably justifiable in circumstances where it is an indisputable fact that women have been disadvantaged and marginalised socially, economically and politically.
While there has been a small 7% increase in combined opposition women members of parliament (MPs) from 15.1% in 1999 to 22.3% in 2008, this is far from parity. While the ANC accounts for the majority of women parliamentarians, there has been no progression over the past 14 years with the party having maintained 35% women MPs.
In fact, there have been decreases in women’s representation in all areas of political decision-making between the period 2004 and 2008, ranging from 0.8% in the National Assembly to 5.6% in the National Council of Provinces (NCOP.)  The combined parliament has seen a 1.3% decline while the cabinet reshuffle by incoming President Kgalema Motlanthe shows a 3.3% decrease in women ministers and deputies.
While these drops may seem marginal, they are a cause for concern in a country where we should be seeing progressive increases as opposed to any kind of regression.  A further concern is the fact the ANC Women’s League (ANCWL) failed to put forward a woman candidate for the top position in government ahead of the parties’ national conference in December last year, despite the presence of a number of strong and likely women candidates within the party.
The question is can we leave the required increases – ranging from 10% in local government and cabinet to 18% in parliament – over the next two elections to the whims of political parties? Or do we need something more binding which applies to all political parties and which can be enforced?
Political parties are the gatekeepers for women’s entry into politics because they control the nomination process.  They therefore play an integral role in ensuring women’s representation in all of their structures and at all levels. Members of the South Africa 50/50 campaign are proposing a legislated quota requiring all political parties to have equal numbers of women and men on their party lists, which would carry sanctions for non-compliance. 
However, there is the danger of legitimising patriarchy by focussing only the numbers. It is important that any discourse around quotas should also take into account qualitative factors.  If any real, legitimate change is to take place, the institutions in which women have to function (which still remain largely patriarchal) need to change to become more enabling structures for women.  It is also crucial that an informed electorate know how and what they should be holding their elected representatives accountable for.
The current changing political climate, political turmoil within the ANC, and the formation of a splinter party all point to a need for commitment from all parties to gender equality. Formalising this commitment through legislation will ensure that even where political parties change, the commitment to equal representation of women will remain.
Susan Tolmay is the Gender and Governance Manager and Gender Links. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service that offers fresh views on everyday news.

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