The beginning of complacency? Gender and the 2004 elections

Date: February 26, 2011
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Women’s increase in South Africa’s Parliament during the last elections may not be as good as it looks.

The 2004 elections, which witnessed an increase in the representation of women in national and provincial assemblies to almost exactly one-third, affirmed South Africa’s global reputation for steady performance in getting the gender balance right.

But the failure by opposition parties to move beyond getting women on lists to getting them into parliament, and of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) to raise the stakes from thirty to fifty percent came as a disappointment to activists hoping for some real action in 2004.

As a senior woman in the ANC puts it: “I think there is beginning to be complacency; this feeling that we are there in our own right, why do we still have to push for the numbers. It’s not articulated, but there is a bit of subtle backlash from the women themselves.À

At the present rate of increase in the representation of women in the national assembly of some 2.7 to 2.8 percent each election, it would take six elections, or thirty years before gender parity is reached. The question for political parties, all of whom subscribe to a Constitution that guarantees gender equality, is whether this is to be left to chance and evolution, or whether more deliberate measures are required.

The number of women in the new South African parliament is set to increase from 120 to 131. With a national assembly of 400 seats, this will result in an overall proportion of 32.8 percent women in parliament compared to 30 percent in 1999.

South Africa will now move up in the global ranking of women in parliament from 15th to 11th place, coming after Austria and slightly ahead of Germany. Rwanda, with 49 percent women in parliament, is in the lead position in the global league.

South Africa will also now move to first position in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) ranking of women in parliament, with Mozambique at 30 percent, a close second.

At provincial level, representation of women has gone up from 24 percent in 1994, to 27.7 percent in 1999, to the present level of 32.3 percent. Gauteng is highest with 42.4 percent women. Free State, with 26 percent women, followed by KZN with 26.2 percent women, are the provinces with the lowest representation of women.

The figures show clearly that the main reason for the increase in women’s representation in the 2004 elections is the ANC’s higher majority. For example, in the national assembly, the number of ANC women will increase from 96 in 1999 to 104 in 2004, accounting for eight out of the eleven additional women MPs in the new parliament.

At provincial level, with the exception of the Free State, the representation of women is lowest in the two provinces where the ANC is weakest (Kwa Zulu Natal and the Western Cape.)   At both national and provincial level, ANC women constitute 80 percent of women legislators, higher than the ANC’s overall voter support of 70 percent. The obvious conclusion is that the ANC, the only party with a thirty percent women quota for women, continues to contribute a disproportionate number of the women in parliament.

An important trend over the last decade is the extent to which the ANC’s quota has had a cascading effect on opposition parties. An analysis of the pre election lists shows that overall, women constituted over thirty percent of candidates in the case of seven out of ten opposition parties; a definite improvement on 1999.

The glitch came in where women were positioned on these lists; a critical factor for small parties that only get a few seats. Parties with a handful of seats and no women in the top positions- meaning they will have no women in parliament- include the New National Party, African Christian Democratic Country (ACDP), Minority Front, Freedom Front and the Azanian People’s Organisation.

The main opposition Democratic Alliance, which opposes quotas but now admits to “head hunting womenÀ has increased its proportion of women parliamentarians from 6 in 1999 to 13 in 2004 (from 15.7 percent of the DA total in 1999, to 26 percent in 2004).

Significantly, two smaller parties with no quota achieved a higher proportion of women than the ANC’s 35 percent (the same in 1999 and 2004). These are Bantu Holomisa’s UDM (four out of nine, or 44.4 percent) followed by Patricia de Lille’s Independent Democrats with three out of seven (or 43 percent) women.

Another interesting development is that at provincial level, Gauteng managed to go well beyond the thirty percent level, to 42 percent. Both the ANC and the DA have 40 percent women in South Africa’s most prosperous and populous province.

All these would seem to be good arguments in favour of evolutionary change. If some processes and some parties can deliver the numbers without resorting to quotas, why force the pace?

The Fifty- Fifty campaign, which argues for a legislated quota of fifty percent for all parties, says that this argument is flawed for a number of reasons:
·  It’s unfair for some parties to be making the effort while others are not.
·  The proportion of women in decision-making in South Africa is too reliant on the ANC. If for some reason ANC support diminished, these gains could be rapidly eroded.
·  If one accepts that gender equality means gender parity in decision-making, there is no valid reason for not raising the stakes from thirty to fifty percent and making this obligatory for all parties.

In an interview for Gender Link’s study, “Ringing up the Changes, Gender in Southern African PoliticsÀ, Minister in the Office of the President Esop Pahad said he intended to take up the issue of a legislated quota after the election. But he shied away from raising the threshold from thirty to a fifty percent; a psychological barrier that no one in the ANC seems ready to cross.

Interestingly, the ANC has accepted the idea of a “zebraÀ lists (one woman, one man) in the PR seats for local government (a mixture between the list and constituency or ward system). The unfortunate message is that the ANC is only willing to countenance parity at local level, which one official described as “community affairsÀ than in the arenas that are regarded as the real domains of power.

Women in the ANC see these contradictions, but they are not necessarily ready to fight them. Some argue that focusing too much on numbers detracts attention from the more pressing issue of improving the day- to- day lives of women. Others look at the global and regional scales, reckon South Africa is doing okay, and decide it’s not an issue worth expending energy on.

They have a point. But an opportunity that South Africa misses out on in being content with above average performance is that globally South Africa is not just looked upon to perform, but to lead.

South Africa played a huge role in goading SADC heads of state to sign a Declaration on Gender and Development that commits all countries in the region to achieve thirty percent women in decision-making by 2005. Half of the thirteen countries, including South Africa, will make the grade; the others will not. But the clamour is already to go for the next logical step: gender parity

It’s hard to fault the ANC on its commitment to getting women into decision-making over the last decade. What a legacy it would be if in the next decade South Africa became one of the first countries in the world to claim equal representation by women and men in all spheres of power.

Colleen Lowe Morna is the Executive Director of Gender Links.

This article is part of the GEM Opinion and Commentary Service that provides views and perspectives on current events. for more information.

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