Gender parity in politics is a far cry from equal rights for women

Date: January 1, 1970
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Women’s representation in parliament is set to increase from 33% to 45% in this week’s polls, putting South Africa among the top ten countries in the world on this score and placing us well in line to meet the regional target of gender parity in politics by 2015.

But with the likelihood of a president who faced rape charges and has several wives, and a campaign in which sexist slurs have been the order of the day, where exactly will that leave South Africa when it comes to equality between women and men?
More than ever before the 2009 South African election is likely to make us realise that gender equality means a lot more than jobs for the girls in a society whose patriarchal roots run far deeper than superficial number games.
On the face of it, there will be much to celebrate. When the African National Congress (ANC) raised its quota for women from 30% to 50% in the local government elections, activists waited to see if the same formula would be applied to the national elections this year.
An analysis of election lists by Gender Links (see graph) shows that women do indeed constitute half of those on the list. The fact that women are spread evenly or “zebra style” across the list also means that these women’s place in the national assembly is guaranteed. Assuming that, as most pundits believe, the ANC will get around 60% of the vote or 240 seats in parliament, we can safely predict that 120 of these will be women.
Although none of the opposition political parties believe in quotas for women, and would never admit to being influenced by the ANC, the pressure to ensure women’s representation has clearly rubbed off. The Independent Democrats (ID) have 52% women on their list; Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) have 29% and Congress of the People (COPE) 42% women.  Although these women are not evenly spread across their lists, it can reasonably be estimated that of the 160 or so seats that will go to opposition parties, about 60 will be women.  
With a total of 180, women would constitute 45% of the national assembly, the most impressive jump since the first democratic elections in 1994 in which the representation of women rose from 2.7 to 27 percent and one that puts the ideal of gender parity within reach.
The ANC can pride itself on being the only political party in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to have taken to heart the requirement in the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development (SADC)  that all members “endeavour to ensure” equal representation of women and men in all areas of decision-making by 2015.  
Ironically, never before since 1994 have women’s rights in South Africa been more under threat. The doubts cast on ANC leader Jacob Zuma’s credentials by the corruption case have been widely canvassed. Sadly, those relating to Zuma’s attitudes and conduct towards women have not.
It is true that Zuma was acquitted of rape charges. However, all the court found was that it could not be proved beyond reasonable doubt that he did not have consensual sex with an HIV positive woman half his age, whom he claimed he could “not leave in that state” when she walked into a room dressed in a kanga. Even a highly conservative judge had to comment on the inappropriateness of his behaviour, not least because leaders answer to a tougher code of ethics than that of legal technicalities.
The import of this case on gender discourse has been evident in the elections, with ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema declaring that women who have been raped do not ask for taxi money in the morning. While he and his ilk make light of the case, gender violence in South Africa shows no signs of abating and Zuma’s accuser languishes in a foreign country, effectively stripped of her citizenship because her life is not safe in a country where she dared to challenge male control and authority.
Our national media has reduced the debate on Zuma’s polygamous lifestyle to what this will cost tax payers; whether presidential security will be able to cope and which one of the first ladies will be the official escort; not whether acquiring more and more wives as if they were possessions raises concerns as to how Zuma views our Constitutional provisions on gender equality.
While polygamy is not banned, the Law Reform Commission recognises the fact that men can have many wives while women cannot have many husbands as a clear violation of constitutional provisions for equality between women and men. By requiring that customary marriages be registered, the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act seeks to ensure that all women in polygamous marriages have the same rights as those in civil marriages (such as the right to divorce and to have equal rights to property). At least part of the calculation there was that financial considerations would lead to polygamous marriages dying a natural death.
By and large they were until Zuma rose to prominence; witness the flurry of reports about high profile figures taking on more wives over the last year. Even more painful is watching ANC women stalwarts like Women’s League head Thandi Modise defending polygamy. The same Women’s League, it will be remembered, voted for Zuma and did not even conceive of putting forward a woman candidate at the ANC’s Pholokwane Congress.
Indeed, female leadership at the top during this election campaign has had to come from two opposition leaders – the ID’s Patricia de Lille and DA’s Helen Zille. Both are fearless leaders and they have helped to make a dent in the patriarchal face of South African politics. Unfortunately, neither has particularly strong views or grounding on women’s rights or has raised that as a serious concern in this election.
When the election results are announced at the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC)’s high tech headquarters in Tshwane later this week and the number of new women in parliament is punted, we should not be deceived into thinking the struggle for women’s rights is won. In many ways it will just have begun.
Colleen Lowe Morna is executive director of Gender Links. The GL gender analysis of the forthcoming elections can be found on This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service.

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