Jobs for the girls or gender equality for SA?

Date: January 1, 1970
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South Africa’s new president Jacob Zuma did his best to follow the footsteps of his nemesis Thabo Mbeki when he announced a cabinet edging towards gender parity on 10 May. But gender advocates note with concern the lack of parity in top structures of government; the declining proportion of women deputy ministers; questionable credentials of some women ministers and the establishment of a women’s ministry.

Women constitute 14 out of 34 or 41% of cabinet, compared to 42% under Mbeki and 43% during the caretaker administration of President Kgalema Motlanthe. Women continue to be deployed to non-traditional ministries, a practise also started under Mbeki.
Of the 14 women ministers, at least 8 head ministries that are generally male dominated in other parts of the world. These include correctional services; defence and military veterans; energy; home affairs; international relations and co-operation; mining; public enterprises; science and technology.
Zuma has retained some talented and experienced women ministers. These include former Minister of Foreign Affairs Nkosozana Dlamini-Zuma (now heading Home Affairs) and former Minister of Education Naledi Pandor (now heading Science and Technology). The retention of former Minister of Health Barbara Hogan after she publicly criticised the government for barring the Dalai Lama from visiting South Africa (although she later apologised internally) is a welcome sign that ministers of her calibre have a place in the new dispensation.
While she will be missed in health, where in a few months she restored confidence after the disastrous policies of her predecessor Manto Thsabalala-Msimang, her deployment to the troubled public enterprises portfolio, in need of “action skills” has been welcomed by the business community. As former chair of the finance portfolio committee Hogan is well placed to tackle this challenge, which is a good example of women entering the mainstream in South Africa.
While the establishment of a Women’s Ministry is regrettable, the appointment of former National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union (NEHAWU) President Noluthando Mayende-Sibiya, one of the most powerful and influential women in the trade union movement, to this post is commendable.
Mayende-Sibiya also serves as a co-convener for the South African Progressive Women. She has a clear understanding of the need to bring women into the mainstream of the South African economy and national life, and is an advocate for the recognition of the unwaged work of women.
There are, however, a number of concerns about the new cabinet. While President Mbeki had more women than men as deputy ministers (60%) arguing that this is an important training ground for women ministers, under Zuma, women constitute 11 of the 28 deputy ministers (39% of the total). While it is commendable that a number of these are in non-traditional sectors such as economic development, trade and industry, the fact that the parity principle did not carry through to this level is a concern.
The parity principle has also not been carried through to the presidency, the pinnacle of power. While South Africa had women deputy presidents under Mbeki and Motlanthe, the former caretaker president is now deputy president.
Former Deputy President Baleka Mbete has resigned amid much media hype about her “cashing in” and opting for her deputy presidential pension rather than demotion to a minister. The bigger unraised issue is the ANC reneging on the 50/50 principle at this level. This is not necessarily an argument for Mbete’s retention, but for the party and its president to honour the decisions taken at the Polokwane conference.
The calibre of some of the new women ministers is another concern. In particular, the new minister of International Relations and Co-operation Maite Nkoane-Mashabane, the former high commissioner to India and MEC for housing in Limpopo, is an unknown quantity in her new portfolio. Comments she made during the trials of her late husband Norman Shabane, former ambassador to Indonesia who she stood by in the face of a conviction on sexual harassment, raises concerns for gender activists.
The new Minister of Basic Education Angie Mothekga, former Provincial Minister of Education has been an uncritical supporter of Zuma through his rape and corruption trials, and a lacklustre performer in her former portfolios.
Another ominous sign is the resignation from parliament of Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge. High up on the ANC’s election list, yet nowhere in cabinet or parliament, Madlala-Routledge now appears to be in the political wilderness.
A veteran women’s rights activist who raised the ire of Mbeki for her stance on HIV and AIDS as Deputy Minister of Health and went on to serve as Deputy Speaker, Madlala-Routledge has close links with civil society and is always principled in her stance despite hailing from the same traditional Kwa Zulu Natal province as Zuma.
The conversion of the Ministry of Local Government and Provincial Affairs to Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs is also worrisome. Never before has “traditional affairs” enjoyed cabinet status in South Africa.
While the Constitution respects all traditions and cultures, it is also clear that where these are in violation of the Bill of Rights, the latter takes precedence. The elevation of traditional affairs to such a level by a president who is openly defensive of his polygamous life style is a concern.
The creation of a Ministry of Women, Youth, Children and Disability is similarly fraught with questions. There has been much debate globally over where structures for advancing the rights of women, which cut across all sectors, should ideally be placed. International best practise (which South Africa followed in the establishment of the Office of the Status of Women (OSW) in the presidency) is to place gender in a prominent, cross cutting location.
This is now reversed, with minimal debate among stakeholders compared to the consultations that preceded the establishment of the OSW. The clustering of issues of women, youth, disability and children in one ministry is also problematic. Placing women and children in the same governance structure is patronising to women, who need to be empowered to claim their rights, whereas adults – women and men – should defend and protect children.   
A related concern is the dysfunctional status of the Commission on Gender Equality (CGE), an independent body established by the Constitution to “promote and protect” the attainment of gender equality with wide powers to take up cases of discrimination and promote debate on the tough issues like polygamy, gay rights and sex work.
With a president whose credentials on women’s rights are already sorely in question, the South African cabinet, and women ministers in particular, will need to work exceptionally hard to convince the sceptics that what we have witnessed is not just a case of jobs for the girls, rather than gender equality for the nation.  
Colleen Lowe Morna is executive director of Gender Links. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service.

2 thoughts on “Jobs for the girls or gender equality for SA?”

I would like to work in the gender invironment and have passion to protect civilians like women and currently in the south african police service and had opportunity to deploy and work as gender officer in darfur,sudan

Moipone says:

I would like to offer my services and willing to serve the vurnarable groups

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