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South African election: a setback for women?

South Africa is a leader on the continent in the struggle for equitable democratic representation for women on Africa’s bodies of power. But after two decades of progress, the outcome of the 2014 elections last month is somewhat disappointing.



When Helen Zille, national leader of the official opposition and premier of the Western Cape, announced her all-white, all-male cabinet after the 2009 elections, there was understandably an outcry. After all, the face of the party’s campaign and its posters featured three women. Zille was accused of racism and mythical belief in the superiority of white males. She was even threatened with action in the Equality Court.

Ironically, the language of some of her attackers was thick with misogyny. The heavily male-dominated ANC Youth League (then still under Julius Malema) said Zille had made her appointments in exchange for sexual favours – “her boyfriends and concubines, so that she can continue to sleep around with them” – a statement that revealed much more about their own organisational thinking than Zille’s.

Since 2009, South Africa has had women premiers in four of the eight provinces that the ANC controlled, and with Zille, that made five out of nine premiers women. But the 2014 election has changed that. Zille kept her seat, but only one ANC woman premier has survived –  Sylvia Lucas of the Northern Cape.

For a moment, it seemed the ANC NEC would get its way and Gauteng treasurer Ntombi Mekgwe would be female premier, but in the end, the Gauteng ANC provincial NEC won the position for their favourite – Mr David Makhura.


The other female premiers – in the North West, Thandi Modise and in the Eastern Cape, Noxolo Kiviet – were also replaced by men.

ANC deputy secretary general Jessie Duarte said the NEC was “concerned” about “male dominance” and would review its nomination regulations. Currently, the provinces propose three candidates and a decision is arrived at during a marathon session of consultation with the national leadership.

As a concession, the ANC decided to appoint female speakers to all legislatures where there were male premiers. The party’s gender policy on representation allows for such a fudge.

But South Africa’s Commission for Gender Equality was not impressed. Appointing female provincial legislature speakers was “hardly an equivalent substitute or trade-off, given that the post of legislature speaker does not bear the same constitutional, legislative, and political authority as that of provincial premier,” it said.  The result is “a clear step backwards in the fight for gender equality … between men and women in this year’s elections.”

Already in 2011, the commission warned of  “a worrying trend of women appointees being replaced by male candidates, from Deputy-President and Speaker of Parliament, to Ministers, mayors and councillors, which undermines the progress attained in this regard.”


The Gender commission called on the ANC to re-consider its decision. It didn’t of course.

It is unquestionably true that the higher participation of women in democratic institutions is mostly thanks to the ANC with its huge majority. It has increased its gender participation target from 35% when it came to power to 50% today. (Of course, given that 52% of the population is female, one could quibble logically that a 50/50 goal is actually discriminatory.)

Liberia’s President Ellen-Johnson-Sirleaf, currently Africa’s only female elected head of state. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Liberia’s President Ellen-Johnson-Sirleaf, currently Africa’s only female elected head of state. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Progress is largely thanks to the proportional representation (PR) system in which an enlightened leadership can overrule entrenched social attitudes that see voters favour men, something all too evident in most constituency-based democracies. South Africa has notably fewer directly elected female ward councillors than women PR councillors. Also, few women councillors stand for a second term, because of the male-dominated political environment and the discrimination they experience in local municipalities and political parties.

South Africa ranks among the top in the world, though it is Rwanda that has the highest number of women parliamentarians worldwide, with women holding 56% of seats in its lower house.

South Africa went from 27% female members of parliament in 1994, to 45% in 2009. (One should point out that during the apartheid regime representation was below 3%.) The 2014 National Assembly however is only 38% female.

The average percentages of women parliamentarians in sub-Saharan Africa is 21%, higher than the Middle East and North Africa (14%), Asia (18%), and the Pacific (15%), and about the same as Europe (23%). The Americas are higher at 25%, and the Nordic countries way ahead at 42%.


Only nine countries in Africa have achieved the 30% considered the “critical mass” mark for women’s representation.

Africa has one female elected head of state, Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (since 2006). The other two African women heads of state were appointees: Senegal’s prime minister, Aminata Touré, in 2013, and the Central African Republic’s president, Catherine Samba-Panza, in January 2014.

In South Africa, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka was briefly deputy president and so was Baleka Mbete, but their innings put together didn’t constitute even one full five-year term.

Zuma’s newly appointed, outsized, billion-rand cabinet of 37 ministers has 15 women ministers (40%).

Parliament is only one component. Major challenges are faced in many other forums. For instance, only two of the country’s ten current Constitutional Court justices are female.


South Africans cannot be complacent about the progress made to date. They will have to remain vigilant for backsliding and alive to the issues if women are to be fairly represented.