“Is South Africa ready for a woman president?” - screams the occasional news headline.
The same question was posed to the president of the women’s league of the governing party, and elicited the following response: while there had been advances in having women in leadership, the “time was not yet ripe to have a woman lead” the party, and by implication, the country. The same question was asked a year later - the treasurer-general of the same organisation responded, “everybody is ready for a woman leader”.
Enough has been written and said about the generally woeful status of women in South Africa. The insufficient funding for reproductive health, the violence against women statistics, the inadequate economic opportunities for young women who are said to be less likely than men to find employment, and, where employment is found, remunerated 15% less than men. Enough has been written about the bungling Department of Women, as well as its dismal performance and failure to meet its own performance targets. As recently as last week, the Department of Women’s official account on the social media platform, Twitter, asked “what should be done with women who press charges then later withdraw them?” This, in reference to domestic violence. The very phrasing of the question reveals a ministry either out of touch with its mandate, or completely out of its depth. Their website has a programme for August - Women’s Month - and lists programmes such as “celebrating women in fashion”, to showcasing a trade fair in Limpopo where women from South Africa and Zimbabwe are meant to sell their products, which range from clothes to crafts.
Given the sorry state of affairs - what is the solution? Arguably, the answer lies with women themselves. If the male to female ratio of registered voters reflects the male to female ratio of the population as per the last election - then theoretically there are more female voters than male voters. So, why aren’t South African women using these numbers to their advantage, and electing more women to the highest echelons of leadership in the country?
Of course, South African women are hardly homogenous, with uniform interests and concerns. However, issues such as personal safety and access to economic opportunities arguably continue to affect all South African women - across the race, class and political divide. One might argue that having a woman in the most powerful leadership position does not necessarily translate to an improvement in the lived daily experiences of other women. However, one should pay a little more than passing attention to Rwanda. Theirs is a Parliament dominated by women, and a Judiciary whose highest court has an equal number of men and women. Progressive laws making primary school attendance compulsory, as well as allowing women to own and inherit property, have helped to create a much more equal, and relatively peaceful society - a far cry from 20 years ago.
August 9 commemorates the day in 1956, in which more than 20 000 women of all races marched to the Union Buildings to petition against the Urban Areas Act, which would further entrench apartheid policies. This tremendous show of unity reflects the sheer power of numbers, when used to support a cause.
This August, beyond receiving discounted vouchers for spa treatments and indulging in shopping sprees in celebration of Women’s Month (as is evident from the emails in my junk-email folder) - South African women should be rethinking ways of garnering meaningful political representation. The numbers are, after all, in their favour. Let the question “is South Africa ready for a woman president” be silenced forever.
Phephelaphi Dube: Legal Officer, Centre for Constitutional Rights