South African women gaining larger share of political leadership roles

Editor’s Note: South Africa has soared from 17th to 4th place in the global ranking of women in parliament following the April 22 elections that saw an 11 percent increase in women’s representation in the national assembly from 34 to 45 percent. Only Rwanda, Sweden and Cuba are now ahead of South Africa.


When Colleen Lowe Morna talks about what’s “fashionable” in South Africa, her topic is women politicians — not their clothing.

“It’s fashionable for females to be in leadership; we are beginning to see it as a normal thing here,” said the founding executive director of Gender Links, who also was the founding chief executive officer of the South African Commission on Gender Equality.

Gender Links South AfricaWith a career background as an international journalist, Morna has combined her media savvy with her gender equality experience to help create and develop a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that aims to have women proportionally represented in leadership roles in South Africa — and 12 other countries in southern Africa.

“In South Africa there now is a culture of ‘zero tolerance’ for not having women at the table. Someone will always ask the question, ‘Where are the women?’”

This month, as South Africans prepare for another presidential election, two of the four major political parties — the Independent Democrats (ID) and the Democratic Alliance (DA) — have posted women as their presidential candidates. Also, the nation’s largest party, the African National Congress (ANC), and its rival political party created in 2008 with former ANC members, the Congress of the People (COPE), both have about a 50/50 split between the total number of men and women listed on their rosters of top 50 candidates.

Additionally, Women Forward (WF), a newer South African political party was created in 2007 by Nana Ngobese-Nxumalo, a longtime gender equality advocate who is also the granddaughter of Africa’s first Nobel Peace Prize winner, Chief Albert Luthuli. The party currently has about 30,000 members and is focusing its efforts on increasing the number of women candidates for South Africa’s 2011 local government elections.

Statistics show that women have been winning increasingly larger shares of the votes since the country legally ended apartheid and started holding fully democratic elections 15 years ago. Prior to that landmark election, women represented only 2.7 percent of nationally elected members of Parliament.

But when Nelson Mandela was elected president in 1994, 27 percent of the candidates on successful national party lists were women. In the next national elections, women composed 30 percent of the winners. In 2004, national party lists with women candidates won 32 percent of the races. Statistics show that provincial contests during the same periods showed similar results.

Women also gained large shares in local government elections. In 1995, they represented 19 percent of the local elected officials. That number climbed to 29.6 percent after the 2000 local elections, and reached 40 percent after the 2006 elections.

But percentages don’t tell the entire story, Morna says, and the country still has a lot of work to do before there is true gender equality.

The goal is not simply to bump up the number of women leaders for the sake of higher numbers, she says. It is to ensure that women’s voices are heard on important issues such as HIV/AIDS, domestic violence, and property ownership — issues that prompt people to mix the law with ancestral customs, often to the detriment of women.

“Gender equality is about providing a voice to the poor and marginalized, who often are women. We need leaders who are responsive and accountable to the needs of women.”

Colleen Lowe Morna

“Patriarchal forces are deeply entrenched in South Africa and sometimes people hide behind the cloak of culture and custom,” Morna said.

“They use custom as a smokescreen for the real issues. But there is no contradiction between custom and the law. In South Africa, the Bill of Rights guarantees rights for women.”

For her — and many others working for proportional representation, including staff at the Gender and Media Southern Africa (GEMSA) Network — two questions continually need to be asked: “Are women in decision-making positions and are they in top positions?”

For South Africans, Morna says, the obvious question should be “Why didn’t the ANC’s Women’s League promote a woman candidate for president?” For her, that was a troubling omission, even though she credits the ANC’s 50/50 gender policy with putting pressure on other political parties to name a higher percentage of women as candidates.

Created in 2001, Gender Links promotes gender equality through media, public education, research, training and advocacy. Since 2002, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation has provided five grants totaling $314,328 to Gender Links through the Foundation’s Civil Society program.

Much of Mott’s support has been earmarked for projects that research the role of women in South African politics, and provide training for women after they have been elected as local councilors. The grants also have helped promote gender equity work in the broader Southern African region, including four other countries with national elections in 2009 (Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique and Namibia) and several others with national elections in 2010.

“Gender equality is about providing a voice to the poor and marginalized, who often are women. We need leaders who are responsive and accountable to the needs of women,” Morna said.

She adds: “Strong local leadership is important.”

From her perspective, holding a local leadership position is the best training ground for a higher office.

“We’re now tracking to see how many of our national (women) leaders started at the local level.”

By training women to utilize the media, and be responsive to the needs of the people who elected them, Gender Links can have a huge impact, Morna says.

While there are 400 members of Parliament and about 150 of them now are women, there are about 2,000 local councilors. Of those, about 800 are women.

“If we want to see changes, it makes sense for our leaders to start on the ground floor because local government is about the basics — getting electricity and water to a village. That’s real change.”

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