Sunday, September 30, 2012

Why Numbers Aren’t Enough: Challenges to Gender Equity in South Africa

Author: Jumoke Balogun

South Africa (SA) has the 7th highest number of female parliamentarians in the world. Even more remarkable, seven African countries rank in the top twenty in this category. The political representation, however, has not translated to real, societal attitudinal changes. Jumoke Balogun shows how the messy national politics in South Africa is still tinged with sexism, proving that the quotas aren’t enough women still have a long way to go in reversing long-held beliefs.



Lindiwe Mazibuko, a young South African politician, is one of the youngest parliamentarian leaders in the world. As the first black leader of the parliamentary caucus of the Democratic Alliance (DA), Mazibuko is also among the 42% of women in the lower house of South Africa’s legislative body. The DA is South Africa’s strongest opposition party, and is often viewed as a white party, in contrast to the ANC.

Lindiwe Mazibuko of the Democratic Alliance addressing the Katlenhong women entrepreneurs.


Given that women make up 32% of legislators in the upper house, South Africa has the 7th highest number of female parliamentarians in the world. Even more remarkable, seven African countries rank in the top twenty, with Rwanda having the highest number of women in its representative body. This is great news for a continent often beleaguered with news of gender-based violence, high prevalence of rape, and overall gender inequity.

However, while the participation of women in decision-making bodies and their increased access to political power are veritable achievements, the story of African women in the political realm is far messier than the numbers account for. Sexist responses to Mazibuko from her political detractors serve as an example of how women can gain political power through democratic means, but still be undermined by a patriarchal network that seeks to ultimately delegitimize their political voice.

Raised in South Africa, Mazibuko grew up in a comfortable middle-class family, attended private schools, and also had the opportunity to spend time abroad.  She speaks with such a distinct British accent that some of her countrymen demand to hear her speak isiZulu, something she refuses to do. Blackness, she says, is not something that someone else can award to you.

Helen Zille, the head
of the Democratic Alliance.
That she has to answer questions on the veracity of her blackness is part of her critics’ tactic of invalidating her political power through racist and sexist retorts that rarely address the policies she supports. Julius Malema, former president of the ANC Youth League, frequently refers to her as the tea servant of DA’s leader Helen Zille. Zille is white. In Parliament, the Minister of Higher Education and Training, Blade Nzimande, accused her of being a coconut (black on the outside, white on the inside) and a parliamentary member of her own party was reprimanded for publicly claiming that Mazibuko was not black enough.

This article is not an endorsement of Mazibuko – I know far too little about the DA to make such assertions – but a political system that stresses the importance of having women in power can’t also undermine their ability to exercise that power. When opposition party members refuse to engage and debate policy with her because she is a tea-girl – a “nobody,” and when Labor allies of the ANC call her the madam’s sidekick and vow to publicly strip Zille naked, a troubling picture of misogyny emerges.

Although the ANC is one of the few major political parties in the world that has instituted an internal gender quota system, the treatment of female politicians by prominent ANC party members is patriarchal and sexist. Like Mazibuko, female politicians within the ANC report constantly dealing with uncomfortable, insulting, and sexist jokes from their male colleagues. Even more distressing, senior ANC officials have been charged with violent crimes against women.

In 2006, then-Vice President Jacob Zuma was tried and acquitted for raping his deceased friend’s daughter. He doesn’t deny that he had unprotected sex with the woman, and although the woman was believed to be HIV-positive, he explained that he took a shower immediately in order to avoid the virus.  A year later, the disabled wife of the former spy chief, Manala Manzini’s, procured a court order against her husband after he violently assaulted her. Allegedly, senior members of the ANC, including the President, knew of the abuse long before it became public. Mr. Manzini was never disciplined. Rather, Mr. Manzini publicly asserted that he had the right to beat his wife because she did not cook or iron. His wife, Mavivi Mayakayaka-Manzini, was a senior leader of the ANC Women’s League.

It seems that despite the political gains women have made in the country, an alarming percentage of South African men still adhere to the principles of male rule and female subordination. Despite women’s integration into the political process, there remains a pervasive sexist attitude that permeates through all levels of South African society. 20% of men surveyed in 2009 believed that a women’s place was in the house, 38% believe that men had more rights to jobs, and 41% of men believed that men made better political leaders. In this context, the treatment of Lindiwe Mazibuko and other women political leaders is another example of the country’s patriarchy problem – a problem that cannot be addressed by gender quotas in parliament alone.  As one South African analyst said, “numbers alone are not enough.”

Both the South African constitution and the ANC constitution actively promote gender equity; and the country also has a litany of laws protecting women that are amongst Africa’s most progressive. However, unless these laws are practiced and uncompromisingly implemented, they will remain mere principles – lofty idealism. If the South African government – the ANC in particular – is truly interested in gender equity, penalizing men in the party who bully and degrade women (privately and publicly) would be a great starting point.

Jumoke Balogun is a Nigerian-American. She is the co-founder of compareafrique.com, a website dedicated to providing a forum for innovative writing and discussion about Africa’s development challenges. You can find more of her work here.

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