Despite the trailblazing march of 200 000 women who gathered at the Union Buildings 66 years ago to protest apartheid pass law, gender discrimination and exclusion of women still persist in the new democracy. Gender-based violence and femicide (GBVF), unequal pay, poor representation of women in senior positions including exclusion of women from economic opportunities have become daily experiences of women in South Africa.
These were some of the key topics that came under the spotlight during a lecture held last night at the University of Pretoria. The lecture was held as part of a range of activities organised by various organisations and entities across the country to commemorate the historic Women’s Day. The event was made possible courtesy of prominent partner institutions which include Human Sciences Research Council (HRSC), University of Pretoria (UP), Embassy of Sweden, Agape and Women in Science.
High profile dignitaries
Among dignitaries who graced the occasion were UP’s vice-chancellor and principal, Professor Tawana Kupe, Professor Leickness Simbayi deputy CEO for research at HSRC, His Excellency, Håkan Juholt, Swedish ambassador to South Africa. Chancellor of University of Venda, Advocate Mojanku Gumbi, delivered a keynote address while Ms Nomonde Xulu, a chartered accountant by profession and a strategy and investor relations expert, was a guest speaker.
Dynamic women panellists
There was also a panel discussion chaired by Ms Busisiwe Gumede-Chizhanje, a popular TV and radio talk-show TV host and an accomplished storyteller. The panellist comprised Professor Kupe, dynamic women academics, namely, Professor Malehoko Tshoaedi, an associate professor at the University of Johannesburg, who previously taught sociology at the University of South Africa and the University of Pretoria; Matshepo Dibetso, the current Comms4change programme manager at AGAPE Youth Movement and a feminist and social justice activist actively involved in GBVF and Ms Masenyane Molefe, who is currently a group executive, human resources at PPS Insurance.
The conversation aimed to inspire debate around gender equality, unemployment, equal pay, and representation of women in management roles, prompt the design of socio-economic plans with an intentional focus on the lives and futures of women and girls and to ascertain whether gender equality is possible by 2030.
Held under the theme: ‘Generation equality: Realising women’s rights for an equal future’, the concept was motivated by a global campaign whose objective is to mobilise countries including South Africa to work towards achieving gender equality by 2030. The theme is also aligns with a UN campaign launched on the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action both of which were endorsed by 189 governments at the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing, China. At the heart of the movement, powered by the 21st-century women’s movement, are the demands for:
• Equal pay
• Equal sharing of unpaid care and domestic work
• An end to sexual harassment and violence against women and girls
• Healthcare services that respond to their needs, and
• Their equal participation in political life and in decision-making in all areas of life.
Although South Africa has passed a raft of progressive laws to empower women and increase their representation in national politics, this has not translated into tangible economic security for majority of women particularly black women. According to Statistics South Africa, the South African parliament consists of 46% women representatives and the National Council of Provinces of 36%. In terms of employment, the Quarterly Labour Force Survey of the 2nd quarter of 2021, the unemployment rate among women was 36, 8% relative to 32, 4% amongst men. In addition, it highlighted the racial disparity of the unemployment rate of women. For instance, the unemployment rate amongst black African women was 41, 0% during this period compared to 8, 2% among white women, 22, 4% among Indian/Asian women and 29, 9% among coloured women.
Taking concrete steps
Professor Simbayi gave welcome remarks and highlighted the significance and the context of the lecture. He praised the bravery and the impact of the 1956 women’s march saying it provided a solid platform on which to continue addressing challenges women still face. He called upon key institutional stakeholders to sincerely engage on the theme of the lecture and take concrete steps to ensure they tackle women discrimination as well as promote gender equality.
Ambassador Juholt said he is a ‘proud feminist’, adding this is primarily because in 2014 the Swedish government took a conscious decision to become a ‘feminist government’. He said to them feminism is not a slogan but it is seen as a genuine and noble cause that should be embarked upon to address decades of exclusion of women. He said the Swedish government focus on feminism is based on four fundamental guidelines, namely, rights, representation, resources and reality check. He said these are meant to seriously address issues of resource allocation, education provision and salaries all of which are still skewed in favour of men.
To achieve these, the Swedish government agreed on the need for political consensus as an instrument to achieve gender equality, mainstreaming gender equality in all government’s departments and also ensuring that no budget gets passed without detailing how it will specifically address gender equality.
Advocate Mojanku Gumbi keynote address focused on the ‘richness of differences’; that collaboration between men and women is vital to attain gender equality. She drew on a few scholars who share perspectives on the issue of gender equality one of whom is Professor Pumla Dineo Gqola, who in one of her reflections writes: “Every August millions of South Africans move collectively in a carefully choreographed dance called ‘Women’s Month’. For almost five dizzying weeks women are praised, patriarchy decried and women’s gains [are] celebrated.” However, nothing much is achieved to seriously deal with fundamental issues that sustain and perpetuate patriarchy, Gumbi noted. She said for society to fully understand why women are marginalised and ‘otherised’ it needs to interrogate social practices that buttress patriarchy.
Situating women at the centre
She said despite the plethora of laws that seek to ban practices that undermine and exclude women, society especially men still suffer from ‘cognitive dissonance where they hold contradicting views about gender inequality. Gumbi also lamented the failure of social and political institutions such as the UN and the ANC to advance women to leadership positions. She said the attainment of a feminist state requires a thorough planning that situates women at the centre, adding the current planning approaches are still steeped in apartheid spatial thinking as women’s needs are never factored in. She said discrimination is about power adding “Men must understand that women do not want to wrestle power from them, all they ever wanted is to create a better society that benefits all, including men.”
The discussion looked at women’s experiences in the current South African context. All the three women decried the difficult condition women encounter such as gender discrimination, sexual abuse and workplace marginalisation. Professor Tshoaedi observed that our schooling system promotes gender stereotypes even at rudimentary level. She cited her son’s pre-school as an example where boys and girls are taught to see each other differently.
Solidarity and social justice
Ms Molefe and Dibetso both agreed said while they appreciate the struggles and achievement of 1956 march, it is still hard to be a woman in South Africa. Dibetso said home is the fertile ground to teach children to be pro-feminist and that society should stop assigning household chores based on the children’s genders. Molefe said in the same way that apartheid ‘messed up’ the collective psyche of black people; men have also been affected in terms of how they relate to women, suggesting the whole society needs a psychological intervention. Professor Kupe said solidarity and social justice movement are required to create a robust feminist culture. He added that men often blame women for being ‘enforcers of patriarchy’ while it is they who ‘co-opt’ them into patriarchal system.
Power of the millenniums
Delivering her speech, Ms Xulu shared her personal experience of being a young woman in a male [white] dominated corporate environment where she said she was cancelled and undermined. She said the Millenniums, particularly females, are considered a major driving force to influence the trajectory of women across the globe.
She said according to the World Economic Forum (WEF), there are 1.8. billion female influencers who are the most educated and also constitute the largest working generation. She said this suggests that women can play a pivotal role in the world than men because they embrace compassion, collaboration and inclusivity. Xulu said the Beijing Declaration was by far the most progressive platform to champion women’s struggles but progress towards transforming their plight is rather pedestrian.
Impact of Covid-19 on women
Xulu also highlighted the impact of Covid-19 had on women, saying most sectors that bore the brunt of the pandemic employed women. She said WEF’s gender gaps report suggests 2030 milestone will not be attained based on the poor progress in addressing gender inequalities. But she said the Covid-19 pandemic has also created opportunities for women particularly in digital world where they showed fluency and actively leverage the power of digital platforms such #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter etc. She argues that it is wrong to frame gender equality as a women’s issue, saying it should rather be seen as a societal challenge that require partnerships between men and women.