Voting for Change? Women and Gender Equality in the 2014 South African Elections

Women make up more than half of South Africa's population and as of 2013, more women than men were registered to vote.[1] South Africa's Parliament is one of the world’s most equitable, with women making up close to 50% of representatives. One would think then, that political parties would recognise women as a significant portion of the vote. However, despite the increased representation and participation of women in political life, there has not been an observable shift in the political arena. Substantive gender equality has long been left out of the political discussion, considered second to discussions of race, poverty, class, and economic growth.


This is not to say that nothing has improved since 1994. In the first and second Parliaments (1994 – 2004), a host of legislation that furthered gender equality was promulgated, including legislation on marriage, domestic violence and employment equity. South Africa's constitution is also one of the few in the world to protect the rights of sexual minorities. But the invisibility of gender and of women-centred politicking in recent years seem to indicate that gender equality issues are no longer considered central to the ongoing democratic project. As many who work in the field of gender know, gender-blindness is not effective in ensuring that women's rights and the rights of gender-minorities are considered.


South Africa is legislatively equal, substantively unequal


Despite women being in the majority, they do not hold a majority of powerful positions in government or the private sector. Women encounter a glass ceiling in business,[2] and are more likely to be unemployed than men.[3] Women continue to do the majority of the household work regardless of whether they are employed or not.[4]


South Africa's high rates of teenage pregnancy affect women's ability to remain in schools. Gender-based violence (GBV) is prolific with 163 264 sexual offences reported by women in the last five years. Many who work in the field believe that the majority of rape and sexual offences survivors do not report the crime to the police.[5] This, alongside regular violence against lesbian women, indicates a crisis of masculinity. The fact that so few GBV survivors are likely to see their rapists convicted is also significant.


Whilst there may be legislative equality for women in South Africa, it is clear that too many women in the country do not feel safe, or are unable to access the broad set of human and socio-economic rights promised by the constitution.


A consideration of the leading party, the main opposition, and two of the new parties to which much attention has been paid (the ANC, the DA, Agang and the EFF) reveals that whilst parties do feel the need to mention gender or women's rights, they often do so without considering the necessary nuances of the challenges women face. This is consistent across the parties: whether the ANC with its proud liberation history and significant contribution to gender equality in the country, the DA – which is led by three powerful women yet does not see the point of affirmative action, Agang – the creation of well respected business women Mamphele, Ramphele, or the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) led by “bad boy” Julius Malema who was expelled from the ANC in 2012. A feminist analysis of these four players follows.


New political parties and elections – missing the nuances of gender issues


Of the lot, and in general, both the most controversial and promising is Malema’s populist EFF. While featuring a number of strong women in their leadership, their manifesto[6] promises little to women. Women are only explicitly mentioned twice in a scroll of 20 goals: those to increase social grants, and those to guarantee safety and security with a key focus on women. The social grant issue will be resolved, they suggest, by their plan to “create sustainable jobs and open educational and training opportunities for women who receive child support grants, so that child bearing is not seen as a basis to receive social grants.” Whilst this positively recognises that women need economic empowerment and training before they can fully access the benefits of democracy, it also misses a few key points. It doesn't acknowledge the unequal gender relations that make it difficult for women to negotiate safe-sex, or a lack of access to contraception and reproductive health facilities. Worse, it simultaneously implies that women have children deliberately to access to social grants as some sort of act of social grant fraud.


Similarly, the EFF’s target to guarantee safety and security with a focus on women through increasing police visibility and making the criminal justice system more effective, whilst laudable, ignores a key factor of gender-based violence in South Africa – most of it happens in the home. So what is really required to address it are prevention programmes that stop GBV from happening at all. What is also required is a substantial allocation of budgetary resources so that police are well trained, so that shelters can operate, and so that psychosocial care organisations that support survivors on their journey to healing are able to stay open.


Other than these two instances women are largely absent from the EFF's narrative, despite making up a high percentage of the people the EFF intends to address: those who don't have access to land, the majority of the youth, and those affected by unemployment. Women are made invisible in these broad population categories, and thus the way that the EFF tackles these issues is likely to be gender-blind. Interestingly, the party also made an attempt to draw in the marginalised LGBTIQ community by holding a forum for them, and publicly announcing their support for sexual diversity. However, given that the leader of EFF has frequently made sexist remarks about other political leaders,[7] as well as remarks harmful to rape survivors, these new promises of support can only be taken with a pinch of salt.[8] We haven't had an opportunity to judge whether their promises match their practice, but their past proclamations are certainly problematic.


When it comes to women, the manifesto of Agang, the second “new kid on the block”[9] focuses on safety and security, as well as employment. They note that “women continue to experience violence and abuse and men struggle to maintain their dignity and overcome their frustrations.” It is significant that they recognise that a problematic masculinity that is ill-accommodated in a democratic society has a great deal to do with violence against women. They also recognise that women face challenges to their safety inside as well as outside of the home when they say that they “see a South Africa in which women and children are safe in their homes and safe in the streets.” However their manifesto doesn't say how they will tackle these issues of safety for women.


Their second mention of women relates to employment and its links to dignity and prosperity. Here they see “a South Africa where every man or woman searching for a job can find one that gives them a life of dignity and prosperity” and does not require them to remain dependent on social grants. Yet, when it comes to their discussion of employment, no mention of women is made and the citizens of South Africa are treated as genderless. In a country where women are more likely to be unemployed, more likely to take on domestic chores, and find it difficult to reach the top of big business for a number of reasons, any party that wants to see a gender balanced labour force should note these challenges and how they plan to address them. Agang does not do so. Like the EFF they are not a party South Africans can assess based on practice. However, their promises would benefit greatly from a gendered reading.


Promises meeting practice? The ANC and the DA


The two parties we are able to consider in terms of whether promises meet practice, are the ANC and the DA. With regards to policy and legislation, the ANC has a “good story to tell” as they keep reminding South Africans while campaigning for votes. South Africa has some of the most gender-friendly legislation and policy in the world. National and provincial houses of representatives have more women than ever before in South Africa's history, and comparatively with the rest of the world.[10] This is largely as a result of a 50/50 quota within the ANC that has advanced women's ability to hold high-ranking positions within the party. What is interesting, however, is that while the party has tried to stick to the “Zebra list” method, this seems to not apply to the top ten positions within the party.


However, structurally, inequalities have remained unchallenged. The judiciary remains untransformed, as does the business sector.[11] Over the past twenty years, not only has the implementation of progressive legislation and policy been stymied by a lack of budget and political will, it has been coupled with the rise of patriarchal values and the erosion of institutions and projects established to advance equality. For instance, the gender budgeting project driven by National Parliament that made inroads with the gender blind Treasury, fell away after the second democratic Parliament with the gains completely erased. Both as a result and as an indication of the decline of gender equality to the national project, budgetary allocation to women's equality institutions and legislation have been meagre.[12] The Commission for Gender Equality has had its mandate and authority challenged in the Fourth Parliament by the presence of the Department of Women, Children and People with Disability. There has thus been a move from considering women's rights as separately significant, towards lumping them together with other vulnerable groups.


It is also concerning that the ANC Women's League, which was established to be the ANC’s “feminist conscience” continues to find a place in the party’s political discourse, despite many indications that it is no longer a body to ensure gender equality, but a stepping stone for its members to garner a higher ranking within the party. In 2013, for instance, it announced that it does not believe that South Africa is ready for a female president.[13] It has also been silent on the rollback of the gender machinery and harmful legislation like the Traditional Courts Bill.


However, in line with its progressive and emancipatory profile, the ANC’s 2014 manifesto[14] includes a number of promises for women. These include emphasising women's tenure security and access to land; facilitating women's access to small business opportunities and enterprise; reducing the incidence of teen pregnancy and maternal mortality through public awareness and a mass contraception campaign; reducing cervical cancer through the provision of the HPV vaccine to all girls in Grade 4; implementing the Campaign for the Accelerated Reduction of Maternal and Child Mortality in Africa; continuing to prioritise domestic violence and crimes against women through strengthening the Sexual Offences and Community Affairs units and pursuing a multi-disciplinary approach to gender-based violence.


In comparison to the EFF and Agang these manifesto commitments certainly show a broader understanding of the challenges that women face. Past practice has shown a commitment to a reduction in maternal mortality and women's sexual and reproductive health.


In terms of a commitment to addressing GBV, a far more expansive costing of these services to ensure that they are equally available to all women is necessary.[15] In addition, the presence of the political will to root out those officials (police, health care workers, magistrates, and social workers) who do not perform their legislatively mandated roles will be required to convince women that the ANC is committed to assisting them. In particular, the poor compliance with the Domestic Violence Act by police,[16] and the lack of exit housing for women in violent relationships, are issues that must be addressed.


The DA is the official opposition party in South Africa, and was the only party with a woman-leader before the 2014 election season. One might remember their previous election posters featuring three women (Helen Zille (Party Leader), Patricia De Lille (Mayor of Cape Town), and Lindiwe Mazibuko (Leader of the opposition in Parliament) which was the first time a popular political party had placed women at the centre of its image. Yet, in contradiction to this women-friendly image, the DA does not support quotas for women within the party.[17] Following their election to the Western Cape Provincial Government, Helen Zille appointed an all male-cabinet, explaining that there were no competent women fit for the job.[18] In ignoring the need to address structural challenges to women's equality through quotas, the DA does not facilitate women's access into political structures.


Women are only briefly mentioned in the DA manifesto,[19] again in terms of violence. It suggests that victim support, regular monitoring of compliance with legislation around gender-based violence, improving recording keeping and statistics around gender-based violence, better training of police officials, and ensuring that medico-legal supplies for collecting evidence are available will be the key ways in which the DA will address violence against women. Nobody who works in the field of GBV would disagree with any of these suggestions as they have certainly been raised again and again by civil society, Parliament, and survivors of violence themselves. Yet, women are not only victims. Women also need to be acknowledged and supported in their positive roles of civil society leaders, community developers, businesswomen and land owners. The DA does not sufficiently address these issues in its manifesto.


A simple matter of numbers – representation in parties


In terms of representation, a quick look at the top ten National candidates of each of these parties reveals that men are still in the majority. The EFF has three female candidates in its top ten, Agang has four, the DA has three, and the ANC has three. A total of 13 of 40 top ten candidates are women. Even on a numerical level then, not one of the parties considers women's representation important enough to have a fifty-fifty split at the top levels. Although the DA and Agang are women-led, they do not seem to be women-led with women's interests at the core.


What’s the reality?


So what are feminists to do? Like advocates of social justice, their choices are both limited and flawed. It is clear that gender or gender inequality something that the front runner political parties are not taking seriously or using as an electioneering tool. Whilst some political parties might have women high up in leadership, or mention gender-based violence, there is very little focus on tackling gender-inequality at a structural level, or recognising that women's issues are central to achieving a thriving democracy. In most instances, gender and women's rights are tacked on to other issues without an examination of the actual changes that need to happen for women to realise their rights.[20] The party with the deepest understanding of gender inequality is also one from whom good governance or even a follow through cannot be anticipated. Following these elections I would like to see the emergence of a political party that places women's rights and gender equality where they belong – at the centre of all policies and practice. However, that is dependent on whether feminists can organise a vocal and distinct voter base.


[1]               South African Institute of Race Relations (2013). 2013 South Africa Survey. Page 864.

[2]               The World Economic Forum (2013). Top 10 most gender equal countries in Africa. Accessible via  For full information on world rankings, the full report is available at

[3]               International Labour Organisation (2012). Global Employment Trends for Women. Geneva: The International Labour Organisation.

[4]               Statistics South Africa (2013). A survey of time use, 2010. Pretoria: Statistics South Africa, 2013.

[5]               South African Police Servies (2012). South African Police Service Annual Report 2012/2013. October 2013. Page 117.

[10]             South African Institute of Race Relations (2013). 2013 South Africa Survey. Page 861, 862.

[11]             Ibid.

[12]             Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre (2014) Budget Speech – Minister Gordhan, Women Do Not Have a Good Story to Tell. Available at

[13]             Seale, L (2013). SA not ready for female president – ANCWL.

[15]             The Commission for Gender Equality (2013). CGE to launch proposal for policy, law and funding reforms for shelters for abused women and their children in the Western Cape. Accessed via

[16]             Civilian Secretariat for Police (2013)  Report on the Implementation of the Domestic Violence Act 01 April – September 2013. Available at

[17]             Lamoela, H (2013) Gender quota bill unconstitutional.Available at…

[18] De Vos (2009)  Madness descends on the Western Cape. Available at…

[20]             In addition, None of these parties mention how they will strengthen institutions of democracy such as the Human Rights Commission, the Commission for Gender Equality, or the Equality Courts, who have an important role to play in overseeing and enforcing gender equality in South Africa.