South Africa’s Promise and Progress

Of all the continents in the world, Africa remains the poorest and has borne the greatest brunt of colonialism, famine, disease, persistent poverty, and civil unrest. Yet one country, South Africa, has emerged as the exception. In just 22 years, it has rewritten its constitution, revised its macroeconomic growth and development policies, restructured its higher education system, and made a commitment to provide opportunity for all its citizens, specifically those who have historically been marginalized, such as women and blacks.

Indeed, South Africa has come a very long way since the time that the African National Congress (ANC) and Nelson Mandela came into power in 1994. Mandela and his party inherited the economic and social legacies of apartheid. Under apartheid, a great numbers of workers were unskilled or unemployed. Poverty was widespread and deep. Most people had limited access to education, health care, and other basic public services. On top of all that, the new government had to labor under the economic sanctions and political isolation that many countries around the world had imposed on South Africa in protest to the apartheid government. In essence, when the ANC came into power, the country was economically cut off from the rest of the world.1

For many African countries, independence from colonial rule allowed for the first generation of black African politicians. These politicians were responsible for the construction of legal, social, and political structures during the state-building process. According to N’Dri T. Assie- Lumumba, professor of African and Diaspora Education in the African Studies and Research Center at Cornell University, “It was during this process that they were able to articulate the intended social development and national reconstruction of their country after extensive and intensive colonial rule. Many of these politicians imagined a government and citizenry to include all the African populations, males and females.”2 That promise was especially true for South Africa in 1994, when the white minority apartheid government transferred political power, without massive civil unrest or violence, to the black majority through the ANC under the leadership of Mandela.

It was in 1994 that the term “Rainbow Nation” became a symbol of South African unity. The Archbishop Desmond Tutu3 first used the rainbow symbol during the march of church leaders to Parliament in Cape Town in 1989 and again at ANC leader Chris Hani’s funeral in 1993. The rainbow symbol gained widespread popularity in 1994 when Tutu led a televised Thanksgiving service to celebrate the peaceful elections and announced to the crowd: “We are the rainbow people of God. We are free—all of us, black and white together!”4

The symbol of the rainbow is the Old Testament symbol of reconciliation that affirms God’s covenant with Noah after the flood. At the Thanksgiving ceremony, Tutu spoke not of a covenant with a chosen people but of one with all South Africans, irrespective of origin, religion, or color.

Nelson Mandela again referred to the symbol of the rainbow at his inaugural address on May 9, 1994, in Pretoria: “We enter into a covenant that we shall build a society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity—a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”5

Gender equality and women’s empowerment and education were considered to be key drivers to South Africa’s transformation. In a March 2008 Global Economics Paper, Goldman Sachs stated that education is key to gender equality:

Educating girls and women leads to higher wages, a greater likelihood of working outside the home, lower fertility, reduced maternal and child mortality, and better health and education. The impact is felt not only in women’s lifetime but also in the health, education, and productivity of future generations. The economic growth that results from higher education feeds a virtuous cycle, supporting continued investments in education and extending the gains to human capital and productivity. 6

No other country has undertaken such transformation in such a relatively short period of time. What have been the results for South Africa? Has the country been able to engage and compete in the global economy? Does the education system contribute to and support the country’s social and macroeconomic policies? Can or does a significant percentage of the country’s population, specifically women, benefit from this transformation? No other country in the world provides such a rich and complex landscape to research and explore these issues.

This book is structured as a critical policy analysis employing historical methods. It examines how the post-apartheid government’s economic growth and development polices have informed the higher education system and how those in turn have changed women’s financial, occupational, political, social, and educational prospects in South Africa. Through the telling of this history, the book explores the relationship among economic growth and development, higher education, and women within the social, cultural, and political context of the country from 1994 to the present.

As noted earlier, women are essential to the future of the country for a number of reasons. At the macroeconomic level, the education of women has been identified as a key source for long-term economic growth—and linked to higher productivity, higher returns on investment, higher agricultural yields, and a more favorable demographic structure.7 The 2002 UN Population Fund Report states that one of the most effective ways to increase and sustain development is through the “improvement of women’s skills and their access to tools such as credit, training, and technology.”8 In South Africa, it is well understood that women can and do make significant contributions to the economic development and growth in their communities and country. The challenge is to make sure that policies and decision-making reflects and supports that understanding.9

This book attempts to demonstrate the complex and significant ways South Africa’s governmental, economic growth, and higher education policies intersect to influence women’s lives. These policies, like any, are formulated, negotiated, and implemented with specific intentions in mind yet without real foreknowledge of how they will resolve those intentions— let alone the effects they will have outside their stated objectives. That may be particularly true for South Africa, as the influence of that country’s policies has played a key but little understood role in the country’s transformation since the end of apartheid rule.

The overarching question guiding this book is: what have been the consequences for the higher education system and the prospects for women of the macroeconomic growth and development policies, as well as the gender-equality and empowerment policies, that the post-apartheid South African government has pursued since 1994? This question comprises two sub-questions:

  • What have been the implications for the country of the macroeconomic growth and development policies adopted in 1994 by the post-apartheid government? These neo-liberal economic policies have been widely debated and were a factor in the recent national election. While the country has experienced economic growth and a strong black middle class has emerged since 1994, South Africa has also seen an increase in unemployment, poverty, and violence against women. How have those consequences influenced the higher education system and the prospects for women? Will the recently elected government move the country toward economic policies that are more redistributive and equitable in an effort to curb poverty, reduce unemployment, expand access to higher education, and improve the social and economic conditions for the majority of South Africans?
  • How have the prospects for South African women changed since 1994? The laws, bills, and commissions focused on gender equality and the empowerment of women in the post-apartheid government have served an important purpose. The government established the Commission on Gender Equality, National Gender Forum, and the Office on the Status of Women to support efforts by higher education leaders to become more inclusive and equitable. The question now is how effective have these laws, bills, and commissions been in achieving their objectives? Do patriarchal, cultural, and social norms still have a strong influence on women? If so, how do women balance that with the progressive gender framework set forth by the government? How does that balance influence their decision and ability to access higher education? Have higher education systems become more supportive, inclusive, and equitable for female students and faculty members? What challenges do women experience in accessing the higher education system, and what barriers do they face once in it? What are the employment opportunities for female graduates? And, what influence do race, class, and geography have on women when it comes to enrolling in and graduating from college, as well as obtaining good jobs afterward?

This book does not attempt to find the answers or solutions to the pressing economic, education, and gender issues facing South Africa today. The primary focus is on understanding the relationship between economic growth and development and higher education policies and how they have changed women’s prospects. Although scholars, journalists, and others have usually framed their examinations of the country’s opportunities and challenges around race, this study takes a different perspective and looks at the country through the lens of gender. Doing so sheds new light on how half of South Africa’s people—women— have faced the country’s complexity, opportunities, and challenges over the past several decades.

While this book focuses on post-apartheid South Africa, it important to understand the final years of apartheid rule, the key political players, and the conditions and terms under which the ANC came to power. Chapters 2 and 3 provide the background information necessary to appreciate and understand the transformation of the country. That understanding will allow the reader to contextualize the challenges and opportunities facing the country today. These chapters review the early 1990s, at the beginning of the end of apartheid rule. They focus on the people who were instrumental in engineering the end of apartheid and provide a glimpse into the political landscape, the economic challenges, the condition of the higher education system, and the role of women at the time.

South Africa is a country that has gone through significant changes since 1994. The new government, led by the ANC, set out to transform the country. Chapter 4 looks at the key initiatives that new government undertook to rebuild the country: the writing of a new constitution, the development of macroeconomic growth and development policies, the dismantling and restructuring of the higher education system, and the building of a national framework for gender equality and the empowerment of women. The chapter also highlights key debates and questions that arose during the creation and adoption process of these policies— which continue to play out today.

The aim of Chapter 5 is to illustrate the far-reaching influence of the macroeconomic policies adopted by the ANC—and in particular their effect on the higher education system. Such policies have played a significant role in the country since the 1994 election campaign. What started as a strategy of redistribution and equity during the election campaign gave way to a Western, neo-liberal market-based approach with the introduction of the Growth, Employment, and Redistribution Policy (GEAR) in 1996. That policy shift had a tremendous impact on the country economically, socially, politically, and culturally.

Chapter 5 focuses on the influence of GEAR on economic growth and development, higher education, and the prospects for women since its inception in 1996 to today. It also explores the potential for changes in these macroeconomic policies, given South Africans growing discontent with the economic direction of the country and the pressures facing the government under the leadership of Jacob Zuma. Those people who supported the candidacy of Zuma—including the poor, trade unions and the South African Communist Party (SACP)—have expected the government to re-examine GEAR policies and shift to a more redistributive model with increased government intervention. The chapter ends with an examination of what, if anything, the government is proposing as it relates to economic growth and development initiatives.

The South African government and its citizens view the higher education system as one of the main vehicles for fulfilling the promise of the country, and that system has undergone unprecedented change since 1994. Three key policies have been implemented that provide the foundation for higher education in the country. The first is the 1995 White Paper, which called for increased access to higher education, development of a single coordinated system, and expansion of distance learning. The second is the 1997 White Paper, which abandoned equity goals and managerial efficiency. The government released a third White Paper in 2004 that called for the reorganization and merger of higher education institutions. The high expectations and rapid changes brought forth from these policies have put tremendous stress on the higher education system —sometimes perpetuating problems from the past as well as creating new ones —which Chapter 6 describes.

Specifically, the chapter discusses the need to provide a higher-quality education, improve the preparation of students, raise the graduation rates of black and underrepresented groups, overcome language barriers, and meet the country’s need for skilled workers who can contribute to the global knowledge-based economy. In addition, Chapter 6 examines the distinct challenges associated with merging into one system multiple universities with historically different curricula, students, language, and standards. The chapter ends with an analysis of how the organizational and structural changes to the Ministry of Education were designed to alleviate some of the challenges facing the system.

Chapters 7 and 8 analyze how women’s prospects have changed since the end of apartheid rule. They bring understanding to the role and relationship between economic growth and development, higher education, and gender in post-apartheid South Africa—as framed by the cultural, social, and political context in which the country operates. Since higher education is considered key to gender equality, a greater likelihood of working outside the home, higher wages, lower fertility, and reduced maternal and child mortality, the discussion in Chapter 7 starts by examining the role higher education has played in improving women’s prospects, the gains they have been made, and the challenges that remain. It explores issues related to access, retention, and field of study, along with the roles that race, class, geography, and social and cultural norms have played in either increasing or decreasing the likelihood of women’s success in the higher education system. The discussion then turns to the prevalence of rape, sexual harassment, pregnancy, and HIV/AIDS on campuses and how they influence a woman’s ability to graduate from college.

Chapter 8 then highlights the gains women have made, the challenges that remain, and how race, class, geography, cultural and social norms, and education continue to influence their lives. While South African women have in general been making enormous strides, most black women remain in the poorest socioeconomic sector of the population—the service and agricultural sector—and occupy a small percentage of those in the professional sector. In addition women are paying a price for the gains they have made, as reflected in the level of violence against them, including rape, and the high incidence of HIV/AIDS. There is a general sense of a backlash against women from men in the country, including its leaders, and it is palatable. The chapter ends by examining these disturbing trends and attempts to explain why they are happening.

The concluding chapter will discuss the challenges that remain for women, suggestions for moving forward, and thoughts about what the future may hold given the current trends and conditions in the country.

A significant amount of literature—research studies, articles, and books —has discussed, examined, and debated from a political and economic perspective the merits of the GEAR that the post-apartheid government adopted. It is my hope that this book provides a deeper understanding of the implications of the policy by focusing on its effect on the higher education system—a topic about which less has been said—and on women, where little to no literature exists. This book fills a void by examining how GEAR has influenced two key elements necessary for meeting the economic growth and development initiatives of the country: (1) higher education and (2) the full and active engagement of women. It was anticipated that the presidency of Jacob Zuma would bring political, economic, and social change to the country, and in that regard, this book takes into account the social, cultural, and political context of current conditions and events to offer a distinct perspective on South Africa’s future.

South Africa is a country whose history has been told as a racial story. But new ways of telling the story are slowly emerging. This book is an attempt to show that race is not the only guiding force in South Africa’s past, present, and future. Other crucial factors and events—including those related to gender—are shaping and giving character to its story.

This book tells the story of South Africa in gendered terms so as to better understand the complexity of the country today and to analyze it in a more comprehensive way. It weaves economic growth and development, higher education, and gender together to create a new way of viewing the country and envisioning it going forward.

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