Women and South Africa’s Future

Women account for half of the world’s population and talent. The costs associated with not developing this talent are significant for any country. By enabling and encouraging women to be active participants in economic growth and development, many emerging countries can increase their potential to participate in the global economy while, at the same time, boost their capacity at home.56

At the macroeconomic level, female education has been identified as a key source for long-term economic growth. It has been linked to higher productivity, higher returns on investment, higher agricultural yields, and a more favorable demographic structure.57 The 2002 UN Population Fund Report stated 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.”58

South Africa has long recognized the vital role women can play in its rebuilding and future success, across all sectors. After the end of apartheid, it began creating bills, passing laws, and establishing policies, commissions, and frameworks to promote and ensure gender equality and empowerment. Since that time, the government has established the Commission on Gender Equality, National Gender Forum, and the Office on the Status of Women, to name just a few initiatives, to support efforts to become more inclusive and equitable. It is well understood and recognized that African women can and do make significant contributions to the economic development and growth of their communities and country as a whole.

But the challenge going forward is to make sure that policies and decision-making reflect and support the South African government’s understanding and recognition of women as a vital force in the nation’s future.59 Thus far, such efforts have often been thwarted by social and cultural norms. South Africa remains extremely patriarchal. In this culture, women are expected to take care of the home and family while men are encouraged to focus their attention outside the home to establish a career. The issue is not so much the duties they each perform, but rather that those duties are rewarded and valued differently and unequally.60 The widespread and persistent inequality of women and girls is especially prevalent when it comes to higher education, as women are often not encouraged to attend to improve their education and skills.

What’s more, access is an issue for those women who do wish to attend college, which has been denied to the majority of Africa’s women and girls, a troubling trend that we will analyze in depth in future chapters. This lack of access to advanced education for women and girls is an economic and political issue with socioeconomic consequences.61 As author Mariam Williams says, “Lost learning opportunities, especially in today’s globalized world and what is also referred to as knowledge-based society, constitute a loss of full participation in the development of families, communities, countries, sub-regions, the continent as a whole, and global Africa.”62

A countervailing force to the country’s deeply entrenched paternalism has been the women’s movement in Africa, often referred to as “African Feminism.” African Feminism has played a key role in the transformation of gender relations in South Africa and the movement toward gender equality.63 African Feminism is multidimensional in that it focuses on the politics of gender and the power relations between men and women; it is pragmatic, group oriented, and action-oriented. It concentrates on creating independence and dignity out of the oppression created by colonial, western patriarchal and African patriarchal cultures. Philip Higgs, formerly a research professor at the University of South Africa and now an emeritus professor and research fellow at UNISA, has observed of the movement that women are committed to developing their own voice, which they feel, has often been silenced by Western and European feminists who spoke for them, thereby denying them the opportunity to voice their own thoughts.64

As we’ll explore in Chapter 7 and Chapter 8, South African women have made gains across all sectors, yet significant and serious challenges remain. In the future, the key question will be how effective the laws, bills, and commissions that the government has established will be in achieving their objectives. Do patriarchal, cultural, and social norms still have a strong influence on women? If so, how do women balance this with the progressive gender framework set forth by the government and the African Feminism movement? How will that influence their decision and ability to access higher education, employment opportunities, and political participation? And, what role do race, class, and geography play in women’s access to and success in higher education and employment opportunities?

The answers to these questions—and the concepts, issues, and challenges introduced in this chapter regarding economic development and growth, higher education, and women’s empowerment—continue to unfold in a very complex country, one that continues to find its footing in a post-apartheid era. Thus, without venturing too far into the past, it is important to take at least a step back and examine such issues as they existed and emerged in 1994 when Nelson Mandela and the ANC were elected to govern the country. By doing so, we can better understand how and why the nation has come to the place it finds itself today.

BOX: Eight Key Reasons for Gender Equality in Higher Education

In Advancing Development: Core Themes in Global Economics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), Mark Blackden, Sudharshan Canagarajah, Stephan

Klasen, and David Lawson present eight arguments, supported by theoretical literature, that show that gender inequality in education and employment reduces economic growth:

  • 1. Gender inequality in education reduces the average amount of capital in a society and, as a result, creates market distortion and harms economic growth. In many countries, including South Africa, women account for half the total population. Therefore, if women lack the educational knowledge and skills necessary to participate in the formal economy, economic growth is hampered.
  • 2. The failure to promote female education or earnings negatively affects other benefits. These benefits include reduced fertility rates and child mortality levels, as well as the likelihood of education for the next generation.
  • 3. Gender gaps in employment artificially diminish the talent pool, thereby reducing the average ability of the workforce.65
  • 4. The competitive advantage of large gender gaps in pay is erased when there are also large gender gaps in education and employment—that is, when women are not trained and hired in large numbers.
  • 5. Female employment and earnings increase women’s bargaining power at home, leading to greater investments in the health and education of children. Without those earnings, the potential for improvement in the next generation is diminished.
  • 6. When women’s productive activities are under-resourced and capitalized it reduces the overall aggregate and production levels of a country.
  • 7. The work that women perform at home and for their family is not measured in income growth or poverty statistics and, as a result, is not counted in GDP growth.
  • 8. Women are less prone to corruption and nepotism. By increasing the number of women in the workplace and in decisionmaking bodies, there is a better chance of improving governance in business and government.66
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