Women in Government
When discussing women’s progress in South Africa, the representation of women in government is often cited as a great example of their advancement. Yet, even there, the results have been mixed. After the 2009 national elections, women made up 44.5 percent of the lower house of Parliament and 29.6 percent of the upper house.58 But after the 2014 national election, the percentage of women within all levels of government, both national and provincial, fell—except at the cabinet level, where the percentage remained the same. And of the two main political parties, the ANC and the DA, it was within the ANC that women’s representation dropped.59
One position, however has been, but for a brief period of time, firmly held by a woman. From 1994 to 2009, the speaker of Parliament was female: first Frene Ginwala, next Baleka Mbete, and then Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde 60 The first male speaker of the post-apartheid period was Max Sisulu who was elected to the post in May 2009. Elaine Salo, former director of gender studies at the University of Pretoria, recalled a conversation she had with Mr. Sisulu’s wife, noting, “She was saying, just to indicate how the gender of that position had become institutionalized, that people are asking, ‘Well, do we still address you as madam speaker?’”61 And, in 2014, another woman, Baleka Mbete, once again became speaker.
From a long-term perspective, the progress and contribution ofwomen in government in post-apartheid South Africa has been significant—espe- cially considering the underrepresentation of women during apartheid rule. The story of Helen Suzman illustrates just how far women have come. Gillian Godsell, an associate research fellow at Wits University’s Graduate School of Public and Development Management, wrote a high school textbook based on the story of Suzman’s life. Suzman became a member of Parliament in 1953 when just three women served in that body; soon it dwindled down to only her. For long periods of time, she was the sole female representative in Parliament. Godsell thinks the number of women coming forward and serving in Parliament since Helen first did so is extraordinary.62 SAQA’s Yvonne Shapiro agrees:
I do remember all those years ago—I was quite young at the time. There was one and only woman in Parliament in South Africa, and her name was Helen Suzman. And it was quite astonishing. There she was, and she was in the opposition party, and she was all alone. And if you compare that to what we have now, and to the speaker, and all of those kinds of things, it’s absolutely fantastic.63
The visible presence of women in government—as a result of specific efforts by the ANC to help achieve that—has been extraordinary.64 Yet some people are concerned that, while a significant number of women are now in Parliament, some of those women may not have the consciousness to take up what University of Pretoria’s Elaine Salo calls the “disempowered women issues.” Salo, like others, worries that Parliament may just become “a means to self enrichment” and “just a system of party patronage” for some women.65 But she also observes that “the presence of women in our political systems means there won’t be one person, like Helen Suzman, being the lone moaner and shouter about injustice towards women and other historically marginalized groups.”66
As a result of the efforts of the government and the women who were involved in the creation of a new constitution and gender-specific policies, Parliament, government departments, and the Office of the Presidency— places that used to have almost no women—are now populated with a significant number of women.67 In addition to Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, Chair of the African Union Commission, and Thuli Madonsela, who until October 2016 served as Public Protector, several other prominent and influential women work in government today.
For example, Helen Zille is a major force in South African politics, having started her career in the 19070s as a political journalist and antiapartheid activist. She has worked in all levels of government—first as a member of the Executive Council (MEC) in the Western Cape, then as Mayor of Cape Town, and since 2009, as the Premier of the Western Cape. She is a member of the DA, the leading opposition to the ANC. She continues to be a major political force, despite her decision in April 2015 to not seek reelection for congress in the DA. She will remain Premier of the Western Cape until 2019. 68
Another important figure in South African politics is Patricia de Lille. In 1974, de Lille became active in trade union politics and, over the years, was elected to various leadership positions. She served in Parliament from 1994 to 2010, and during her time there, she established her own political party: the Independence Democrats, which merged with the DA in 2010. In 2011, de Lille became the 33rd Mayor of Cape Town and was recently elected leader of the Western Cape Democratic Alliance (DA) provincial congress, replacing Helen Zille.69