Suggestions for Moving Forward

This book has focused on how women’s prospects and lives have changed since the end of apartheid rule. And one thing that the research has made abundantly clear is that—whether one is discussing access to higher education or employment opportunities—poor, rural, black South African women represent a significant portion of the population and have not benefited from the opportunities that have become available to women as a whole.

The 2016 Global Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum was a matter of particular puzzlement and frustration. It ranks countries based on how well they have decreased gender disparities related to economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. Inexplicably, it ranked South Africa the 15th best country in the world. The country received a relatively high score of 0.764, with 1.0 representing complete equality between genders.6

That is difficult to accept in a country where polygamy is allowed, rape and sexual abuse against women are the norm, violence against women is on the increase, women are underrepresented in professional and management positions, and a significant percentage of them continue to live in poverty and lack access to basic resources. While it is helpful to attempt quantitative measurement of countries’ progress in decreasing gender disparity, the report’s numbers are clearly skewed and should not be held up as evidence that all is well with South African gender relations. That is why it is so important to conduct qualitative studies about women in South Africa that create a more accurate, nuanced, and clear picture of what is happening.

It is also vital to examine different groupings ofwomen in the country. In a nation as complex as South Africa, and in one with a history of such bitter racial division, putting all women in just one category distorts the picture of their lives. The opportunities for white South African women differ significantly from those of black South African or Indian women, just as the lives of women in rural areas greatly contrast with those of women in urban ones. That holds true for enrollment and graduation rates in higher education, employment opportunities, and safety and health issues. Examining different groups of women allows for a far better understanding of the challenges they each face—as well as for the development of much more targeted and effective responses to those challenges.

Perhaps most important, greater dialogue between the men and women of South Africa must occur. In conducting the interviews highlighted in this book, a pattern would develop. Each interviewee would begin on an optimistic note, saying that women were making progress— that, while not all women were advancing, in general things were moving ahead in the right direction. Then the conversation would shift toward a discussion of men’s attitudes. Interviewees would linger over issues of violence, sexual abuse, rape, HIV/AIDS, and the difficulty of living in a patriarchal society. As shared by Harold Herman, emeritus professor of comparative and international education at the University of Western Cape, “Just as apartheid has created this huge disparity between white and black, so the social system, the religious practices, and the tribal culture, have created disadvantages for women.”7

It’s apparent that it’s impossible to talk about women’s opportunities without talking about—and with—men. Unfortunately, for many women, men can have a negative influence on their lives and make it difficult to move ahead. And often, the more women progress, the more some men become abusive and patriarchal in their attitudes.

That cycle needs to be broken. Two things must happen to start working toward a solution: first, men should be engaged and a part of the process, and, second, a national dialogue should begin between men and women on how to end the abuse and violence. Orly Stern, former human rights lawyer for the Sonke Gender Justice Network, feels strongly about the need to work with men:

There’s a lot of work done in empowering woman, but if you want to stop rape and gender violence, and if you want to work towards gender equality, you need to target the men. So my organization works with men and boys to try and end their silence. We do a lot of work around HIV/AIDS, advising men to get tested, not to have concurrent partners. And we discuss violence and abuse against women.8

Starting a national dialogue about such challenges will be difficult, Stern adds, noting:

We’re afraid. People are afraid to talk about it. People are embarrassed. But it’s happening. Understanding why it’s happening, I don’t know—that’s so complex.9

As South Africa prepared for the 2010 World Cup, the issues of violence, rape, HIV/AIDS, and crime in South Africa appeared in international headlines. In response, government officials and World Cup organizers worked hard to convince the world that South Africa was a safe place to come to enjoy the event. The occasion provided a perfect opportunity for the government to begin a national dialogue about violence and abuse against women. While it was doubtful Jacob Zuma would spearhead such a dialogue, given his personal life and the comments he made about women during his rape trial, what about the women in government? Did they use their voice and speak up about these issues?

Sadly, both Zuma and women in government remained silent. As Jacob Lief, president of the Ubuntu Education Fund, observed:

Why aren’t we talking about this? I’m not talking about the community voice. There are a lot of community activists. I’m asking, where are the members of Parliament? Where’s the first lady? Where are the people standing up and saying “Stop”? We talk about a national crisis that is happening to our young girls, and until we have leadership, we’re fighting a fight that we can’t win. And it needs to happen at the top. Strong leadership is the key.

I’m not saying we can’t push, and we’ll continue doing what we do, but we need to see someone else step up. Do you know the deputy president of our country is a woman, and she didn’t utter one word about this? It’s inexcusable.10

So what must be done? Leaders, both male and female, in positions of political and economic influence in South African should pursue four key steps. They should:

Work to change practices that have hindered women’s access to basic services, education, and economic advancement, as well as their opportunity to play a role in personal and political decision-making.

Many of those practices remain rooted in deeply entrenched cultural and traditional norms. Thus, it is vital that women in a position of power and authority speak up on behalf of other women and advocate for changes. In addition, men should be actively engaged in the process to help create new approaches, so any such advances are encouraged and supported by both genders. One way to begin the process—a first step in creating pathways for understanding, common ground, and shared interests—is to find and create opportunities for men and women to engage in meaningful dialo- gue.That, in turn, can be used to build the foundation for shared interest and action.

Establish a structure at the local level to ensure gender policies and laws are implemented and obeyed.

A majority of women still live in rural areas where their local government and chiefs have the most influence on everyone’s daily life. A structure must be put in place at the local level, and in both public and private organizations, to ensure policies and laws support gender equality and women’s empowerment. The difficulty in rural areas is the lack of resources and infrastructure for the implementation and enforcement of these laws and policies. The South African government should allocate additional resources to rural areas to ensure women have access to the judicial system and the necessary legal services to bring a case or complaint to and through the legal system. This will also require an investment in more police, judges, and attorneys in rural areas.

Subordinate customary and cultural practices to the right of equality for women.

Women’s equality should always take precedent over customary and cultural practices. As is, traditional customs too often trump the law in rural areas. The rights of women, as defined in the constitution and laws, must be recognized, implemented, and enforced—regardless of traditional customs. When customary practices and laws conflict with women’s constitutional rights, the courts can play a critical role in resolving these potential conflicts by overturning such practices and laws which discriminate against women.

Promote and support women’s economic empowerment and active engagement in the formal economy.

As has been discussed at length, most South African women are still engaged in the informal economy and continue to live in poverty. The government, private sector, and higher education system should work together to design a comprehensive plan that identifies and creates opportunities for women to actively participate in the formal economy. In addition, micro-financing, a tool that has been used extensively in India and in several African countries, has yet to take hold in South Africa. The creation of a micro-financing program in South Africa is just one example of how women could become more economically empowered and engaged.

Focus especially on women who live in rural areas and are significantly


Since women’s bargaining power in households comes from empowerment in education, income, legal rights, and religious or social validation, women who live in rural areas, who are at a significant disadvantage and should be targeted. For example, rural women should be encouraged and helped to complete their education at all levels, as each additional year of schooling increases their potential for future wages and delays the need to get married. In addition, they must be given access to financial resources, public services, and land. And rural women, who make up few elected representatives in most rural councils or serve as party chairs or heads in rural councils, should be invited to run for such positions and supported in those efforts.

South Africa, while economically ahead of other African countries, has yet to fully benefit from the promise of the global economy even though it has adopted neo-liberal economic growth and development initiatives, restructured its higher education system, and created legislation and initiatives aimed at bringing women into the educational system, formal economy, and government. The country has experienced economic growth but not necessarily development. The unemployment rate has risen since 1994, as has the number of people living in poverty. Although higher education enrollment rates have increased, relatively few poor South Africans, especially black South African women, have enrolled in and graduated from college. And women are still underrepresented in higher education programs and jobs in the global, knowledge-based economy.

Debates continue as to whether South Africa should have embraced the neo-liberal economic practices of the West or stayed on course with the redistribution and equity approach that the incoming government of the ANC first introduced in 1994. South Africa’s experience suggests that economic growth and development policies of an emerging country must fit its cultural, social, and political context—and not merely replicate the Western model—if that country is to engage in the global economy and bring prosperity to its people.

Meanwhile, it still appears that higher education and the engagement of women can contribute significantly to the advancement of an emerging country like South Africa. There is no doubt that the constitution, as well as other legislation and government policies, have opened up opportunities for some women. What they haven’t done is to change the consciousness of the South African society to be a gender sensitive and nonpatriarchal society. That may be a matter of women becoming economically empowered and occupying more positions of authority across society. Yet it will take time for a critical mass of women to populate those positions and exert enough influence to bring about the necessary improvements that many poor, black, rural women have been waiting for over two decades to see. And that will not just automatically occur.

Thus, renewed efforts are required among government leaders, policy makers, and others—in particular, those related to pursuing some of the recommendations outlined in this chapter. By exploring these recommendations, it is my hope that women will be able to continue on a path of progress, and that those who have thus far been left behind will have the opportunity to pursue and realize their promise.


  • 1. Eynon, “Interpreting the Economic Growth and Development Policies of Post-Apartheid South Africa: Its Influence on Higher Education and Prospects for Women” 239.
  • 2. Farouk Chothia, “Will Zuma Bring Tribalism to South Africa?” BBC News, April 23, 2009, (accessed April 23, 2009).
  • 3. Eynon, 241.
  • 4. Ibid.
  • 5. Ibid., 242.
  • 6. Richard Samans and Saadia Zahidi, The Global Gender Gap Report 2016 (Geneva, Switzerland: World Economic Forum, 2016), 10.
  • 7. Eynon, 244.
  • 8. Ibid.
  • 9. Ibid.
  • 10. Ibid., 245.
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