Achieving a broad-based coalition: the politics of South Africa’s Domestic Violence Act (1998)

Lillian Artz and Valérie Grand’Maison


Women’s participation in the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of South Africa’s government has increased significantly since the establishment of a new post-apartheid political settlement in the early 1990s, a move that in turn helped secure a stronger focus on gender equity within political institutions and legislative processes. In a 2015 Women’s Day communiqué, the South African government reported that:

... prior to 1994, the South African Parliament had a mere 2.7 per cent representation of women, and following the first democratic elections, women’s representation in the National Assembly stood at 27.7 per cent. Currently, women ministers comprise 41 per cent of the Cabinet, women deputy ministers make up 47 per cent of the total number of deputy ministers and there is a 41 per cent representation of women in the National Assembly.1

This level of representation of women in political spaces has been made possible by the effective mobilization of a women’s movement distinct from the broader national liberation struggle during apartheid and transition to democracy (Hassim and Gouws 1998).

Research on the linkages between women’s inclusion in politics and outcomes on gender equity has demonstrated that this is mediated by a number of other factors, such as the political will of ruling elites and the extent to which women members of parliament (MPs) are undeviating in advancing women’s equality, autonomy, and empowerment (Childs and Krooke 2009, Htun and Weldon 2010). In this chapter, we move beyond the inclusion-to-influence debate to explore what actors and processes shape the ability to negotiate gender equity concerns with regard to policy adoption and implementation, focusing on the case of domestic violence policy in South Africa. We specifically look into the strategies women and other state or non-state actors used to negotiate within South Africa’s dominant party and largely institutionalized political settlement, and how these negotiations shape gender equity outcomes. We investigate three specific questions:

  • 1 What factors shaped the relationship between women’s inclusion in politics and their influence over the adoption of domestic violence law and its implementation processes?
  • 2 What role did pro-gender equity policy coalitions within the domain of women’s interests play in both adoption and implementation processes?
  • 3 What impact did the dominant-institutionalized settlement have on women’s strategic interests and their ability to influence gender equity outcomes?

We adopted a political settlement framework to analyse the dynamic nature of the political climate, influenced by formal institutions and processes, as well as by informal mechanisms. This framework has increasingly been applied to conceptualize political stabilization in post-conflict states by taking into consideration the multilayered structures of influence on the political agenda, revealing processes outside of the public discourse, and recognizing the reciprocal impact of formal and informal negotiations. A political settlement can be conceptualized as a dynamic social contract between the state and civil society, fluctuating as a result of mechanisms operating at different personal, institutional, and organizational levels (Di John and Putzel 2009). Such processes include long-term efforts in legal reforms, or broader transition developments, or a dominant political ideology suppressing opposing voices; it could also be explicitly negotiated with local, national, and international stakeholders, as in the case of a formal peace process.

We used a two-staged method to develop an in-depth understanding of the dynamic political context and multilayered structures within which women have negotiated their interests. The first step consisted of a thematic analysis (Vaismoradi et al. 2013) of (1) historical developments regarding women’s rights advances; (2) the transformative nature of the transitional process in South Africa, in terms of women’s participation; and (3) the nature of relationships between formal and informal institutions that shaped the implementation of domestic violence policy. The second stage of study used process tracing to identify the causal mechanisms leading to policy adoption. Timeline and actor mapping were used to identify key actors and track the negotiations and contestations between these actors. Key informant interviews and focus group discussions with those directly involved in the policy process were conducted to gain insider insights into how the policy adoption process and the early years of the implementation of the Domestic Violence Act (DVA) played out (see Appendix 3 for a list of participants).

The chapter is structured as follows: the following section discusses South Africa’s political and historical context, particularly the critical junctures that opened up space for women’s rights, followed by an analysis of South Africa’s current political settlement and women’s role within this. The chapter then traces the process through which the DVA was negotiated and adopted, focusing on the coalition-building and discursive strategies of the key proponents involved. The final section tracks the politics of implementation, by identifying processes and outcomes, as well as reasons behind the gaps in progress. The conclusion examines the links between South Africa’s political settlement and the path of adoption and implementation of the DVA.

Women’s inclusion in politics and policy-making in South Africa

Critical junctures and history of women’s engagement in politics before the democratic transition

Critical junctures in history—such as liberation, anti-colonial, and national struggles—have been shown to expand women’s inclusion in politics and public policy in the Global South (Nazneen and Mahmud 2012). Women’s active inclusion and participation at these turning points shape the extent to which women can claim political entitlements and establish a focus on gender equity. Important critical junctures in South Africa were the liberation movement against apartheid, starting in the early 1940s, and the transition to democracy from 1994 onwards, following the end of apartheid. The recognition of women’s rights in South Africa was integral to the mass national liberation movement. In 1943, the African National Congress (ANC)—the political party that played a key role in the struggle against apartheid and would later dominate South African politics— adopted Africans’ Claims in South Africa, which declared the need for all Africans to unite for freedom (ANC 1943, Preface). This declaration called for equality of all races and the end of discrimination based on gender, ethnicity, culture, and other marginalized identities. Within this effort, women organized against discriminatory and hostile pass laws2 and established the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) within the Congress Alliance (the anti-apartheid political coalition led by the ANC) in 1954 (Albertyn 1994).

The women’s movement in South Africa earned independent recognition from the resistance effort in the early 1990s. Inspired by the outcomes of the transition of other post-conflict countries, women advocated for an autonomous effort to secure women’s emancipation in the national liberation process. The South African feminist ideology first emerged during the ‘Malibongwe Conference’, held in January 1990 (Albertyn 1994). This year also marked the formation of the ANC Women’s League (ANCWL), which worked independently from the ANC, yet possessed the necessary expertise and skills acquired from the liberation struggle to be heard in the national political arena. ANCWL’s autonomous position and its deep links with women’s movement organizations, alongside its strong connections with the ANC, were important for negotiating gender equity during the transition process in South Africa. The Women’s National Coalition (WNC) was established in 1992, with ANCWL as an affiliate, and was a crucial actor in bringing together women’s movement actors from across the political divides to work together. WNC stated its mission as follows: ‘to coordinate a national campaign for the development and education of women through a twofold strategy: bottom-up mobilization through education and political activism, and a top-down approach to influence policy-making in the constitutional process’ (Murphy 2004). The leaders of the WNC effectively used the notions of rights to unite women across race, class, and party divides, while taking advantage of the mobilization efforts of the ANCWL and broader national liberation struggle to organize, advocate, and educate men and women at the grassroots and

Achieving a broad-based coalition 111 parliament levels. The role played by women’s organizations during the liberation struggle, the united stance on gender equity taken by these organizations, and the personal links these groups had with the ruling party meant that it was difficult for the political leaders in the ANC to ignore the demands made by the women’s movement. Moreover, the demands for gender equity were framed as intersecting with the resistance movement’s own concepts of rights and equality, successfully challenging patriarchal attitudes through deeply shaped South African social and political discourses (Albertyn 1994, Hassim 2006), thus securing greater traction for issues of gender equity within the ANC.

The political settlement post-transition and women’s inclusion

The post-transition political settlement comprised an agreement between the dominant white minority and a liberation movement acting on behalf of an oppressed majority (Levy et al. 2015). The process of pact-making was long and involved both bilateral and multilateral negotiations, some of which were held in secret (van Wyk 2009). The nature of the settlement since the time of transition can be classified as dominant-institutionalized (see Chapter 2). In terms of the configuration of power, since the ANC won the elections in 1994, it has faced no credible opposition from opposing political forces for control of the national-level government. In institutional terms, the history of state-building over the course of the 20th century meant that the elected ANC inherited a relatively strong and rules-based set of institutions through which to govern, at the national level at least.

As mentioned earlier, women’s prominent role within the liberation struggle and their strong links with the ANC leadership ensured that the WNC was able to gain a foothold within the ruling coalition. The negotiation process between contending groups offered space for women to participate and to successfully include gender issues in the agreed post-apartheid political settlement (Waylen 2007). As Waylen (2007) argues, gender rights activists lobbied for the inclusion of women in the ANC’s negotiating teams, nonsexism in the constitutional principles, and an equality clause in the constitution that would override customary law. There were tensions with traditional leaders over the equality clause because they wanted customary law to be excluded, but the women’s lobby eventually won (Waylen 2007, p. 531). Nevertheless, traditional leaders were an important part of the deals reached during this negotiation period, including over land, which created challenges for pushing gender equity concerns.

In the post-apartheid settlement, the role of women in the ANC was recognized by the establishment of a 30 percent quota system within the political party in its nomination as the first democratically elected government in 1994. This led to the appointment of more than 100 women to national and provincial government positions (Geisler 2000). Women MPs were able to introduce meaningful changes within the governmental structures, such as the establishment of the National Gender Machinery (NGM) and the introduction of a number of laws and policies pertaining to specific needs and vulnerabilities of women (Murray and O’Sullivan 2005, Waylen 2007). The constitution adopted in 1996 led to profoundchanges in the operation of the criminal justice system and the development of (gender-related) law and jurisprudence. The constitution further enshrined the institutionalization of gender mainstreaming ‘nodes’ within government. These included formal channels and accountability mechanisms between civil society organizations, government, and international bodies— specifically, the establishment of the Commission of Gender Equality (CGE), the Office on the Status of Women (OSW), the Joint Committee on the Improvement of the Quality of Life and the Status of Women (JC), and the National Gender Forum (Gouws 2006).

However, the post-transition period also witnessed a schism between women parliamentarians and women’s civil society organizations (nongovernmental organizations [NGOs], in particular), leading to a crisis of identity in the women’s movement in South Africa. This was further complicated by post-apartheid identifications and settlements between and amongst class and race, as well as political, sexual, and gender identities and orientations (Britton 2006, Gouws 2006). It also became evident during the first democratic government that women’s representation would not necessarily translate into the promotion of women’s interests, due to a lack of political expertise of women MPs and the male-dominated nature of the South African parliament at the time (Britton 2006). It was within this rapidly changing and complex political context, as located within a deeply patriarchal society, that women’s movement organizations had to advocate for equal rights whilst recognizing the intersectional identities of women.

The nature of South Africa’s ruling coalition has had an effect on advancing gender equity. As traditional figures played a significant role in the post-apartheid settlement process, the ruling party’s position on gender policy leaned more towards ameliorative, rather than transformative, gender equity policies. As a result, some women MPs were reluctant to push for more transformative changes to stay within the party line and played a more influential role in promoting less challenging policy agendas, such as those relating to gender equality in the workplace. This left the promotion of more transformative policies, including on domestic violence, to the women’s movement in civil society that remained outside formal government.

The institutional dimension of South Africa’s political settlement was also influential here, with regards to its relatively strong public institutions (Levy et al. 2015). This meant that negotiations around domestic violence took place within the formal governance arena, and the women’s coalition operated through largely formal routes (in contrast to the importance of informal processes in the more personalized settings of Bangladesh and Uganda; see Chapters 7 and 4 respectively). The National Gender Machinery and the South African Law Commission played key roles in passing the policy on domestic violence. Although the process of adoption was mainly achieved through formal routes, the role of informal alliances between members of the domestic violence coalition and the ruling coalition did help to fast-track the process in the context of a dominant political settlement. In the next section, we take a closer look at the adoption process of the domestic violence law and explore the interplay between the formal and informal mechanisms and their impact on the symbolic and tangible protection for women.

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