July 20, 2024

SOUTH AFRICAN WOMEN: The Subalterns of the Post-Apartheid Dispensation

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Women in politics are often hindered by limited access to resources, party structures that favour male candidates.

FILE PHOTO: Women holds a placard during the women's march in 1956 to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest against the proposed amendments to the Urban Areas Act. PICTURE: SA History

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The status of South African women seemingly remains that of subordinates long into the post-apartheid dispensation, writes FEZEKISA MAKELENI

The end of apartheid in South Africa in 1994 marked a significant turning point in the country’s history. It promised a new era of equality, justice and opportunity for all citizens.

As a system of racial segregation and discrimination, the apartheid had a particularly harsh impact on South African women, as it perpetuated patriarchal norms and relegated them to the margins of society. However, with the end of the apartheid, South Africa gained a new Constitution in 1996 that enshrines gender equality and the rights of women.

This marked a vital step towards the empowerment of women and their inclusion in all spheres of public life. However, the reality remains that South African women continue to face numerous challenges in their pursuit of gender equality in government, politics, and the corporate world.

The status of South African women seemingly remains that of subordinates long into the post-apartheid dispensation, and the pursuit of gender equality and representation in positions of power and influence remains a sought-after discourse.

Despite constitutional guarantees, South African women still face significant challenges when it comes to occupying leadership positions in government and politics. While there have been women who have broken through the glass ceiling, their number remains disproportionate compared to men.

One reason for this disparity is the persistent cultural and societal norms that often perceive women as less capable of or suited for leadership roles. Furthermore, women in politics are often hindered by limited access to resources, party structures that favour male candidates, and male-dominated networks that perpetuate exclusion.

Look at the white-dominated Democratic Alliance (DA), for example, you would be excused for misperceiving its cult-like white male-dominated executive for something out of pre-1994. The glass ceiling persists!

Beyond government and politics, penetrating into the corporate world is equally challenging. Despite the implementation of policies aimed at promoting gender equality, women continue to be underrepresented in executive positions and boardrooms of South African companies.

The lingering effects of the apartheid and deeply entrenched patriarchal norms have contributed to the persistence of the gender pay gap and limited opportunities for women to ascend to leadership positions.

The challenges faced by South African women are not homogenous; they intersect with other dimensions of identity, such as race, class and ethnicity. Black women, in particular, face a unique set of obstacles due to the intersection of race and gender discrimination.

They often find themselves at the bottom of the social hierarchy, struggling to break free from the shackles of oppression.

Resilient in the face of this adversity, South African women have continued to organise and fight for their rights. Women’s empowerment initiatives, civil society organisations, and advocacy groups have been working tirelessly to advance gender equality and women’s representation in leadership roles.

These organisations play a crucial role in supporting women, amplifying their voices, and advocating for policies that promote gender equality, but unfortunately, subalterns do not speak loud enough wherein the interest to silence them is deeply entrenched.

South Africa has a strong legal framework for gender equality, and there have been efforts to improve representation in both government and the private sector. The 2030 National Development Plan (NDP), for example, sets goals for increased gender equality and female representation in leadership positions.

But to achieve meaningful progress in gender equality and empower South African women to take up leadership positions, intentional gender mainstreaming requires a shift beyond mere compliance and quotas.

There ought to be a systematic approach and educational reforms that challenge gender norms and stereotypes should be implemented to create an enabling environment for women to aspire to take up leadership roles.

The eradication of gender-based violence (GBV) and harassment mandates comprehensive policy measures to systemically create safer spaces for women to participate in politics and thrive in the workplace.

The private sector should adopt more inclusive practices, provide mentorship and practical programmes for women’s development, and increase transparency in pay and promotion decisions.

The ratification of Convention C190 beckons that South Africa is at the forefront of gender equality advocacy. Yet, the struggle for women’s representation and development prevails. The post-apartheid epoch bears the promise of inclusivity and empowerment, but dismantling the structural barriers that thwart women’s progress remains paramount.

By dismantling patriarchal norms, empowering women through education and mentorship, and embracing policies that champion gender parity, South Africa edges closer to realising its vision of women as leaders, architects of the nation’s destiny.

The journey is arduous, but it is through such endeavours that the subalterns of yesterday shall emerge as the leaders of tomorrow.

**Makeleni is an activist and human rights advocate. She writes in her personal capacity.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Republic Mail and its associates.

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