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Shireen Hassim sees PR (proportional representation), and the extensive powers it gives to top party leaders in drawing up the lists, as one of the factors constraining women's efforts to advance a strong gender agenda in the last parliament. And yet, significantly, she sees the drying up of a powerful women's movement outside parliament as having been even more important in undermining such efforts inside. (jbv)

vol 14 no 3

Gendering parliament
Shireen Hassim

Printable Version
SAR, Vol 14 No 3, May 1999
Page 19
"S.A. Elections"



Shireen Hassim teaches in the Department of Political Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand. A shorter version of this article appears in the African Gender Institute, University of Cape Town Newsletter Vol. 4, May 1999.

One of the most notable features of the government elected in the first South African democratic elections was the significant number of women elected - nearly 25% of all MPs. This was due largely to the use of a quota for women candidates on the ANC list, and the influence this had on the compilation of other party lists (see box 1). In terms of formal representation of women, South Africa resembles more established democracies. This achievement was underscored by the ANC's choice of feminist activists Frene Ginwala and Baleka Kgotsitsile as Speaker and Deputy Speaker respectively. Conspiratorial theories about marginalising these strong women notwithstanding, women undoubtedly succeeded in creating a presence in the legislature. In the Cabinet, 4 out of 27 Ministers and 8 out of 14 Deputy Ministers are women. However, as women activists have long pointed out, representation is only a means to an end - that of gender equality. Has representation translated into real gains for women, particularly the high number of poor women in South Africa? Has gender equality been advanced through government policies and legislation? And what avenues can be pursued to ensure that those women who are elected into Parliament use their power to address the interests of women members of their parties?

Representation: of whom and for what?

Representation is a complex issue. On the one hand, it may be argued that citizens should be entirely free to choose their MPs, regardless of whether the candidate chosen `resembles' them in any way. By implication, a fully `free and fair' election would focus on the ability of citizens to exercise their right to vote (access to information, freedom from intimidation, etc), rather than on the identities of the candidates. Indeed, a classically liberal position would regard the identities of candidates to be non-material, as the public sphere is viewed as the space in which all are equal. This ideological position underpins the Democratic Party's rejection of the quota as the mechanism for increasing women's representation in the legislature. The Inkatha Freedom Party also rejected a quota, but nevertheless achieved female representation of 23.3% of its total elected MPs. The ANC, after substantial debate in its ranks, accepted the need for a quota as a short-term strategy. The party argues that the systematic barriers to the political participation of women have to be actively addressed. ANC feminists have pointed out that `normal' processes of candidate selection are biased against women for a variety of reasons, ranging from social and cultural barriers, to resistance within political parties to the leadership of women. The adoption of the 30% quota was a mechanism for overcoming these barriers.

The use of the quota was facilitated by the electoral system adopted for the first elections. Proportional Representation (PR) with List is a system that greatly improves women's chances of being elected, as it allows progressive party leadership to overcome traditional resistances to women's election. This is especially important in rural communities, where the resistance of the chiefs to women's empowerment has been particularly difficult to challenge. On the other hand, PR systems are regarded as problematic from the point of view of accountability, as primary loyalty is seen to lie with the political party, rather than with voters. In effect, PR is seen to promote representation but not accountability. This assumption of an antagonistic tension in the electoral system needs to be interrogated by feminists in South Africa. It is not clear that constituency-based systems are able to avoid the problems of party hierarchies and loyalties overriding constituents' views. Nor is it certain that MPs elected directly by constituents will always be accessible to their supporters for the duration of their term in office. In South Africa, the introduction of a constituency-based electoral system is likely to produce divisive politics of ethnic and racial interests, given that the apartheid geography of racial segregation has not yet been dismantled. The electoral system will be under review after the 1999 election, and it is important that women in political parties, the legislature and women's organisations place gender parity as an important value to be considered when deciding whether a change is necessary.

The dilemma of whom it is that women will represent once they are elected remains, even with the most favourable electoral system. Obviously, not all women politicians seek to advance gender equality, or choose to interact with women's organisations. But many women activists did enter Parliament in 1994 committed to representing different constituencies of women. However, women MPs in South Africa, like all MPs, are elected on the basis of their party affiliation, rather than on a constituency basis. Political parties not only have a broad range of interests that they aim to represent (i.e. to get as many votes as possible), they also have internal systems of accountability and loyalty. This puts women MPs who see their primary accountability as being to women in a quandary. On the one hand, they are under some pressure from women's organisations to act as their interlocutors in Parliament, taking up issues on their behalf. On the other hand, as party representatives they are also required to consider other constituencies which may have conflicting needs (note e.g. the tension between chiefs and feminists within the ANC). Political party agendas are set at the highest levels of the party, to which women MPs may have access but over which they generally have relatively little influence. In fact, speaking `for women' may hinder the chances of women MPs advancing within the party. Accountability to the parties in terms of voting positions on specific pieces of legislation - an area in which activist women MPs might seek to ensure gender sensitivity - is strictly enforced by party whips.

In the first democratic Parliament, a number of routes were pursued to try and break through this dilemma. Within the ANC, a Parliamentary Women's Caucus was formed to deal specifically with the advancement of gender-sensitive policies and legislation within the majority party. This group has been highly successful in identifying legislative priorities for women, and in building support for legislation such as the Domestic Violence Bill, which might otherwise have languished in lengthy bureaucratic procedures. Another route was to constitute an informal multiparty Parliamentary Women's Group (PWG). The PWG aimed at providing a strong women's caucus in Parliament from which to promote anti-discrimination legislation and to act as the link between women in Parliament and civil society. Finally, a Joint Committee on Improvement of Quality of Life and Status of Women (JCIQLSW) was established as one of fifty parliamentary committees. Internal party structures such as the Women's Caucus are vital to ensure that gender-sensitive interventions in legislation are made early enough to be incorporated before they are tabled before the House and voting takes place. They also can play a vital role in refining the understandings of gender within the party. Unfortunately, only the ANC has such a structure. The PWG has had mixed fortunes as a multiparty caucus. Inevitably, its initial work revolved around making Parliament a women-friendly institution, and the linkages with civil society were harder to pursue.

Transforming Parliament has also been the task of the Women's Empowerment Unit in the Speakers' Forum. This is a vital long-term task to ensure that women are both effective and accountable parliamentarians. The fundamental problem with a structure such as the PWG is that the common ground between women MPs is narrow. Indeed, as activists and feminist theorists have long pointed out, women are not a homogeneous constituency. Even where women MPs are committed to broad principles of gender equality, their definitions of what this means, their strategies for achieving equality, and the constituencies of women they represent, may be vastly different. It is significant that the driving force behind legislative reform to eliminate gender discrimination has been the ANC Women's Caucus, rather than the multiparty forum, reflecting the different weight given to gender equality by different political parties. Differences in party ideologies cannot simply be overcome by broad commitments to gender equality. Indeed, robust debate between women MPs from different parties should be welcomed. Contestation over which areas of inequality should be addressed in policy, the specific content of policies, and how the national budget should be allocated will get us further towards actually implementing political principles than an approach which rests on maintaining the lowest common denominators around which women unite.

The most successful parliamentary structure for women has been the JCIQLSW. This committee has consulted with women's organisations in civil society, advocated for legislation to eradicate gender inequalities and acted as a point of concentrated energy with regard to gender activism within Parliament. One of its most notable achievements has been its sponsorship, jointly with civil society, of the Women's Budget Initiative. This project has addressed the key determinant of government implementation of its commitment to gender equality: the budgetary allocations to gender. It has disaggregated the budget votes of all the ministries, analyzed spending on women (both direct and indirect) and opened access to the Department of Finance. This lays the groundwork for the next Parliament to consider precisely how women's needs can be addressed through resource allocation in key areas. Collectively, women in the first Parliament made significant progress in addressing gender discriminatory legislation (see box 2).

The key to assessing whether representation has translated into real benefits for women, or simply into creating a new elite of women in government, is to examine the extent to which principles of gender equality, and mechanisms for reducing inequalities, are integrated into government policies and delivery. From this perspective, the picture looks less rosy. The ANC's Reconstruction and Development Programme attempted to `mainstream' gender, and developed a draft Women's National Empowerment Policy in consultation with women's organisations. The policy shift away from the RDP to GEAR has removed the enabling discursive environment in which claims for gender equality could be pressed. The Office on the Status of Women, whose responsibility is to develop the draft Women's National Empowerment Policy into a fully fledged plan for mainstreaming gender, has yet to present any policy for public comment. In the absence of direction from this body, civil servants staffing gender desks in government departments have tended to focus on internal issues of gender representivity in the bureaucracy. Nevertheless, significant gains which are worth noting are the child and maternal health policies of the Department of Health under gender activist Minister Nkosazana Zuma, and the reform of maintenance procedures in the Department of Justice, championed by its Deputy Minister Manto Tshabalala.

Accountable to whom?

The foregoing discussion presumes that there are constituencies of women to whom women MPs can be accountable. Certainly, women's organisations in South Africa were highly articulate and visible during the period of constitutional negotiations. However, since 1994 there has been a general decline of grassroots women's organisations, due partly to a leadership vacuum created by the movement of activists into government, and partly by the difficulties of re-defining programmes and objectives in the context of the new democracy. The decline of the Women's National Coalition has been particularly noticeable, given the leadership role this organization played in the early 1990s. In its place, a number of women's lobbying and advocacy groups have been active in engaging with various policy-making processes. The notion of a range of constituencies of women therefore continues to find political resonance. Concerns about the accountability of elected women officials to grassroots constituencies have been voiced at a number of forums of women's organisations and NGOs.

Given the history of women's struggles in South Africa, accountability of women MPs has to be understood as both formal (to political parties) and moral (to the cause of gender equality). In both cases, women constituencies are vital. To ensure formal accountability, women within political parties have to become significantly more organised - both so that women MPs may be even more effective within the legislative arena and so that there are internal party mechanisms for holding them accountable to women members and not just party leadership. The tasks of building constituencies and representing constituencies are somewhat separate. Women's sections of political parties (of which women MPs should ideally be active members) need to articulate the interests of women supporters of their parties, and ensure that these are addressed within the party's broad political platforms and electoral manifestos. In other words, they need to build a constituency of women in the party and of party supporters. Their ability to claim constituencies is crucial to their success within the party, as electoral politics favours vote-catchers. In addition, they have to groom women leaders, and support them for internal party election. They also have to function as one among many conduits between women in Parliament and grassroots women. Without active women's sections within parties, women MPs can be left adrift, overburdened with the multiple tasks of committee work, party responsibilities and gender activism and with no clear political direction (vis--vis gender) to their work. The primary task of women MPs should be to define areas of intervention in the legislature, support and report to women in the party: to represent, not to build, constituencies.

At the second level, the moral pressures that have historically emerged need to continue to act as a guiding force for women MPs. The first cohort of women in Parliament bore this responsibility well: many made enormous efforts to consult with civil society, and to share information and build strategies collectively, despite the pressures of being pioneers. However, the relative demobilisation of the women's movement since 1994 will result in fewer women on party lists who have long and deep connections to women's organisations. Without the moral and political pressure from outside Parliament, there is always the danger that women MPs are unable (or increasingly unwilling) to adequately represent the various interests of women. Certainly, the strengthening of the women's movement is an important part of this project. Equally, it has to be recognised that gender activists within Parliament are a part of this women's movement, and not separate from it.

Women's gains in and through parliamentary representation are an important facet of the long term battle to recognize women as agents in political processes, and to provide voices for women in the various arenas of public decision-making. It is important, however, to maintain a critical tension between MPs and government bureaucrats - male and female - who claim to be speaking on behalf of women and the constituencies in whose name these claims are made. Without strong mechanisms for upholding accountability, the danger always exists that representation carries little power to advance the agenda of gender equality.



Women MPs in National Legislature by Party Affiliation, 1994

Political   No. of    Women  
  party     women    % total
             MPs      party

   ANC       90        36

   NNP        9        11

   IFP       10        23

   FF         0         0

   DP         1        14

   PAC        1        20

   ACDC       0         0



Policy and Legislative Changes to End Discrimination against Women

A number of significant policy and legislative changes have been made to end discrimination against women. These include, among others:

* Parliament's ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) has provided an invaluable tool for pressuring government to act on its commitments to gender equality.

* Free health services have been provided for pregnant women and children under the age of six.

* The discriminatory tax burden on married women has been repealed. A single rate of income tax is now applied to all people, regardless of gender and marital status.

* The Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1996 provides women with access to abortion under significantly broader and more favourable conditions than previously.

* The Domestic Violence Act of 1998 provides protection for people who are in domestic relationships, regardless of the specific nature of the relationship (i.e. whether marital, homosexual or family relationships).

* The position of mothers dependent on maintenance from former partners is substantially improved as a result of the Maintenance Act of 1998. The Centre for Applied Legal Studies conducted an audit of gender discriminatory legislation in August 1998, on behalf of the Commission on Gender Equality. The audit identified the following areas, among others, in which legislative changes need to be made:

* Although customary unions and polygamous relationships have been legally recognised since 1998, women continue to suffer inequities in these non-civil unions. In terms of civil unions, changes to the Marriage Act of 1961 are under review by the South African Law Commission.

* Equality legislation needs to ensure that gender equity is explicitly recognised. For example, forms of gender discrimination in terms of pay equity should be unpacked.

* Skills development legislation needs to ensure that women are explicitly targeted.

* Domestic and farm workers remain among the most vulnerable sectors of the workforce. Protective legislation is required. The Department of Labour is currently investigating minimum wage regulations in these sectors.

* Comprehensive reforms in the area of criminal law relating to sexual violence are required.

* Legislation governing housing access and tenure needs to take into account the implications if customary and social practices.

In general, the audit points out that direct discrimination in legislation is relatively easy to target and change. More difficult to deal with are the forms of indirect and systemic discrimination which adversely affect women. Many of these forms of discrimination can only be adequately dealt with through appropriate policy formulation and resource allocation. The work of women MPs in portfolio committees and within their parties is vital to this process.


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