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"The Women's Budget Initiative helped South African women expand the gender debate from an exclusive preoccupation with the politics of race and gender representativity within the civil service to focus also on the gender implications of policy in a wide range of spheres by giving substance and clarity to their demands on these various fronts." This recent "Women's Budget," a promising step forward in South Africa, is chronicled by Deborah Budlender.

vol 12 no 1

South Africa: The woman's budget
Debbie Budlender

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 12 No 1, November 1996
Page 16



Debbie Budlender works with the Community Agency for Social Enquiry, and the Law, Race and Gender Project, University of Cape Town.

In March 1996, the first South African Women's Budget was introduced to the public. It was produced by a group of researchers, both university- and NGO-based, with the full support and backing of the Joint Standing Committee on Finance. This was not a separate budget for women. The allocations directed specifically at women formed only a very small part of its content. Rather, it was an examination of the national and provincial budgets to see how each and every expenditure within the chosen sectors might affect the lives of women and men, and the relationships between them. The Women's Budget Initiative helped South African women expand the gender debate from an exclusive preoccupation with the politics of race and gender representativity within the civil service to focus also on the gender implications of policy in a wide range of spheres by giving substance and clarity to their demands on these various fronts. Thus the Women's Budget Initiative is also proving to be a significant example of collaboration between people inside and outside government while at the same time providing a space or focal point for women in civil society to engage more effectively in discussions around policy formulation and implementation.

The Women's Budget Initiative was a joint project of the Gender and Economic Policy Sub-Committee of the Joint Standing Committee on Finance (JSCOF), Idasa's Public Information Centre, the Community Agency for Social Enquiry and the Law, Race and Gender Research Unit at the University of Cape Town. It focuses on the budget as the single most important economic policy instrument of government. However perfect the policy, we argue, it is ultimately the budget which determines what government does and its effect - or lack of it - on each and every citizen. Yet the budget is usually seen as a rich man's issue, as something for the finance and business sectors. The meaning and implications of the budget for the unemployed, rural communities and women - for the majority of the population are seldom explored and laid out for consideration. This is precisely what the Women's Budget Initiative sets out to do.

The official launch of the Women's Budget was held three days before the Budget Speech of March 1996. The launch workshop was attended by nearly one hundred people, including national and provincial parliamentarians, media people, staff of government departments and statutory bodies, staff of non-governmental organisations, trade unionists, academics and a range of other activists.

It, and lobbying around it by women parliamentarians, clearly had an impact. In his Budget Speech days later the then Minister of Finance included three far-reaching commitments in respect of gender. He committed his department to:
* the development of a statistical database to provide information on the impact of expenditures disaggregated by gender;
* the implementation of targets and indicators of gender equity in spending; and
* the development of a performance review mechanism in respect of gender.

In the week after the budget, the Women's Budget team was invited to participate in the hearings of the JSCOF. In his own submission to the hearings the Minister of Finance undertook to include unpaid labour in the national accounts. Representatives of the Women's Budget Initiative (WBI) have also participated in hearings on the Katz Commission on Taxation. These interfaces with parliament have been very successful with MPs, both men and women, making a point about the importance of this "new" way of looking at budgets.

Since the launch, there has been further publicising of the budget to a broad spectrum of interested groups. WBI members have participated in workshops, interviews, and discussions with media (including a women's fashion magazine), trade unions, government and NGOs at national and regional levels.

We were not the first country to produce a Women's Budget. In Australia the Office of the Status of Women (OSW) was responsible for overall coordination of the Women's Budget Initiative, and each department bore responsibility for submitting reports on their specific sectors. The Australian Women's Budget report was tabled annually in parliament together with the main annual Budget (but has been quickly abolished by the new government). In other countries such as Canada, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States women's budgets were produced by groups in civil society. The South African Women's Budget Initiative is a hybrid in that it involves cooperation between people both within and outside government. It is this cross-over which almost certainly accounts for much of the success which it can claim to have achieved. In addition to the team of researchers, a reference group was set up to include members of the national and some provincial governments and women based in NGOs and quasi-NGOs (e.g. the Development Bank of Southern Africa). There were also specific links with MPs on the relevant Select Committees in Parliament. In particular, the Initiative would never have come about without the intervention of MP Pregs Govender, a member of the JSCOF. But it also enjoyed the active support of other members of that Committee, of the current Deputy Minister of Finance Gill Marcus and the Acting Director-General of Finance, Maria Ramos.

The broader context

The work and achievements of the Women's Budget Initiative should be seen against the background of gender and women's politics in the transitional and post-apartheid government, and in the context of the strong commitment to gender equality that has been institutionalised in the interim and final constitutions. South African women, entering the realm of "state feminism" rather later than other countries, have been able to learn from their experiences in deciding what forms of representation for women to push for and what policy options are most effective.

Women are comparatively well represented in the current government. Largely as a result of the ANC's quota system, a quarter of all national MPs are women, as are just under a fifth of the elected public representatives at regional and local levels. At the national level women are also increasingly being elevated to positions of Minister and Deputy-Minister. These women have not been confined to the "soft," social sectors, but have penetrated "male" domains such as Finance and Trade and Industry.

In regard to government machinery, the consensus has been that we need a "package" of structures in government, the legislature and in the form of independent bodies, to ensure that no one structure carries the full responsibility for addressing gender equality issues, and that gender considerations are mainstreamed. The Interim Constitution made provision for a Commission on Gender Equality (CGE), a government-appointed but independent body, like the Human Rights Commission. One of its central tasks is to monitor the operations of government in relation to discrimination on the grounds of gender. Much delayed in implementation, the government's recent call for nominations for commissioners is a sign that the commission will soon be established.

Early this year Deputy President Thabo Mbeki announced that we would be getting an Office of the Status of Women (OSW), most probably to be situated within his Office. Again there have been delays. One significant delaying factor has been the government's stated commitment to cut the public service, and questions as to the level of staff to be allocated to the OSW. On National Women's Day - 9 August - President Mandela said he hoped that the OSW, like the CGE, would be established before the end of the year. In late October OSW posts were advertised.

Despite the delays with this "apex" structure, there have been other developments in setting up structures to intervene on women's issues within national and provincial governments. Many of the national departments have established gender units. These sometimes consist of only one person, and often a relatively junior one with other tasks besides the gender portfolio. However most of the people concerned are committed to the issues and eager to make an impact. Most of the provinces have established their own regional "apex" gender structures. Eastern Cape has a Ministry of Youth, Gender and Development. The Northwest and Northern Provinces have gender structures within the Premiers' offices. In Mpumalanga and Western Cape the "central" gender structures are found within line departments. Within many of the legislatures there are also women's or gender structures, usually on a multi-party basis.

Outside government and parliament, organising and lobbying around issues of gender equality continues, with both gains and losses over the last few years. On the one hand the umbrella body, the Womens National Coalition, was seriously weakened when several of the key leaders went to parliament and government. Within labour, the SA Domestic Workers Union (SADWU) very recently announced it was disbanding. While this Union always experienced difficulties in organising this dispersed and oppressed sector and was heavily reliant on overseas donors, its demise further weakens the position of domestic workers, by far the single largest occupational category of women employed in the formal economy.

On the other hand the World Conference on Women at Beijing in 1995 provided an exciting focus for organising and inspiration, again promoting the cooperation of women within government and civil society. The Welfare Department, under Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi (first as Deputy, and now as Minister) played a leading role in ensuring that the Beijing message got spread within government and without. After the Conference each Ministry made specific commitments as to how they would take "Beijing" forward. With the signing of CEDAW (the UN Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women) and the looming deadline for our first CEDAW report, there is now another focus around which NGOs, if not grassroots women, can organise. Participation in international events and initiatives has been particularly important for those women who, during the apartheid years, remained inside the country and excluded from developments within international feminism.

The challenge of gender policy

Women's machinery, international support, women's organisations and lobbying strategies are all critical to the struggle for effecting gender equality in South Africa. But so is the formulation and implementation of gender policy. In conditions of enormous competition for government's limited economic resources, personnel time and energy, movement on the policy front has been slow. The drafting of a national Policy for Women's Empowerment was spearheaded by the RDP Office. Both government departments and organisations and individuals within civil society were asked to put forward suggestions for programmes and policies. For a number of reasons - including the closure of the RDP Office and the lack of clarity as to who was responsible for taking it forward - the policy has not yet been finalised, although the draft has been distributed quite widely. It is in this overall context that the Women's Budget Initiative is having its impact.

When the Initiative started, the new, democratic South Africa was just over a year old. Many people within and outside government were still trying to work out what changes were needed, and how to bring them about. Within the different sectors white papers and other policy papers abounded. Across sectors there were a range of moves concerning budget reform. The Initiative was able to learn from these various policy and budgetary initiatives, to piggy-back upon them, to form alliances with their proponents, and sometimes to question the extent to which they addressed gender inequalities.

The South African Women's Budget of 1996 was a pilot. It covered four sectors - housing, education, welfare and work - and the cross-cutting themes of public sector employment and taxation which affect all sectors. Below are highlights of the arguments the budget lays out:

* The Housing paper, by Sue Parnell, acknowledged that the new subsidy schemes are a great improvement on past apartheid housing policy. But the new schemes still have their blindnesses in relation to women. For example, to receive the capital subsidy, the applicant must be over 21 years of age and have dependants. Yet approximately half of South African mothers have their first child while in their teens.

* Education is the biggest single item in the SA budget - approximately a quarter of total expenditure. Yet only 1% of the education budget is allocated to pre-primary education. In addition to other benefits, a more generous allocation would relieve the burden on the primary care-givers, i.e. on women. At the other end, only about half a percent of the budget is allocated to adult basic education and training (ABET). Here, it seems, the government is hoping that the private sector and NGOs will fill the gap. This discriminates against women, who are less likely to be in formal employment and in the big companies which will provide ABET for their employees. It discriminates against the many rural women who will not be reached by NGOs.

* Welfare is "doubly gendered." It is mainly women who both need support (because they are generally poorer and more vulnerable), and provide support (because they are the social workers and unpaid carers in the home and community). This chapter in the Budget used a range of case studies to spell out the implications of women's unpaid labour and of the ways people could fall through the gaps in the Welfare system. It pointed out that the resultant burden often ultimately falls on women. But it also pointed out the financial burden on the state itself. Where, for example, the Department of Justice does not provide adequate resources to pursue a father who is not supporting his child, the mother will turn to the state for a maintenance grant.

If the state does not provide this grant, a poverty-stricken mother could end up giving the child up to foster-care, at the higher cost to the state of a foster grant. If this is not a possibility, the child could be institutionalised, at still higher cost.

* An examination of women's income-earning work has to look beyond the Department of Labour. While many women work, fewer women than men are employed in formal industry - in the shops, offices, factories and mines. But more women than men work in the informal sector or in subsistence agriculture. In the past the budget of the Department of Trade and Industry favoured large companies rather than small, medium and micro-enterprises (SMMEs). There has been some movement in a direction which could lessen the gender discrimination against women. However even in 1995/6 only R80 million (2.2% of the DTI budget) was allocated specifically to the SMME sector. Even this was unlikely to reach the survivalist sector where women predominate. Within formal industry, a rapid phasing out of import and export controls has already cost many thousands of women clothing and textile workers their jobs.

* On public sector employment, 49% of public sector employees are women, and this sector accounts for approximately 9% of total female formal employment. Yet - as elsewhere in the world and in the South African economy - women congregate at the bottom of the scale. In addition to the gender disparities, there are those among women, and particularly between white and African women. Women within the public service are concentrated in certain occupational families. The Educator family is the largest, accounting for 27% of all public sector employees. 67% of the educators are women. When we compare average wages of the different race-gender groupings, we find that white men earn 1.72 times as much as African women, and White women 1.43 times as much. In the Administration and Human Sciences group - where women account for 68% of the total - white men earn 1.64 times as much as African women and white women 1.14 times.

* On taxation: There are virtually no gender-disaggregated figures relating to taxation. Nevertheless, from employment and earnings statistics it is clear that far fewer women will be direct tax-payers. Firstly, fewer women are employed in the formal sector. Secondly, women generally earn less than men, so a smaller proportion will earn enough to reach the tax threshold. Nevertheless, women bear a substantial tax burden. Firstly, there has been a significant shift over the last twenty years from corporate to personal tax. In 1976 individual tax accounted for 25% of tax revenue and there was no sales tax. In 1995 individual tax accounted for 41% of tax revenue and VAT for an additional 26%. The Department of Finance's own calculations show that VAT is regressive, with a higher effective rate on poorer people. Because women predominate among the poor, they bear the greater burden of this tax.

Since before the elections South African women have been discussing, debating, workshopping and politicking about the most appropriate ways of engaging with the post-apartheid state. Devising the most effective forms of government machinery for the representation of women's interests has been a major focus of concern and progress is being made, slowly. Pressing for more attention now is the question of the gender content of policy which, as always, is vying for priority with all the other urgent issues. With clear analysis, backed up by solid research and statistics, the Women's Budget Initiative is working to transform the post-apartheid state's significant but amorphous commitment to gender equality into debatable issues and concrete considerations for the engagement of both women and men in civil society, and policy-makers in government.


The book containing the reports of the first Women's Budget Initiative is available from Book Promotions, P.O. Box 5, Plumstead 7801, South Africa.

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Printable Version

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