South African Women Seek Unity to Promote Cause of Equal Rights Coalition Wants to Make Gender Equality a Fundamental Part of New Constitution

Article excerpt

THE struggle for women's rights, long overshadowed by the broader struggle against apartheid, has entered a new phase in the run-up to South Africa's first democratic ballot.

South African women of all races are seeking a unified position to ensure that gender equality is enshrined in the new South African constitution.

The government has responded by addressing women's rights in its draft Charter of Fundamental Human Rights and by simultaneously publishing three draft bills, which advance the position of women relating to domestic violence and establish gender equality in the workplace.

"The fact that women constitute 54 percent of eligible voters in the next general election stresses their political clout...," says Professor Ronel Erwee of Pretoria University's Graduate School of Management.

According to Margaret Lessing, director of the independent Women's Bureau in Pretoria, women's rights in South Africa have lagged behind Western countries because of the "inherently chauvinistic tradition" of South African men - both black and white.

"Nevertheless, women have made spectacular advances in this country since the Second World War," Mrs. Lessing told the Monitor.

The Women's Bureau, established in 1980 as a watchdog group to represent some 27 non-political women's groups, has played a key role in formulating and improving the government's draft legislation on women's rights.

"Now political parties are focusing on women's issues more actively than ever before, because they want the votes of women - particularly black women who will be voting for the first time - in the first democratic election," she says.

In the past, the struggle for women's rights has been divided along racial lines, and anti-apartheid women's groups have tended to pursue broader political goals at the expense of promoting women's interests within their parties or groups.

"It is difficult for South African women to talk only about women's issues. The issue of race is always there," says Glenda Simms, President of the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women and a participant in a recent conference on gender equality convened here by the Women's National Coalition (WNC) and the Washington-based Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

The WNC, a national umbrella body bringing together some 54 women's groups nationwide, was established in April 1992. The WNC conference May 7-9 illustrated that black women activists are reluctant to part company with their political groups as the vehicle for pursuing women's interests. Three draft bills

Some delegates at the conference, which was not empowered to take binding decisions, backed a call on government to withdraw the three draft bills on women's rights because there had been inadequate consultation with the women and no acknowledgment of the WNC. But most groups represented at the conference appeared to favor passing the bills once improvements are made.

The conference also discussed mechanisms to implement constitutional provisions enshrining women's rights.

Details have not been finalized, but several proposals were made for gender advisory councils to coordinate women's interests in various ministries..

"Women's organizations, whether in the church, politics, or the workplace, have tended to see themselves as agents of other people's interests - social agents - but rarely agents of their own interests as people and as women," says Mamphela Ramphele, a medical doctor and deputy vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town, in an opening address to the WNC conference.

"It is my considered opinion that a vibrant women's movement is not in evidence in South Africa," said Dr. Ramphele. "The Women's National Coalition is the first such an effort."

The issue of political independence was raised during one of the workshops held at the conference that was exploring mechanisms for ensuring that constitutional commitments to equality were carried through. …