Magazine article New Internationalist

The Sisterly Republic: There May Be Teething Troubles in the World's First Non-Sexist State but as Ferial Haffajee Reports, Women Are Rolling Up Their Sleeves and Getting on with the Job of Creating a Female-Friendly Country

Magazine article New Internationalist

The Sisterly Republic: There May Be Teething Troubles in the World's First Non-Sexist State but as Ferial Haffajee Reports, Women Are Rolling Up Their Sleeves and Getting on with the Job of Creating a Female-Friendly Country

Article excerpt

THE lot of African women rivals the worst oppression in the world. Yet South African sisters stand poised to create something new. The political settlement has brought in its wake a commitment from the new Government to gender equality and women's empowerment. This new land has, after all, officially been baptized the 'non-racial, non-sexist Republic of South Africa'.

One in four of the country's new Members of Parliament is a woman-the seventh largest number in the world-and so are three of its cabinet ministers. Numbers aside, the new Constitution also makes provision for a Gender Commission to ensure that the Government breathes life into the 'non-sexist' commitment. Every aspect of the Reconstruction and Development Programme states specifically how it will benefit women. And just before it was voted into power last year the ANC committed itself to a wide-ranging and forward-looking Women's Charter of Rights and Effective Equality.

But we are now one year into the new South Africa and these still remain pretty paper concepts. The sisters just haven't started doing it for themselves. They're the first to admit it. Bridget Mabandla is an ANC MP and is touted as the head of the Gender Commission when it's eventually established. She says: 'We've been slow at building on our gains. There's no firm caucus yet and if we had been organized we'd have improved our interventions. But governance is new to all of us. We were a bit dazed initially.'

Cathy Albertyn of the Gender Research Project at Witwatersrand University says the new MPs entered an unfriendly parliamentary environment. Not only were they on virgin territory for women, but that territory was also occupied by a phalanx of hostile (and often sexist) civil servants.

Pregs Govender, a young trade unionist, entered Parliament on a women's ticket-women in the ANC lobbied for a 30-percent quota on their party's lists. The story of her induction into parliamentary life illustrates just how hostile the terrain was for women. On the day before Parliament started she went there for a briefing and was huffily told that the session was 'for MPs only'. It got worse. The next day she took her (white male) partner along for the first sitting. At the entrance the young clerk informed her that 'wives sit upstairs'. Albertyn says that women spent much of the first year making Parliament more women-friendly. For example, they've had to start a creche and make sure that more toilets are provided for women.

We transformed the parliamentary tradition,' says Mabandla, adding 'and we bamboozled the other parties. Not only with our garb, but they had never seen so many articulate women in Parliament.' One of the most memorable moments was the sight of Deputy President (and former President) FW de Klerk bowing before the sari-clad Speaker of Parliament, Frene Ginwala.

Triple oppression

Such symbolic power-gains for women are important, yet they mean little for ordinary women who have seen few changes in their day-to-day lives. Many will call it trite to say that the majority of South African women suffer a triple oppression-they're black, working-class and women. Trite it may be, but it's still sorely apparent.

Black women make up the majority of the unemployed. Those who have jobs tend to be in the lowest-paying categories like domestic and farm work. A recent study found that of 27,192 artisans across the country's major industries only 61 were women. Women continue to preside over the majority of the poorest rural households where many spend half their days collecting firewood and water. Politically, most rural women live under the yoke of traditional leaders who control their access to resources; and they are bound by discriminatory marital and property laws.

Arguably the biggest blight on the new South Africa is the violence its women experience. Rape has become endemic-in 1993 there were over 28,000 recorded cases. …

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