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
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
"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
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
"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