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cc Surveying the range of manifestoes and political stances offered by South Africa's political parties, Liepollo Lebohang Pheko exposes a common paternalistic thread underpinning parties' approaches to women's representation and rights. With many women legitimately concerned about politics being a 'dirty' game in the country – as elsewhere across the world – Pheko writes that those championing women's greater involvement face considerable obstacles, not least of which is the lack of space for critical thinking around how a dominant, masculined state fails to provide for women's citizenship. Female political candidates are at once excluded from their parties' strong backing through prejudice and the persistence of a self-serving 'old boys' club' behind the selection of candidates, the author notes. Attaining true liberation for women, Pheko argues, requires tackling injustice at each and every level it is encountered, a strategy that will ultimately necessitate an effective challenge to the state's ghettoisation of women's issues.

‘We must pay the closest attention to women's situation because it pushes the most conscious of them into waging a sex war when what we need is a war of classes or parties, waged together, side by side. We have to say frankly that it is the attitude of men that makes such confusion possible. It is men's attitude that spawns the bold assertions made by feminism, certain of which have not been without value in the war which men and women are waging against oppression. This war is one we can and will win – if we understand that we need one another and are complementary, that we share the same fate, and in fact, that we are condemned to interdependence.’ Thomas Sankara


The practise and theory of elections are often dissonant, especially as an adequate expression of women’s aspirations and tangible transformation of their circumstances. Sikhula Sonke Women from Cape Town recently marched to parliament stating that they would withdraw their vote in protest at the government’s slow land redistribution programme. This ultimatum seems to be predicated on the assumption that the government is obliged to enable women’s substantive citizenship. Further, this implies that withdrawing suffrage is a valuable instrument for women to demonstrate the government’s lack of efficacy in providing a space that realises women’s hopes for full citizenship.

The practise of elections across the world is theoretically intended to shift power from one political party to the next. Conventional wisdom suggests that elections are intended to vest power in citizens by giving them the power to give or withdraw their mandate. However, it is slightly more complex than this. Recent elections across the region illustrate that elections are not necessarily the best or only marker of popular sentiment. It has been suggested that elections are in fact part of bolstering public confidence and donor perceptions about governance in Africa. This model makes it unclear whether women’s rights are collateral benefits of ‘performing elections’ or a central concern – one would suspect the former. In Africa and elsewhere in the world, elections and election observation became a growing industry in the last 20 years. There have been two potentially critical international protocols during this period. The first is the Beijing Platform of Action and the second are the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The Beijing platform articulates 12 priority areas and resulted from a herculean process of compromise as a broad spectrum of women’s organisations and stakeholders tried to find consensus. The platform broadly attempts to create a normative approach to women’s rights and a universally accepted culture of what these rights are and how they are best enabled.

The Millennium Development Goals have eight goals, two of which make explicit reference to gender-related goals (and within those provide more gender targets). Notwithstanding the incongruence between goals, targets and indicators and the inadequacy of the gender-related aspects of the MDGs, the goals attempt to lift women’s political representation beyond the level of static national processes. This is in keeping with the era of supra-nationalism that has been particularly acute with the demise of bi-polarism. In common with the debate on elections, the MDGs attempt to co-opt feminist struggles and women’s voices into a manageable package of tick-box indicators.

What is interesting about the MDs and the Beijing Platform – apart from the fact that South Africa has ratified both – is that they attempt to locate women’s rights beyond the ballot box. Although both instruments contain the neoliberal interests that come with the state-sponsored citizenship of women, for South Africa they potentially represent the opportunity to claim back the ballot box beyond the party-political realm and create political engagement that resonates with Sikhula Sonke. A critical question is how the critical mass of these struggles – including access to land, access to education, to health, to economic agency and other ideals which mark equity and equality – coalesce with the election process. Is it actually worth women’s while to vote?


Multiparty elections are part of routine political practice across the world and after 15 years South Africa has entrenched this as a focal part of political culture. Some observers criticise, quite rightly, the reductionist view that multiparty elections are the primary and sufficient condition for democracy. Even more worrying is the assumption that women’s agency is adequately encompassed by the practise of power exchanging hands between the same narrow class interests, interests which are typically masculine. The scenario is more intricate than this, and the narrow objective of gaining power in order to govern needs to speak to the complexity of various social actors and their concerns.

The 2009 elections present several political players with the opportunity to harness new ideas and create a new imagination. The extent to which this imagination is visible is disappointing. A glance at the various manifestoes presents us with the coded language of victimhood, rhetoric or the objectification of women and their unique social, economic and cultural circumstances.

The ACDP (African Christian Democratic Party) refers to the reduction of infant mortality, the provision of ARVs (antiretrovirals) to expectant mothers and poverty reduction. However, the manifesto does not refer at all to the manner in which women’s access to economic activity is mediated by differentiated entry points, nor does it make any attempt to deconstruct the feminisation of poverty.

The Independent Democrats have a broad manifesto which details investment policy, housing policy and a clear environmental platform. The discourse on social cohesion is a wasted opportunity to illustrate that women’s citizenship is more than a peripheral concern, but this is subverted to a critique of BEE (black economic empowerment) programme. While it is true that African people in this county are still excluded from critical processes, many of them are women and it is simplistic and erroneous to de-link class, race and gender struggles.

COPE’s (Congress of the People) manifesto opens with a list of priorities, including women’s empowerment and equality. Although making mention of women as recipients of BEE, COPE frames this in classically paternalistic tones by speaking the rhetoric of respecting the dignity of women and only mentions a 50–50 parity target in the service public as a tangible deliverable.

Among 16 succinctly stated key challenges, the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) does not mention women’s empowerment or gender rights. Instead they also use the typically masculine model of clustering women and youth as one broad entity. This is problematic for a host of reasons which can be summarised by saying that the reduction of women’s agency to that of youth and children yet again negates their agency and is absolutely condescending and deeply disturbing across the party-political landscape.

The same can be said of the Inkhatha Freedom Party (IFP), which also delivers nine punchy but gender-blind action priorities. A section on redressing inequality misses the opportunity to remind voters that women and men have different access to resources, the economy and opportunities. While highlighting racism as an obstacle to growth, sexism is ignored.

AZAPO (Azanian People's Organisation) offers an interesting analysis of class inequality and youth development but offers only two lines of rhetoric about eradicating inequalities between women and men. Any tangible methodology is absent and an opportunity to link class with gender struggles is missed.

The ANC (African National Congress), who have had 15 years to develop a clear methodology on how to ‘do gender’, use very much the same nebulous language of creating a non-sexist society, and also locate women’s struggles within a broad church of the youth, the workers, the disabled and the rural masses. These struggles are not necessarily mutually exclusive and many women are disabled, rural, workers and young. Again the masculinised discourse objectifies women and places them at the mercy of state largesse with other implicitly ‘vulnerable’ groups. This is particularly worrying from the ruling government, which has had the opportunity to use the imperfect instruments of Beijing and the MDGs, for example, as bench marks. The ANC has a strong record on women’s representation. Whether this has influenced a clear or sufficient agenda for transformative women’s rights is unlikely.

Any semblance of dynamic African feminism has yet to be manifested in the run-up to the elections. In an era of supremely competent women leaders, this situation is astounding.


‘Quotas are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they oblige men to think about including women in decision-making, since men must create spaces for women. On the other hand, since it is men who are opening up these spaces, they will seek out women who they will be able to manage – women who will more easily accept the hegemony of men.’ Anna Balletbo MP, Spain

In general, quotas for women represent a shift from one concept of equality to another. The classic liberal notion of equality was a notion of 'equal opportunity' or 'competitive equality'. Removing formal barriers, for example, and giving women voting rights, was considered sufficient. The rest was up to individual women.

Following strong feminist pressure in the last few decades, a second concept of equality is gaining increasing relevance and support: the notion of 'equality of result'. The argument is that real equal opportunity does not exist just because formal barriers are removed. Direct discrimination and a complex pattern of hidden barriers prevent women from getting their share of political influence. Quotas and other forms of positive measures are thus a means towards equality of result. The argument is based on the experience that equality as a goal cannot be reached by formal equal treatment as a means. If barriers exist, it is argued, compensatory measures must be introduced as a means to reach equality of result.

Like many countries, some women perceive politics in South Africa as a ‘dirty’ game. This has dented their confidence in their ability to participate in political processes. This perception is prevalent worldwide. Regrettably, this perception reflects the reality in many countries. Although the reasons for this differ, there are some common trends. The basis of passive corruption can be explained by an exchange between the advantages and benefits of the public market (e.g., legislation and budget bills) and of the economic market (e.g., funds, votes and employment), which seek financial gains by fostering monopolistic conditions. In addition to this, a significant increase in the cost of election campaigning has become obvious, and this in turn increases the temptation to use any source of money that becomes available. Corruption can have many faces. Bribery and extortion in the public sector, as well as the procurement of goods and services, are key manifestations of it. Although new democracies need time to establish themselves and to develop roots, corruption has spread further in countries where the process of political and economic transformation is taking shape in the absence of civil society, and where new institutions are emerging.

However, in many places where changes in the political and economic system have already taken place, the market economy has become enmeshed in the ‘law of the jungle’, the mafia and corruption.

The high cost of bribery and extortion for a society has been recognised. Many governments and business leaders have expressed their desire to curb and eliminate corruption. But this is not an easy task; corruption is rooted in the system by some parties who continue to pay bribes. Corruption inevitably results in the creation of favourable conditions and opportunities for the existence of the most negative manifestation of organised crime. These factors combine to potentially scare women and provoke their fear of losing members of their families, all of which militate against their political involvement or their standing for elected bodies.


African feminism is a complex and often maligned construct. Amina Mama posits that that feminism indicates a refusal of oppression, and a commitment to struggling for women's liberation from all forms of oppression – psychological, emotional, socio-economic, political, philosophical, internal and external. In addition, African feminism is a transformative and radical expression of women’s essence. It is far beyond the politics of mere survival – it anchors us when our national ideologies appear fragmented, our class discourse is contradictory and when the state itself threatens to overwhelm its citizens with its aloof self-importance once election sloganeering has subsided.

Accordingly one looks to certain constructs to connect the mammoth task of resisting and transforming exclusionary structures and patriarchal agendas. Feminism is a vehicle to address and countenance social disequilibrium manifested through gender-blind budgets, securo-crats who increasingly militarise our daily life, violence against women and regressive cultural practises.

Women have typically allowed themselves to be vote fodder across the world. The power of women’s structures located in the masculine party machinery discourse should be in their ability to consolidate women’s struggles with capitalist and imperialist oppression. Instead we fill stadiums with bussed in euphoria without asking how any policy frameworks and implementation strategies proffered by these men advances women’s citizenship. In the increasingly masculanised state, the woman is infantilised and is increasingly the recipient of benevolence at the whim of her father – the president, the ministry, the desk or whoever else will be her benefactor. As we sing at stadiums while our father leaders compare our pain and humanity to rocks that that cannot be struck – ‘wa thinta bafazi...’ – women must consider cogent reasons to continue allowing our core to be compromised by institutions, individuals and processes that do not always have our best interests at heart.

The African experience encompasses a dizzying array of women's mobilisation, not all of our own design or choosing. Modern history has illustrated that in Africa even the most autocratic regimes do not hesitate to involve women. Many of them make extravagant efforts to mobilise women on their behalf.

None of the current crop of political parties have given any reason to believe that they have a progressive feminist discourse and there are no utterances to suggest that they will move women’s relationship with the state to a more equitable one. Jacob Zuma, for example, used women as fodder during his court case as they ‘mothered’ him through his trial. None of the political parties have spoken to a woman’s reality and regrettable this includes those led by strong women such as Patricia de Lille and Helen Zille. This illustrates the politics of femocracy. Women who do not articulate a vision for women and men but a vision for citizens at large. This is a critical conceptual difference. This speaks to the heart of the de-politicisation of women’s issues and the marginalisation of women’s struggles in right-wing exclusionary policies and political constructs. This must not be obfuscated by nationalistic, liberation and electoral rhetoric and cultural nationalism.

Women play important roles in campaigning and mobilising support for their parties, yet they rarely occupy decision-making positions in these structures. In fact, fewer than 11 per cent of party leaders worldwide are women.

Although political parties possess resources for conducting election campaigns, women rarely benefit from these resources. For example, many parties do not provide sufficient financial support for women candidates. Research indicates that a large pool of women candidates, combined with sufficient financial resources, can significantly increase the number of women elected. The selection and nomination process within political parties is also biased against women in that ‘male characteristics’ are emphasised and often become the criteria in selecting candidates. An ‘old boys’ club’ can inhibit and prevent women from integrating themselves into their party’s work. This in turn impacts on the perception of women as viable candidates on the part of those who provide money for election campaigns. In addition, women are often not placed in winnable positions on party lists.


Women's liberation requires addressing gender injustice all the way from the micro- to the macro-political level, and not shying away from any level of struggle. This includes the struggle of self-belief. These elections and the party-political manifestoes have clearly reminded us yet again that a woman is not a feminist just because she is a woman nor is every activist male or female able to understand the inter-sectionality of struggle. Across the world and across this country women are asking if elections serve any purpose if they add not a single day to their lives or present them with new spaces to create a different reality?

The value of elections for women is questionable if they cannot even enshrine state sovereignty. As citizens we must challenge the role of the state as protector, provider, enabler and defender, especially when this role is all but vacated. The greatest danger is in outsourcing these struggles to state-led organs and processes where they become masculinised and often completely thwarted. Various gender desks, the Commission on Gender Equality and the Office on the Status of Women have unevenly attempted to create an alternative paradigm but their success rate evokes Audrey Lourdes words: 'We cannot indeed use the Master’s tools to tear down his house.' These institutions have unwittingly been effective in ghettoising women’s issues, rendering them tokenistic vanity projects of a paternalistic agenda. Could 22 April be the opportunity to claim back both the substance of women’s citizenship and the ballot box?

* Liepollo Lebohang Pheko is the policy and advocacy director of The Trade Collective, a gender activist and a social entrepreneur.
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