In South Africa’s 2019 general election, women constituted the majority of voters, with 55% of the 26.7 million registered. Political parties are jostling for this important group of voters. With 42.7% of elected representatives, South Africa has one of the highest number of women in the legislature. However, women in the country bear the brunt of violent crime and poverty in a highly unequal society which is skewed against them.
Ferial Haffajee is a prominent South African journalist and newspaper editor who analyses women in elected positions. She says that “the number of women has come down slightly as it is supposed be 50% women. The governing party – the African National Congress (ANC), which is likely to win the poll – has achieved 50% of candidates that are electable depending on their party list. However, the younger parties such as the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the Democratic Alliance (DA) haven’t achieved equality on the gender front, which drags down our representation at National and Provincial level.”
The ruling ANC does have a voluntary female quota of 50% and in the early stages of democracy it had a zebra system, which means that on the party list each man has to be followed by a woman. However, this has been abandoned and men now dominate the top places, while women are clustered at the bottom. The DA believes that women should obtain positions through merit instead of having quotas.
On the continent, South Africa used to be a leader regarding its numbers of women in power, but now that title has been taken by Rwanda, which has 61% women in representation. It is important to note that the nation uses a representation system instead of a constituency vote system both at National Assembly and at Provincial Legislature level.
South Africa’s statistics reveal startling violence against women, one of the highest rates in the world. South Africa’s femicide is 5 times higher than the global rate, as a woman is killed every 4 hours. In 2017, a total of 39,633 incidences of rape were reported, which means 108 women are raped every day. Gender-based violence is rampant, yet the conviction rate is at a meagre 19%, which has been attributed to lack of experience by investigating officers and the mishandling of forensic evidence.
The nation has the legislation and the framework to ensure women’s safety, as this is not only guaranteed in its constitution, but it is also a signatory to the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
“The elected government must adopt a multisectoral plan of action to address the high levels of violence against women and allocate the requisite resources for implementation. The criminal justice system has the capacity to deal with cases of sexual and gender-based violence and promptly bring them to justice,” says Shehnilla Mohamed from Amnesty International, which released a manifesto demanding the future government formed after the 2019 election to prioritise human rights.
Political parties have weighed on this issue of violence against women. The ruling ANC promises improved law enforcement training, stricter bail conditions and longer sentences and the addition of more one-stop centres where gender-based violence can be reported. The main opposition DA wants a national council on gender-based violence, while EFF, which is expected to come third in the polls, says that violence will decrease if poverty decreases and it will establish a whistle-blowing mechanism for reporting sexual harassments.
It seems that the parties are focusing on the after-incident and not putting preventive measures in place.
According to South Africa’s quarterly statistics, poverty affects 64.2% of black South Africans, 49.2% of whom are women. Penury and inequality are on the rise. Political parties have long been promising to lift women above the breadline, but after 25 years of democracy, the majority of people are still living in abject poverty.
South Africa is one of the few countries on the continent which provides social benefit services such as old age pensions, child support grants and disability grants, meant for poor families and pensioners who are given money from the state to assist them with their monetary needs. Most of these benefits range from around $30 to $100 per month.
All parties offer to improve women’s livelihoods, with the EFF being bluntly direct by proposing that women and young people should occupy 50% of jobs in the many sectors in the South African economy. But if the situation has not changed for millions of poor women in the past 25 years, how will the 2019 election turn out to be any different?