South Africa: ANC Fails Its Female Supporters


Yesterday, the new African National Congress (ANC) top six leaders were elected at the political party’s 53rd National Conference in Mangaung (Free State, South Africa).

Despite the ANC’s 50/50 gender quota policy, only two of the six are women – Jessie Duarte, who is now the Deputy Secretary General and Baleka Mbete who will fulfil the role of National Chairperson. No women contested the position of President, Deputy President, or Secretary General. Are we to be critical of the ANC for a lack of women leaders?

Commenting on the election of the top six yesterday, deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe said that, “the ANC is an epitome of democracy.” However, there can be no democracy until and unless women are well represented in all areas of decision-making. Motlanthe contested and lost the presidency of the ANC to the incumbent, Jacob Zuma, a polygamist whose gender credentials have been the source of concern for activists and embarrassment for the ANC.

At a recent public dialogue hosted by the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) Monitor to assess the efficacy of the CGE over a period of 100 days, Lisa Vetten expressed concern that there are many women in government, as well as many gender focussed structures. Yet these do not always have feminist aims. Vetten added that there is a lack of clarity around what “gender equality” actually means.

These statements make clear two questions the ANC and we must ask: Do we know what we want from gender equality and what it actually means in practical terms? Do we do enough to empower the women leaders we do have in government to further feminist aims?

These questions are relevant to the ANC, as well as all other political parties. They essentially force us to ask ourselves whether women leaders necessarily mean better policy, legislation, and livelihoods for the women of South Africa.

Without a doubt, “gender equality” has a nice ring to it. But what does it mean? There is more than one type of equality. In a South Africa where women face multiple and varied forms of oppression (race, class, sexuality, age, disabilities, health status etc), it’s possible to use the term gender equality as a rubber stamp, or a marker that “women’s issues” have been dealt with in government.

What we have seen a lot of is “formal equality” or the right to be equal to men, for example by occupying political office. This is valuable in itself, because the very fact that women occupy office makes it theoretically easier for other women to envisage themselves in roles similar to this. It is also particularly important for young women in South Africa who need powerful female role models to assure them that they can break the barriers and glass ceilings that still exist.

Yet, often female parliamentary representatives feel compelled to vote according to their political party’s requirements, and not necessarily in the interest of furthering women’s rights. Gender equality should not be limited to this narrow definition.

Real and meaningful gender equality requires something more of our political representatives across all parties – it requires that we aim for substantive or lived equality.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) recognised that formal equality structures, while important, are not always enough to ensure that women can actually enjoy the same rights as men.

For example, if I have the right to freedom of movement, but I am constantly threatened by the risk of sexual violence when I do move about, then it cannot be said that I enjoy the full expression of my rights.

Unless women political figures are able to vote against the male-orientated policies and legal preferences of their parties, for example the traditional courts bill, they cannot be said to enjoy the full expression of their right to hold political office. At the same time, a critical mass of women is required to criticise gender insensitive policies.

Feminism thus becomes incredibly important. If we look at feminism in an extremely broad way, as a “movement to end sexist oppression” we must ensure not only that women occupy meaningful political positions that have clout, but also that they occupy them with the intention of improving the lives of women. Women in politics should not be tokens.

Thus, we shouldn’t then be looking at simple numbers, or only to criticise political parties based on these, though those numbers are certainly a start. Without the freedom to make decisions that impact law and policy, or its implementation in a way that truly improves the status of women, women Members of Parliament, members of the executive or judiciary will not make a difference to women.

South Africa needs feminists in office who are going to take this risk, and push the interests of women, even at the expense of their party.

The ANC cannot be the epitome of democracy because it has failed the many women who have been part of the struggle over the years. This year, the ANC is celebrating 100 years of existence, yet through these years, the party has never identified a woman to be its President.

It is high time the ANC Women’s League repositions itself and not always be supporting its male leaders. There are many women in the ANC who have the potential to lead the party. It just needs an invigorated women’s movement which will take the ANC to task and demand that the party lives up to its 50/ 50 quota, not just in elections, but also in its National Executive Committee.

Jennifer Thorpe is a feminist writer based in Cape Town. She is the editor of and This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service series for the Sixteen Days of Activism against Gender Violence.