Late on Wednesday night, South Africa’s newly (re-)elected president Cyril Ramaphosa announced the first ever gender equal cabinet of the country. As a part of his commitment for a “new dawn” for South Africa, Ramaphosa’s cabinet was selected after a thorough, not seen before consultation process. Welcomed from various corners of the country, the new government unsurprisingly drew criticism from main opposition parties. The gender representative cabinet is an important sign towards more serious political efforts to transform the country’s intense gender based inequality. However, given the male dominated networks of the political landscape, the struggle for gender equality in government and society is far from over.
The cabinet announcement is the last step for the newly formed government to take full shape, following the national and provincial elections on May 8th. Prior, political analysts saw these 6th national elections as a landmark political moment, given the uncovering of large scale corruption networks of the governing party. Yet, the results show that the oft predicted big political shift did not materialize, at least in terms of voters’ choices: while there were the expected losses of the biggest party, the African National Congress (ANC), they were nowhere near as bad as some analysts had anticipated. The party that governed South Africa since the end of Apartheid still gained a majority, though for the first time got less than 60%. Nevertheless, the main change was arguably the very low voter turnout at 66% (-7.5%, the lowest since South Africa became a democracy), especially amongst young and first time voters (only 18,5% of first time voters and one in two 20-29 year olds even registered to vote), as well as the distribution of party gains going exclusively to far left and far right parties.
Interestingly, over 2.5 million more women registered to vote than men (55% of registered voters were women, while they make up 51% of the population). Despite presenting the lion’s share of the active electorate, parties did not rally around women’s issues or specifically aimed at wooing female voters. Partly a legacy of South Africa’s violent colonial and apartheid history, the country suffers from a culture of gender based violence and sexism, with black women representing by far the largest share of the country’s poor and marginalised. As such, it is high time for political parties of the new South Africa to put gender justice at the top of their political agendas. On paper, the ANC shows great commitment to gender equality: it has a voluntary 50% quota of women candidates on the ballot and commits to the “zebra system”, with male and female candidates alternating. The actual leadership of the party, however, remains exclusively male. Amongst other important political players only the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) showed considerable commitment on making sure women and gender related issues are also represented in a country that is still stifled by highly patriarchal social structures.
While the EFF also committed to the zebra system, its election manifesto included impressive sections on eradicating black women’s triple oppression (racist, gender based and economic oppression) through holistic legal, social and economic policies. Nevertheless, the party has shown very little credibility in terms of gender justice: the leadership is heavily male dominated and its members have been involved in a string of misogynist and violence related scandals. On the other hand the biggest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), has vehemently opposed quotas for women in government and now only has 36% of female MPs in parliament. This is despite Helen Zille leading the party for years until 2015, illustrating how gender equality in politics cannot merely be equated with women in political positions of power. Clearly, there is still a long way to go until female voters and the centrality of topics relating to gender justice and women’s lives are recognized by parties and their almost exclusively male leaders. And yet, the rationale behind the newly appointed cabinet gives reason to hope that this might be (slowly) changing.
Gender parity in the new government: Too good to be true?
The new president Cyril Ramaphosa, a former union leader, business millionaire and Nelson Mandela’s right hand during the negotiation with the former apartheid regime during its dismantling, was elected by the newly formed parliament on May 22nd. Even with his inauguration, Ramaphosa showed commitment to do things differently and create a government that is focused on inclusivity: He was sworn into office at the first ever public inauguration, termed the “people’s inauguration”, at a Pretoria stadium in front of 32,000 spectators. Previously, presidents were sworn in at the Union Buildings in Pretoria in small and exclusive ceremonies (though there were public celebratory events surrounding especially Nelson Mandela’s inauguration in 1994). At the same time, the criminal investigations for extensive corruption networks, fittingly termed “state capture” by South Africans, continue. With former President Zuma not attending the inauguration, announcing he was too busy “trying to stay out of jail”, Ramaphosa is invested in rebranding the party and government.
The newly appointed cabinet is one of the ways Ramaphosa has tried to advance a political shift towards inclusivity, giving first signs that the president is working to substantiate his pre-election commitment to gender justice. That includes the fight against Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV), the work to include LGBTQI* members of the population, and a more gender balanced government and parliament. With 44% of its parliament made up of women, South Africa fares 10th in the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s (IPU) ranking of women’s representation in politics. Moreover, the country is now one of only 11 countries worldwide that have a gender representative government. These are milestones many “western” nations are far from achieving. Nevertheless, the new government and Ramaphosa’s political quest for change is fraught with contradictions with regards to supporting gender justice. Therefore, feminist organisations in the country issued welcoming but very careful statements about the new government.
Firstly, at a closer look, the downsizing of the “bloated” executive that has been heavily criticized as overly expensive and unnecessary shows little change. Although Ramaphosa appointed 28 instead of previously 36 ministers, he increased the number of deputies now adding up to 34, with critique mounting that his announcement of a cut cabinet is in fact bending the truth. Despite the numbers game, it is unfortunate that there was no reorganisation of the Ministry for Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities. Activists had previously called for the establishment of a designated Gender ministry or a general mainstreaming of gender issues across the entire government.
Secondly, the initial post-election move of the governing party cast even more serious doubt on its commitment to gender representation: The selection of premiers for the provinces won by the ANC (7 out of 8) highlighted the gender bias not only in the party itself, but specifically its patronage and internal networks that have consistently rendered much more men in crucial party and government positions. Only two out of the seven provinces have a female premier now, both of whom are said to be allies of Ramaphosa’s intra-party opponents. What can only be considered a last-minute appeasement of the party’s women’s organisation, it was subsequently announced that there will be a 60% female quota for provincial governments in male lead provinces and 50% in female lead ones.
Representation is more than a numbers game
While interpretable as commitment to gender parity the new policy cuts far short of the actual problem. Since the ANC has an internal patriarchal culture of patronage, women have a hard time climbing the ranks of the party. Men have dominated the ANC since its foundation 100 years ago and the party’s Women’s League has not been able to make serious advancements for women to be represented and supported throughout the different tiers of the party. With women only propelled to leading positions because of gender parity policies on provincial top positions, it can easily lead to women becoming mere proxies for men. After all, representation is not only a numbers game. As such, gender equality policies for the upper tiers of national and provincial government are a great achievement but mean little in context of intra-party politics that remain firmly in male hands.
Given the difficult patronage negotiations within the ANC necessary to make real changes to the country’s government make up, the mixed results of Ramaphosa’s government formation should come as no surprise. Nevertheless, his leadership is a welcome and important change from the previous years of regressive gender politics under Jacob Zuma, finally making serious efforts to create an executive that represents actual commitment towards more gender equality in the country. However, it remains to be seen just how much Ramaphosa will succeed in his aim for “a new dawn” for the country, including the overdue political enforcement of gender justice.