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Assessing and promoting civil and minority rights in South Africa.

[Source: Business Day Live by Xhanti Payi.]

In June 1990 Nelson Mandela and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela visited Morehouse College as part of a US tour to raise funds for the struggle against apartheid.

Speaking after her then husband, Madikizela-Mandela started off her remarks saying: “I will thank the deputy president of the ANC for the revelation that the ANC is committed to the equality of women.” She smiled mischievously as the crowd roared with applause, perhaps recognising her own leadership in the struggle.

Earlier, Madiba had told the audience that “in SA, black women suffer a disproportionately heavy burden of oppression as a gender group, a race, and as workers. We are seized with the issue of women’s rights. The ANC is committed to the equality of women, and determined that they must be empowered to make their contribution to the creation of a new SA. In October the ANC Women’s League will be launched….”

At the time, the ANC Women’s League had yet to be “launched” as Madiba said, and the leadership of the party was starkly male. This was hardly a surprising reality given that when the ANC was formed it did not accept women as members, and it would take three decades for this to change.

The ANC today has countless women icons and leaders, many of whom have gone without position in its structures.

As an important feature of our public and political life, the ANC has had to show the way in bringing to practical expression many of the ideals our country espouses, including the empowerment of women. And as SA contends with serious problems in delivering basic services to all its people, the question which seems to escape us all is whether we have been able to force the convergence of our ideals with our lived experience? Have we engaged all the resources we have in order to achieve our fullest potential?

Politicians have been at pains to win the hearts of voters by promising to engage the country’s resources fairly and equitably. Yet, the most important resource we have is people — with over half of them women. This question arises more sharply in my mind as we observe women’s month during the same month when South Africans elect political leaders and representatives.

In 2015, global consulting firm McKinsey & Company released a report called The power of parity: How advancing women’s equality can add $12-trillion to global growth. The report argued that the inclusion of women across society would hasten the pace of growth and development faster than not doing so. While much of the $12-trillion opportunity McKinsey speaks of comes from advancing gender equality in the world of work, progress there is closely tied to tackling gender gains in society more broadly. “Globally, the biggest opportunities to close gender gaps are in leadership positions, unpaid care work, and political representation.”

In 2013, billionaire investor Warren Buffet had argued: “The closer that America comes to fully employing the talents of all its citizens, the greater its output of goods and services will be.”

Yet, SA is regressing in showing that women are an important resource on which we can build growth and prosperity. In a survey released by international firm Grant Thornton, it appears that the number of women in leadership positions in business declined to 26% in 2016 from 27% in 2015. South Africa’s population is 51% women, yet only 45% of women form part of the labour force, with 27% of them unemployed.

If it is true that in order to succeed in the coming decade economically we need to empower women who are a critical resource in our pursuits, then we have to see who among those in the public sphere who are claiming to use our country’s resources for our best outcomes is actually doing so.

We should also ask, is it such that ordinary South Africans have rejected the notion of women leaders – failing to vote for women politicians as ward councillors, and other public positions directly? Or is the issue that men have not opened the space for the advancement of women among their ranks.

Speaking about why we have not made the gains we envisage in women’s empowerment, Nobel Prize winning Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee made the point that in order to empower, you have to give up some of your power. Are men who hold power and occupy leadership positions willing to give up some of that power? They should, given the wealth gains that are sure to come when they do.


Payi is an economist and head of research at Nascence Advisory and Research.


South Africa at a Glance
57 700 000 (mid 2018 estimate)
4.5% y/y in May 2019 (CPI) & +6.4 y/y in May 2019 (PPI)
-3.2% q/q (1st quarter of 2019)
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