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Covid-19 and women leadership struggles in South Africa


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Covid-19 and women leadership struggles in South Africa

Covid-19 and women leadership struggles in South Africa

3rd June 2020


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During this Corona-crisis, women have revealed their enormous capabilities. It would seem countries that have responded best to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic are the ones led by women. Of course, with national coronavirus statistics changing daily, it will be difficult for this article to list them in the order of rate of infections and deaths, but a quick study of the statistics will show that countries such as Iceland, New Zealand, Denmark, Finland, Taiwan and Norway, all led by women, have low rates of infection and death. This is despite the fact that many countries within the regions where these countries are located have registered frightening figures.

Kristalina Georgieva, a business leader and managing director of the International Monetary Fund, believes that women are great leaders, especially during a crisis. She also believes that this pandemic is revealing that women have what it takes to be leaders of states. This can be attributed to the fact that women are more likely to share empathy, to care about the most vulnerable people and are always willing to be corrected when they are wrong. This means that the world should embrace women and change its old-aged and archaic perception about the inability of women to lead. South Africa would do well to heed this caution, not least because a response to the coronavirus pandemic has shown how effective women leaders can be. This excellence in leadership shown by women at an international level is present even in local contexts.


Women in South Africa have encountered gender-based discrimination for many years, especially when they are vying for senior management positions. For example, we have had two women deputy presidents in the recent past, but none of them has risen to the highest office. Evidence presented by this pandemic reveal that there is something that needs to be said and done about the value of gender equality in the future.

This is why I argue in this short piece that our patriarchal society wrongly portrays men as the only ones who are capable of excellent leadership, while women, both by design and default, are portrayed as less suited for senior positions in society. Of course, it is great that South Africa is ranked as the tenth best country in the world in terms of the number of women in parliament, but a lot better could still be done. For example, even though women make up over half of the population in South Africa, they remain under-represented in other positions of authority. They comprise 32% of the Supreme Court of Appeal judges, 31% of advocates, 30% of ambassadors and 24% of executive heads of state-owned enterprises (SOEs).


South Africa also scores poorly when it comes to the number of women in management positions. Only one of the top 40 listed JSE companies has a female CEO. About 68% of all senior management positions are held by men and women hold only 32% of executive positions. South Africa should take an example from countries with women leaders cited above, and actively allow women to occupy even the highest positions in the land. If there is one extra lesson that we should learn from this crisis, it is to begin to reimagine women, at all levels, as capable leaders.

A question that we should ask ourselves is, since women are as capable and qualified as their male counterparts for any job, why is there this huge disparity in gender representation between men and women in positions of power? Is it notable that in all the major political parties represented in parliament; none is led by a female president? None has a female deputy president. What does this mean for the future?

According to Women in South African Politics (2019), the ANC is the only party that has taken far reaching steps by adopting a quota of any kind for women and is one of the few parties in Africa that has adopted the 50% quota. Its manifesto also shows the most sophisticated understanding of what is meant by gender mainstreaming, containing specific promises to women and references to non-sexism throughout. This should be translated into concrete action.

There should not be such a big disparity between men and women when it comes to leadership roles even in small organisations. When it comes to intelligence and innovation, both men and women can display these qualities equally. Most people see no gender differences in ambition, honesty and decision-making. Having leadership positions for women in government and the private sector will improve the quality of life for all in society since data shows that there are more women in our population than men, and women have more dependants.  

In addition, women should be taught from a very young age to aspire to become leaders; and they should understand the natural capabilities they possess, as well as the resources around them. This knowledge, and skills and resources could be combined to increase their chances of becoming leaders. Indeed, there are many capable women who require some form of motivation to utilise the leadership skills they already possess. There is no doubt that women do make good leaders because they seek to be role models to inspire their subordinates; and care about others’ personal development (Martin, 2019). Women from the above seven mentioned countries have proven that leadership is not about gender.

What might also be important is to open up possibilities for the reconnection of feminist academic analysis to women’s everyday struggles, thereby contributing to a more relevant, emancipatory feminism and to a post-patriarchal, anti-neoliberal politics (Hooks, 2011:13). Feminism should be adapted to speak to different localised contexts so that it becomes of utility to women’s everyday struggles, because in reality, gender struggles are about ending sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression. It is not about women against men. For patriarchies to end, women must change themselves and raise their own consciousness.

There is no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc throughout the world, but an important lesson coming out of this crisis, is the buttressing of the often taken for granted view that women are as capable leaders as men, if not better.

Written by Ntsoaki Gwaelane, a Research Intern at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA)


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