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Women's role in the transformation of South Africa

1st November 2012


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Women have been at the forefront of transformation in South Africa, yet their contributions to social change are often under-represented. How can the historical and current experiences of South African women be captured in today’s popular knowledge and why is this important?

The Republic of South Africa (RSA) – since 1994 – has enjoyed much recognition as an exemplary country to political offices. By 2008, for instance, RSA had achieved 43% representation in the Cabinet and about 33% in provincial Legislatures including the appointment of the first female Deputy President in 2005. The representation of women in the South African Parliament has increased from 27.8% in 1994 to 43.3% in 2009. This puts RSA amongst the leading countries in the world in terms of the number of women in important leadership positions. However, although some progress has been accomplished on women representation in senior management in the public service, the low representation of women in corporate decision-making positions in the private sector remains a challenge.


According to Statistics South Africa, women make up 51% of RSA’s estimated population of 49.99-million people. At the core of government policies on women is a dual strategy aimed at dealing with the legacy of apartheid and the transformation of society, particularly the transformation of power relations between women and men. RSA’s empowerment of women is about addressing gender oppression, patriarchy, sexism, racism, ageism and structural oppression and creating a conducive environment which enables women to take control of their lives.

Women have played an enormous role in ensuring that RSA is liberated. One cannot forget the popular march of August 1956 where they marched to Union Buildings to contest the pass laws. As a result their role was acknowledged by the post-apartheid government, with August now known as women’s month.


Women in the new RSA are facing huge challenges such as rape, verbal abuse, human trafficking (which is described by many experts as modern day slavery) etc.  Others are facing challenges of ensuring that they provide food on the table for their families. The role of women in the apartheid era has paved a way for everyone in RSA. Women are known as the backbone and pillars of strength for many households both in rural and urban RSA. The post-apartheid government has tried its utmost best to ensure that women’s role is acknowledged. For example, during Nelson Mandela’s and Thabo Mbeki’s administration, Frene Ginwala was the Speaker of the National Assembly. After she left the position, Baleka Mbethe filled her position.


However, some South Africans feel that women have not been given enough justice when it comes to the issues of equality in terms of job opportunities. President Jacob Zuma’s administration has established a department that deals with women’s issues. The establishment of the Department of Women, Children and People with Disabilities (DWCPD) in 2009 was celebrated as a major milestone in the quest for the emancipation of women and their empowerment. The DWCPD is largely meant to champion the cause of women and ensure alignment amongst government structures and between government and social partners on matters related to the emancipation and development of women.

The year 2012 marks 18 years of democracy in RSA and the post-apartheid government is empowering women in all aspects. The new RSA wants women to be visible in all fraternities; however, there are bottlenecks. Women are still seen as people who should be in the kitchen. Experts and politicians say RSA’s democracy is still in the infancy stage; therefore, it is going to take a while to fix those apartheid wounds which dominated for more than four decades. The apartheid government provided blacks with no chance, including women. Blacks were never allowed to participate in the mainstream economy during the apartheid regime. It is against this background that women’s development also has to do with what happened during the apartheid era. The post-apartheid regime is getting away with the notion that women should be working in the kitchen or babysitting.

The Post-1994 regime is trying to give women every platform to express their opinions without fear or favour. They are being capacitated so as to better their lives. One would recall that the apartheid regime never attempted to give them any chance. Whereas the post-apartheid regime has given them a platform to be more vocal about any issue. The Post 1994 government has some positive things to point out for women empowerment, while on the other hand there are shortcomings or bottlenecks. RSA has a huge task ahead to root out all issues affecting women. Of course, one has to be aware that those challenges will not be resolved overnight. It requires every individual in the society to be involved. Government, non-governmental organisations, the private sector, civil society, community-based organisations and faith-based organisations, among others, need to collaborate to ensure that women’s empowerment prospers.

Treatment of women

Society should admire women instead of ill-treating them. We must all recall that women are often the cornerstone of every society and we need to salute them. The interesting thing about the post-apartheid regime is that women are being introduced in all sectors that were previously deemed as mainly the domain of men. For example, the built environment (civil, mechanical, electrical engineering and quantity surveying) used to be regarded as a career solely for men; however, things have changed now. As part of nation building, women are being capacitated so that they do not feel like they are locked out of the world of opportunities. Women nowadays want to participate in the mainstream economy.

Indeed, women were at the forefront of transformation in RSA. However, the post-apartheid era has brought new challenges for them, for instance, abuse, rape, poverty and inequality as it has been aforementioned. If this is anything to go by we are basically saying women have no space to enjoy themselves in our society. We are all asking ourselves as to what has gone wrong to the people out there.  Women are living in fear because men have become monsters.


The media through print (newspapers) and electronic press (online media or television) should give in-depth coverage to issues that affect women and provide a greater platform for women to express their views on issues that not only affect them but RSA as a whole.

Women should participate or engage more in issues of national importance e.g. nationalisation or the succession debate – they should be more visible.

Women should begin contributing more to knowledge production through the publication of books, journal articles, newspaper features, policy briefs or through seminars or conferences where they will be talking as speakers at events on issues that affect not only women but more importantly national issues e.g.  the current saga of the Gauteng e-tolling system.

There must more women participating in academia so that they can begin to form new paradigms of knowledge, African knowledge based on gender as opposed to the western and often male dominated paradigms of knowledge currently in academia.

Women played a crucial role in the liberation of RSA and it is important to recount/retell their stories of sacrifice, pain and hardship as part of the ongoing process in building a democratic RSA. Women have an important role to play in society today and their views are important in knowledge production, more so their views from Africa are very important in a new shift towards enhancing African knowledge production as opposed to western forms of knowledge production which have dominated the academia for many centuries and people are now beginning to critically question them.

It is important to always have a gender perspective on knowledge production because males and females think differently and thus the views of women are crucial in creating a balance in knowledge production which has and continues to be male orientated  ideas or monopoly of knowledge.

Written by Lwazi Apleni

Apleni is with the Research Division of Africa Institute of South Africa and is an alumnus of Walter Sisulu University. Lwazi holds a B.Tech Degree (Tourism). This article was amongst those that were selected for 2012 Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College (SOMAFCO) Young Writers Competition.


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