The Republic of South Africa takes great pride in its expansive constitutional and legislative efforts to support and sustain representation of underprivileged groups. It is perceived in Sub Saharan Africa as one of the best examples of democratization and stabilization. However, while the world may think only of the racial and economic inequalities in the nation as obstacles to democracy, South Africa is also still grappling with serious issues in democratic representation and engagement of women in politics. This is in conjunction with the physical security and harassment issues faced by lesbians and perceived lesbians in South Africa and the entire continent, with practices like corrective rape. However in regards to gender representation, the Department of Women, Children and People hopes to imply change with a new Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill, passed in the National Assembly this Wednesday.
The Bill presented by the ANC government calls for the “progressive realization of at least 50 % representation in decision-making structures”, which is undoubtedly a need in the state structure. It also attempts to address certain gender-centered concerns commonly known as pathways to equity and redress, such as improved access to education and protection of reproductive health. However, this is not been the first time these measures have been attempted. It is well known that the South African Constitution already establishes the rights of women equal before the law, as well as a host of other positive rights and freedoms. Therefore, though the new Bill is lauded by the African National Congress-led state as significant progress, most observers are calling it a duplication of the rights already guaranteed in the Constitution as well as other past laws. In effect, it is “nothing new” in the progress towards full gender equality and democratization.
South African media and advocates have therefore mocked the introduction and passage of the Bill due to its policy redundancies. Lisa Vetten summarizes the criticisms best, as “it is undesirable from a policy perspective, because of the challenges posed to the harmonisation of these various laws as well as the administrative and resource burdens imposed as a consequence.” Other political actors, in particular the main opposition party the Democratic Alliance, also mocked the redundancy of the new Bill (as well as momentarily walked out on the voting of the bill), but instead placed its criticisms in a electoral framing, with an eye on the future. One DA politician characterized the Bill as merely a political tool to gain votes, as it did “little to ensure real empowerment of women and was little more than an attempt by Minister Lulu Xingwana to legislate herself into relevance before the elections.”
Whether the new Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill is a political tool, a redundant piece of policy, or an actual attempt by the ANC to emphasize the needs and concerns of women has yet to be seen. For now though, the National Council of Provinces will try to integrate the Bill in a way as to create grassroots level change. Perhaps this move, and the controversy around the Bill, will cause a substantial conversation regarding the importance of pushing for gender equality and political engagement not just in name alone, but with substantial governmental and civil society action as well.