Push for zebra principle in Parliament

In a move bound to spark controversy, Minister in the Office of the President Essop Pahad has said the “time is right” for South Africa to “open a debate” on introducing a legislated quota for women in Parliament.

But, in a disappointment to the Fifty-Fifty Campaign — which wants the quota to ensure that half of all public representatives are female — Pahad said that while this should be the target, “you need to take people through phases of consciousness and understanding. It would seem ludicrous for anyone to object to a one-third quota. They should then say why not 50%. It’s a bigger battle we have to win.”

The African National Congress has a party quota of 30% female representation.

In a wide-ranging interview, as part of a regional research project on gender and governance, Pahad, who is responsible for gender issues in the president’s office, said he intends to raise the matter in the ANC study group of the portfolio committee on the quality and life and status of women. This is so that it can be debated during the current sitting of Parliament, even if legislation is not passed in time for the 2004 elections.

In sharp response, Democratic Alliance chief whip Douglas Gibson said legislated quotas are “hopelessly wrong. Would you then say that 10% of the cricket team should be white and the rest black because that is the make up of the nation? You would not, because not everyone wants to play cricket.”

Women constitute 12% of the DA seats in Parliament, compared to the overall average of 20% for opposition parties. Gibson said, if need be, the DA would argue that forcing parties to adopt quotas is unconstitutional.

Retorting that gender equality is guaranteed in the Constitution, Pahad said the ANC would listen to the views of opposition parties “but, we also have to make a decision about what is in the national interest. I am quite convinced that it is in the national interest to move in this direction.”

Following intensive lobbying by the Commission on Gender Equality (CGE) and gender activists ahead of the 2000 local government elections, Parliament included a clause in the Municipal Structures Act “encouraging” political parties to ensure that women constitute 50% of contestants, but fell short of making this a requirement.

Local elections are contested on a mixed proportional representation and constituency system. While the ANC applied the “one woman, one man” or “zebra” principle to its lists, the same did not apply to ward seats. Overall, women’s representation in local government increased from 17% in 1995 to 28% in the 2000 elections.

The Fifty-Fifty Campaign, which is led by the Gender Advocacy Project and includes the CGE and a number of NGOs, won an important victory with the ANC’s support for maintaining the proportional representation system in the next national elections. Pahad pointed out that the ANC would win many more seats in a constituency election, but supported retaining the system because it favoured minority groups and women.

If South Africa adopted a legislated 50% quota in a proportional representation system, it would be the first country to achieve gender parity in politics. It’s a tantalising thought, but one fraught with complexities from a variety of perspectives.

Chairperson of the DA caucus, Sandra Botha, argued that there would never be enough women to fill a 50% quota because “they should be at home looking after their children”, a job, she said, men “are not genetically suited to do”. Botha said she is only in Parliament because her children have grown up.

Gibson conceded that the ANC quota has had a snowball effect on the DA in that there is now a more conscious effort to recruit women. He argued, however, that because they are “headhunted” the DA has “quality women … not just passengers like some women in the ANC”.

ANC women retort that such attitudes are demeaning and patronising.

Using herself as an example, chairperson of the committee on the improvement of the quality of life and status of women, Lulu Xingwana, said she would not have entered Parliament, but for the quota. Pointing to a number of personal achievements, including the amendment of the Boxing Act so that women can participate in the sport, Xingwana has vowed that her committee will spearhead efforts to secure a legislated quota.

Former ANC deputy secretary General Thenjiwe Mtintso pointed out that heated debates over quotas have been taking place within the ANC since 1985 and have been critical for engaging men on gender issues. Mtintso, now ambassador to Cuba, said the mere “politics of women’s presence” is important. “You need to be able to show at the most simple level that women can be leaders,” he said.

Pahad points out that while in the 1994 elections the ANC had to do some engineering to ensure that there were at least 30% women on the lists, in 1999 this did not prove necessary — evidence that by breaking through the glass ceiling women will prove their capabilities.

But, echoing the concerns of some gender activists in the country, Director of the Centre for Applied Legal Studies Cathi Albertyn asked: “At what point do you determine that quotas have become institutionalised, so that you don’t have to have them?”

Sue Vos of the Inkatha Freedom Party pointed out that the party, which has one of the most traditional support bases, does not have a quota but — thanks in part to the influence of the ANC quota — now has a 30% representation of women in the assembly.

While the ANC is mooting a legislated 30% quota, there seems to be little appetite in the party to go the logical next step to gender parity, despite the ANC Women’s League sponsoring such a resolution at the party’s December congress.

One senior ANC woman said: “I think there is beginning to be complacency; this feeling that we are there in our own right. Why do we still have to push for the numbers? It’s not articulated, but there is a bit of subtle backlash from the women themselves.”

Many gender activists, while supporting the Fifty-Fifty Campaign, are uncomfortable that over-emphasis on numbers can detract from the far more important issue — delivery.

During the past eight years women in Parliament are credited with tackling the more obvious forms of discrimination, like taxation, and passing gender-specific legislation such as the Domestic Violence Act and the Choice of Termination of Pregnancy Act. But they have been less successful in such diehard areas as redirecting defence expenditure and challenging the president’s HIV/Aids policy — two issues over which Pregs Govender, the former chairperson of the portfolio committee, resigned.

As Albertyn observed: “In all parliaments you see women passing women’s laws; that’s partly about the women inside Parliament and partly about women outside Parliament. I think it’s the oversight role that really tests the mettle of women in Parliament and that is where we are facing the challenges.”

Colleen Lowe Morna is director of Gender Links, a Southern African NGO that is conducting research on the qualitative difference that women bring to governance, to be released later this year

 

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