Special Reports

Speaker for the silent majority

Sarah Evans

Frene Ginwala spoke to Sarah Evans about the trials of being an advocate for women at the birth of the new South Africa.

Frene Ginwala. (Paul Botes)

Being a woman in politics is first and foremost to understand the full history of patriarchy. That is, to understand the fight that came before you. 

Frene Ginwala was South Africa’s first speaker of the National Assembly under democratic rule and her career in politics is marked by attempts to secure greater equality for women. 

She does not believe that any conversation about women in politics is possible without a thorough contextualisation. Ginwala believes the gains that have been made have only been achieved because of a tremendous push by women to have their voices heard in the early years of democracy. 

And she believes that her appointment as speaker set the tone for more appointments like hers. 

“After my appointment we slowly started to see change on the continent. The men in power saw that I didn’t sit in the speaker’s chair and giggle or do any of the things they think women do.”

But even that small gain was the result of intense lobbying in the early nineties. Ginwala recounts the extreme pushback she received within her own party at the idea of introducing quotas, as a way of ensuring that more women were appointed in powerful positions. 

She is not a member of the ANC Women’s League (ANCWL), and says she probably will never be. 

“For the ANCWL to say, ‘We are not ready’ for a woman president was absolutely outrageous and unacceptable.” 

Ginwala says the women’s movement appears to have stalled because women are simply not organised, and there has been a regression in the last 20 years in the gender equality movement in politics.

Despite attempts by the ANC to increase the number of women in the government, sexism in politics persists. And there are now fewer female premiers than in 2009. It is clear that attempts to beef up the numbers are not translating into real gains, Ginwala says. 

“Here in South Africa, we have the legal framework to fight sexism, and the justices of the Constitutional Court have not failed us. But we are not organised and mobilised as women.” 

Ginwala recalls the pushback from the corporate world when she asked a group of business leaders to ensure that there were crèches at each of their businesses. 

“They (the business leaders) said, ‘but that will cost us money’. I replied that I was glad they realised it would cost money, because that’s exactly what it was like for women,” Ginwala says. 

The men were not alive to these problems because years of patriarchy had made their sexism habitual. Ginwala’s personal bugbear is the fact that women’s labour in the home is not considered a contributor to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). But at least it can now be quantified, she points out. 

“Look at executive desks in furniture shops. Executive desks are slightly higher than non-executive desks, because it is assumed that executive desks will be occupied by taller men. It’s an unconscious thing. 

“Until 1994, even in white society, taxation was discriminatory — men had rights over women’s property. Women couldn’t open bank accounts without their husbands,” Ginwala says. And so the idea that women, especially women in power and in politics, still suffer discrimination and severe sexism, is measured against those gains in Ginwala’s mind. In other words, we have just conquered the taxation battle; we will not build Rome in a day. 

And Rome will not be built until we understand the context properly, she says. This is also why quotas are sometimes ineffective in ensuring that more women in politics means that women’s issues are sufficiently addressed. 

“Until we understand the heritage of patriarchal systems the assumptions will hold back women from achieving their whole potential.” 

For example, despite a 2009 ANC resolution that 50% of local councillors should be women, Ginwala says local government is still implementing sanitation politics that discriminate against women.

Some municipalities deem it appropriate to build one toilet to be shared between four houses. Fine for young men, but totally inappropriate for young women using the facilities late at night or during menstruation. 

This is why quotas must be coupled with proper training and capacity building at local government level, she says. Still, it is important to push for the numbers of women in power to increase. 

“Democratic systems should all aspire to meet the needs of the whole population. If the people who are making the decisions don’t know the needs of that society, how on earth of we going to meet their needs? 

“Most judges don’t understand the needs of women. Not because they consciously want to discriminate, but because they have no experience in the matter,” she says.  

Ginwala recounts the sexism experienced by female politicians, who are called “little girls” or who are called out because of their weight in Parliament. 

She says it is a problem that permeates every sector of society. The problem is two-fold: women are not pushing harder for equality, and men still hold on to ancient stereotypes about women. 

“We have that problem in South Africa. The instinctive reaction of men is that women can’t understand complex ideas. I’ve challenged my male colleagues on the issue. I told them that I’ve found as many capable women as incapable men. Sometimes I joke that it’s as if men have a genetic deficiency that prevents them from seeing capable women…” 

And so it is men that need empowering as much as women, she says. 

“Women can be as good as men, but they can also be as bad as men.” By this, Ginwala means the failure of women to lobby parliament for equality. “Where are the strong women’s organistions?” she asks. 

Ginwala laments the obliteration from South African history of the National Women’s Coalition of the early 1990’s. The coalition was formed in recognition that a new constitution was being drafted, and women wanted their views included. And so the coalition, which cut across class, political affiliation, religion, or race, was formed to “ask women to write down what they wanted (in the new constitution)”. 

“We went to every political party, every school, every church, and said to women: change is coming to South Africa. Write down what it is that you want.” 

This women’s charter was adopted in 1994, and delivered to Parliament in 1997, to Ginwala, who by then was speaker. It demanded, amongst other things, equal work for equal pay, and a society that would no longer ignore the needs of more than half its population. 

It is a document that women should be reading, and checking off achieved goals, Ginwala says. But it has long been forgotten, and women’s day events are marked by the reading of the document’s 1954 predecessor. Ginwala does not understand why these achievements are not remembered and built upon by the women now in power. 

“What happened to that agenda for change?” she asks. “That is why we cannot blame men alone.  Women must start to organise properly. When we fought for the end of apartheid, we did not think the Afrikaners were simply going to hand over power. Similarly with the end of patriarchy; men are not simply going to give us equality as an act of charity. We will have to fight for it.”


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