'Misogyny won't be tolerated'

The Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) has made more headlines about internal strife than gender victories and various reviews have found it to be unclear about its mandate and reluctant to use its powers. Last week the commission launched a new five-year “strategic plan”—but is it too little too late?

What is the commission’s most significant achievement to date?
Our mere existence is an achievement for South Africa; the fact that we have a Chapter 9 institution especially to deal with gender inequality and women’s ability to access the rights set out in the Constitution. We have raised public consciousness on various gender issues and lobbied for change.
We have not been afraid to take on difficult issues such as virginity testing and other cultural practices.

In simple language can you tell us what the commission is really supposed to do?
We want to cut through the jargon and get to the gist of it, which is protection of human dignity. We want people to see the CGE as the place they can come knocking when they experience any kind of injustice, as an organisation that is ready to listen to them and to take action.

Has the commission achieved its goals?
No, it has not. It is impossible to do so when society is so predominantly patriarchal. But we are learning from the mistakes of the past and will strengthen our partnership with South Africa’s citizens.

Fourteen years into our democracy, our gender machinery seems weaker than ever. Has the commission been set up to fail?
We don’t have anything in the past to compare it with, but yes, the machinery is weak. This is reflected in budget allocations and — the way the parliamentary women’s caucus, among others, is struggling and scrambling for budgets. I don’t think the CGE was deliberately set up to fail, but we do need to rethink how we see it as central to building a new society.

Has the commission spent too much energy on internal conflicts and not enough on fighting for gender equality?
I think it’s unfair to ask that, as if we are the only ones. Which institution hasn’t been affected by internal conflict? We have inherited an institution scarred by conflicts of the past, which does present a challenge in achieving our goals. But we have just done a full organisational audit to create an enabling environment to help us understand the challenges and to embark on our turnaround strategy.

We’ve heard all this before: how will this be different and will we be having the same conversation in two years time?
No, I promise you we won’t be having the same conversation. This is different because it’s a full organisational diagnosis and unlike the Asmal report [on Chapter 9 institutions], it doesn’t just give findings but makes recommendations.

But the Asmal report did make recommendations and one of the reasons CEO Chana Majake was suspended was because staff wrote a memorandum accusing her of failing to implement them.

Well, I can’t comment on that as it is an ongoing internal inquiry. But we’ve never before had such a far-reaching diagnosis in terms of our scope and mandate, which also has buy-in from the institution itself about the need to change.

The Asmal report found the commission has a poor understanding of its legal and constitutional mandate and is reluctant to use its legal powers.

That report has never been tabled in Parliament, but when it is we will say that we are not shy to use our powers and we understand our mandate very clearly.

How have you used these powers, for example when taxi drivers stripped women wearing mini-skirts?
We met with leaders in the taxi industry and they undertook to talk to their members and come back to us. If they haven’t made any progress by then we will push ahead with a legal process. Other arms of government must also send the message that misogyny will not be tolerated. We are also waiting for a meeting with the Gauteng MEC for safety and security to see what progress they’ve made.

To date not one taxi driver has been prosecuted—what will happen if you find the MEC has made no progress?
Well, we can use our powers to subpoena the MEC and so on, but we prefer to engage them first and that will inform our approach.

We are seeing an increase in incidents such as men ‘banning’ women from wearing trousers, and attacks on gays and lesbians. In many cases the perpetrators invoke culture—how do we reconcile culture and tradition with gender equality?
The interpretation of culture is always selective—people crudify cultural practice to justify their abuse. I personally think it is unacceptable to use culture as an excuse for abuse or as a justification for hatred and intolerance. Any cultural practice or belief system must be subject to the Constitution.

Can you justify the R40-million the commission costs the taxpayer each year?
Yes, we can justify that if we follow the new trajectory. But we need to spend what we have wisely and be very aware that we are using public funds.

There was talk of absorbing the commission into an umbrella human rights body—how do you feel about that?
That debate takes us back to the early Nineties. We have very particular issues to address, but like all other institutions we will have to justify our existence and will be judged by the impact we make in people’s lives. Phone me in three months’ time—the conversation will be very different.

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