Fix the gender machine

The creation of another structure in the form of a ministry to promote the rights of women, this time alongside other disempowered groups, is ill-considered.

A more worthwhile effort would have been to fix the problems plaguing the existing gender structures, rather than creating a whole new bureaucracy.

A lot has been written about how the “Gender Machinery” (Commission on Gender Equality) has been hobbled by perennial infighting, mediocre performance and ineffectualness so severe that its complete disappearance would go unnoticed.

The appointment of the tough trade unionist Noluthando Mayende-Sibiya as minister of women, youth, children and people with disabilities may signal a change of tack in the ANC.

Hopefully those selected to serve and chair the parliamentary committee that will be created to oversee the new portfolio will approach the task with more diligence than has hitherto been in evidence.

The predecessor of the new committee was once by far the most effective of the gender bodies—but only for a short spell when feminist activist Pregs Govender was at the helm.

Before she was stonewalled by the powers that be, the committee actively shaped the Domestic Violence Act, Maintenance Act, Recognition of Customary Marriages Act, Skills Development Act and Employment Equity Act.

It was responsible for the inclusion of the sexual harassment code in the Labour Relations Act and pressurised the finance ministry to buffer the effects of inequitable gender relations when devising the government’s macroeconomic policy and national budgets. By the end of 1999 the committee had ensured that about 80% of the legislative changes that it had prioritised at its inception had been tabled and enacted.

Govender took a principled position against the arms deal and abstained from voting when the defence budget was passed in 2001. Under her leadership the committee held public hearings on the impact of HIV/Aids on women and girls. These two actions provoked the wrath of the then ANC leadership and Govender came under immense pressure, resigning from Parliament in the first half of 2002.

Subsequently, the committee became an empty shell, dogged by a lack of understanding of its mandate, absenteeism and a lackadaisical attitude among committee members to the cause of women’s empowerment.

Stunningly, the committee did not make a single input into the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Bill, despite it being years in the making before finally being passed in 2007. Given the pandemic of sexual violence against women and girl children in South Africa this is simply inexcusable.

Committee member Dimakatso Morobi (ANC), at the committee’s hearings on violence against women, complained to gender activist Lisa Vetten that the problems that Vetten was explaining to the committee had existed “for a while”. MPs, she said, preferred to hear about solutions. The amendment Act would have been one such solution. But the committee deemed it unnecessary to engage with this vital piece of legislation.

Similarly, the Communal Land Rights Bill and the Child Justice Bill came and went without any engagement by the committee. In those few cases where the committee acted proactively, such as hosting the hearings on violence against women in 2006, nothing came of it.

In March 2007 the committee expressed grave misgivings about the conflation of the budget of the office on the status of women (OSW) with those of the offices on children and people with disability in the presidency.

In fact the office on the status of women was completely inoperative during that year as all its staff had resigned, but the responsible minister, Essop Pahad, was not called in to explain the mass resignations or why the budget lines had been conflated. When OSW staff finally appeared before the committee in November 2007 amnesia had apparently kicked in and not one question was asked about the budget.

Govender’s replacement, Storey Morutoa, fondly known as Ma Storey, has been at it for five years, with little to show. She kept the position by keeping her head low. South African women deserve better. The ANC, which was due to make an announcement as the M&G went to press, must appoint someone as strong as the new minister to chair the committee. Such an appointment may not be a sufficient to get the wheels turning again, but it is certainly necessary.

Van der Westhuizen is a writer and political analyst. This article was written with support from the Heinrich Boell Foundation. The views expressed are the author’s own.

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