Helen Zille’s words were taken out of context and used in a straw-man argument

From Sipho Hlongwane’s bizarre article, “Zille, buster of ‘welfare queens’” (August 12), it is clear that he did not attend the recent Women’s Day commemoration where Premier Helen Zille and others discussed issues facing young South African women.

Instead, like many other commentators, he seems to have found a 140-character clue on Twitter, and then constructed his own version of what he assumes she said.

Zille’s contribution focused on the main crisis affecting women — poverty, and the dependency that often keeps them in abusive relationships.

She argued that if we want to reduce poverty, there is only one way of doing so sustainably: through job-creating economic growth and education aligned to economic opportunities. Social grants help the destitute, but they do not offer a pathway out of poverty. This is not an attack on social grants, as Hlongwane’s straw-man argument goes. It is a statement of fact.

Grants are necessary in our society. But if women are to be liberated, they need a ladder out of poverty. This requires the opportunity to build a career through a good education and a job. Otherwise women’s freedom remains a theoretical construct because they cannot make real choices about the kind of life they want to live. When they have education and job prospects, they can decide with whom to partner, and whether and when to have children.

This is where the debate on women in South Africa should begin.

The premier said this challenge required a “whole of society” approach, where everyone has a part to play, including the government, which has certain core roles.

One is to create a context for job creation. This only happens sustainably through investment and economic growth. And because we live in a global knowledge economy, getting a decent job requires a good education.

Zille argued that one of the biggest barriers to women completing their education was that they were victims of sexual predation and, if they had babies as teenagers, were far more likely to drop out of school and remain trapped in a cycle of dependency and poverty — together with their children. She focused on the power imbalance between men and women, and said one of the ways to change this was to empower women to say “no”.

She recalled the “No means No” slogan when she was a young woman. She referred to the Khwezi protest at the Electoral Commission results centre as a current example of creating an empowering environment for women to resist coerced sex.

The role of the government was also to establish a policy context in which women would increasingly use opportunities to improve their lives. She posed a question: What kind of policy options would be best to encourage young women to finish their education before having children?

This debate was particularly urgent given the “blesser” phenomenon, which offers young women an illusory escape from poverty — while being the ultimate long-term poverty trap. For poor teenagers, there is a strong financial incentive to engage in sex in return for material benefits — often, in the process, forfeiting the real opportunities to escape poverty. The premier asked what role government had in providing a counterincentive that kept young women focused on their longer-term prospects.

She referred to a policy proposal (which she stressed was not an official policy position) of offering free tertiary education to women who had passed matric well enough to gain access, and who had not yet had a baby.

This does not imply that young women with babies would be excluded from financial aid for tertiary education. They would have the same access as they currently do, but for those who postponed becoming mothers there would be a guarantee of further education, paid for by the state, for those who did well enough in their school-leaving examination.

The premier said every policy option had unintended consequences, which had to be interrogated carefully. But the debate on women’s empowerment, she said, should focus on education and the postponement of teenage parenthood.

Various proposals were also discussed to ensure that men also carried the consequences of unintended pregnancies. Zille used the example of the campaign to ensure serious penalties (including blacklisting) for fathers who did not pay maintenance for their children. This helped to create disincentives, discouraging men from having unwanted children.

It is very easy to say that the state has no role in determining what people do with their bodies. But there are huge social and budgetary consequences, not least the effect on people trapped in poverty for the rest of their lives.

Manufacturing outrage does not help this most important of discussions. It needs to take place, and there are no easy policy options.

It can hardly be called progressive to defend the status quo, as Hlongwane does, without offering any solutions. Disempowered young women suffer the consequences.

Michael Mpofu is the spokesperson for Premier Helen Zille.

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