“For the first time in our history, half of all ministers are women.”
It was late on Wednesday night. President Cyril Ramaphosa’s eyes were heavy after days of trying to pull off a near impossible balancing act: building a Cabinet with buy-in from a fractured ANC and its alliance partners, while also delivering on the promise of a more nimble government.
But he made the point of stopping to emphasise that this is a seriously important achievement.
South Africa is now just one of 11 countries in the world where women running the country make up the same proportion as they do in society. There are nearly 200 countries in the world.
It is absurd that we should need to celebrate that our leaders reflect the diversity of our society. But this is where we are and we do need to celebrate this moment.
The ANC has long pushed for equality in its senior positions. This is all the more laudable in a society where violence towards women is endemic, and where other political parties are less interested in equality.
These parties’ arguments, reflected in too many other countries, boil down to merit: leaders should be chosen on merit. This is a handy trick — creating the illusion that we live in a system where everyone has equal opportunities.
But, to get to the top, a woman has to make it through a system that has been refined, over centuries, to exclude anyone that does not conform to a narrow definition of leaders.
Our shops sell pink toys, while our movies make it clear that girls don’t play with superhero toys, or certain types of Lego that help to develop “masculine” skill sets. Our schools reward the boys who reflect a specific version of what it means to be a man. By their teenage years, girls are faced with the likelihood of being raped or abused. If they have a child then this becomes their responsibility alone — men are not expected to take responsibility for their sperm. Then they enter a workplace where their managers are probably men, who promote people like them. If people don’t conform to this “boys’ club” they miss out on opportunities to learn, promotion and further development.
Last year, research on the state of gender on JSE-listed boards revealed that just 10% of 267 JSE-listed companies analysed had achieved gender parity on their boards. Fin24 reported that a further 50 did not report on gender at board level, despite amendments to JSE listing requirements in 2017 to include the promotion of gender diversity at board level.
Ultimately this is not about achieving the right numbers for the sake of reporting, it is about justice. The active promotion of gender parity is the pursuit of gender justice. And that’s why, even just symbolically, Ramaphosa’s Cabinet matters.
We live in a system built to exclude. A system that doesn’t reward on merit. Yet women have risen to the top and have demanded that things change. We have exceptional leaders. To run this country, we need a diversity of thoughts. Having the same small club of men means the same ideas will keep being punted, the same mistakes will keep being made.
Let’s show our future leaders that anyone can lead, if they wish to improve this country. Let us continue to lead the world.