Women are South Africa’s changemakers and they deserve more

COMMENT

Instead of paying tribute to the courageous women who fought and are still fighting for justice and equality in South Africa, Women’s Day has been largely reduced to a commercial circus revolving around pedicure specials and discounted cake and coffee. As a pale male living in South Africa, originally from the Netherlands, this bothers me. 

Why? 

Not just because I am a father of a beautiful, two-year-old coloured daughter whom I share with my African wife or because I work in civil society every single day, but because I am a human being who wants justice for everyone, especially women and girls who have been marginalised, ostracised or are victims of gender-based violence. 

The fact is that the original message of Women’s Month is more relevant than ever. Since our first democratic elections 26 years ago, women have not ceased to build our beloved country. All of us are surrounded by strong, courageous, fierce, and determined “superheroines” who are making South Africa a better place. 

You don’t need to look hard to find them. I am talking about the gogo who converted her home into a crèche so that younger women can go to work or school with peace of mind, or the 40-year-old single mother who got her matric certificate because she wants to help her daughter with her homework. Then there is the gender-based violence survivor who worked multiple jobs to become a lawyer so she could assist fellow survivors, and the homeless woman who got herself off the streets by selling jewellery and is now helping others achieve the same.


In my work for the development organisation Afrika Tikkun, I come across these unsung changemakers every day. One of my heroes is 24-year-old Josephine Morake from Diepsloot. She was 18 when she joined our skills development programme, focusing on information technology, after which she applied for a job at Afrika Tikkun as an office assistant. The young woman we interviewed was, however, more of a business leader than employee, and so she enrolled in our entrepreneurship programme instead.

Four years later, Josephine owns her own domestic worker recruitment agency, one that employs six full-time staff over and above the women she has found jobs for. Since she sat across from us during that job interview in 2016, she has grown from a timid teenager into a confident, self-made businesswoman who wants the best for others. After receiving another sizeable enterprise development grant, Josephine helped fund three start-ups for other women. 

What makes her story so extraordinary is that, like so many South African women and women of colour, in particular, she had the odds firmly stacked against her. Despite 26 years of freedom, women in this country remain disproportionately affected by poverty, crime, sexual violence, poor access to clean drinking water and sanitation, and other systematic problems such as unemployment. According to StatsSA, 30.9% of women were unemployed in the fourth quarter of 2019 as opposed to 27.7% of men, with women of colour getting the short end of the stick.

Then there is the prevailing wave of corporate sexism. Whereas many things have changed since 1994, one thing has remained the same and that is that the economy still largely revolves around men, especially white men like me.

Female employees, for instance, earn less than their male counterparts, 28% less to be exact, as the 2018/19 Global Wage Report by the International Labour Organisation shows. This means the average woman staff member in this country has to work 2.5 hours per day longer to earn the same salary as her male colleague. This gap is considerably more defined when comparing black women to white men.

In the meantime, executive boards remain very male, and often very pale. A 2019 PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) report shows that on the JSE, 96.6% of CEOs, 87.2% of CFOs, and 91% of executive directors are men, most of them white. Of the women who do feature, a tiny percentage is black, coloured or Indian.

This concerns me. If we have come only this far, what will the future of my daughter, and that of every single girl child of colour in this country look like if we — particularly those of us with economic, corporate, and political power — refuse to build on the true premise of Women’s Month, not just this month but the entire year?

Alef Meulenberg is chief executive of Afrika Tikkun 

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Alef Meulenberg
Alef Meulenberg is chief executive of Afrika Tikkun

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