Women’s voices fade after local government elections

With South Africa’s 213 municipal councils holding their first council meetings aimed at establishing political office, the absence of women in many councils is glaring. While discussions around coalition governments in many of the hung councils and the filling of proportional representative seats continues to take up a large share of public conversations, very little is being said about the missing women in local government and what implications this may have towards a gender-sensitive or even a feminist local government. 

This is an extremely important conversation in a country with the highest levels of gender-based violence and a history of service delivery that for a long time, had never catered for women’s needs.

The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) reports that 63% of the councillors elected were male and only 37% were female councillors. Out of the 5 975 male councillors elected, 2 712 came from proportional representation (PR) lists, 3 214 from wards and a further 49 were independents contesting wards. Conversely, out of the 3 498 female councillors elected, 2 294 were elected from PR lists, 1 202 from wards and a further 2 were independents who contested wards.

The statistics from the IEC indicate that 34% of the men and just over 12% of the women came from PR lists and 29% of the men and 24% of women came from wards. This means that in the previous local government elections, the PR list offered women greater opportunities for participation in local government politics. 

The ANC’s 50/50 policy ensures an equal balance of women and men on the list and this has contributed to the increased participation of women in local government councils. No other party has a policy on gender as clear as that of the ANC, nor has any party enforced the implementation of their policies on gender balance as the ANC did during the list development processes. It goes without saying therefore that as the ANC loses votes, the number of women representatives in municipal councils will be impacted severely, as we are beginning to see. 

One of the reasons why policy around PR lists is important is that prejudice and discrimination are still deeply rooted in too many South African communities. There has not been much intervention from government, civil society or religious leaders over the years to engage the stereotyping of women. 

What we have seen in these elections is that when presented with a male and female ward candidate, communities tend to gravitate toward the male candidate. With only 12.5% of women councillors elected from wards, the PR system seems to be the major mechanism women have to ensure greater representation in municipal councils.

It is not my intent to provide solutions to this situation highlighted above, but rather to reflect on it and hope it finds its way into our collective consciousness as we strive toward creating a more just, fair and equitable society, where women and men work together to improve the quality of life for all.

Sexist, misogynistic and patriarchal systems do not build inclusive societies; instead they lead to greater forms of exclusion, violence and disenfranchisement. The scourge of gender-based violence that we have been experiencing as a country should already indicate to us that we are not a cohering and safe society. 

A more meaningful engagement on strengthening women’s representation and participation in local government is necessary. It is women who fully understand the burden women carry when service delivery is poor. It is women who can advocate ferociously for the needs of other women, their families and the community. And yes, women’s numbers in municipal councils will not translate into change if those women are voiceless. 

It is hoped that with time, as the numbers of women in councils increases so will their voice and advocacy.  It should be of serious concern to every one of us that the gains made in ensuring women’s representation in local government are slowly being eroded and that this is happening on our watch.

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Sikhander Coopoo
Sikhander Coopoo is the policy and strategic communication manager at Afesis-corplan, an NGO based in East London that focuses on strengthening local governance and improving access to basic services for people living in informal settlements

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