South Africa: Women and local government: the issues

Julie Ballington, February 2001

Extracted from Pottie, D & Ford, H (eds), Local Government in South Africa: Elections 2000, EISA.

With voting just over a month away, gender activists and organisations involved in advocating gender issues are determined to keep gender equality firmly on the election agenda. Areas of concern to gender activists include the electoral system, political party candidate lists, the number of constituency candidates per party, quotas, and party manifestos. Broadly speaking, many organisations hope to increase the representation of women in the political process in 2000/1, and to heighten awareness about some of the obstacles that women encounter in leadership positions, and to encourage participation both as candidates and voters at the local government level. So what exactly are the issues that have various gender organisations and activists engaged in the run-up to the elections in December 2000?

Equal representation

On the eve of South Africa's second local government elections, various women's organisations are advocating equality of representation between men and women. South Africa has made significant gains in the representation of women at the national level, where in 1999, 119 of the 400 Members of Parliament (29.8%) are women. This places South Africa tenth in terms of women's representation world-wide. However, at the local level women are less well represented. In the previous local elections in 1995 and 1996, a mere 19% of councillors elected were women.

A number of reasons are advanced for the equal representation of women at the local level. Firstly, A number of international and regional treaties and conventions require SADC states to achieve gender equality and representivity at all levels of government and decision-making bodies. These include the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and the Declaration on Gender and Development, ratified by the Southern African Development Community in 1997, which commits all member states to ensure "the equal representation of women and men in the decision making of member states and SADC structures at all levels, and the achievement of at least a 30 percent target of women in political and decision-making structures by the year 2005." This includes local government structures.

Secondly, South Africa's patriarchal and gendered views of politics have often inhibited the ability of women to participate in community affairs on an equal basis with men, and women are often sidelined in decision-making and policy formation that has a direct bearing on their lives. It is therefore important that women are elected to influence policy at the local level. The extent to which women influence the political process depends on the numbers who are motivated to represent women's issues and concerns. Although the presence of one woman may influence the political agenda, significant change is more likely to result from greater numbers of women motivated to represent women's concerns. The need for a significant minority to affect political change has been referred to as the 'critical mass' consisting of at least 30% or 40%. Inclusive and effective participation is, therefore, necessary to address the subordination and marginalisation of women, and to ensure that the needs of women are met in the consolidation of local governance in southern Africa.

Service delivery

Local government has been noted for the number of important ways it affects the lives of ordinary citizens. For example, it ensures people in local communities a voice through elected representatives, and encourages citizen participation in the definition of issues and policy making. Local politics also impacts directly on the lives of women, as it is responsible for the delivery of goods and services. Municipal health services, water provision, electrification, child-care facilities, sanitation, and transport affect all people at the local level, but it is often women and children that feel the daily burden when these services are not provided. The reason for this is that firstly, women are the majority of recipients at the local level, particularly in rural areas, and secondly, that gender roles have made women the primary caretakers for the family, children, and the elderly.

Registration and voting

Latest statistics confirm that more women than men have registered for the local government elections. However, during the IEC's registration weekend held in September 2000, significantly more men than women registered to vote to vote in the forthcoming elections. Men constituted 55.48% of the nearly 90 000 new voters. In 1999, significantly more women than men registered, perplexing many observers anticipating a gender gap in terms of women's participation. It is important for women to vote in local elections to ensure the battle for gender equality continues, particularly at the local level which has a direct bearing on their lives.

It is also important that women are not intimidated in the voting process, and are educated about the secrecy of the ballot. Reports from the 1995 and 1996 elections suggest that a large number of rural women fell prey to threats of violence and intimidation if they voted against the wishes of husbands, elders and employers. Furthermore, women must be encouraged to think carefully about the party they intend to support, and its commitment to gender equality.