Following the end of Apartheid, the South African political landscape has evolved significantly towards becoming more inclusive. However, while progress has been made in the form of constitutional guarantees, legal frameworks, and the current ministerial cabinet comprising 50% women, the country continues to grapple with barriers (e.g., exclusion of women’s voices and cultural norms) which hinder the participation of women in politics and the electoral system. These barriers demand urgent attention, as women’s engagement in politics is imperative for building a more inclusive and representative democracy.
The impact of the women voter
As per Gender Links (2019), in contrast to their male counterparts, women participate in politics in larger numbers – with 55% of women and only 45% of men registering to vote in the 2019 national election. Moreover, a gender gap is present with regards to how voting decisions are made, whereby women vote less on party lines and loyalty, rather women consider policies, rhetoric and leadership. Here, women voters often prioritise concerns which reflect the broader needs of society (e.g., health, education and social welfare). In line with this finding, a 2022 study by Amanda Gouws shows that the women’s electorate can sway an election. Despite this, political parties do not attempt to draw in women voters. In doing so, political parties who overlook women and their concerns, are neglecting a key demographic and thus excluding their voices.
Parties stand to benefit largely by tapping into the insights of women voters, as their perspectives have the potential to transform society and drive change. Political parties must thus harness the potential of the woman voter by taking deliberate steps towards encouraging their engagement. This involves not only advocating for policies that resonate with women but also promoting gender-sensitive campaign strategies, addressing issues of gender-based violence, and investing in women’s political education are crucial steps towards creating an inclusive political environment. Recognising the power of women voters not only strengthens democracy but also cultivates a more engaged and participatory electorate.
In 2017, Statistics South Africa recorded that 51% of the South African population are women. However, this statistic is not a true representation of women in influential public sector positions, with only 44% of skilled positions being occupied by women. Evidently, across the spectrum, women remain underrepresented in leadership positions, policy-making bodies, and electoral lists. This disparity not only contradicts the principles of gender equality but also undermines the true essence of representative governance. To drive change, we must recognise that women’s participation in politics and their presence in decision-making positions is not a mere attempt at affirmative action or to reach a quota, instead, women’s engagement in politics is about creating a diverse and inclusive space for decision-making.
It is thus vital that political parties and government commit to increasing women’s representation within their ranks, not as a token gesture, but as a genuine commitment towards equality. When women are underrepresented, their unique experiences and concerns are often overlooked or addressed on a superficial level. By electing more qualified and experienced women into office, we not only address this representative imbalance but also allows for the improvement in the quality of decision-making, whereby policies are well-rounded and represent the complexities of different levels of society. Targeted efforts such as mentoring programs, promoting women as viable political candidates and training workshops, are powerful steps that can be undertaken towards achieving this goal and ensuring that women have the expertise, resources and chance to compete for positions of power. These strategies must also be complemented by fostering safe political spaces, whereby women can share their views without concern for discrimination or violence.
Igniting change through civic education
It is important to recognise that even with the recent progress made towards achieving a more inclusive society, South Africa continues to grapple with certain cultural norms which hinder women’s full and efficient participation in politics. While it is acknowledged that cultural norms promote multiple positive outcomes, such as unity and heritage, it is imperative that we also recognise that culture can perpetuate and reinforce unquestioned gender stereotypes, that undermine any effort to achieve inclusive governance on gender lines.
Across numerous South African cultures, women have historically been relegated to domestic roles, that emphasised the importance of women being submissive and their primary responsibilities lying within the home. Thus, limiting their access to political and decision-making spaces and perpetuating the belief that politics is a male domain. These norms are still present in today’s society. Consequently, entrenching the belief amongst both men and women, that women are incapable of being good political leaders or in decision-making positions.
To create an environment that encourages women to embrace their political agency and for women to be viewed as viable political candidates, civic education is required. Civic education is pivotal in establishing an informed electorate who understands the democratic process and the roles and duties they play on an individual level. By promoting civic education which emphasises their rights and responsibilities, we equip women with the knowledge and confidence to engage in politics and dispel the misconceptions and negative stereotypes: that deter women from participating in politics and (2) discourage men/women from seeing women as viable candidates merely based off their gender.
It is imperative, that educational institutions integrate civic education into their curricula, to foster critical thinking, reasoning and political awareness. Civil society and political parties also have to organise workshops, seminars, and campaigns to raise awareness about the importance of women’s involvement in politics and the avenues available for their participation.
While South Africa’s strides towards gender equality are inspiring, the battle is ongoing. Empowering women’s engagement in politics is not just a matter of justice; it’s also a strategic necessity for nurturing an all-encompassing and thriving nation. By dismantling obstacles, advocating for women’s leadership, prioritising civic education, and cultivating secure political environments, South Africa has the potential to forge a political landscape that genuinely mirrors its population’s diversity and resilience.
Tyesha Pillay is a Communications Strategist at the DDP and writes in her own capacity.