ON WEDNESDAY, the Cabinet announced that it had approved, for public comment, the Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Draft Bill.
While the draft hasn’t been made public yet, it is thought to include legal mechanisms to enforce gender parity at all levels of companies in the private sector.
At the same time, Justice and Constitutional Development Minister Jeff Radebe has still not withdrawn the Traditional Courts Bill, which has been slammed by gender activists for enforcing patriarchy. Meanwhile, President Jacob Zuma has now had to respond to the criticism for suggesting, on a television programme, that “women should not be single” and that they should bear children.
It appears gender is beginning to enter the political mainstream in a way in which it has not been present for some time. And Mr Zuma could find himself on the wrong side of the argument.
When Lulu Xingwana was appointed as minister for women, children and people with disabilities, it appeared to be an indication that her role would not be an important one. And yet her critics are likely to claim that this bill would result in perhaps the biggest attempt at social engineering in South Africa since Hendrik Verwoerd. Almost nothing dictates more how one is treated in society than gender, and any attempt to redress this, while obviously correct, needs to be done with care.
Ms Xingwana will have strong support in the African National Congress (ANC) for her efforts. At the party’s policy conference, its commission on gender said it wanted this bill to be fast-tracked. It also wanted a push that would see a move away from women, while being represented in the top levels of organisations, occupying the less powerful jobs (particularly within the ANC itself, men occupy arguably the three most important jobs in the party).
However, the commission’s chair, Patricia Cheu, also strongly attacked the practice of polygamy, saying: "Culture is not stagnant. Polygamy oppresses women. If you are a woman activist, you cannot agree with polygamy.”
Considering that Mr Zuma’s lifestyle is usually considered out of bounds for public discussion within the party, it was a strong comment.
The ANC’s possibly schizophrenic approach to gender appears to permeate the legislative environment. The Traditional Courts Bill (which allows traditional leaders to make rulings about women under their “jurisdiction” against which the women cannot appeal) appears to consolidate practices labelled as patriarchal; the Gender Equality Bill attempts to do exactly the opposite, to almost demolish the current, allegedly, sexist corporate climate.
It appears part of this schizophrenia could be a result of the man elected as ANC leader. While Mr Zuma talks the political talk on gender (creating the women’s ministry in the first place), at times he talks more like a patriarchal traditional leader. To suggest, as he appeared to do in Dali Tambo’s People of the South programme, that “women should not be single” appears to claim a woman is nothing without a man. From a person who was once married to Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, it’s a suggestion difficult to understand, let alone justify.
He also has a habit of referring to women (including journalists) in public as “my dear”, a comment that appears to demean and disempower a person who is trying to make a political point.
It is this depiction of Mr Zuma that could be of use to his political enemies. Already the Democratic Alliance and other groups are accusing him of rampant sexism, of being out of touch with reality and of holding back gender progress. While in the past the defence that “its a private matter” might have been used by ANC officials, as the political battle ahead of Mangaung intensifies this could be a useful stick with which to beat him. He could be accused of being old-fashioned, which would strengthen the case for those pushing for more youthful leadership.
But the other explanation for this apparent schizophrenia could be pure ANC politics. It’s easy for anyone in the party to demand big changes in business, which doesn’t have many ANC members who will speak up for it. But taking on traditional leaders could be another matter entirely.
• Grootes is an Eyewitness News reporter.