Democracy Must Include Everyone

by Shelley Anderson

Women in South Africa are continuing their efforts to build a non-racist, non-sexist society. In the Netherlands recently Ms. Frene Ginwala, Speaker of the House in the South African parliament, spoke on the work to increase women's role in political participation and decision making. Ginwala said that South Africa's 1994 democratic election was an example of "a fundamental re-examination of all institutions--including the concept of what equality for women means and what institutional changes are necessary to achieve this. In other countries after liberation, women have been marginalized at crucial moments of decision making. We were determined this would not happen to us. We want a people-shaped South Africa, not a man-shaped South Africa."

Accused of trying to impose middle class, foreign ideas on South African women, women leaders demonstrated grassroots support by forming the Women's National Coalition, whose purpose was to ensure that women were part of the transition to democracy. "The Coalition was the most representative body in terms of religion, age, and community in the whole country. Ninety national organizations and between 6,000 to 7,000 regional organizations belonged, for a total of two million women," Ginwala said. "We kept to one issue, despite a flood of requests: what do women want in the new constitution? We spent a year listening to women, at clinics, shopping centers, from villages to board rooms. We asked two questions: What does being a woman in South Africa mean to you? How do you want life to change? Our work was described as the world's largest participatory project. The findings were collated into a women's self-defined agenda for change."

Women had to be part of the negotiations for the new constitution--especially in negotiations with traditional leaders, as customary law often discriminates against women. "Political leaders laughed at the demand that women be involved in negotiations. They said women's issues are not political," Ginwala said. Women demonstrated, and the African National Congress (ANC) decided that every party to the negotiations could have two negotiators--as long as one of the negotiators was a woman. "The linkages formed through the Women's National Coalition proved invaluable during negotiations," Ginwala said. Women crossed party lines to keep each other informed of compromises, and played parties off against each other in order to win concessions. Eventually, women were chairing negotiating sessions.

"The ANC set a quota for the national election, requiring one out of every three candidates to be a woman. Other parties refused quotas, but almost every party put forward more women than ever before. Now 25 per cent of the Parliament is women," Ginwala said.

But, she continued, while there have been some improvements in women's legal status, a non-sexist South Africa is still a dream.

"The issue is not discrimination. Discrimination implies that the institutions are okay and that the problem is only that some people are excluded. The assumption is that when people are let in, they will function. Yet the doors were opened in South Africa and women didn't come in. We realized that the system into which we demand entry is itself skewered. It was designed by men for men, and reflects patriarchal assumptions and their experiences of society. The solution is not simply for a few women to gain entry, but to change our institutions," Ginwala said.

"There was an assumption that workers don't get pregnant, so there was no maternity leave. There was an assumption that everyone had the full freedom to work overtime with no notice," Ginwala said, which placed an additional burden on women caring for their families. Women began to change Parliament, setting up a child care center for everyone who worked there, from janitors to parliamentarians. Sessions now end by 6:30 pm, with Parliament's recess coinciding with school recess. Sexual harassment is a punishable offense and gender sensitivity workshops are held with younger members and staff. Parliament must publish an annual report on what it has done for the women of South Africa, and an alternative gross national product which includes the unpaid labor of women, children and subsistence farmers.

These new gains are still fragile, and could be lost. "The women's movement that started this process hasn't continued--our leaders have taken advantage of the new opportunities and moved on. We need to mainstream what is seen as women's experiences into broad public policy. We must make as much mileage as possible in the next couple of years on this. We need a broad mass base to push for the issues, and to build up structures and legislation. Right now, for example, we are debating on whether or not there should be a separate Commission for Gender Equality, or if the monitoring of women's position can be left to the Human Rights Commission. The danger is if this work is left to the Human Rights Commission, women might be ignored," Ginwala said. She is hoping that the momentum generated by the 1995 UN Women's Conference in Beijing will continue to push and support South African women's struggle for liberation.

This struggle is necessary, Ginwala said, because including women's experiences is essential for true democracy. "Under our new Bill of Rights, everyone can exercise their cultural, traditional, and religious rights. But no one has the right to trample on others, to exercise racism or sexism."