Speech by Deputy Minister Ms Ntombazana Botha: Is Democracy Working for Women?

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15 Sep 2008

Gender empowerment and equality is imperative to South Africa ’s democracy. The issue of emancipation, equality and empowerment of women is central to South Africa ’s democracy. Our country comes from a past that oppressed the majority of its people, in particular women. Laws were deliberately put in place to undermine women, for example, up until 19? Women were treated as minors.

Our first President in a democratic South Africa , President Mandela, in his first state of the Nation address of May 1994 said:

“It is vitally important that all structures of Government, including the President himself, should understand this fully that freedom cannot be achieved unless the women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression. All of us must take this on board, that the objectives of the Reconstruction and Development will not have been realised unless we see in visible and practical terms that the conditions of women in our country have radically changed for the better, and that they have been empowered to intervene in all aspects of life as equals with any other member of society”.

This was a commitment by government to create an enabling environment for meaningful participation of women in our democracy and for the protection the rights of women.

What is Democracy?

Democracy can be explained in the same manner as our Constitutions’ founding values which are:

  1. Human dignity, the achievement of equality and enhancement    of human rights and freedoms
  2. Non-racialism and non-sexism
  3. Supremacy of the constitution and the rule of law
  4. Universal adult suffrage, a national common voters roll, regular elections and a multi-party system of democratic government to ensure accountability,responsiveness and openness

History of the Struggle of Women

Like other countries’ struggle for liberation, women mobilised and fought for democratisation of South Africa . Already in 1913, women took up the campaign against the carrying of passes in Bloemfontein . Charlotte Maxeke led the formation of the earliest political organisation of African women, the Bantu Women’s League, which is regarded as the forerunner to the ANC Women’s League.

With the huge influx into the black townships in the 1940s we also saw the intensification of women’s struggle, leading to the revival of the ANC Women’s Section in 1941, which laid the basis for the admission of women as full members in the ANC in 1943. The launch of the ANC Defiance Campaign in 1952 also gave further impetus to women’s struggles, culminating in the formation of the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) and the adoption of the Women’s Charter in 1954. The Women’s Charter may thus be regarded as the forerunner of the now acclaimed Freedom Charter.

One of the major highlights of women’s mobilisation was the historic march of 1956 where over 20, 000 women marched to protest against the imposition of pass laws while also demanding the fundamental rights of justice, equality and freedom.

Helen Joseph, one of the four leaders of the march, when asked to express her feelings about what she saw and experienced on 9 August 1956 had this to say: “I shall never forget what I saw on 9 August 1956 – thousands of women standing in silence for a full thirty minutes, arms raised high in the clenched fist of the Congress salute. Twenty thousand women of all races, from all parts of South Africa , were massed together in the huge stone amphitheatre of the Union Buildings in Pretoria , the administrative seat of the Union government, high on the hill. The brilliant colours of African headscarves, the brightness of Indian saris and the emerald green blouses worn by Congress women merged into an unstructured design, woven together by the very darkness of those thousands of faces”.

Post 1994 Developments

The repeal of apartheid policies and legislation relating to treatment of women as perpetual minors in customary relationships, mixed marriages, reproductive rights, etc.

The adoption of the new Constitution and Bill of Rights in 1996 which provided for action to "promote the achievement of equality", including national legislation to "prevent or prohibit unfair discrimination".  The Constitution also provides for state institutions to strengthen constitutional democracy including:

  1. Commission on Gender Equality
  2. SA Human Rights Commission
  3. The Public Protector
  4. The Independent Electoral Commission

Various pieces of legislation which ensure that the rights of women are protected were passed by Parliament and these include:

  1.             The Promotion of Equality and Prevention of   

                Unfair Discrimination Act No. 4 of 2000

  1.            Domestic Violence Act (1998)
  2.          Employment Equity Act (1998)
  3.         Basic Conditions of Employment Act (1997)
  4.          Maintenance Act (1998)
  5.          Recognition of Customary Marriages Act (1998)  
  6.          Traditional Leadership and Governance

                 Framework Act (2003)

  1. Sexual Offences Act (2007)

Since the 1994 democratic breakthrough women in our country have indeed notched important victories and advances. Women also now occupy key positions and play an important role in the reconstruction and development of our country. These are important gains given the long struggle to try and place women’s emancipation at the centre of our historically patriarchal organizations.

We have had exceptional cases of women who have been appointed to top positions in politics, government, parliament, the judiciary and business. Women representation in the Executive and government of South Africa includes our Deputy President, Ms Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and Ministers and Deputy Ministers. We have:


Deputy Ministers

Director General

Foreign Affairs

Arts and Culture


Public Works

Social Development


Mineral & Energy

Correctional services



Trade and Industry

Provincial & Local            Government


Environmental Affairs  and Tourism

Environmental Affairs  and Tourism


Safety and Security



Foreign Affairs



Provincial and Local               Government


Home Affairs



Affairs   Water Affairs & Forestry



The Ministers of Agriculture and Land Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Public Works, Minerals and Energy, Health, Communications are women, thus the common criticism that women are placed in 'soft' portfolios cannot be said to apply in South Africa .

32% of members of parliament are women - the Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly as well as the Deputy Chairperson of the National Council of Provinces are women.

A number of South African missions are led by women Ambassadors and High Commissioners.

The Chairperson of the ruling party is a woman as well as the leaders of two main opposition parties are women.

Prior to 1994 only one woman had served as a judge. Today we have a number of women judges including three serving as judges of the Constitutional Court , the highest court in the country. One of these women judges, Judge Navanethem Pillay, has recently been appointed as the United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights.

However, women cannot attain total emancipation “from all forms of oppression” (as former Pres Mandela said) unless women liberate themselves from the inner shackles of fear, a sense of inferiority, guilt, doubt and all other mindsets and self-undermining that inhibits their total development and emancipation.

Women have to be encouraged and supported, so that they truly believe that they are free to take the leadership role and become the person they want to be in society, live their lives to the fullest the way they want and strive for the goals that they have set for themselves as individuals.

All women, including those that regard themselves as just ordinary women need to free themselves from their shackles, step forward and participate fully in their social, cultural, economic and political development.

In fact, there can be no nation-building, no social cohesion, no democracy, no positive values until women attain total freedom to be themselves.

If we want to eradicate poverty, define our identity as a society, have democracy and transcend the barriers that keep us apart, women must not only assume positions of leadership and decision-making but be given opportunities to participate meaningfully in shaping the identity and determining the future of South Africa.

The South African National Women’s Day is about granting women the freedom that they have fought so hard for. It is up to all of us to give it meaning, to give it context and the relevance it deserves.

In South Africa we have been fortunate to have Presidents who have not only spoken about women emancipation and empowerment, but have done something about it.

During this year’s Women’s Month Celebrations, government departments adopted the “8 point principle plan for promoting women’s empowerment and gender equality within the public service workplace”.

  1. Transformation for non-sexism
  2. Establishing a policy environment
  3. Meeting equity targets
  4. Creating an enabling environment
  5. Gender mainstreaming
  6. empowerment
  7. providing adequate resources
  8. accountability, monitoring and evaluation

“This empowerment must mean that the ordinary women in the rural areas should be freed from the daily arduous and backbreaking tasks. This emancipation must mean that we make the necessary progress to arm women with education, with skills and information so that they can participate meaningfully in the economic and social development opportunities that are available in our country” (President Mbeki 2005)