On International Women's Day

Rebecca Sibanda writes that a dark cloud hovers over women's rights in South Africa

International Women's Day

8 March 2018

International Women’s Day is a global call to action for the protection of the rights of women all over the world. Annually, various issues which affect women, one of the world’s most vulnerable groups, are highlighted and the achievements in those areas, if any, are celebrated. However, these achievements are celebrated with the qualifier that so much more needs to be done to achieve equal treatment. Furthermore, those who are recognised for bringing women closer to gender equality receive acknowledgment particularly because of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles they have overcome to do so. From seeking gender parity in terms of equal payment, to fighting for freedom from sexual harassment both in and outside the workplace, as well as simple human dignity, the day stands as a reminder of the hard road ahead.

Closer to home, where the statistics regarding the wellbeing of women and girls are often unbelievable, there seems to be a general impassivity concerning the status of women in South Africa. According to the National Shelter Movement of South Africa and the Heinrich Böll Foundation, approximately 84 women died at the hands of an intimate partner in South Africa in February 2018 alone. Statistics South Africa’s Demographic and Health Surveystates that one in five South African women older than 18 has experienced physical violence. Women continue to receive less remuneration than their male counterparts in the workplace and occupy significantly less senior positions than men. It is evident that special attention and more concerted effort should be directed at alleviating women’s issues.

Two weeks ago, after being sworn in, President Ramaphosa reshuffled his Cabinet and a worrisome change was made to the Department of Women in the Presidency. Former Minister of Social Development, Bathabile Dlamini, was appointed as the Minister of Women. Dlamini is currently at the centre of a scandal that threatens the social security of millions of South Africans whose livelihood depends on the timeous and efficient payment of social grants by the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA). This follows the conclusion of a contract with NET1 | Cash Paymaster Services (CPS), which was revealed to be making unreasonable profits from SASSA and giving out loans to beneficiaries at high prices. This week, the Constitutional Court accused the Department of Social Development (DSD) of blackmailing the Court into granting another extension of the already extended CPS contract to allow social grants to be paid. Should the Court refuse, then the 2.8 million dependants who receive their payments in cash, a service that the South African Post Office cannot yet execute, will not receive their grants come 1 April. This situation is the direct result of Dlamini’s conduct at the helm of the DSD, a responsibility she refuses to accept. Her callous attitude regarding the wellbeing of the country’s most vulnerable is deplorable, and even under the strict eye of the highest court in the land, she failed to execute her duties.

Now, the President is the political head of the country and as such, the responsibility to ensure that the rights of all his fellow South Africans are protected, is of paramount importance. To appoint Dlamini, after the mountains of evidence regarding her incompetence in the area of rights realisation for society’s most vulnerable, to the post of Minister of Women in the Presidency, is a slap in the face to the women who should be protected by the Women’s Department. Her appointment is ostensibly meant to appease the governing party’s Women’s League, of which Dlamini is President. In any event, the same Women’s League is found wanting in the promotion of women’s interests. As the political head, it stands to reason that politics will influence appointment choices and it is evident that the party’s influence contributed to Dlamini’s redeployment. However, the Constitution is the supreme law of the land and it must be considered at every step when executing mandates. Political leaders are the gatekeepers to human rights access and where one has proved incapable of effectively working towards ensuring equal enjoyment of the protection of the Bill of Rights, it should follow that that individual is undeserving of any Cabinet post.

It is worth mentioning that Dlamini’s predecessor, Susan Shabangu, was also unimpressive during her tenure.  The average woman in South Africa is unaware of the existence of the Department of Women, and as a result, of the work it seeks to do in affording human rights to them. This is not to diminish any of the good work that the Department does. It serves to emphasise that it is unlikely that with Dlamini at the helm, much will improve. Any hope of enhancing meaningful and effective engagement for the woman on the street, is dimmed by Dlamini’s appointment. Effective leadership is imperative to progress and Dlamini has shown that she is not an effective leader.

Today, as women the world over rally under the umbrellas of campaigns like #MeToo and #TimesUp, which speak to sexual harassment, and the United Nations Women celebrates the rural and urban activists who have transformed the lives of women around the world, a dark cloud hovers over women’s rights in South Africa.

By Rebecca Sibanda: Legal Assistant, Centre for Constitutional Rights, 8 March 2018