Critical conversations on the state of democracy in South Africa, 20 years since 1994, have already begun, reflecting on the extent and nature of the progress made, and on the shortcomings expressed in persistent inequality and poverty. As a project committed to equity for women, Agenda Feminist Media (AFM), in cooperation with the Human Science Research Council (HSRC), contributed to the national critique through convening a feminist dialogue for a broad and diverse set of stakeholders to specifically cast a feminist eye on critical instances of gender inequality, discrimination and exclusion impacting on ordinary women in South Africa.  This took place via  video conferencing venues in Durban, Pretoria and Cape Town.

The purpose of this Feminist Dialogue paralleled the broad objective of the Commission for Gender Equality’s (CGE) planned national summit on the status of gender equality in South Africa, on the occasion of 20 years of democracy. Agenda Feminist Media and the HSRC, committed to supporting and participating in this Summit, undertook a strong message encapsulating the issues and recommendations flowing from this Feminist Dialogue to the CGE Summit deliberations.

The following four critical issues were identified for deliberation at the feminist dialogue, led by inputs from specialists within these sectors:

  • Gender based violence
  • Sexual identity and orientation
  • Women’s poverty and access to land and resources
  • Women’s access to health rights and services


Speakers framed the key gender equality issues for consideration, provided a critical review of frameworks and responses to these issues, and put forward a proposed set of interventions required to address these. The outcomes of the plenary discussion around these issues formed the basis for the development of the key messages conveyed at the CGE’s summit in April 2014. (see key points posted:



Keynote address presented by Prof Amanda Gouws, University of Stellenbosch/Commission for Gender Equality

The core issue addressed by Prof Gouws is the need to re politicise the gender equality project. Even though the pressing problems that South Africa is facing are gendered – high levels of gender based violence, high levels of protest around service delivery, unemployment  and problems with the health care and educational systems – present policy is not providing adequate solutions, especially not for women. Why is this so? In attempting to answer this question, Prof. Gouws mentioned the following:-

  1. The gains that have been made for women in South Africa are largely due to procedural democracy. Through democratic procedures, South Africa now has an array of laws that are supposed to change the lives of women. Furthermore, we have equal opportunities for anyone who can compete equally and we have managed through a persistent process of law reform to change de jure discrimination. We should not underestimate the importance of the ability of women to claim rights as individuals resulting from these processes because it gives us legal status to support our claims. These gains from procedural democracy have, however, not translated into substantive changes in the everyday realities of the majority of South African women.
  2. South Africa is a part of the global economy and could not escape neo-liberal capitalism and its impact on the growing gap between the rich and the poor. Procedural democracy alone cannot address the structural conditions underpinning social and gender injustice.
  3. Fast-tracking the political representation of women via the quota system has resulted in an increase in women’s share of political leadership. Yet parity in presence in decision making structures has not proved to be sufficient to ensure that policy impacts positively and visibly on women’s lives.
  4. The new political dispensation has not brought about a noticeable shift in the way that South Africa’s political and civil service institutions operate. Their path dependency and stickiness as institutions has meant that they are locked into a particular set of institutional arrangements, and there is an inability for new arrangements to take hold. The gendered rules have thus remained unchanged, and the male-dominated culture remains intact. Thus women entering these institutions find themselves in a restricted space, compounded by party discipline and loyalty to male colleagues, thus making it difficult to put women’s issues centre stage on political agendas.
  5. The march through the institutions has depoliticised the gender equity project in further ways. Policy problems tend to be couched in neutral language that hides the complexities of social power relations. How one identifies a policy problem will impact on the substantive content of that policy and how  implementation is effected. The National Development Plan (NDP), for example, mentions gender equality in the introduction, but does not apply a gender lens when developing policy solutions. Unless a problem is presented from a gender perspective and the material consequences of solutions spelt out, we end up with gender blind solutions – a one size fits all solution.  Policy makers can only start to think about policy issues through using gender disaggregated data, something that is rarely requested or used in the making of policy.Thus, the NDP paves the way for South Africa’s development for the next 15 years, yet neglects 52% of its population.
  6. Putting money toward policy implementation is important to ensure that policies are indeed implemented. As long as gender budgeting by different state departments is not done, or costs are considered in silos by different departments, we will not come to grips with the magnitude of the gendered nature of problems. For example, a recent costing exercise conducted to show what the state spends on gender based violence and how money can be saved by working in a different way illustrates this gap in policy making and women’s precarious relationship with the state.

In a paper released by Parliament on the costs to the victim, the South African Police Services, the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, the Department of Health, the Department of Social Development, the Department of Correctional Services and civil society is shown.  The cost for the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development was R106 855 23, for SAPS R40 604 988, for victim support at one hospital in the Western Cape it was R 2 554 071.  The cost of a single protection order in 2013 was R340.  The problem that the paper identifies is that there is no costing across departments and that there are a lot of hidden costs.  Unless we develop a holistic costing model we will not come to grips with how money should be spent on gender based violence and where money should be allocated to decrease the problem.

  1. While women’s equality was the driving force of activism before 1994, a discursive shift from women to gender has contributed to the de-politicisation of the feminist project.  This has further been exacerbated by the introduction of the language of “vulnerable groups”, a concept which challenges the agency of women and lump us together with children as victims.

The above analysis has demonstrated how the political agenda of gender equity has become derailed during the last 20 years. The question is how to get feminism back on track as a social movement with a transformative agenda of structural change that will bring about gender and social justice. Prof Gouws argued that activism must take centre stage.  Activism is alive and well in civil society, a major feat after 20 years of democracy when institutionalisation saps the energy out of activism.  We saw the power of activism in the Alliance for Rural Democracy and the defeat of the Traditional Courts Bill as well as in the Shukumisa Campaign, acting as a way of keeping activism around gender based violence alive. Joint action will require civil society activists to work together with femocrats (feminists working in state structures), as well as bringing younger feminists on board. Joint action would also require developing understandings of the intersectional identities of women and of how to disconnect the binary that has developed between human rights and cultural practice.

Formal democratic procedures cannot deliver gender justice if they are not combined with notions of substantive equality that embody socio-economic rights which  will deliver solutions to poverty, unemployment and marginalisation.  As long as women’s bodies stand on the receiving end of violence, corrective rape, lack of health care, harmful cultural practices and the brutality of poverty we need a different type of feminist activism – a feminism that puts the body as central in its concerns and combines it with an overt activism or feminist praxis.



Presented by Sethembiso Mthembu, Her Rights Initiative (South Africa)

Mthembu’s core critique regarding women’s health care in South Africa was that in the national development discourse, women’s health issues place focus on the health of women as mothers, and not on women’s holistic health. This emphasis has been reinforced by the primary health care approach adopted in South Africa although, as a middle income country, preventative and curative treatment could be achieved. When viewed holistically, the following constitute the central women’s health challenges in South Africa:

  1. Women living with HIV. Forced and coerced sterilisation is still practised in South Africa, a form of medicalised violence against women. This discriminatory practice originated during apartheid where it was argued that some groups of women should not bear children. This has not been addressed as a gender issue, and so the practice continues amongst women who are living with HIV and other marginalised women, for eg, women living with disabilities. HIV positive women constitute 40% of maternal mortalities. The prevention of mother to child transmission programme might be successful in saving babies but is it doing anything about saving the mothers?
  2. There is an epidemic of cervical cancer, possibly causing more deaths amongst women than women dying while giving birth. Cervical cancer is a disease of poorer woman, black rural women are particularly vulnerable.
  3. Diabetes is a growing problem amongst women.
  4. There are limited services for breast cancer at the public health level.
  5. Contraception issues have not been fully addressed. Although it has been proved that taking Depo-Provera increases a woman’s vulnerability to HIV infection, this contraceptive is still being distributed to poorer women.
  6. Infertility is not adequately addressed by the public health system.
  7. The same applies to mental health.
  8. In addition, because the overall public health care system is not functioning optimally, women are relied on to act as the carers for the sick – young and old – at home.

None of the above health challenges can be tackled without a comprehensive women’s health policy. South Africa does not have such a policy, which belies its commitment to gender equality. Recent discussions with the Department of Health have surfaced a number of issues such as:

  1. The unit responsible for women, child and maternal mortality in the Department of Health is small and under resourced
  2. Division of labour and power on the local, regional and national levels in terms of health care responsibilities can impact on health care delivery as not all provinces have access to the same resources, and local decision-taking can also affect the diversion of resources meant for health into other programmes.
  3. The duality of the public and private health systems treats health differently – as a right and as a commodity.  In so far as state officials and civil servants are on private health insurance schemes, the state is actually subsidising the private sector.
  4. It is not possible to address comprehensive women’s health issues as there is no policy, and without a policy there are no resources forthcoming from Treasury.
  5. Whereas the children’s sector has regular meetings with the Department of Health, the women’s sector has a piecemeal approach to women’s health advocacy.

The way forward, Mthembu argued, is evidence-based advocacy for a comprehensive women’s health policy from puberty to death. Women are rights bearers in their own right and health rights must be guaranteed for all women. With a policy in place that has stipulated targets and that can source finance from Treasury, women can hold the Department of Health accountable for delivery and access to health services. At the moment, Her Rights Initiative is looking at health care systems in Brazil and Mexico as case studies to inform their policy suggestions. Women throughout South Africa will be mobilised to support the advocacy drive for comprehensive health care for women, calling for a balance of prevention and curative treatment.



Presented by Lisa Vetten, Wits institute for Social and Economic Research (WiSER)

The presentation focused on the shifts that have taken place during the 20 years of democracy as regards women’s rights and domestic violence – within government discourse, government policy and within civil society. Focus was placed on the Domestic Violence Act as a good example of focussed feminist activism post 1994, resulting in a piece of legislation that has been acknowledged internationally as being very progressive. Vetten argued that progress in reducing domestic violence has stagnated, and that the shifts in discourse have put women back into the position that they were in during the 1980s and early 1990s. She illustrated her points with the analysis of a number of policy documents, and by referring to discussions conducted with the Department of Social Development, acknowledging that departments and people within departments are different. This notwithstanding, a trend does emerge.

Prior to 1989 the approach of the state towards domestic violence was hands off – the state kept out of family affairs. A shift started to take place in 1993 with the passing of the Prevention of Family Violence Act which acknowledged that domestic violence took place, and provided women with legal protection with the proviso that families were not disrupted. The language for legal intervention changed substantially by the time the Domestic Violence Act was passed in 1998. Within the context of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights (1996), the rights-based approach spelt out that it is a women’s right be free from violence; that violence impacts negatively on women’s ability to participate fully in the public and social sphere; and that it is the state’s duty to protect women through legal interventions.

From these progressive beginnings, there has been a significant shift, and language is now being used that contains and indeed erodes the gains that women made as rights-bearers. This shift has taken place as follows:

  1. Reframing the discourse in terms of women’s vulnerability, as victims of domestic violence who one must keep from harm, and nurture. This attitude of benevolent sexism stresses women’s specialness and thus, being special which means different, they cannot be equal to men.
  2. Treating  women with charitable benevolence – they are the “poorest of the poor”, marginalised, uneducated and so on
  3. Reframing violence against women to gender based violence. Women and men can equally be on the receiving end of domestic violence (gender equality) thus preference should not be given to women; – even shelters should take in abused men so as not to act in a discriminatory way. Here equality is seen as sameness and not  in terms of the power relation dynamics between women and men.
  4. Reinventing domestic violence in terms of social crime prevention without defining how this is to be understood. Does this mean that domestic violence is a different type of crime? What type?
  5. Promoting the family, moral regeneration and tradition. Both the social crime prevention strategy and the White Paper on Families promote these concepts and call on traditional and religious leaders to be custodians of the family and of moral regeneration. Family preservation is placed centre stage, with the safety of women having vanished from the overall picture.
  6. Locating the reasons for domestic violence in pathologies, alcohol abuse, and dysfunctional communities. The problem becomes psychologised and moves away from critically looking at power in social relations. Furthermore, programmes are put in place (also by civil society) to address men’s emotional incapacities through dialogue, shifting the focus of social change to the individual level: – one just needs to get the men talking and things will change, seems to be the idea.

These shifts have brought us full circle to putting the family centre stage once again.  Women have become derivatives of the family, rather than individuals in their own right.

In addition to the above shifts, bureaucratic disruption in the state has also led to the stagnation of progress regarding domestic violence in South Africa.  The state is a disconnected and fragmented terrain, often with conflicting and competing interests. Moving away from the cooperative stance taken by the state at the beginning of the new dispensation, the state now “manages, leads, coordinates”, thus limiting contestation and democratic pluralism. Problems occur at the political and administrative interface, with politicians wanting to do the work of the bureaucrats. The instability of administrative leadership, skills deficits and low staff morale all lead to a lack of long term sustained focus on policy solutions.

Lastly, feminist civil society has also played a role in the plateau reached around domestic violence in our country. Feminist activism has moved from its centre stage role in the 1990s, to the political margins. The tendency has been to work along the lines of pragmatic tinkering with the system rather than holistically, seek consensus thus resulting in the lowest common level of agreement rather than strong principled arguments; it has lost its activism due to the development of not for profit organisations whose interests in organisational sustainability reduce the political risks that they are willing to take. Feminism as a social movement needs to be remobilised in order to bring the issue of structural change necessary for gender equity back onto the present political agenda.



Presented by Susan Nkomo, independent consultant and founder of the South African Observatory of Women’s Rights

Reflecting on the nature of the relationship between academic women/scholars and communities of women – women that are spoken of and spoken about but are not necessarily spoken with – Nkomo began her presentation by quoting a number of feminist writers. Women’s thoughts and words are key ingredients to transformative thinking and furthering social justice; the challenge is not to remain silent and deferential to men as the knowers in society; it is important to uncover African knowledges, especially women’s knowledges, and the centrality of rural women in the struggle against patriarchy which is not yet over. The question that arises from these quotations is when and how do communities of women enter the discourse around development? Pre-1994 there was a much more dynamic and engaging relationship with communities that created an energy and enthusiasm around the issue of women’s empowerment and worth. What went wrong – where did the silencing start? The women’s movement has abdicated the feminist project to the state. Women’s equality became the language of the state. During this process rural women started to lose their currency. The poor rural woman, child on her back, water carried on her head was ousted to the margins, while the new poster women of the liberation struggle became the women who entered political positions and who showed the rest of the world how progressive South Africa had become.

And yet, said Nkomo we must not lose sight of the rural women and the issue of access to land and other resources. To this purpose, Nkomo invited Maria into the room and told her story. Prior to the Land Act of 1913, Maria, a widow, and her children earned a respectful living sharecropping on a piece of land belonging to a white farmer. With the passing of the Land Act, their status was changed from rent tenants to labour tenants. When Maria was not prepared to relinquish her children to the farmer as labourers, the farmer evicted her, and she left the farm with her children and her cattle. The farmer’s last words to her were that she had better find a new husband soon as no other farmer would take them without her having a husband. We have no idea of what happened to Maria and her children – they disappeared out of the annals of history. (For full details, see Looking for Maria, her sisters, daughters and sons, International Journal of African Renaissance Studies, vol. 7(2), pp 96-107)

The story of Maria is a continuum, Nkomo argued. During the journey from 1913 to 2014, there has been little acknowledgement of the extent of the loss that the Land Act brought with it for African women. The focus has been on how the African man became a pariah in his own land, and how one can address this injustice done to African men. What about the women? The story of gender was erased from the narrative of what happened during the land dispossession of 1913. Programmes of land redistribution and land restitution do not address the core issues in relation to the impact of the Land Act which is at the core of the pervasive inequalities that are still prevalent in South Africa today, along the lines of gender and race. From earning their keep from farming, the majority of South Africans became landless. This led to the erosion of a communal way of life and a destruction of social values; to broken families; migration impacted on the relations between men and women; women carried the entire responsibility for looking after rural land and caring for the young, the old, the sick; and there was (and still is) widespread hunger and food insecurity.

Nkomo argued strongly that these issues needed to be addressed.  She noted that alternative forms of community arrangements around sharecropping are being practised by women in the Eastern Cape and Limpopo. These ideas should be shared. We need a new discussion around bringing the voices of rural women into the room, and to make them part of the discourse about change.



Presented by Nonhlanhla Mkize, Durban Lesbian and Gay Community Centre

The presentation looked back on the 20 years of democracy in South Africa – both in celebration and in critical reflection. While we celebrate 20 years of human rights and freedom, our critical reflection should focus on the extent to which we have gained freedom from our own prejudices, stigmas, stereotyping and discriminatory practices – whether these are conscious or unconscious, said Mkhize. From the perspective of individuals labelled sexual minorities, there is reason to celebrate, but there are also a number of shortcomings as well.

The background to the celebratory tone is provided by the Constitution of our country which takes a clear stand that there should be no discrimination against any person in terms of race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation. Sexual identity/orientation is integrated into every person’s dignity and humanity, and must not be the basis for discrimination and/or abuse. Looking at the current realities, Mhize identified the following shortcomings.

  1. Advocacy discourse is framed around using the human rights-based approach. This is a clear outcome of the fact that the language of human rights is enshrined in our legal framework. When one takes the human rights agenda to communities in South Africa, however, the reality on the ground is that people do not fully understand what a human right is all about. There is a tendency to view human rights as an instrument or tool of government to make people live together, although they might not necessarily like each other. There is limited understanding of human rights as a lived reality in everyday life.  This is evidenced in the sort of comments that appear in the social media about what has been happening to gay rights in Uganda, for example. Here it is clear that people do not grasp the notion that a person’s definition of their sexuality is a right by definition of being human. Talking about human rights is not viewed as being African, but is seen as something alien. Where are these human rights in the Bible, the Koran, tradition, people will ask. There is thus a need to have different conversations with communities about the notion of humanity.
  2. In academic spaces as well as the way in which laws and policies are drafted in South Africa, the meaning that has been attached to sexual identities has become quite problematic. How we define human beings and slot them into boxes with predetermined sets of behaviours and attitudes can be counterproductive. When academics or researchers have written about a specific community, they should re-engage with the communities and explain the theory and outcomes that they have written about.  The question regarding whether what has been written is close to the actual definition and experiences of communities is important, otherwise these groups are defined in ways that make sense to the researchers and not to them. Researchers should also reflect on how their definition of sexual identities might impact on these communities on a long term basis. The plethora of sexual identity definitions can confuse people, especially in our multi-lingual society, and make life more complicated for the persons concerned. An example of this is community in KwaZulu Natal where two young lesbians were accused of witchcraft due to confusion over what the term lesbian means. When this was explained, the community had no problem with the two women loving each other. A two way conversation between researchers/ academics and the communities that they are writing about is imperative. This has been discussed before, yet the message is seemingly not getting through. Thus it must be mentioned again.
  3. Ongoing conversations are likewise necessary between policy makers, researchers and civil society organisations working in the field. We all need to continually educate ourselves around our understanding of how people define their sexual identities. More awareness needs to be raised and carried into spaces where people meet eg, churches in order to make it possible for persons to feel comfortable and participate in accordance with their sexual identities. Community dialogues should continue to be leveraged as spaces where people can speak freely and openly with each other and learn to understand each other better.

In comparison to developments in other African countries ,at the moment  the South African environment is generally one in which there is tolerance of varying sexual identities and orientations. At this stage one cannot say whether this will remain so. Violence against so called sexual minorities does take place. A concerted effort to develop a deeper understanding of the wide diversity of human identities will facilitate further tolerance.



The discussions during the plenary sessions can be summarised under the following themes:

  1. The binary between human rights and culture/tradition. Different opinions were expressed as regards this issue. One position taken was that systems of patriarchy and feudalism do not have any place for human rights, and hence feminism cannot collude with patriarchy. Others argued that ways should be sought to depolarise the traditional culture versus human rights debate, by exploring commonalities between human rights and the philosophical/spiritual underpinnings to traditional cultural beliefs and practices, for example. Furthermore, we should be mindful of the language that we use in order to minimise misunderstanding, and we need to work on improving the present disconnect between academics/researchers and the groups of people/communities that we write about.  We need to re-strategise how we enter communities. Another participant pointed out that customary law is practised differently by traditional leaders: some view it as a living process, while others see it as static and not adaptable to changing social conditions.


  1. There is a process taking place in the dominant political culture (and thus reflected in policy formation) that is shifting away from the initial thrust of protecting and promoting human rights towards a more conservative and traditionalist worldview. This is reflected in language usage and in policy focus:  from respecting a woman’s individual right, to placing value on family preservation, for example. Voices from the floor argued that in order to counter this re traditionalisation process, feminist civil society will need to move from the margins back to centre stage. This will require a concerted effort from women from all sectors to work together with an integrated agenda. The participation of rural women in the discourse around development is essential. Activism must come from the women who live under traditional law to be effective.  The success of cooperative strategies will depend on a commitment to understanding the diversity of human identity amongst us.


  1. Re-politicisation of the gender equality project. Given that democracy in itself does not lead to equality, the remobilisation of feminism as a social movement is necessary to shift social relations between women and men in order to effect gender and social justice. Voices from the floor argued that there has not been a coherent women’s movement over the last 20 years, and in order to reactivate it, a clear vision and mission for the next 20 years needs to be formulated. A common goal needs to be defined that will bind women together in activism. Furthermore, rhetoric will need to be replaced by clear evidence based/legal arguments to speak truth to power.  Partnerships and networks will need to be built between femocrats, activists and the new generation of feminists. What is needed is a concerted effort to advocate consistently for a gender perspective to be adopted in all policy formation processes. The celebration around 20 years democracy in 2014 is excellent timing for framing a new dispensation and charting the way forward.


  1. Part of this new way forward should include leveraging the court room as a site for critical gender discourse by interrogating juristic decisions, and launching class actions.


  1. Campaigning for a comprehensive women’s health policy in South Africa that treats and cares for women’s bodies holistically – not only paying attention to us when we are mothers. When such a policy is in place, with targets and resources, then women can hold the Department of Health accountable.


A set of questions came from the floor regarding the role of reformist men in the way forward. The Department of Cooperative Government and Traditional Affairs asked for input from a feminist perspective on:

  • the new policy framework that is being developed for local government
  • the national integrated urban development framework
  • the community works programmes as an anti poverty measure.

Some participants expressed ambivalence about the phrase “struggle for gender equality”, arguing that the mainstreaming of gender both within the state and women’s organisations has led to the dilution of the feminist movement, and has robbed it of its influential “edge”.





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