UP and Motsepe Foundation host robust debate on achievement of gender equality

Posted on August 26, 2019

The University of Pretoria’s (UP) Future Africa Campus was the scene of a lively debate recently on the topic: South Africa requires a feminist government to advance gender equity and equality across all sectors of society.

The debate was between students and staff of UP and the universities of Cape Town (UCT), Free State(UFS) and the Witwatersrand (Wits). This inaugural Universities in Dialogue series was hosted by Dr Precious Moloi Motsepe, Co-founder and CEO of the Motsepe Foundation, in partnership with Professor Tawana Kupe, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of UP, to commemorate Women’s Month.

The Motsepe Foundation and UP partnered to not only acknowledge and commemorate some of the gains made to date in terms of work done to achieve gender equity in South Africa, but also to engage on what has not been achieved and why there appears to be structural and political bottlenecks. The purpose of this initiative was to elevate the voices of young people, to drive policy and share solutions for the problems facing their generation. 

The dialogue was based on the fact that 25 years after the advent of democracy, gender equality remains elusive. Although the right to equality is protected in the Constitution, women continue to face economic discrimination and violence based on their gender. While women make up 52% of the population and 55% of registered voters, they continue to be underrepresented and underserved across all sectors of society including universities, businesses, civil society and government. 

As an illustration, the proposing team (UP SRC President David Kabwa and UP staff member Mmane Boikanyo) advanced Sweden, which is governed through a feminist approach, making gender equality central to all government decision-making, rights and resource allocation. Kabwa said the intersectionality of feminism needed to be considered in South Africa. “We need to identify how different aspects of social and political discourse overlap with gender.”

While there are policies and legislation in place to achieve gender equality, “only so much can be done”.

He said in a feminist government, “Women and men must have the same power to shape their lives and society. This is a human right.” Furthermore, women and men must have the same conditions in paid work and in the distribution of unpaid work and the same conditions for healthcare. He pointed out that there were even wage disparities between marginalised people, such as gardeners and domestic workers, employed in the same household.

UP debaters with Dr Sithembile Mbete, the moderator of the debate

However, UP political science student and tutor Saphia Essop, who was on the opposition team, argued that government’s gender quotas for members of cabinet was tantamount to “putting a Band-Aid over the wound” of years of gender inequality. “You cannot force feminism on government. It has to come from the grassroots level. Filling quotas to gain legitimacy is anti- feminist.”

When women are given positions of power with no meritocracy it results in them not being certain that they got their positions because they have the qualifications. There will be a perception that they got their positions because of their gender, and they will never be taken seriously, she asserted.

She stressed that gender equity could not be imposed from the top but had to be built at a grassroots level.  “Family dynamics breed a society.”

She was supported by UP staff member Dr Olebogeng Selebi who said the idea of taking a feminist approach and enforcing it at a macro level was not what Sweden did. “Sweden took time to create an equal system from a grassroots level and this evolved into a feminist society.”

She explained that culture evolved over time and South African society had been thrust into a western culture and ideology “that we have not fully wrapped our heads around”.

South Africa had remained a patriarchal society because at some stage it served its purpose, she said. Feminism from a macro-economic level would take time. “Men who are in their 30s, 40s and 50s  can’t be told to value women. This should take place at a grassroots level in the home.”

Representatives of UFS argued that in a feminist state “there must be gender equality and dignity for all, as well as access to opportunities and to justice”. Furthermore, a feminist state would value work that is not paid for, such as childcare. They questioned how gender equity would be achieved if “we don’t deconstruct the state as it exists now”.

Wits representatives focused on questions of  how a feminist state would work, practically. They proposed the inclusion into health policies of the provision of free sanitary products to young women and girls who miss work and school when they are menstruating as they cannot afford these products. “Women and girls are not accessing good quality education because of menstruation.” Good policies exist but fail to exist in a feminist way, they said.

Furthermore, Sweden’s model of a feminist government is linked to a socialist democracy while South Africa is in a deepening position of neo-liberalism, “rampant capitalism and inequalities”, they argued. Social services have been privatised and the restructuring of universities has resulted in the removal of childcare facilities and has disadvantaged women academics and working mothers in the university sector.

Team UCT said the current system perpetuates inequality in the informal labour sector and this includes care work.

They said state support and its response to femicide is problematic and there “has been a failure to provide an environment where gender-based violence is not tolerated”. Survivors of gender-based violence need a supportive system from the state. “The role of men is necessary to challenge patriarchy among their peers”, while a feminist government should be “humane, inclusive, accountable and collaborative” to challenge gender inequality.

Dr Moloi-Motsepe, who is the founder of the dialogue series, said: “The universities in dialogue platform will channel student activism toward action and transformation at all levels, locally and nationally, as well as socially, economically and politically. The universities in dialogue is a space for students to share their most pressing concerns, and collaborate with others for resolutions.” The series will be rolled out to other universities and will include topics on national and global issues, she said.

Prof Kupe said this dialogue was the beginning of much more to come and that “through dialogue you have to listen and be listened to”.

“Dialogue creates knowledge which can change lives and societies,” he said.

- Author Prim Gower

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