(By Bonolo Makgale and Lydia Chibwe)

The month of August marked women's month in South Africa, it is important to check the progress that the country has made in terms of women’s representation in politics and governance.

Almost two decades into the 21st century, women are still not accorded a place of prominence in politics and governance, particularly in Africa. This article briefly reflects on women’s political representation at the regional level, within the African Union, and then looks critically at South Africa’s implementation of women’s rights, in particular examining whether there have been tangible and sustainable gains for women’s representation during the 2019 national and provincial elections.

Regional level: within the African Union

In recent decades, Africa made noteworthy progress in establishing normative frameworks on human rights, particularly on the rights of women.  Besides the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (African Charter) which is the main tool for human rights in Africa, other regional instruments have systemised commendable provisions on the rights of women.  The most significant of these is the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol)[1], which is the continent’s most progressive legal instrument providing a comprehensive set of human rights for African women.  It details wide-ranging and substantive human rights for women covering the entire spectrum of civil and political, economic, social, cultural and environmental rights[2]. Article 9(1) of the Maputo Protocol provides that state parties must take specific positive action to promote participative governance and the equal participation of women in the political life of their countries through affirmative action, enabling national legislation and other measures to ensure that women participate without any discrimination in all elections.[3] The Maputo Protocol has been strengthened by other instruments such as the African Charter on Democracy, Elections, and Governance (African Democracy Charter)[4]. The continent is therefore quite rich in codified legal provisions on women’s rights.   The enthusiasm and speed with which African countries adopted and ratified these instruments have been mirrored in the implementation of the instruments.

For example, to the same extent, Pan-African Parliament women’s representation was formerly at 20% and is currently at 30%. However, the Protocol to the Treaty Establishing the African Economic Community relating to the Pan-African Parliament Article four (2) notes that each member state shall be represented in the Pan African Parliament with by five members, at least one of whom must be a woman. However, this contradicts the Maputo Protocol article 9(b) which states that women must be represented equally at all levels with men in all electoral processes.

Within the African Union Commission (AUC), women’s representation is currently at 50%. Although its Statutes (article 6) states that at least one commissioner from each region shall be a woman, its usual practice is equal gender representation[5]. Women’s representation in the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (African Commission) is currently at 55%. According to the African Charter, the Assembly considers equitable geographical and gender representation in electing the Commission members. It appears that this injunction is taken seriously. Similarly, women’s representation in the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC) is at 56%.

As much as the African Union has improved remarkably in its women’s representation within the various organs,  the leadership of its constituent states still lacks female state leaders.

National level: South Africa

South Africa is a state party to the African Charter and it ratified the Maputo Protocol on 17 December 2004. In South Africa’s 2015 state report to the African Commission, in discussing Article 9 of the Maputo Protocol, it is noted that the country has made great strides in ensuring women’s involvement in political and decision-making processes. The Electoral Act 73 of 1998 requires every registered party and candidate to respect the rights of women. The Act mandate political parties to ensure that female candidates should be able to communicate freely with parties and candidates and to participate fully and equally with their male counterparts. It also encourages political parties to ensure free access for women to all public meetings, marches, demonstrations, rallies and other public events and takes all possible steps to ensure that women are free to engage in political activities.[6]

Women and proportional representation in the top three political parties

According to the Dullah Omar Institute, the African National Congress (ANC) seems to have made progress on their 25-year plan to increase women’s seniority and leadership.[7] In 2019, there were at least 40 percent women’s representation among the ANC candidates in all provinces. The ANC 2019 elections manifesto asserts that the party has “improved the representation and empowerment of women in the public and private sphere through a constitutional commitment to non-sexism and gender equality”. The ANC had two female premiers out of nine, the Free State’s Sefora ‘Sisi’ Ntombela and Mpumalanga’s Refilwe Mtshweni.[8]  In ANC's top 25 candidates, only 9 were women, men still dominate most senior positions within the party.[9]

The Democratic Alliance (DA) was widely criticised for its lack of gender representation during the 2019 general elections.  The DA leader Mmusi Maimane defended the party’s lack of gender representation within its provincial premier list. Despite only two women making the cut, Maimane argued as follows: “Ideally I would want more women, but I’m not going to set a quota for women because I don’t believe in quotas”.[10] This suggests that DA candidates were primarily chosen based on merit and that he does not make use of gender quotas. This utterance might suggest that Maimane’s view of women is deeply embedded in patriarchal attitudes which continues to deny the significant role women could play in society and equally occupy positions of power. However, it is worth noting that the DA  had a female leader for a period of 8 years. The DA had one woman in its top 5 candidates and 8 women in its top 25 positions.[11]

Lastly, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) had a total of 100 female candidates. They had a diverse gender breakdown within their top 25 candidates – 44%  being women. However, only one of their top five candidates was a woman, leaving the roles of president and vice-president to men.[12]  However, the EFF had no premier candidates as Julius Malema, its president, was quoted saying: “We don't believe in provinces we are not going to have premier candidates in the EFF.  There is only one head of the election campaign and that is the president of the EFF’’.[13]

The ANC and EFF supported a voluntary quota for women’s participation. They both achieved or came close to achieving parity in their lists overall (50% and 49%) but they fell short of this target in their top five, and top 25 of their lists[14]. As noted above, the ANC’s 2019 election manifesto made a provision to improve women representation in the public and private sphere. However, according to Sonke Gender Justice, “gender currency did not run along the ANC manifesto as strongly as one might expect from a party that has been in existence for over decades”.[15] This shows that men still dominate decision-making in these parties. The main opposition DA, which does not support quotas of any kind, had only 37% women in its list.

Despite the Electoral Act 73 of 1998, we are still yet to see political parties taking positive affirmative action and other measures to increase women’s participation in politics. 

Post-election women’s representation in the South African Parliament

In the 2019 elections women gained 23 seats across all parties. Based on the current composition of the National Assembly, the proportion of women is 46%. This is a significant increase of 11% from the previous parliament. The increase of women in the national assembly to 45% is a remarkable figure given, that prior to 1994, only 2.7% of parliament consisted of women while in 1994, it stood at 27%[16]. This is largely due to the 4.46-percentage point increase in support for the Economic Freedom Front (EFF).[17] The ANC lost more seats, but remained the majority with a total of 213 seats and 119 of those are occupied by women. The official opposition, the DA, declined from 89 seats to only 84 seats with 31 of those seat being allocated to women. The EFF increased its seats total to 44 and women occupy 23 of those seats.[18] South Africa, Rwanda and Ethiopia are among the world’s  few gender-balanced cabinets with 50%,  61% and 50 %  respectively

At the provincial level, women's representation increased from 30% to 43%  after the 2019 elections. Limpopo province has the largest proportion of women, with 53% of seats in the legislature occupied by women, surpassing the South African Development Community’s (SADC) parity target. The provincial legislature with the lowest gender representation is the Western Cape, with only 35.7%. This is not surprising, considering the DA’s attitude towards women’s participation in politics.

Overall, South Africa has made notable progress, and has arguably one of the most gender-diverse parliaments in the world, ranking number three in Africa and tenth globally. However, it still falls short in achieving gender parity.

Overall changes and improvements are noted at the national and provincial level but disparities still continue within parties. The DA remains gender-blind, the ANC might have significantly improved while the EFF shows encouraging changes. However, the top leadership of all the parties considered still continues to be male-dominated. Therefore, greater consideration needs to be taken to ensure women in top leadership within parties.


Political parties should promote genuine political participation of women in politics. This could be through changes in attitude and perceptions over women’s participation in politics. An important factor would be the consideration of affirmative action initiatives to ensure women’s representation in top positions in the parties, which have been held by males over the years.  By doing so, political parties can consolidate efforts towards breaking the current inertia.

[1] T   Thabane   &   M   Buthelezi ‘Bridging   the   gap   between   de   jure   and de   facto parliamentary   representation   of   women   in   Africa’ (2008)   41   Comparative   and International Law Journal of Southern Africa 175 176

[2] Maputo Protocol on Women’s Rights: A Living Document for Women’s Human Rights in Africa Submitted by the Women, Gender and Development Directorate (WGDD) of the African Union Commission, taken from https://au.int/sites/default/files/documents/31520-doc

[3] Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, taken from https://www.un.org/en/africa/osaa/pdf/au/protocol_rights_women_africa_2003.pdf

[4]   P Paxton & S Kunovich ‘Women’s political representation:  the importance of ideology’ (2003) 82 Social Forces 87 87-88; SM Rai ‘Gender and democratization: Ambiguity and opportunity’ in R Luckman & G White (eds) Democratization in the South: the jagged wave (1996) 221.

[5] The AU Commission, https://au.int/en/commission

[6] Republic of South Africa 2015 Combined Second Periodic Report Under the African Charter on Human and People`s Rights and Initial Report Under the Protocol to the African Charter on The Rights of Women in Africa

[7] Dullah Omar Institute, Uwc, The Feminist View of Political Parties: Analysis Aimed to provide a feminist perspective on key political party manifestos. For more information go to: https://dullahomarinstitute.org.za/women-and-  democracy/feminist-view-of-political-parties

[8] Aaisha Dadi Patel, Mail and Guardian, Meet the ANC’s premier candidates, 14 May 2019 16:09, adopted from https://mg.co.za/article/2019-05-14-meet-the-ancs-premier-candidates.

[9] BEYOND NUMBERS: Gender audit of the May 2019 South African elections, adopted from, ttps://genderlinks.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/GENDER-IN-2019-SA-ELECTIONS-LR.pdf

[10] Ibid

[11] BEYOND NUMBERS: Gender audit of the May 2019 South African elections, adopted from, ttps://genderlinks.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/GENDER-IN-2019-SA-ELECTIONS-LR.pdf

[11]Sonke Gender Justice, A Gender and Migration Analysis of 2019 Election Manifestos, https://genderjustice.org.za/publication/a-gender-and-migration-analysis-of-2019-election-manifestos/


[13] No premier candidates for EFF – Malema, 2019-02-03 07:35. This was adopted from https://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/no-premier-candidates-for-eff-malema-20190202

[14] BEYOND NUMBERS: Gender audit of the May 2019 South African elections.

[15]Sonke Gender Justice, A Gender and Migration Analysis of 2019 Election Manifestos, https://genderjustice.org.za/publication/a-gender-and-migration-analysis-of-2019-election-manifestos/

[16] Ibid

[17] Ibid

[18] Gender Links


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