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SOUTH AFRICA: Putting Gender Equality at the Forefront of Local Government

Moyiga Nduru

JOHANNESBURG, Oct 11 2005 (IPS) - A ground-breaking gender equality training course for local government officials has wrapped up in South Africa’s financial capital, Johannesburg.

“The course was the first of its kind in South Africa and the region involving gender and local government,” said Colleen Lowe Morna, director of Gender Links: the non-governmental organisation headquartered in Johannesburg which organised the training.

The programme was held amidst preparations for local government elections in South Africa, scheduled to be held within the next few months. The ruling African National Congress has pledged to ensure that at least half its candidates for this poll are women.

Currently women account for about 28.8 percent of councilors in Johannesburg – while constituting 50.2 percent of the city’s 3.3 million population.

“We need to create a world where men and women work together,” said Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, South Africa’s deputy president, while addressing participants at an event marking the closure of the course, Tuesday.

“We have a lot of good men and some un-nice men,” she noted further, prompting an outburst of laughter from the audience.

Mlambo-Ngcuka called for a gender programme to be prepared for members of the South African cabinet, and noted that efforts to reduce discrimination against women had to take place across party lines.

“We must work together and not allow our political differences to disrupt our common goals,” she said. Councilors from various political parties, including the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), attended the course.

A new book by Gender Links, ‘The “I” Stories: City of Johannesburg Councillors Speak Out’, highlights how glaring gender disparities persist within local government.

“Women are over-represented among clerical workers,” it says, but are “scarce in the professional and technical categories.” Women are only estimated to make up about 10 percent of managers in local authorities.

Amos Masondo, executive mayor of Johannesburg, told participants that equal representation of men and women in local government was “an idea whose time has come” – but added that the problem of discrimination was multifaceted: “We are beginning to understand that gender equality is both about changing attitudes and empowering women.”

The Gender Links book also laments the fact that while women bear the burden of providing potable water and sanitation for their families, they are often not consulted in the provision of these services.

In addition, the experiences of 26 councilors are recounted in ‘The “I” Stories’. “Some of the stories are quite painful – they are told with honesty,” said Janine Moolman, who edited the book.

One of those featured is 69-year old Shirley Ancer, who became a councilor in 2000 on a DA ticket.

“My first year as a councilor was very challenging. I spent many hours away from home and my family – and the late meetings were difficult to adjust,” she says. “As a woman I battled to juggle home, children and my council work – not to mention the fear of getting home safely.”

In the course of her work, Ancer found that antiquated ideas about women’s participation in political life persisted.

“I am still amazed at how many people in the 21st century still believe that politics are not for women,” she notes.

“It makes me realise how much work we still have to do to educate South Africans to accept that women are equal to men and we can be of great benefit to the country.”

As the course organisers made clear, however, the fight for gender equality cannot be waged by women alone – and they were heartened that the local government programme also attracted a number of men.

“Some 25 percent of our participants are men. This was very important to us,” said Morna. “Their presence made for robust debate and has led to a cadre of male champions of gender equality in the city (of Johannesburg).”

At regional level, the 14-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) has committed itself to having 50 percent of decision-making posts in member states occupied by women. However, no deadline has been established for achieving this target.

Previously, SADC set itself the goal of having 30 percent of decision-making posts occupied by women, by 2005. On the parliamentary front, only South Africa, Mozambique and Tanzania met the target.

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