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POLITICS-SOUTH AFRICA: Women's Participation Needs More Than Quotas

Stephanie Nieuwoudt

CAPE TOWN, Dec 3 2008 (IPS) - The African National Congress (ANC) directive to increase the number of women on South Africa's ruling party's election lists to 50 percent (up from 30 percent) might actually weaken the role of women in local government.

"The ANC took the 50 percent decision at its Polokwane general meeting at the end of 2007. This does address the issue of gender equity, but it can also disempower women," Clive Keegan, director of the South African Local Government Research Centre told IPS.

"If women are placed on a list simply to fulfil a quota, there is a risk that the names of candidates without the necessary skills will be brought forward by men with their own agenda. This means that some of these women will be easily manipulated and susceptible to corruption. It could especially be problematic in the poor areas where being a councillor is a ticket out of poverty and where there is a huge skills shortage."

According to a recent survey by the South African Local Government Association (SALGA) one in three municipal councilors cannot read or write and more have no idea of how financial structures word. 32 percent of these councilors need basic adult education and training.

"Without these skills they may never fully develop their abilities and optimally contribute to council activities – especially when affairs of council are driven by agendas, reports submitted and minutes," SALGA stated in its report.

Nomsa Bevu, a proportional representative of Sub Council 9 in the poverty-stricken township of Khayelitsha in Cape Town, says that she feels she has to work much harder than her male counterparts to prove herself.

"I make sure that I attend workshops and training courses so that I can do my job as well as possible."

Bevu says that during workshops she got to understand why it is necessary for people to pay for services like water. "Before I became a councillor I did not understand why one has to pay for water," she told IPS.

A number of courses about local government and the demands of specific portfolios are offered by SALGA and are well attended by members of all parties.

In the Kraaifontein area north-east of Cape Town, Buyiswa Blaai, an ANC sub-councillor, said that she has encountered building contractors and other business people trying to bribe councillors to give them contracts in housing developments.

"As women councilors and members of sub-councils we have to be aware of these traps. In the end it is up to the individual, whether you are male or female, to be strong and resist corruption."

For many in the poor areas of the Western Cape, a job as a council member is a ticket out of poverty.

"Coupled with a desperation to hold on to a position that guarantees an income, and a severe skills shortage, it becomes easy for many to follow the corruption route," said Amanda Gouws, a political analyst at the University of Stellenbosch.

"When patron/client relations become part of the system, women and men of all parties are equally susceptible."

Some women in the ANC have risen to powerful positions in local government. One of them is Eve Marthinus who was the mayor of Bredasdorp in the Western Cape from 2006 to 2007.

"Many of the ANC male councillors have a lack of respect for women and simply 'tolerate' us. They rule the caucus."

She is presently one of only three female councilors in her ward, which has a large constituency of extremely poor people. She says that she has experienced the negative side of men lobbying for positions in local government.

"Women in local government structures have to be extremely vigilant because we are seen as pliable. And when a person is pliable, it means that he or she can be easily corrupted," she says.

"The situation will only be redressed if more women make themselves available during elections and act in a forceful way. A quota system is not the answer if it is not supported by training and the appointment of strong women who know how to lead. If the women are not strong enough, they could become victims of patronage."

Mercia Arendse, an ANC councillor from Mamre, a rural area on the Cape West Coast, says that she is fighting a continuous battle against men trying to fob off soft issues like food schemes and social issues on her.

"I do not believe that a women's agenda has to be pushed in council, but women are affected on different levels by many issues. If there is no service delivery such as water and power, women and children are the ones to suffer."

Arendse says that the ANC is progressive in its policy of gender equality, which is empowering to women, but the rhetoric does not always filter down to grass roots level. "There are still too many men in leadership positions who continue to look at women in a patriarchal way."

Claire Mathonsi, women and governance project co-ordinator at the Gender Advocacy Programme in Cape Town, says" "Not only are there gender struggles in the councils, but there are also faction struggles. Many women who serve as council members are co-opted. They carry on with the agendas that are already on the table and do not put forward new ideas."

Mathonsi adds: "The problem lies in the interpretation of what gender means and what needs to be done about the gender discourse. For the most part, equity has become a numerical thing. When a numerical target is met, it is wrongly believed that the issue of gender has been dealt with."

In the Cape Town metropolis, the Democratic Alliance (DA) has set a high standard with a number of powerful women. The mayor, Helen Zille is the mayor, Mariaan Nieuwoudt is the mayoral committee member on planning and housing, Anthea Serritslev is the chief whip of the city, Belinda Walker is in charge of corporate sevices and human resources and Elizabeth Thompson is in charge of transport.

"There are problems in all parties," Serritslev told IPS. "But once women manage to take on a leading role in their communities as council members, they, for the most part, seem to become strong. They are eager to fill up any gaps through training courses and workshops. Women councilors should encourage other women to put their names forward during elections."

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