Will women's representation ever be more than a numbers game? Consider this when voting

2019-05-03 06:00
Women singing at a South African ANC Women’s League meeting.Three senior women in ANC are contesting the presidency of the party. Picture: Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

In order for greater representation to translate to substantive change, it is crucial that we move beyond a representative democracy which focuses on the number of women only, writes Eleanor du Plooy.

The electoral process, through fair representation and consent, determines who will govern and who will not. It's a mechanism that translates the support of political parties and individuals into power.

As much as the electoral process is a powerful instrument for shaping the political landscape, it is also used as an instrument for political manipulation. And it is within this potential for manipulation that my feelings of disillusionment with and suspicion of the vote and the many ways in which political leaders have grossly betrayed the electorate, finds fertile ground.

I've only voted three times in my life but already this fourth decision feels particularly hard. Just thinking about it leaves me feeling exhausted. It can sometimes be difficult to look optimistically to our uncertain future. It has become hard to keep believing in the power of the vote when many are yet to experience meaningful material change, and when political parties continue centring party politics and prioritising personal gain above the needs of the people.

I have become increasing doubtful that the act of voting within an electoral process, an act that has the power to determine the political leadership and direction of the country, is really the foremost vehicle through which the will of the majority can be made manifest.  

The last decade of South Africa's democracy has been hard. The 'nine wasted years' under the Zuma administration was a gross display of incessant betrayal of the electorate through unimaginable levels of state corruption and looting, the ever-widening inequality gap and devastating levels of violence against women and marginalised identities.

And although jaded, I know that the decision whether to vote or not and the question of who to vote for is one that shouldn't be taken for granted or considered lightly. Historically, in this country and elsewhere, the right to self-governance through the act of voting had long been denied people of colour and women. Whatever the decision, this moment in our national timeline asks us to pause, and to reflect on how far we've come 25 years down the line.

As a woman, representation within the political space has in recent years become an important consideration for me and cause for reflection as May 8 draws closer.

No reduction in women's struggles

Although women's political representation in national assemblies in South Africa remains among the highest in the SADC region, it hasn't translated directly in a reduction in any meaningful way in the struggles faced by women in this country. The argument for greater representation doesn't assume that women are best able to represent women's issues or that there is some general unifying experience between women across race and class, but rather that expansive representation can allow for a greater appreciation in political terms of the complexities of gender inequalities.

In order for greater representation to translate to substantive change, it is crucial that we move beyond a representative democracy which focuses on the number of women only. We need to move toward a participatory democracy that focuses on the deliberate and meaningful inclusion of women's experiences, interests and perspectives toward enriching government.

As important as adequate representation is, qualitative change will not be brought about by merely increasing the number of women in government. Often, gender discrimination, cultural and societal norms and numerous other structural barriers impede women's contributions and as such the "qualitative presence of women must therefore also have a qualitative significance". It can no longer be window dressing only, but the diverse experiences and perspectives must shape how we hold political leadership accountable, inform policy and impact legislation.

It is only once women are really taken seriously in the decision-making arena and allowed to take up space in a meaningful way, that the idea, substance and form of politics and governance can start to change and power relations shift.

As we approach this year's national elections let us reflect on what this process means for our fledgling democracy and importantly, how we can contribute toward deepening democratic processes as we find better ways of walking together and co-creating a joint future South Africa. 

- Eleanor Du Plooy is a senior project leader at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.

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