But last week he revealed plans to axe this department, instead creating a separate Ministry of Women under the presidency. He is also transferring support for children and the disabled to the Department of Social Development.
The move will see women’s issues directed once again from within the presidency - a standard set by the late Nelson Mandela.
Women’s empowerment was championed by Mandela, who created the original department for women located under the presidency. In 1994, at the new parliament’s first session, Mandela said that “freedom cannot be achieved unless women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression”.
‘First class fail’
Yet under Zuma the plight of women slipped from the president’s direct watch and today, as the government acknowledges, gender equality is still a long way off.
What’s more, the former minister for women, children and people with disabilities, Lulu Xingwana, has been widely criticised for her use of the department’s budget - which last year rang in at R198.3m.
Democratic Alliance MP Helen Lamoela said of Xingwana’s budget last year “there is nothing to show for it except lavish parties, trips abroad and designer furniture”.
According to reports in The Sunday Independent, Xingwana splurged R2.1m of taxpayers’ money decorating her department, allegedly using half the money for furniture for her own office.
The previous year Xingwana allocated R25m of the budget to travel and subsistence - while just R13.5m went to its children’s rights and responsibilities programme.
She was also accused of hiring expensive lawyers, rather than using the state attorney, and overspending on employees’ salaries.
Xingwana, who is to be replaced by the former mining minister Susan Shabangu, “used the department as her own piggy bank”, according to Democratic Alliance spokesperson Colin Wardel.
He added: “We are glad to see she has been removed.”
Xingwana was also dogged by media reports that MPs lambasted her and her team for failing to deliver documents detailing her turnaround strategy on time - apparently those that were received were a “mess”.
In March, Xingwana tried to push through the women empowerment and gender equality bill (WEGE) which makes provision for at least 50% of decision-making posts in the country to be filled by women. But not enough MPs turned up to vote on it, so the Bill has yet to be made into law.
The DA’s Helen Lamoela, previously Shadow Minister of Women, Youth, Children and People with Disabilities, called the bill a “first class fail”.
Earlier this year, Lamoela said: “This bill is a distraction by a department that has failed to identify the true barriers blocking female empowerment and has failed to co-ordinate a government-wide effort to address these barriers.”
Despite past criticisms, the new department will continue pushing ahead with the WEGE bill, according to Kenosi Machepa, spokesperson for the newly formed ministry of women.
She said the move to create a new department under the presidency showed women’s issues were being taken seriously.
The new women’s department is to have two key focuses: women’s socio-economic empowerment and women’s rights.
Machepa said: “Women will be going back under the guidance and watchful eye of the president.”
For Lisa Vetten, gender researcher at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, this is no great comfort as Zuma himself “hasn’t shown himself to be a great fighter of inequality”.
However, Vetten said: “It is important being close to the power that the (presidential) office holds.”
The DA, which claims it has been pushing for a separate women’s department for some time, said it welcomed the move.
Vetten said the key question now would be how to make the department work - as ultimately, recreating a ministry of women sees a return to a structure that failed.
However, she added: “It failed because it had no political authority and had small staff numbers.”
The new department has yet to lay its cards on the table - spokeswoman Machepa would only reveal that the budget would remain the same for all three groups: women, children and the disabled - and that staffing is still under review.
While the department for social development could not be reached for comment, the DA’s Wardel said it would probably need “more capacity” in order to absorb the responsibilities of children and the disabled.
‘More than just welfare’
Vetten said it was “very good move” that women’s issues were not sent to the department for social development (DSD). “Gender equality is not a matter of welfare,” she said.
However, she too had concerns for the social development department’s ability to cope with its new responsibilities.
Children and disabled people - who were originally both given their own departments under Mandela - have wider issues than welfare, she pointed out.
“There are matters and rights that transcend welfare,” Vetten said, questioning who would be in charge of monitoring such issues.
The Disability Rights team, now working within the DSD, said that for now it is “business as usual”.
A spokesperson for the team said: “The new administration is currently working out the operational details and we will keep our stakeholders informed of any changes as they are effected.”