It may have been just a four percentage point drop in women’s representation in parliament in the May 2014 South African elections. But that drop sent tremors across a region hoping to at least show some progress on this front by 2015, the deadline year for the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Protocol on Gender and Development, signed here in 2008.
On 9 August - Women’s Day in South Africa – it is a sobering thought that we not only let ourselves down by failing to reach gender parity in one key area of decision-making: we took all of SADC down with us.
South Africa is the most populous nation in the SADC and a torch bearer for gender equality. Half the region’s MPs reside in this country. Achieving 44 percent women in parliament in the 2009 elections shot South Africa to the top of the chart in SADC and to the global top 10. The drop to 40 percent in May 2014 dealt a crippling blow to the 50/50 campaign.
With less than one year to go until 2015, no country in the 15-nation region has reached the 50 percent target of women’s representation in parliament, cabinet or local government. Over the six years, women’s overall representation in parliament hit its highest at 26 percent in 2014, increasing by two percentage points from 24 percent in 2013.
However, best predictions in the 2014 Southern African Gender Protocol Barometer are that even with five more elections by the end of 2015, this figure will at most rise to 29 percent, meaning SADC will not have achieved the original 30 percent let alone 50 percent target by 2015. Women’s representation in local government slid from 26 percent to 24 percent in the last year, and may just claw back to 28 percent by the end of 2015, but will also fall shy of both the 30 percent and 50 percent targets.
During the 2014 SADC Protocol@Work summits, the Southern African Gender Protocol Alliance held working meetings on the 50/50 campaign and came up with country-specific strategies. The strong message that emerged from these consultations is that without specific measures - quotas and electoral systems - to increase women’s political representation, change will remain painfully slow.
The 2014 Barometer reflects the global reality that women’s political representation is highest in Proportional Representation (PR) electoral systems (38 percent in parliament and 37 percent in local government) and in countries with quotas (38 percent in parliament and 37 percent in local government). Countries with First Past the Post Systems (17 percent women in national and 14 percent women in local) have the lowest level of women’s representation, as do countries with no quota (17 percent national and eight percent local).
However, SADC countries with the First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) system have shown innovation over the last few years by following the Tanzania example of adopting to a mixed system, with women able to run for the openly contested seats, and be awarded an additional 30 percent of seats on a proportional representation basis in accordance with the strength of each party.
The Zimbabwe elections in July 2013 provided a stark example of the possibilities and pitfalls of gender and election strategies. Zimbabwe witnessed an increase of 22 percentage points in women’s representation in parliament from 16 percent to 38 percent thanks to the constitutional quota that created a mixed system and guaranteed women a minimum of 22 percent of the seats in the National Assembly. However, in the absence of similar provisions for local government the proportion of women in this sphere of governance declined from 18 percent to 16 percent in the same election.
In South Africa, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) became the first political party in SADC to adopt a voluntary 50 percent quota (the South West Africa Peoples Organisation in Namibia has since followed suit). The danger of voluntary quotas, long raised by activists, is that they are linked to the electoral fortunes of political parties. This proved to be the case in the South African elections. The decline in women’s political participation in the May elections is directly attributable to the decline in the ANC’s proportion of the vote, from 66 percent in the last election to 62 percent in the 2014 elections.
Malawi had a spirited 50/50 campaign but no constitutional or legislated quotas in FPTP system. The elections took place at a turbulent time, marred by charges of foul play. As often happens in such circumstances – and despite an incumbent woman president contesting the elections - the proportion of women dropped significantly to 17 percent from 22 percent. For a moment too brief, the SADC regions marvelled and celebrated the first female President, Joyce Banda, former president of Malawi. She lost to Peter Mutharika (brother to the late former leader, Bingu Mutharika) during the May 2014 elections.
With 44 percent women in parliament, Seychelles has come closest to achieving the parity target in this area of political decision-making, while Botswana and the Democratic Republic of Congo (10 percent) are the lowest. Seychelles is unique in that it is the only country in the SADC region to have achieved a high level of women in parliament without a quota, and in FPTP system. The island, which has a long tradition of men leaving in search of work, has a strong matriarchal culture.
Between August 2014 and the end of 2015, five more SADC countries – Botswana (local and national); Mozambique (national), Namibia (national), Mauritius (national) and Tanzania (national and local) are due to hold elections. Madagascar’s long overdue local elections may also take place during this period. With primaries already past in Botswana, there is a danger of further backslide in the October 2014 elections. Mozambique (39 percent) and Tanzania (36 percent) already have a high representation of women in parliament. Mozambique has a proportional representation system and the ruling Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (Frelimo) has a voluntary quota. Tanzania has a Constitutional quota, and this is being raised from 30 percent to 50 percent. Gains are likely in both countries.
There are moves afoot in Namibia to legislate escalate the legislated quota at local level to national level, but it is not clear if this will happen in time for the October 2014 elections. Mauritius is debating a White Paper on Electoral reform that is likely to result in the quota at local level being escalated to national level but not in time for the 2015 national elections. It is therefore likely that only modest gains will be registered in both countries.
Detailed projections in the Barometer lead to the unavoidable conclusion that by the end of 2015, the region will not make even the 30 percent mark. This should however give impetus to a much more strategic approach to the 50/50 campaign, with emphasis on electoral systems and quotas, accompanied by strong advocacy campaigns, rather than simply training women for political office.
- Colleen Lowe Morna is Chief Executive Officer of Gender Links and editor-in-chief of the Southern African Gender Barometer. She formerly served as Chief Programme Officer of the Commonwealth Observer Mission to South Africa in the run up to the 1994 elections. This article is part of the Gender Links News Service special series on Women’s Month.