Representation and Participation of Women in Parliament
The month of August marks Women's month in South Africa. We must reflect on the progress that South Africa has made in terms of women’s representation and participation in Parliament.
Women’s Representation in Parliament within the current electoral system
South Africa has a five-year electoral cycle. Effective oversight, law-making, public participation, exercising co-operative governance and international co-operation is dependent on Members of Parliament (MPs) acting in the best interest of the citizens of South Africa. According to Statistics South Africa 51,2 % of South Africa’s population are women. Within this context, in 2017, the Speakers’ Forum, as the representative body of the South African Legislative Sector (SALS), established an independent high-level panel to review and assess the effectiveness of laws passed since 1994 and to identify laws such as, the GBV bills that require strengthening and amendment.
The report considered the role of the electoral system in limiting the extent to which the public can hold their elected representatives to account. South Africa has a Proportional Representation (PR) electoral system. A strength of PR is that smaller parties have a chance of winning seats and in this way ensure the representation of women and a broader range of political views. Also, PR allows parties to assemble their candidate lists in ways that include women as well as reflect the diverse population of the country. This system enables parties to select candidates who:
- Represent women as part of a diversity of, cultural, ethnic language and religious identities, urban and rural, and people living with disabilities irrespective of income levels; and
- Will make good MPs, even if they do not have a high level of popular support.
It is, of course, possible for parties to choose women candidates to represent their party political views. As a result of this system, South Africa has been ranked amongst the highest in the world in terms of the proportion of women representatives in Parliament.
The major argument in support of this electoral model is that it guarantees that individual members can be held accountable by their political parties. However, a key challenge with the PR electoral system lies in its weakness in holding politicians accountable to citizens. MPs are appointed by the party they belong to and based on candidate lists submitted to the Electoral Commission ahead of the elections, and not by women as part of the voting public. This binds them to their parties rather than the public and often results in party politics and loyalties trumping effectiveness and service delivery.
By contrast, a constituency system will enable women to hold politicians accountable more directly and will serve to limit the power of individual party leadership and encourage MPs to act on the needs and desires of citizens, including women rather than only following party lines (Moepya, 2015 cited in the HLP Report, 2017). This could best be achieved by using open rather than closed party lists, with women and men supporting women’s issues as voters influencing the order of candidates. The report argued that open lists would not only improve the accountability of individual candidates, but would also substantially increase public participation in the democratic process.
The PR system distances Parliament from the people. Although Parliamentary Constituency Offices (PCOs) exist, most citizens, the majority of which are women are unaware of who their constituency representatives are or the existence of PCOs. “A constituency-based system would bridge this gap by ensuring that people particularly women directly elect the representatives they want in a multi-member constituency-based system”. Such a system would enable women to stand for public office independently at a national and provincial level, which is not possible under the current system (Solik, 2014 cited in HLP Report, 2017: 526).
Participation of Women as Vulnerable Groups and Proportional Representation
The South African Constitution provides special protection for women as part of groups who remain marginalised due to historical inequities which also include the rural and urban poor, children, youth, the aged, people living with disabilities and the LGBTQI+ community. This constitutional provision is a reflection of the commitment of Parliament to achieve maximum social transformation through representing the interests of women and the most marginalised in society.
Generally, the country has progressed and is ranked as “one of the most gender-diverse parliaments” across the globe, ranked third in Africa and tenth in the world. Nonetheless, South Africa continues to fall short of attaining gender equality (Makgale & Chibwe, 2019).
It is also important to note that despite establishing the Portfolio Committee on Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities, Parliament acknowledged that there is no “Disability Act” in the country. A draft Integrated National Disability Strategy needs finalisation and issues of disability is also addressed in pieces of legislation, such as the Employment Equity Act.
At the national and provincial level improvements and changes are noted but disparities continue. Greater consideration is needed to ensure women as part of vulnerable groups are adequately represented in Parliament.
Proportional representation of Women in Parliament
According to Parliament’s current composition, the National Assembly comprises 46% women representatives, and the National Council of Provinces 36%.
After the 2019 elections, women's representation increased from 30% to 43% at a provincial level. The largest proportion of women representation in provincial legislatures is in the Limpopo province, while the legislature with the lowest gender representation in its provincial legislature is the Western Cape.
A snapshot of women’s representation in the Legislatures has been provided. Parliament is ranked high in terms of the representation of women MPs. Why then do women continue to struggle with achieving gender equality? Some of the questions we should be reflecting upon includes:
- How do women MPs see their role? Do they see their role as representing the voices of women in Parliament and lobbying for increased participation of women across the processes and activities of Parliament?
- What is considered best practice and ways of ensuring meaningful participation of women and other vulnerable sectors across programmes of Parliament – the Women’s Parliament, oversight programmes, the budget process, Taking Parliament to the People, Provincial Weeks, to name but a few?
- How do we ensure that the voices of women and other vulnerable groups are heard in not only identifying who participates in these programmes, but that women can actively shape and influence how these programmes are put together, the content of these programmes to ensure that the needs and desires of women and other vulnerable groups take front and centre stage in the work of Parliament – a People-centric approach?
Authored and published by Parliament's Public Education Office
About this blog
"That week in Parliament" is a series of blog posts in which the important Parliamentary events of the week are discussed.