Women’s Political

Participation in SADC

Ms. Colleen Lowe Morna

“Without the active participation of women and the incorporation of women’s perspectives in all levels of decision- making, the goals of equality, development and peace cannot be achieved.”

-  Beijing Platform for Action

“Throughout Africa, women are preparing themselves for greater and better political participation. They are inviting the men folk to seize the opportunity and embrace true democracy and good governance by opening up political systems to women and all marginalized groups- youth, people with disabilities and minorities. There can be no turning back… this is the call of history…. The question is, on which side will you be caught – for change, or for resisting change?”

-  Winnie Byanyima, MP, Uganda and Chairperson of the Forum for Women and Democracy, speaking at the Emang Basadi 10th Anniversary Celebration in Botswana, 13 December, 1996.

“Gender equality is not a bi-product of democracy and it does not derive only from the clauses of the constitution. Democratic constitutions deliver formal, but not substantive equality….A conscious development of theory is critical to help us understand the workings of patriarchy, its character and form in our countries as it exists in and interacts with other oppressive forms such as racism and capitalism. Indigenous approaches, informed by other experiences but based on our concrete situation should be applied”.

-  Thenjiwe Mtintso, Deputy Secretary General of the African National Congress (ANC) in “Women in Politics and Decision Making in SADC: Beyond 30 % in 2005”. Report of the proceedings of a conference held in Gaborone, Botswana, 28 March-1 April 1999

Executive summary

Africa is in the throes of major political transformation. Southern Africa-unique on the continent because of its history of white settler colonialism- is no exception. Over the last three decades, the remaining vestiges of colonialism have been removed. During the last two decades, several countries have experienced “second generation” revolutions- the shift from one party to multiparty rule. Of the handful of African countries that had functioning democracies before the nineties, two (Botswana and Mauritius) were in Southern Africa. The region is unique in Africa for having experienced only one military coup (in Lesotho). There are presently no military governments in Southern Africa.

Because of its settler colonial past, Southern Africa has a keen understanding that government that is not representative of the population is not democracy. But, until recently, that understanding was based almost entirely on race. When less than fifteen percent of the population in Namibia, Zimbabwe, or South Africa constituted the majority of those countries parliaments, there was naturally an outcry. The same outcry did not extended to the fact that, on average, there are five times more men than women in the parliaments of the region; and an even higher proportion at local government level.

The Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, heavy lobbying by civil society, and subsequent establishment of gender structures in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) have spurred a vigorous campaign whose central theme is that government for men, by men, cannot be government for the people, by the people. In 1997, SADC Heads of Government adopted a “Declaration on Gender and Development” that pledged to reach a target of 30 percent women in all spheres of decision- making by 2005. In May 1999 the SADC Gender Unit (SADC GU) convened a ground breaking conference called “Beyond 30 percent in 2005: Women in Politics and Decision Making in SADC.” The conference yielded a comprehensive action plan with regional and national components.

Even at this early stage, the fruits of this action plan are evident. In the five SADC countries that held elections in 1999, two maintained the proportion of women parliamentarians while three witnessed an increase in the level of participation by women. In the case of Botswana, where the above conference was held just before the elections, and where an NGO called Emang Basadi has waged a concerted campaign for increasing the representation of women in decision- making, the figure doubled from 9 to 18 percent. Currently, the proportion of women in parliament in SADC is 17.9 percent; considerably higher than the African average of 11 percent (and average for sub Saharan Africa of 9 percent); and global average of 13.4 percent. The proportion is also higher than that for Europe and the Americas, at 15 percent. Three of the top ten countries in the world with regard to women in parliament (South Africa, Mozambique and Seychelles) are in Southern Africa.

What the Southern African and global experience show is that there is no correlation between level of development and the degree of representation of women in leadership. The single major barrier to women’s participation in decision- making remains the deeply ingrained cultural and traditional stereotypes around the role of women, whether in western or African society. It is no coincidence that in Southern Africa, as elsewhere in the globe, there is a far closer correlation between the level of women’s representation and the existence of social revolutions or upheavals (often ushering in socialist leaning or social democratic governments) than level of economic development. Higher scoring countries include Mozambique, South Africa, Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia whose struggles for liberation began to prick the national conscience over whether equal representation should not also be understood to include representation by women in accordance with their numbers in the population.

Tanzania’s social democratic traditions have been critical in ensuring a higher level of participation by women there. Seychelles is unique in that the high level of men seeking employment outside the island has created a virtual matrilineal society. Participation by women was also boosted by the former one party, left leaning government and has in fact dropped since the advent of multiparty democracy- a phenomenon common in eastern Europe.

Some of the lower scoring countries, like Mauritius and Swaziland, have relatively high levels of income, but are socially conservative countries in which the presence of women in the corridors of power remains taboo. Botswana was a similar case. Its recent experience shows that socially conservative, but democratically responsive governments, can be cajoled into change.

Lessons learned

These observations have profound policy implications. The first is that simply focusing on empowering women (“give them leadership training”) is not going to achieve the desired objective. Empowerment of women must be accompanied by nationwide and region wide campaigns whose aim is to shift mindsets so that a stage is reached when we can close our eyes and see power in both feminine and masculine moulds. Short of more social revolutions and upheavals, these campaigns have to be able to challenge the status quo, leaving no country comfortable at the thought of a parliament or cabinet pin up that has only a token sprinkling of women’s faces.

Second, it has become apparent that campaigns alone will not do the trick. Some social engineering is essential. It is no coincidence that two of the three countries with the highest proportion of women (South Africa and Mozambique) are countries that have a proportional representation electoral system; and in which the ruling parties have had quotas for women. Because of its past, Southern Africa is more familiar than most regions with the arguments around affirmative action for disadvantaged groups. The same arguments must now be applied to gender.

Third, gender considerations need to be built into existing and ongoing debates on electoral systems- the proportional representation or first past the post system- that up to now have been gender blind. Explicit constitutional provisions for gender equality – as found in South Africa, Namibia and Tanzania- are also powerful tools for ensuring transformation.

Fourth, Southern Africa must be wary of being caught in the numbers game. This paper draws on the conceptual framework developed by Thenjiwe Mtintso, Deputy Secretary general of the African National Congress (ANC), who argues that the subject of women in decision- making must be approached from the three perspectives of access; participation and transformation. Participation concerns where women are located within decision- making bodies and the institutional barriers to their effective contribution. Transformation is about what difference women make- to the institutional culture and exercise of power; as well as to the making of laws and delivery of services. Women can be supported to be more effective participants, and therefore transformers through appropriate capacity building and training. As part of its far- reaching programme on women in politics and decision- making, the SADC GU is producing and testing a “Gender Tool Kit for SADC Decision Makers” to be adapted and used at national level.

SADC GU has been keen to grasp that while there is much that can be done at regional level, each country must come up with a national action plan for promoting women’s equal and effective participation in decision making. The agenda in Mozambique with nearly thirty percent women in parliament will be different to that in Swaziland with less than five percent women in parliament- despite the fact that these countries are neighbours. The motto that runs through SADC’s “Action Plan on Women in Politics and Decision Making” is: think globally, organize regionally, act locally.


Over the last decade, Africa has been in the grips of a major social, economic and political revolution. Following the “lost decade” of the eighties when a combination of stumbling commodity prices, conflict, war, political instability and mismanagement witnessed major economic decline, the majority of African countries are undertaking far reaching economic reforms. The end of the Cold War, and growing acceptance of economic liberalisation, have prompted an unprecedented wave of democratisation that has led Africa to move up from the category of “not free” to “partly free” in the latest “Freedom of the World Survey” (1).

Southern Africa is both unique and similar to the rest of the continent. The only region in Africa to experience white settler rule, Southern Africa was largely preoccupied during the last two decades of the millennium with the independence of Zimbabwe and Namibia and ending of apartheid in South Africa; as well as the wars that spilled over into the former Portuguese colonies of Mozambique and Angola as a result of South Africa’s destabilisation of its neighbours. South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe have constitutions guaranteeing multi party democracy and have experienced peaceful post independence elections, though in Zimbabwe these have been marred by claims of irregularities.

Five out of fourteen Southern African countries (Malawi, Mozambique, Seychelles, Tanzania and Zambia) have witnessed a return from one party to multiparty rule; and in two cases (Malawi and Zambia) incumbent parties have been defeated at the polls. Lesotho, the only Southern African country to ever experience military government, has restored a multiparty system. Swaziland has a constitutional monarchy. Angola, and the newest member of SADC, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), are mired in civil war. Botswana and Mauritius are two of the African countries that have long boasted functioning democracies. In the case of Mauritius, elections have led to routine changes in government.

In sum, eleven out of the fourteen SADC countries can claim to have multiparty systems with regular elections- even if old established political parties continue to win and consolidate, or in some cases cling, to power. At the very least, more democratic forms of government have led to an increase in the number and voice of opposition parties; a new lease of life for the often outspoken if perilous independent media; and a mushrooming of civil society.

Gender and democracy in Southern Africa

Despite these momentous changes, and Southern Africa’s own unique experience of government that is not representative, issues of gender and democracy have only recently come to the fore. The painful struggles for independence in Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Namibia provided some impetus for exploring the double and often triple discrimination borne by women- because of their race, class and gender. But gender considerations took back seat to the more immediate cause of defeating colonial and settler colonial masters.

Preparations for the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, alongside the blossoming of more democratic forms of government across the region in the closing years of the last millennium, provided new ground for examining the issue more seriously. Among the arguments that have been advanced regionally and internationally for equal representation of men and women in politics and decision- making are:

Ø  The demographics and justice argument: This school of thoughts argues, that a government by men for men can't claim to be a government for the people by the people- a view endorsed by the following resolution taken by the Inter Parliamentary Union Council in April, 1992: "The concept of democracy will only assume true and dynamic significance when political parties and national legislation are decided upon jointly by men and women with equitable regard for the interests and aptitudes of both halves of the population.” .

Ø  Who feels it knows it: Democracy is premised on the principle of the will of the people-men and women. This school of thought argues that women are best placed to articulate their own needs and concerns. As Ugandan lawyer Florence Butegwa put it in a paper presented at a Commonwealth Local Government Forum (CLGF) symposium in Johannesburg in May 1995: "women's participation in politics is not a luxury, but a necessity." Butegwa went on to point out that over three- quarters of women in Africa are engaged in food production. It follows, she argued, that "policy decisions in agriculture should not be made without the active involvement of women."

Ø  Women bring a different style and values to politics. "Women's exclusion from power in the public arena," says a United Nations background document to the Beijing conference, "is in sharp contrast to their ability to make crucial decisions relating to the survival of families." By excluding women from decision- making, the document argues, countries are depriving themselves of a reservoir of talent and wisdom, as well as a different style of decision- making.

In January 1997, government representatives and NGOs held a ground- breaking gender strategy workshop that put forward recommendations for a gender policy and institutional framework in SADC. This was approved by the Council of Ministers that February. In November 1997, SADC Heads of Government adopted a “Declaration on Gender and Development” at their annual summit in Blantyre. One of the commitments is to achieve a thirty percent representation of women in politics and decision- making by the year 2005. Soon after, SADC established a Gender Unit, which in May 1999 convened a conference entitled “Beyond 30 percent in 2005: Women and Decision Making in SADC” that adopted a far- reaching programme for achieving gender parity in politics in the region. The regional and international obligations for achieving this target are summarised in the box below.