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2019 National Women’s Day, South Africa: Taking women from bedrooms into boardrooms

South African, nay African women have come of age; the time has come for the other half of humanity to take her place at the decision table! That is exactly what the 20,000 women who marched decades ago would wish for this year’s National Women’s Day remembrance.

It was the outstanding African-American wordsmith, Toni Morrison, that once said:

“If you’re going to hold someone down, you’re going to have to hold on by the other end of the chain. You are confined by your own repression.

Such is the veiled, or not too veiled, repression the male gender has subjected itself to for aeons, albeit ignorantly, and we all then wonder why the world is not progressing.

The answer to such introspection is clear and emphatic:

“you do not leave half your army at home when going to war.”

The stats: A worrying reality staring us in the face

The stats: A worrying reality staring us in the face

According to the UNDP:

      1. It is estimated that 60% of chronically hungry people are women and girls
      2. Women hold only 21.4% of the world’s parliamentary seats
      3. 80% of all jobs for women in sub-Saharan and South Asia are in the informal work sector.
      4. Three out of every ten women in the world report having experienced physical and sexual violence, or both, by an intimate partner
      5. Globally, approximately 800 women die every day from preventable causes during pregnancy and childbirth


    These are worrying figures and they indicate that world leaders are not doing enough – not today, not yesterday; but tomorrow can be better.

    It is no wonder, then, that Albertina Sisulu, Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, and Sophia Williams-De Bruyn led over 20,000 women to march on Union Buildings in Pretoria, demanding, among other things, an end to female discrimination and repression.

    That was 1956; 63 long years ago!

    Thanks to many years of such struggles and defiance in the face of male-dominated chauvinistic arrogance, South African women can today celebrate some freedom, some measure of progress in the corporate, government, and public space.

    But for such sustained agitations and resilience against incredible odds, Acts of the SA parliament like the Employment Equity Act, the Commission for Gender Equality Act, and other related laws that protect the rights of women as guaranteed by the South African constitution could have remained a pipe dream.

    South African women owe it to their children, grandchildren, and those unborn to carry the torch and forge ahead; to keep demanding for a just, equitable, and equal society where one’s gender would not be a basis for rewarding work or contribution to the progress of society.

    Still not yet Uhuru for women in Africa

    Still not yet Uhuru

    The National Women’s Day celebrations of this year should be a reminder that, yes, there are laws in place, much still needs to be done by leaders if the ingenuity, the creativity, and the unmatchable sacrifice a woman carries innately must be tapped fully.

    The speeches, declarations, rallies, and other events lined up to mark the commemoration of the 1956 marches are not enough. The National Women’s Day celebration should go well beyond that.

    Government at the national, provincial, and local levels must ramp up affirmative action that goes beyond rhetoric; they must bring women into decision-making rooms where issues that concern the female gender is sliced and diced.

    Corporate institutions, like government entities, must rethink how they fill up their boards otherwise, serious decisions that concern pay parity, women’s health, the welfare of the girl-child, education of children, and other related social concerns might continue to suffer neglect.

    Empowering the law to enfranchise African women

    Empowering the law to enfranchise women

    As a result of several women challenging the status quo and getting landmark judgments after protracted struggles, South Africa has put in place several legislative instruments that promote and defend women’s rights.

    Some of these are:

        1. The Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act of 2000
        2. Recognition of Customary Marriages Act of 1998
        3. Maintenance Act of 1998
        4. The Domestic Violence Act of 1998
        5. The Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1996


    These different but related set of legislation backed by parliament are evidence that the laws are there to make a South African woman or girl equal to her male counterpart.

    The reality, however, is that both government institutions and corporate organisations do as they please, anyway.

    Even where and when the law is available, business owners and government officials frequently get away with many of such biased decisions that treat women unfairly almost all the time.

    Although the Bill of Rights and chapter nine of the South African constitution give formal recognition to women of all colours and race, the female gender is still very much economically-disadvantaged when compared with their male peers and colleagues.

    2019 National Women's Day

    The statistics below are not only shocking but distastefully embarrassing for a world that preaches inclusivity as a means of increasing productivity:

        1. South Africa suffers from glaring wage inequalities, with women earning as much as 27% less than men
        2. Only 3.3% of the companies listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) have female chief executive officers (CEOs)
        3. The total female representation at board level in SA’s Top 40 companies was 32% as of 2018
        4. Globally and across all industries, women make up, on average, 35% of junior-level staff, 25% of mid-level workers, 15% of senior-level staff and 10% of chief executive officers (CEOs)
        5. Although women are, on average, more educated than men globally and now participate more fully in professional and technical occupations than ten years ago, as of today, their chances to rise to positions of leadership are only 28% of those of men globally
        6. Of the 175 million illiterate young people (mostly residing in Africa and Asia, 2/3 are girls).

    The time to act is NOW!

    The time to act is NOW!

    The 2019 theme, “25 Years of Democracy: Growing South Africa Together for Women’s Emancipation” is as apt as it is timely.

    The rallying cry is simple: without women’s active and equal participation in every sphere of governance and the private sector, the Rainbow Nation (like every other country) would not grow.

    Said otherwise, without emancipating and empowering women, social and economic growth would remain a mirage.

    This submission is not different from what the African Union recognised a few years ago.

    The AU had prioritised women participation by declaring 2015 as the “Year of Women Empowerment and Development towards Africa’s Agenda 2063.”

    It has been four years after that declaration at the 25th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the Union in Johannesburg in 2015.

    Is South Africa on the right track?

    In other words, planning for the future – and hoping to achieve those noble objectives – can only become a reality in 44 years if the full and unrestricted participation of women is encouraged affirmatively.

    Leaders in every sphere of society must open the boardrooms and invite credible and knowledgeable women to sit at the decision table.

    There is no short cut anywhere, just one straight road ahead – gender inclusiveness and equality!

    In conclusion

    In conclusion

    National Women’s Day celebration should not be about marches on the streets of Pretoria alone; it is not enough to dish out handouts to appease women, and it is certainly not enough to use women issues as campaign slogans with no definite plans to achieve them in the offing.

    South Africa’s male-dominated political leadership must, as a matter of urgency, muster the will to make affirmative action an essential cornerstone of their policies which, in turn, will signal to the private sector that a new era is here.

    The boardrooms must be of equal representation since leaders make policy decisions – crucial resolutions that have far-reaching implications on the lives of women and all they hold dear.

    Such access to the boardrooms is not only about demanding an equal share in the power balance; it is fundamental and a prerequisite for the survival and progress of South Africa, Africa as a whole, and the world at large!


    *Being submissions culled out of the 2nd Annual Women in Business and Leadership Conference held at Regenesys Business School, Sandton Johannesburg on the 7th of August, 2019.

    The speakers comprised of executives and women from the corporate sector and philanthropy. Attendees were women (and men) from various sectors of the economy and academia.

    The Panelists included:

    • Margaret Hirsh, COE, Hirsch Group
    • Faith Khanyile, CEO, WDB Investment Holdings
    • Saray Khumalo, The first black woman to summit Mount Everest
    • Phuti Mahanyele-Dabengwa, CEO, NASPERS