History of Women’s struggle in South Africa

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Women in Parliament. The opening of Parliament 2005.

Women in the new democracy

Soon after the election in 1994, the new Minister of Justice, Dullah Omar, proposed the idea of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The commission was set up in 1995 and statements were heard by more than 20 000 people, including women. No women applied for amnesty. In 1996 a new constitution (with provision for women's rights) was introduced and importantly for women, a Commission for Gender Equality was set up. The first 10 years of democracy have been remarkable in many ways but there are still a number of crucial challenges to be met.

The first female Deputy President of the Republic of South Africa

When Thabo Mbeki announced in 2005 that the newly appointed deputy president was to be Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, history was made. She became the first woman deputy president of South Africa. The appointment was certainly well-deserved. She is a woman who believes that women need not feel disadvantaged, or need to defer to men, simply because they are women. She has an impressive record not only of welfare work among her people but also as an educator, a campaigner for women's rights and a senior politician.

Women in the ANC government

South African women, across racial lines, have been the source of courage for the entire community in the struggle for democracy. President Thabo Mbeki stated categorically in his book of 2004: ‘No government in South Africa could ever claim to represent the will of the people if it failed to address the central task of emancipation of women in all its elements, and that includes the government we are privileged to lead’. The government's record in this regard is impeccable.

The number of women in official posts at all three levels of government is impressively high. This bears out the terms of the Women's Charter that there will be no discrimination on the basis of sex. Currently women make up 33 percent of the cabinet. Women are also prominent in the diplomatic service. This is indeed a far cry from the days under the minority white government when Helen Suzman stood alone as a woman in parliament.

South African women: The challenges ahead

HIV (Aids) protest at an Aids conference. Durban. 2000. © Paul Weinberg, South Photographs, The Bigger Picture.

South African society remains a pluralist one with huge cultural diversities, and there are many challenges ahead. Furthermore, in modern-day South Africa women are faced with a wide range of issues such as the high crime rate, domestic violence, child abuse, HIV/AIDS, poverty, poor local government delivery and unemployment. Motherhood is still central to most women's lives across the board and women's role in family life is still the basis of a morally sound, orderly society. Although great strides have been made, gender discrimination still takes place in the workplace, and while there are notable exceptions, women are as yet poorly represented in top managerial and executive posts country-wide.

However, women have shaken off the shackles of the past and in their determined struggle against political oppression and gender inequality they have earned themselves a place in the sun in the new South Africa.  In January 2006, there was news that Africa's first female elected head of state, Ellen Johnson-Surleaf of Liberia, was about to take office in Monrovia. In this the 50 year commemoration of the Women's March of 1956 we celebrated the role which women had played in the making of modern South Africa and look towards their future role with confidence.

Last updated : 21-Jul-2015

This article was produced for South African History Online on 30-Mar-2011