n Acta Juridica - South Africa's National Gender Machinery

Volume 2005, Issue 1
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Any attempt to capture the processes and difficulties faced by a developing country, pre- and post-democracy, in its quest to redress inequalities and achieve the twin goals of gender equality and the emancipation of women, will necessarily be both factual and subjective. Women's activism in South Africa is closely intertwined with the complex political history of resistance. The inherited legacy of the past, particularly for black women, includes oppression and discrimination based on gender but also on factors such as race, class, religion, ethnicity and geographic location. These factors have all played a role in shaping women's struggles against oppression and discrimination. It has been argued that race and class divisions have differentially shaped the political consciousness of women. For example, white middle-class women's struggles were largely focused on issues of political equality and their legal status, while the political struggles for black women involved claims for political and economic equality within the transformation of the state. The task of redressing systemic structural discrimination in general and gender discrimination in particular, required a multi-pronged approach by South African activists. The approaches included the constitutionalisation of gender equality and non-sexism, affirmative action measures and also setting up structures and systems to address gender equality and the advancement of women.

The existing international discourse and vision was one of promotion of the concept of National Gender Machineries (NGM), as one mechanism to address women's inequalities. The vision was to develop structures, mechanisms and strategies for achieving equality for women in all spheres of life, both private and public. The United Nations Decade for Women (1975-1985) had also led to demands for the generation of data on the status of women, for policies to address women's needs in development, and also for setting up national machinery to promote women's integration into development. The 'Forward-Looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women' document, which was adopted at the World Conference to Review and Appraise the Achievements of the United Nations Decade of the Women: Equality, Development and Peace in 1985, also called on governments to establish appropriate government machinery for monitoring and improving the status of women. The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action adopted at the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993 urged 'governments, institutions, intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations to intensify their efforts for the protection and promotion of human rights of women and the girl-child'. The 1995 'Beijing Platform of Action', Strategic objective H, similarly calls on governments to create and strengthen national mechanisms for the advancement of women; integrate gender perspectives in legislation, public policies, programmes and projects; and to generate and disseminate gender disaggregated data and information for planning and evaluation. This vision was followed by activists in South Africa.
This article does not claim to be a full analysis of the success or failure of South Africa's NGM, but is rather a history of developments in the quest for gender equality, and also the personal experiences of women activists. Its focus is on the progress of the development of the NGM reflected in policy documents, assessments of progress and academic analyses of the situation. It draws on the first-hand experience of activists to a limited extent only. This limits the analysis to some extent as does the fact that it is written by a lawyer and not an anthropologist or sociologist. The other limitations include a recognition that it is difficult to judge whether the twin goals of gender equality and women's emancipation, through the setting up of gender structures, are a realistic outcome after approximately eight years of existence; and a realistic approach that recognizes the impact of deeply embedded structural and systemic challenges that existed pre-1994 and continue to exist in a rapidly changing climate of political and economic change. Despite such limitations, the paper attempts to make visible numerous relevant analyses which resonate and which also provide the basis for some conclusions.

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