Even though a critical mass of women have ascended to leadership positions in scarce skills sectors such as the judiciary, there are lingering challenges that still need to be addressed, says Public Protector Adv. Thuli Madonsela.
She was addressing a dinner of the Higher Education Resource Services South Africa (HERS-SA) Academy in Cape Town on Sunday night. The event was attended by women academics and leaders from the higher education sector.
In her speech, the Public Protector said having women in leadership positions was a human rights issue, specifically, a matter of the right to equality, which is entrenched in section 9 of the Constitution.
She said the act of placing women in leadership positions gave expression to the value of non-sexism, which is one of the founding values of the country's democracy.
"Among the foundational values of our constitutional democracy, is the achievement of equality, which places a positive responsibility on those in authority to actively promote equality. Active promotion of equality includes positive measures to advance women, including putting them at all levels of decision-making in all areas of society," the Public Protector said.
She further stated that putting women in decision-making positions provided organisations and society with an opportunity to harness all available human resources while tapping into women's unique insights based on their gendered experiences.
She said that from the time of Charlotte Maxeke, through the times of Helen Joseph and Lillian Ngoyi, women have always stood for social justice. They have used the space accorded to them in mainstream organisations to pursue of social justice. The Public Protector called upon women in decision-making today to make a difference in favour of social justice and, where necessary, act as a voice of reason in this regard.
While applauding the advent of the Gender Equality and Women Empowerment Bill, she decried the fact that 12 years since the enactment of the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act 4 of 2000, chapter 5 of the legislation, which seeks to strengthen the regulatory framework regarding the promotion of equality, including gender equality, was yet to be implemented.
However, the Public Protector noted progress registered thus far in that the country now had a woman Judge President, a Deputy Judge President and many Regional Court Presidents and Chief Magistrates, who are women. Women also made up over 40 percent of Parliament, Cabinet, Provincial Legislatures and Municipal Councils.
Despite this, she said, women occupying leadership positions faced a number of challenges. These challenges needed to be addressed through lessons drawn from activists such as Charlotte Maxeke, Helen Joseph, Lillian Ngoyi and Albertina Sisulu, the Public Protector advised.
Such lessons included the need to take a stand, acting with authenticity, consistency, integrity, excellence, courage, persistence and resilience. Exercising value-based decision-making, being effective communicators and serving as sources of inspiration to constituencies were also important qualities to strive for.
On authenticity, which she referred to as speaking in one's own voice, the Public Protector told the gathering that genuine action did not always win the "popularity contests" but was the only way women in leadership could make a difference.
"The alternative is to act as a proxy. In that case nothing changes and your presence or absence does not matter ... If you do not make a difference, you do not matter," she said.
One of the keys to making a difference, the Public Protector said, was being dependable and acting with integrity. She cautioned women leaders against being biased in their actions and decisions.
"If you agree with people to act wrongly against another, they get to know that your true character is that you can be swayed and used ... if you act as a proxy, you are disposable as anyone can be a puppet," the Public Protector said.
She said the key to integrity was ensuring that, as a leader, you do what you say, emphasising that it was difficult to follow a leader who said one thing but did the opposite.
It was important that a leader's words and deeds do not only inspire belief and action towards a shared vision, but also hope for a better future, the Public Protector advised, adding that difficult quests were impossible without hope.
She reminded women that things did not always work out as planned despite all the efforts put in. "Success is living up to your full potential with the cards you were dealt with and not living someone else's life."