Joy Watson

The National Gender Machinery: A failed enterprise?

Joy Watson
Joy Watson

By Joy Watson

It has been 20 years since the transition to democratic governance. In reflecting on progress made, the question of the contribution made by the National Gender Machinery (NGM) becomes an important one. The idea of a powerful set of institutional structures charged with monitoring gender equity was fought for by the Women’s National Coalition at the time of the transition to democratic governance. The thinking had been that these structures would be located at sites of power and influence in both the executive and legislature and that an independent statutory body in the form of the Commission for Gender Equality would be set up as a watchdog. The NGM was seen as holding great promise and was meant to be a bastion of women’s rights and an important conduit through which women could articulate their policy concerns and issues. Initially, all the structures of the gender machinery appeared to take their role seriously and embarked upon extensive public consultation sessions to inform their areas of activity. Somewhere along the line, however, and for a number of complex reasons, this shifted somewhat and the hope invested in the NGM reconfigured to the point where it was described as being fraught with structural problems, with power dispersed unevenly, broad and overlapping mandates and generally being in a state of disarray.[i]  There have been times when the NGM has been demobilised by internal dissent and disillusionment to the point of reaching a state of virtual crisis.

At a regional level, most countries on the African continent have put in place structural mechanisms for the advancement of gender equity. Forty-three states report that they have national policies on gender. This response by African states is meant to be indicative of a commitment to putting gender on the national agenda. They key attendant problem in giving effect to this commitment has been the inherent patriarchal nature of states on the continent and in fact, across the globe. Mama (2004)[ii] describes the approach on the continent as being a very state-centred one to feminist strategy; aimed at buttressing women against the abusive excesses of both imperial and traditional constructions of women.

It would, however, not be fair to argue that the NGM in South Africa and elsewhere has not yielded some successes in promoting women’s rights. Feminist literature e.g. Gouws (2008)[iii] and Hassim (2006)[iv] shows that there have been moments when the state has been an important site for feminist incursion into policy-making. Despite the contestation about the NGM and its uneven successes, it has, to some extent, created opportunities for the participation of women. There have, in the past, been some significant achievements in terms of legislative and policy reform that can be associated with the NGM. For example, the Joint Monitoring Committee on the Improvement of the Quality of Life and Status of Women in the early years following its inception, was instrumental in the conceptualisation of key pieces of legislation that promote women’s rights such as the Domestic Violence Act (Act No 116 of 1998) and the Maintenance Act (Act No 99 of 1998). The Portfolio Committee on Women, Children and Persons with Disabilities has a track record in trying to monitor the implementation of the Domestic Violence Act and in trying to address problems in this regard. The CGE has also been known to be active in legislative and policy reform and has, together with civil society organisations such as the Gender Advocacy Project (GAP), played a critical role in the 50/50 campaign, a campaign aimed at increasing the representation of women in public office. The former Office on the Status of Women (OSW) engineered the drafting of the National Policy Framework for Women’s Empowerment and notwithstanding the fact that the policy has not been effectively implemented; it envisioned a situation where a gendered analysis was incorporated into the work of all Government departments, something that unfortunately never quite saw the light of day.

As much as there has been some achievements in influencing the policy agenda, the ability of the NGM and state feminism in general to subvert existing power relations has been questionable. The NGM has, unfortunately, not managed to take on the adverse role of patriarchy and religion and there has been significant bureaucratic resistance to the equitable integration of women into the development of public policy. In addition, it has been argued that the South African NGM, as is the case with such machineries worldwide, is elite driven, under-resourced and dependant to a high degree on donor funding. It has also been argued that gender mainstreaming expertise in the state is poorly developed. As a consequence, many of the gains made in relation to gender equality are in those areas where public policy addresses women directly as a category, in areas such as maternal health, termination of pregnancy, violence against women etc. The aspects of public policy where the relationship between men and women need to be addressed, such as the patterns of customary law and land ownership, have been harder to take on. The inclusion of women in the formal institutions of the state has not therefore led to the redistribution of resources and power in ways that change the structural forces on which women’s oppression rests. The reasons for this are complex and have their roots in the tense relationship between feminism and the state’s attempts to take on “gender” through bureaucratic tickbox exercises such as holding events to celebrate Women’s Day. There is therefore no guarantee that having structures such as the NGM can lead to real and meaningful changes in subverting patriarchy and transforming women’s lives.

At a recent dialogue hosted by the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER)[v], the question emerged as to whether or not the NGM has become a failed enterprise. At different points in its history, each of its related structures reached a point of stalemate – such as in 2006 when the CGE commissioners resigned as a result of internal conflict, in 2007 the OSW was left with no staff and when Pregs Govender resigned as Chairperson of the Joint Monitoring Committee on the Improvement of the Quality of Life and Status of Women in 2002. The Ministry of Women, Children and People with Disabilities seemed unable to both develop a clear programme of action and to deliver on the targets it set for itself over the course of the last 5 years, an issue consistently raised in its annual report by the Auditor General. In some ways, the NGM has been set up for failure in that they have not been sites of real power and have been hamstrung by serious resource constraints. One view to emerge at the WISER dialogue was that there has been a lack of co-ordination in the NGM, that the different structures have been so preoccupied by internal conflict and monitoring each other, that they have not had their eye on the ball – the collective monitoring of the state. The critical question for feminists at this point it to consider whether or not it is worth reinvesting energy in the NGM to resurrect and capacitate it or whether it has become a huge white elephant that, after 20 years, has not yielded much. This debate is important to devising strategy for pursuing feminist intervention in the state.


[i] Gouws A, 2006 The State of the National Gender Machinery: Structural Problems and Personalised Politics in Buhlungu et al (eds) State of the Nation South Africa 2005-2006

[ii] Mama A 2002 “Demythologising Gender in Development: Feminist Studies in African Contexts” in IDS Bulletin, Volume 35, Issue 4.

[iii] Gouws 2008 “Obstacles for Women in Leadership Positions: The Case of South Africa” in Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Volume 34, No 1.

[iv] Hassim 2006 Women’s Organisations and Democracy Contesting Authority in South Africa, University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, Scottsville.

[v] Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, Dialogue on the National Gender Machinery, 6 August 2014


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