Civil Society demands an effective Commission for Gender Equality

This week Parliament holds public interviews to fill the long vacant seats of commissioners  in the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE). The CGE has been in disarray for years and has failed to deliver on its mandate to promote gender equality. It is an organization with a budget of R60 million and weighty powers vested in it by the Constitution that should be used to advance the quality of life of women. It is essential new commissioners are appointed with the vision, capacity and drive to turn the institution around and ensure that it delivers on its mandate to the people of South Africa.

Nearly twenty years after the first democratic elections, South African women face some of the highest levels of domestic and sexual violence of women found anywhere in the world. Women in South Africa are also more likely than men to be unemployed, earn less for similar work and encounter greater barriers to their career advancement. Women also bear the brunt of poor service delivery and are disproportionately affected by the spread of HIV and the impact of AIDS.

In short, there has been far too little progress towards achieving gender equality and ensuring that women in South Africa can access the rights guaranteed to them in the Constitution and laid out in the laws of the land.

The accomplishments of the Public Protector over the last year serve as an important reminder of what a determined Chapter 9 institution like the CGE can achieve when it fully exercises it powers as an independent watchdog. South Africa needs the CGE to be strong, proactive and fearless in the execution of its duties. It needs its new commissioners to be inspired leaders in the struggle for gender equality.

The CGE’s wide array of legal powers, including the power to subpoena any person, including government officials, and to initiate litigation in its own name, could be highly impactful in advancing gender transformation in our country. Instead, the CGE has been reticent, and its mired in financial impropriety, maladministration and internal power struggles, documented in reports of the Auditor General, the Office of the Public Protector, and by the late Kader Asmal in his 2007 review of Chapter 9’s (which has yet to be reviewed by the National Assembly).

In advance of next week’s interviews, gender equality organizations are coalescing to demand that there be drawn a line in the sand. The CGE is too important an institution for South Africans to tolerate its current paralysis. We need new commissioners who have a deep understanding of gender issues, a track record of gender activism, a vision for capturing the potential of the CGE, and skills and experience to enable them to effectively lead the Commission. It is crucial that The Ad Hoc Committee of Parliament appropriately applies itself to selecting new Commissioners.

South Africa has a strong history of gender activism, and gender advocates, like ourselves, look forward to opportunities to work with the new CGE commissioners and support all efforts to strengthen the CGE. At the same time, it is vital that civil society continues to monitor the Institution’s work and demand that its Commissioners are held accountable for delivery on its mandate. We have put forward questions to Parliament that we suggest should be asked of all potential commissioners and used to judge their suitability and will follow the interviews scheduled for the 25th and 26th of January with great interest. This is a critical test for Parliament. It’s a chance to demonstrate its commitment to advancing gender equity in the country, as well as its support for the Constitution and the independent role of Chapter 9 institutions. Both of which have been called into question by actions over the last 12 months.