The CGE Monitor: Watching the Watchdog

On March 16, civil society organizations convened in Cape Town to discuss the development of a new coalition, the CGE Monitor, to support and monitor the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE). Despite its weighty powers, vested in it by the Constitution and legislation, and a budget of approximately R60 million, the CGE has long been in a state of inertia and disarray. As a Chapter 9 Institution – an independent watchdog body tasked with promoting gender equality – South Africa needs the CGE to be effective in delivering on its mandate.

What is the CGE?

The CGE is an independent entity, established by chapter 9 of the Constitution, that is empowered to monitor and evaluate policies, government bodies, and the private sector to promote and ensure gender equality. It can develop educational programs to foster public understanding of issues pertaining to gender equality. The CGE evaluates pending and existing legislation that may affect gender equality or the status of women, and can recommend to Parliament for the adoption of new legislation to promote gender equality. In addition, it is tasked with investigating complaints received from the public, and can resolve disputes, or refer cases to other government authorities. Importantly, the CGE has the power to subpoena anyone – public officials and individual citizens – in the furtherance of its investigations.

In February this year, interviews for the appointment of new CGE commissioners, and for the renewed appointment of existing commissioners took place in Parliament. Sonke and the Women’s Legal Centre led the drafting of two separate submissions to the Ad Hoc committee conducting the interviews in Parliament. Both submissions were dismissed by the chairperson of the committee as inappropriate meddling on the part of civil society.

The resulting shortlist of candidates included individuals like Amanda Gouws, with great academic expertise and a track record in promoting women’s rights. It also included individuals like former Cape Town city manager, Wallace Mgoqi, who has no credentials in promoting gender equality. Sonke’s own Mbuyiselo Botha was not shortlisted, despite his decades of activism for equal rights and gender equality advocacy in particular. While some gender activists and academics question the legitimacy of the appointment process, the shortlist has already gone through Parliament, and now sits with the President for final appointment.

Due to lacklustre performance by the CGE since its inception, many have given up hope on the ability of the Commission to deliver. The Kader Asmal-led review of the Chapter 9 institutions (including the CGE – the Public Protector and Human Rights Commission are two of the others), lamented the CGE’s passive approach to its mandate. For example, the CGE didn’t leverage its ability to institute strategic litigation on behalf of the public interest, and maintained a narrow view of its powers. While individual CGE commissioners have been strong advocates for gender transformation, opening doors for gender organizations to enhance their lobbying and advocacy efforts, the CGE as a whole must function effectively so that it can be leveraged by ordinary citizens seeking to access their right to gender equality.

Nevertheless, the CGE remains a vitally important Constitutional watchdog body, and one that can make great gains in the promotion of gender equality in South Africa – if it operates strategically and fully uses the powers it is granted. Almost 20 years after the democratic dispensation, South African women still face some of the world’s highest levels of violence, and are more likely than men to be unemployed, earn less for similar work, and carry the brunt of poor service delivery. South African women are also disproportionately affected by the spread and impact of HIV and AIDS.

At present, the CGE hangs in a precarious balance, with confusion over the role of the CGE in relation to more recently established Ministry of Women, Youth, Children, and People with Disabilities. Without stronger performance, the CGE may be viewed as redundant by those in power (although it is not). There is space and need for both the Ministry and the CGE. The CGE is an independent watchdog body that monitors and government, society, and the private sector. The Ministry is part of the executive arm of government; it is not a monitoring body. South Africa needs a strong and independent watchdog for gender equality – it needs the CGE, and the CGE needs civil society support to be a viable entity.

Civil society takes action

Cognizant of the importance of the CGE and frustrated by its lack of performance, the new CGE Monitor campaign aims to provide civil society support to the CGE in the execution of its mandate. If the CGE fails in its delivery, the campaign will effectively be a civil society “watchdog for the watchdog” to help increase the Commission’s accountability.

The Women’s Legal Centre, Sonke, and the Democratic Governance and Rights Unit sought to galvanize civil society support for this campaign with its 16th March meeting in Cape Town, hosted by Heinrich Boell Stiftung. Participants flew from all over the country to provide input into the campaign’s plan, priorities, and structure. With a short-term and long-term vision to increase the CGE’s performance, the campaign partners have developed urgent and timely priorities for the CGE to undertake in the first 100 days of its new term. A longer list of suggested priorities were also developed. These will be shared in a spirit of support for the new and renewed CGE commissioners after their appointment.

Civil society has not given up on the CGE. Now the CGE must pull itself together.