THE struggle for women's rights, long overshadowed by the broader struggle against apartheid, has entered a new phase in the run-up to South Africa's first democratic ballot.
South African women of all races are seeking a unified position to ensure that gender equality is enshrined in the new South African constitution.
The government has responded by addressing women's rights in its draft Charter of Fundamental Human Rights and by simultaneously publishing three draft bills, which advance the position of women relating to domestic violence and establish gender equality in the workplace.
"The fact that women constitute 54 percent of eligible voters in the next general election stresses their political clout...," says Professor Ronel Erwee of Pretoria University's Graduate School of Management.
According to Margaret Lessing, director of the independent Women's Bureau in Pretoria, women's rights in South Africa have lagged behind Western countries because of the "inherently chauvinistic tradition" of South African men - both black and white.
"Nevertheless, women have made spectacular advances in this country since the Second World War," Mrs. Lessing told the Monitor.
The Women's Bureau, established in 1980 as a watchdog group to represent some 27 non-political women's groups, has played a key role in formulating and improving the government's draft legislation on women's rights.
"Now political parties are focusing on women's issues more actively than ever before, because they want the votes of women - particularly black women who will be voting for the first time - in the first democratic election," she says.
In the past, the struggle for women's rights has been divided along racial lines, and anti-apartheid women's groups have tended to pursue broader political goals at the expense of promoting women's interests within their parties or groups.
"It is difficult for South African women to talk only about women's issues. The issue of race is always there," says Glenda Simms, President of the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women and a participant in a recent conference on gender equality convened here by the Women's National Coalition (WNC) and the Washington-based Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
The WNC, a national umbrella body bringing together some 54 women's groups nationwide, was established in April 1992. The WNC conference May 7-9 illustrated that black women activists are reluctant to part company with their political groups as the vehicle for pursuing women's interests. Three draft bills
Some delegates at the conference, which was not empowered to take binding decisions, backed a call on government to withdraw the three draft bills on women's rights because there had been inadequate consultation with the women and no acknowledgment of the WNC. But most groups represented at the conference appeared to favor passing the bills once improvements are made.
The conference also discussed mechanisms to implement constitutional provisions enshrining women's rights.
Details have not been finalized, but several proposals were made for gender advisory councils to coordinate women's interests in various ministries..
"Women's organizations, whether in the church, politics, or the workplace, have tended to see themselves as agents of other people's interests - social agents - but rarely agents of their own interests as people and as women," says Mamphela Ramphele, a medical doctor and deputy vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town, in an opening address to the WNC conference.
"It is my considered opinion that a vibrant women's movement is not in evidence in South Africa," said Dr. Ramphele. "The Women's National Coalition is the first such an effort."
The issue of political independence was raised during one of the workshops held at the conference that was exploring mechanisms for ensuring that constitutional commitments to equality were carried through.
During the discussion, Ms. Simms advised delegates to make sure that enforcement agencies were staffed by women without party political affiliations.
"Women committed to women's issues are always better than a party hack," she said.
This proved to be a challenging assertion at a conference where most women had become involved in women's issues as a result of their political involvement. Party shackles rejected
"I have not yet achieved clarity in my own mind regarding the need for the women's movement to be nonpolitical," said Nomzizwe Madlala, whose involvement with the black consciousness philosophy in the early 1980s helped her find her identity and deal with whites as equals. "I would not allow my party to shackle me in the striving for the emancipation of women, but I am not saying that we cannot work together," she said.
Black women have borne the brunt of suffering under the apartheid system and the added legacy of traditional African customs and laws which assume the subservient role of women.
Most prominent of these practices are polygamy and the system of lobola, whereby the parents of the prospective husband must pay a dowry to the bride's parents.
In terms of traditional law, African women are subject to the guardianship of their customary law husbands (as many as 50 percent of rural African marriages are customary - civil, not legal), which places them in a position of perpetual tutelage.
"African women are still in the position of having to strive for formal equality within the system of customary law," Professor June Sinclair, deputy Vice-Chancellor of Witwatersrand University said.
Many black women are also reluctant to confront these traditional practices. But there is a growing awareness that they are fundamental to the emancipation of African women.
"We need to identify which cultural practices are obstacles to the emancipation of women," Ms. Madlala said.
"We certainly have to be aware of the patriarchal nature of traditional society, but I don't think you can sweep aside everything that is traditional," said Madlala, a married mother of two whose political involvement in the liberation struggle led her to the women's movement.
White women have fought a protracted battle against sex discrimination and have been largely successful in achieving formal equality.
But they are poorly represented in some key professional sectors, and some women's groups advocate affirmative action in the form of a quota system.
"I don't believe in the quota system," said Helen Suzman, the veteran civil rights campaigner who was the lone voice of the liberal Progressive Party in the whites-only Parliament for more than a decade.
Mrs. Suzman, an active participant at the conference, advocated direct participation for women in top government decisionmaking bodies as the most effective means of sustaining pressure for gender equality.
Black women, who have expended much of their energy trying to hold together families broken apart by apartheid practices, like migrant labor and forced relocations, have made impressive headway in the economic sector.
They account for 26 percent of black managers compared with white women who constitute 19 percent of white managers.
Women make up 41 percent of the economically active population, but earn on average only 70 percent of men's earnings.
Although women account for 54 percent of the South African population, their representation in political decisionmaking, national forums, and negotiations for a democratic settlement in South Africa is usually under 10 percent. Few women in power
There is only one woman in the ruling National Party Cabinet, and for decades there were none at all. There are only a handful of women in the white-dominated Parliament in Cape Town.
There is only one woman in the National Working Committee of the African National Congress (ANC) and none among the six national office bearers. There are only 12 women in the ANC's 88-person executive committee.
But the major challenge for South African women in the years ahead will be eliminating the legacy of apartheid.
"It will require much communication and contact to bring back the self-respect that has been taken away from black women so that they will be able to see white women as their equals," said Madlala.