A GEI country brief

by Kari Cousins (GEI Program Manager, South Africa)
Diversity is a key feature of South Africa, where 11 languages are recognized as official, where community leaders include traditional chieftains, rabbis and returned exiles, and where housing ranges from tin shanties to rural mud huts to palatial gated communities. The country has one of the continent’s largest economies and is, along with China, Brazil, Russia and India, a member of the BRICS club of emerging world economic powerhouses. At the same time, it has widespread poverty, high crime rates and persistent unemployment.

Historically speaking, 20th century economic and political developments presented South African women with both obstacles and opportunities to wield influence. For example, labor force requirements in cities and mining areas in the past drew men away from their homes for months at a time, and, as a result, women have borne many traditionally male responsibilities in the village and home. Women have had to guarantee the day-to-day survival of their families and to carry out financial and legal transactions that otherwise would have been reserved for men.

Women have for long tried to influence the course of South African history. As early as 1956, more than 20,000 women of all races came together to challenge an oppressive government and petition against legislation that required “non-whites” to carry identification designed to curtail freedom of movement during Apartheid. Since the fall of the regime in 1994, the event has been commemorated annually as Women’s Day to highlight the strength and resilience of women during the resistance and, today, more generally recognize the spirit and accomplishment of women. Incidents of rape, domestic abuse and issues relating to gender inequality are still way too prevalent in a country that has come so far in the fight against discrimination. Further controversial topics include access to land and support for small-scale farming in rural areas, and the extraordinary expectations for women in urban families who have to work outside the home and, at the same time, cook, clean and care for their families.

On paper, South Africa has one of the most impressive legal arsenals to protect women’s rights. Women hold 44% of parliamentary seats, the third-highest proportion in the world, and 41% of cabinet posts, including many of those often assigned to men, including defense, agriculture, foreign affairs, mining, science and technology, and home affairs. However, more than a decade after the passage of the Employment Equity Act, which requires companies with over 50 employees to hire and promote women (as part of the “previously disadvantaged”), white men still dominate senior management and company boards in both the public and private sectors. A fifth of the country’s private sector boards have no women, and only 10% of chief executives and board chairmen are women. Universities, where more than half of undergraduates are female, have done better, with women now accounting for 45% of academic staff. About a quarter of judges are female.

Although women make up nearly half the labor force, most are in lower-wage sectors, particularly domestic service, and get less than two-thirds of a man’s pay packet. Women are also more likely to be unemployed and to head the poorest households. The introduction of a child-support grant for children up to the age of 18 has helped, but it amounts to only USD 15 per child each month.

South Africa has the highest rate of rape and wife battering in the world. One out of every four women is beaten by their partners. Every minute, at least one woman is raped somewhere in South Africa which statistically means that about one third of South African women are raped in their lifetimes.

Traditional customs die hard. President Jacob Zuma has at least 21 children by at least ten different women, four of whom he married. He is now engaged to another, who is pregnant. In some rural areas women are still expected to walk a few paces behind their husbands. In KwaZulu-Natal, thousands of bare-breasted maidens display their virginal beauty in a dance before the polygamous Zulu king, Goodwill Zwelithini. In villages, teenage girls continue to be forced into marriages with older men who treat them as virtual slaves. Women who do not fit into the community are still sometimes burned as witches, and lesbians are gang-raped to “cure” them of their deviance. The lot of ordinary South African women is still hard but improving!




Explore South Africa on an education and engagement tour
Our two Women & Leadership delegations to South Africa this summer offer interested individuals the opportunity to explore the fascinating Rainbow Nation through the eyes of its women, and to meet and develop friendships with inspiring women leaders.

Program dates: Aug 13-20 (Shahzadi)   |   Aug 27-Sep 3 (Randell)

Program fees: $2,500 not including airfare

Program leaders:

  • Prof. Jackie Shahzadi, PhD of the University of Phoenix is a regularly sought speaker at conferences on women as global leaders. She serves on the boards of Women Graduates USA and the Virginia Gildersleeve International Fund (VGIF).


  • Prof. Shirley Randell, AO, PhD is a renowned expert in gender mainstreaming and public sector reform in developing countries. She served as Vice President of the International Federation of University Women (now Graduate Women International).

For more information, please visit our program page.