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Why now is the time for gender transformation to take centre stage

Different lived experiences will enable different kinds of decision-making, suggests Sithembile Mbete.

Dr Sithembile Mbete is a lecturer in the Department of Political Sciences at the University of Pretoria and chats to Aubrey Masango about the importance of transformation.

A World of Answers is a podcast series from the University of Pretoria focusing on the challenges we face in South Africa and solutions to bring about positive changes.

Having someone who was raised in a township, whose mother was a domestic worker and whose father was a labourer, then the lived experience that person has had will make them look at decisions that a business, university or government has to make, differently.

Dr Sithembile Mbete, Political Sciences lecturer - University of Pretoria

When the new government came to power in 1994, its imperative to fundamentally change the nature and the structure of South African society, economy, and politics, was crucial.

This meant shifting society from one that was based on a particular race and gender-based exclusion of the vast majority of the population to one that was inclusive of all.

Dr Sithembile Mbete, Political Sciences lecturer - University of Pretoria

And importantly, she emphasises, to change the values and principles on which South African society operates. But the employment and equity data show that we have not gone far enough says Mbete.

While there have been changes at a cosmetic level, Mbete does not believe this has happened at a structural level.

Cosmetic change is, however, a necessary starting point, as it brings a more representative cross-section of the country's demographics into leadership positions, she argues.

They will then make decisions that are in the interests or representative of the demographic majority.

Dr Sithembile Mbete, Political Sciences lecturer - University of Pretoria

She says this does not always happen in practice, and changing the colour or gender of people in decision-making positions, does not mean they will act very differently to those occupying the same positions before them.

While a deeper conversation about real structural change needs to happen, one first has to change the 'superficial' nature of those occupying positions of power.

It is infinitely harder to have that conversation in a room full of white men than in a room that represents the demographic realities of South Africa.

Dr Sithembile Mbete, Political Sciences lecturer - University of Pretoria

Mbete explores whether the race transformation agenda has been at the forefront, overshadowing the gender transformation agenda.

She argues that the struggles in South Africa around racial oppression under apartheid in the 1970s and 80s meant that issue was prioritised at that time.

But that approach to things did not take cognisance of the concept we now call intersectionality, that's the notion that all forms of oppression interact with each other...and you cannot deal with one without the others.

Dr Sithembile Mbete, Political Sciences lecturer - University of Pretoria

People as individuals are complex and contain within them multiple fluid identities, she explains.

The reality of a black woman in South Africa isn't just shaped by being a black African or a woman. They interact and intersect with each other that lead to opportunities and limitations she faces in society.

Dr Sithembile Mbete, Political Sciences lecturer - University of Pretoria

It also interacts with her class position, she adds.

Transformation, therefore, includes all these different aspects, says Mbete.

How do we do this?

We need to shift the conversation from being about numbers.

Dr Sithembile Mbete, Political Sciences lecturer - University of Pretoria

The conversation is really about values, principles, and cultures, that still dominate structures that shape our society, she says.

In Woman's Month in August, the University of Pretoria celebrated the number of female academics and researchers working at the institution. Of the total 8,900 researchers working at the university, 53% are women, and 2,500 are black women.

Mbete's hope is that society transforms to the point that all are included and able to reach their full potential.


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