Gender Equality: Policy and practice

Gender inequality is alive and kicking in South Africa. This is demonstrated in the continued absence of women in leadership positions in the media and some other economic sectors. Moreover in women’s lack of access to land and economic empowerment, power sharing and decision making and continued poverty of female headed homes.  Maybe the most telling indicator is the continued violence against women. Mfanozelwe Shozi, Chairperson of the Commission for Gender Equality, states that violence against women embodies gender inequality and still is a major concern for most women in South Africa. Violence against women should not only be understood in terms of physical and verbal violence but encompass sexual, psychological, economical and systemic violence. This is seen in many practices linked to traditional and cultural constructions such as female marital rape, female genital mutilation, virginity testing and dowry-related violence. It is also evident in indigenous cultural law practices such, i.e. the system of indigenous customary law which excludes women from the institution of traditional authority, the barring of female succession (inheritance of property as daughters and wives)  to mention but a few. Violence related to intimidation and exploitation of women within most structures in our society, thus within our schools, homes, marriages, relationships, economic and religious institutions as well as the portrayal of women in the media, could also be listed as manifestations of gender inequality.

 This status quo begs the question: “Why do we still see, experience and tolerate this gender inequality in our society and what are the contributing factors to this?” It is much like asking: “How long is a piece of string?” I therefore believe the more appropriate or relevant question to ask is: How do we address these injustices? We have one of the most advanced constitutions in the world regarding gender equality yet in practice women still experience a very different reality. I subsequently argue that legislation and policies alone are not enough. Only once we change the social constructions that we hold (the meaning we put to) regarding the position of women and men in relation to each other, especially as presented in most economic and religious structures, as well as the constructions of masculinity and femininity, will we be able to stem the tide of gender injustice.

 This necessitates addressing and challenging the system of patriarchy: thus the embracing and cultivating of ethical practices in terms of gender awareness and gender equality. This can be actioned by inviting a just social consciousness which will include feminist thought and practices. However, in the recent years there has been a tremendous backlash to feminist ideas. I believe this is due to the fact that during the Apartheid years the majority of South Africans were not exposed to the first and second wave of feminism and therefore feminist ideology did not establish in the general public. Moreover, in the presence of racist oppression and abject poverty, gender issues took a back seat in most black communities during the apartheid years. Within the white society many males believe they have been stripped from their economic and political power in post-apartheid South Africa and therefore for many white males, gender dominance is their last bastion of power, and cling to it for dear life.

 It is important to note that the resistance to feminist ideas is not only from men. Many women, especially those who have had a very traditional and religious upbringing, continue to maintain and reinforce patriarchal ideas and practises. Male domination is deeply entrenched within religious minded people’s marriages and relationship dynamics in South Africa. The 2001 population census suggests that the overwhelming majority (79,8%) of South Africa’s ‘population can be described as reached with a Christian philosophy and ideology dominant in the public life’. In the light of these census figures, I argue that the dominant discourse of patriarchy is still circulating in most religious structures. Patriarchal ways of understanding gender, sexuality and sexual practices will be constitutive in most religious structures and reflected in individuals’ ways of understanding and living. Within a patriarchal understanding of the religious tradition, the husband was appointed as head of the home and the wife as helpmeet in a subservient power relationship to him. These religious discourses need to be challenged and replaced with respectful gender practices which honour personhood instead of femininity or masculinity.

 Gender equality needs to be more than just a numbers game. In order to create an environment and society in which gender equality can flourish gender mainstreaming needs to become general practice and part of the South African gender psyche. Gender issues are not women’s issues alone. I am in agreement with Margret Farley (2010:156) who argues that ‘[g]ender ought not to divide us….Gender wars would cease if we saw that we are not “opposite” sexes but persons with somewhat different (but in fact, very similar) bodies’. As Farley, I too argue that gender ‘gives us no reason to judge other embodied humans as “abject bodies”…, it provides no justification for dominance over one another, or for exclusion, shaming, or doing violence to other human bodies. Whatever the forces and powers of culture and society, they must be disarmed insofar as they make us lose sight of what we share.’  

A process of gender mainstreaming will create an awareness of gender inequality. Part of creating this awareness needs to be an exploration of life-denying gender discourses which operate and circulate in most communities and to map their effects. Take for instance the discourse that ‘men need to be the primary breadwinners of a family’. Since gender mainstreaming has at heart the promotion of gender equality, this means that the rights, responsibilities and opportunities of individuals will not depend on whether they are born male or female (World Health Organisation:2010). I share Roux’s (2010:2) understanding of gender equality as ‘all human beings being free to develop their personal abilities and make choices without the limitations set by strict gender roles and gender relations between women and men in a given socio-cultural context’. Gender equality through gender mainstreaming is not about expecting women to be like men but ‘about allowing women to participate as women in the workplace and in life, about making their unique contribution as women’ (Roux 2010:2). Gender mainstreaming means including – rather than polarising – men and women. Men must assume their share of responsibility and join the feminist struggle against this and other issues that are social issues. This is done by engaging men and women in a process that makes life better for all. Thus creating an accountable and collective consciousness which insists on social responsibility – thus doing uBuntu. A starting point to open discussion could emerge if men became curious and open to women’s experiences, so that they can hear what women say; they need to listen to women’s stories so that women become real people and not objectified others. The silence regarding gender and sexual issues within communities and official structures need to be challenged not only at the grassroots level, but also within the education and training of all children and tertiary learning. This can be done by including a curriculum dealing with gender, power relations and sexuality.

I support Commissioner, Janine Hicks (2010) conviction that ‘gender equality often holds little institutional support: policy commitments to gender equality are not always backed by serious efforts in practice.’ Efforts to promote gender equality will only succeed if the senior leadership of an institution establishes, drives and maintains gender mainstreaming practices. Furthermore, a process of gender mainstreaming needs to include people on all levels of the given context.

 Even with legislation and policies in place, it has become apparent in both the public and private sector that there are invisible elements which continue to marginalise and silence women. The institutional culture within these structures often favours male-dominated environments and mostly do not take gender issues seriously or deem it important. This is often seen in internal policies and practice, ‘such as access to skills training, the addressing of sexual harassment, and the sense that men are taken more seriously and women have to “earn their stripes” – something that is even harder for black women within these positions’ [Hicks 2010].

 To conclude: we need to understand that gender is enmeshed in our constructions of femininity, masculinity and power. The image of power of one determines the image and power of the other. Creating gender equality should no longer only be considered the responsibility of women’s organisations. Men, especially men in government and leader positions need to join our hands in order to create, promote and establish a gender respectful society which honours and is true to our constitution, thus honouring the dignity and well-being of all persons.


Farley, MA 2010. Just love. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd.

 Hicks, J 2013. Gender equity in South Africa – Progress and Challenges. [Accessed 10 January 2013].

Shozi, M 2011. Ten stumbling blocks that hinder women empowerment. [Accessed 10 Jan 2013].

Spies, N 2012. Seks: Nou wat is die eintlike storie? Tygervallei: Nadeli.

Spies, N 2011. Exploring and storying Protestant Christian women’s experiences living in sexually unhappy marriages. DTh tesis, Universiteit van Suid Afrika, Pretoria.

Spies, N 2006.  Journeys into the garden of sexuality: The Voices of women’s sexuality in pastoral conversations. MTh-dissertasie, Universiteit van Suid-Afrika, Pretoria.

Roux, J 2010. Unlocking important concepts underlying Gender Mainstreaming. Unpublished training manual, ITD Training, Pretoria.



Driving to town today newspaper posters on the lampposts announced: The church says no to gay persons. On reading this caption, my soul floods with many different emotions: anger, deepness, frustration and gratefulness.

Anger because of the short-slightness of many churches and believers in terms of how they engage with their faith and the Bible with regards to sexuality. Such believers often employ a very legalistic reading of the Scriptures, that is might I add, of selected verses. Thus those verses which serve their purposes and support their beliefs, whilst other texts are ignored or interpreted with much greater hermeneutic freedom.

Why the deep sadness that moved me to tears? Great sadness about the thousands of gay and gay related people, whose souls have been wounded, trampled on and raped by the imprudent actions of churches all over the world. Sorrow about  churches’ seemingly inability to understand what Christ love means and how to extend that to all persons. Affliction because the church continues to sexualise being gay, just as it does with marriage. This sexualisation of the constitution of marriage is evident when the symbol of marriage is seen as heterosexual sex. How deeply sad that we trivialize a marriage to that of the physical and outward expression of love and passion. In my mind, a marriage union: heterosexual or gay, should imply and entail so much more than just physical love. It is a monogamous partnership in which two people can thrive as equals in the presence of commitment, trust, exclusivity, love, dignity and reciprocated respect. Should this not be the definition of a marriage instead of in what way a couple have sexual intercourse?

Frustration because so many people still do not understand that for the vast majority of gay people, being homo- inter- or transsexual are not a choice but a given. Their gayness is not rooted in the way they have sex, but in  their beings. This is their personhood. A gay person once summarized it so concisely for me: “I am a person who happens to be gay, not a gay who happens to be a person”.

To say to a gay person, you may be gay, but just don’t practice your gayness – live a celibate life – is as good as to say to a person: You are allowed to be a person, but you are not allowed to live. Or maybe the converse is also accurate: You are allowed to live just not to be a person. To love, to be in partnership with another human being, to attach, to share, to touch, to hold, to kiss and yes to enjoy emotional, physical and sexual intimacy is to be human.

You might wonder what it is that I am grateful for in the midst of this injustice. I am grateful that I left the formal church structures some years ago as I was no longer able to be part of an institution which is inherently unjust towards people due to their sexual orientation. I thank God that I no longer have to contravene my conscience because I participate in a structure which forsake and judge people because of their sexuality. Unjust, unreasonable and un-Christ-like.

I continue to lament: How long God, how long will this terrible injustice continue? O Lord be merciful as humanity do not what it does and that in the name of our Gracious God?


In die ry sien ek vandag die koerantplakkaat op die paal wat aankondig: “VGK sê steeds nee vir gays”. Dit vul my met soveel verskillende emosies: woede, hartseer, frustrasie en dankbaarheid. Woede oor die kortsigtige manier waarmee mense met die Bybel en hul geloof omgaan, of dalk is dit glad nie kortsigtig nie, maar juis calculated. Pharos vertaal calculated as “bereken(d), voorbedag, koelbloedig en as mens die sinsnede sou verbreed na “with calculated cruelty”, vertaal dit na voorbedagte wreedheid. So ja, nou pas die term baie beter by die kerk se optrede. Mense maak mos die Bybel en hul geloof pas – by dit tot wat hulle pas, en hul einddoel dien. Dalk is dit wat geloof eintlik beteken: om dit te glo wat nie gestaaf kan word nie, maar wat op eie manier van verstaan en interpretasie berus?

Waarom hartseer voel? Hartseer oor die derduisende mense (gay en gay-verwant) wie se siele deur die kerk se onbesonneheid gekwes, vertrap en verkrag is. Hartseer oor dat die kerk steeds nie verstaan wat Jesus-liefde beteken nie. Hartseer dat die kerk steeds gay-wees verseksualiseer, net soos dit die huwelik verseksualiseer deurdat hulle heteroseksuele seks as die maatstaf van ʼn goddelike verbintenis soos ʼn huwelik gebruik. ʼn Huwelik, heteroseksueel of andersyds, is soveel meer as net die seksuele daad. Dit gaan oor ʼn vennootskap tussen twee mense wat hulself op ʼn geestelike, emosionele, intellektuele en fisiese vlak aan mekaar verbind. Hierdie genootskap behoort geken te word aan liefde, gelykheid, respek en menswaardigheid. Dit is wat ʼn huwelik behoort te definieer en nie op watter manier ʼn paartjie seks beoefen nie.

Frustrasie omdat hulle nie verstaan dat die oorgrootte meerderheid van gay mense se gay-wees nie net is seks gesetel is nie, maar dit is wie hulle is. Dit is hoe hulle geskape is. ʼn Gay persoon het eendag dit so mooi verwoord toe sy die volgende vir my gesê het: “I am a person who happens to be gay, not a gay how happens to be a person.”
Om vir ʼn gay mens te sê dat hy of sy mag gay wees, maar moet dit net nie praktiseer nie, is om vir ʼn persoon te sê: jy mag leef, maar moet net nie mens wees nie, of dalk jy mag mens wees, maar moet net nie leef nie. Om lief te hê, om aan iemand te verbind, om te deel, om aan te raak, te soen, vas te hou, en ja seksuele genot en vervulling te ervaar, is om mens te wees.
Jy mag nou wonder nou waar pas dankbaarheid in hierdie donker prentjie in. Ek is dankbaar dat ek reeds vir baie jare nie meer deel van kerklike strukture is wat mense so liefdeloos versaak op grond van hul seksualiteit nie. Ek is Goddank bly dat ek nie meer my siel Sondag na Sondag hoef te verkrag nie omdat ek deel het aan ʼn kerklike struktuur, wat in terme van sy beleid aangaande gay mense, inherent veroordelend, onbillik, onregverdigbaar en versakend is. Godverlate.

Steeds ego my klaaglied: Hoe lank nog Here, hoe lank nog gaan hierdie verskriklike onreg voortgaan? O God, wees die mensdom genadig, want God-weet ons weet nie wat ons doen nie – in dit in Christus se naam!


I was invited to participate in this year’s Cape Town Open Book Festival, as organised by The Book Lounge and staged at The Fugard Theatre. What a great privileged it was to participate on specifically Heritage Day in the discussion: Is Afrikaners plesierig? (Are Afrikaners joyous?), which referred to how Afrikaans-speaking South Africans define, express and experience their sexuality.

The discussion centred on my recently published book: Seks nou wat is die eintlike storie? (Sex, what is the actual story?) and the literary work, Bloots, which is a collection of short stories with its focus on sensuality and sexuality. The title Bloots was an excellent choice, as it means to go bare-back on a horse or to experience something undiluted.

We found many connections between the intention of these two publications, even though mine was rooted in academia and the other in literature. The intention of both these publications was to portray sexuality in its diverse complexity as being multi-levelled and multi-storied. This reminded me of the constructions we hold in terms of sexuality and how these are formed. The meanings we put to sexuality, are socially constructed, yet many continue to believe there is only one sexual reality to which we should prescribe and accept.

I reason that the expression of sexuality should include and accept a multitude of realities and multiple story lines. However, it is often portrayed as a single line story with predictable outcomes. If one should accept such a single story line, what would this be for South Africa, in other words what is South Africa’s heritage in terms of sexuality?

Sadly, I must admit that this is not a heritage to be proud of, as for many the most constituting factors are that of fear, shame, suppression, but most of all violence and silence. Sexual violence seems endemic to our society, nevertheless, with the exception of a few annual campaigns, there is mostly a persistent silence – even in literary works –  which enables it to continue to breed and prosper pervasively.

It was interesting to note that Bloots included stories which spanned beyond heteronormativity, race and class, yet did not included stories about sexual violence.  Even in this groundbreaking literary work the silence regarding sexual violence pervaded, despite the fact that South Africa holds the invidious title of the rape capital of the world. Rape being the reality of so many, I postulate that it will reflect in people’s stories about sexuality. Does the absence of stories about sexual  violence speak of how power politics and gender prescriptions continue to restrict, censor and determine what is  spoken with regards to gender and sexuality in South Africa?

Looking to the future we need ask ourselves, what heritage and legacy are we busy creating in terms of sexuality in the South African context? Furthermore what role should we as writers, academics and social commentators play in creating a live-giving sexual heritage for our children and their children?


I am journeying with a client who is fighting cancer. This mother of three boys, wife, daughter, sister, friend and mentor to many women – invited me into the sacred spaces of her inner world whilst she is going through extensive chemotherapy and all that it brings. In our last session she posed the question: “What does my life mean and what will I have to show about my life should I die this young?” After our session I reflected on her question by asking myself what I have learnt from her life? In order to answer this question, I need to share some of her story.

Recently, after the cancer spread to her brain, she underwent radiation of her skull. This resulted in the permanent loss of her hair. After a week or so, as tufts of hair started to fall to the ground, she mourned her hair which will never re-grow. Soon there were only a few patches of hair left on her head and then she did the most extraordinary thing: her sixteen year old son was standing next to her while she was shaving the last bit of hair – she turned to him, gave him the razor and asked him if he wanted to make her “smooth”. He was happy to do so. This very practical moment became witness to and of their intense love and respect of each other. For me this action spoke of the trust between them. This moment was about allowing her son to see her at her most vulnerable, yet at the same time holding a position of so much strength. It made me think about allowing people to see us in our vulnerability and how much courage and strength it takes to show our hurt, speak about our insecurities and to acknowledge how fragile we sometimes are.

My client also started to make memory boxes for her husband and sons. Some might understand this to be a sign of giving up or over – that she no longer holds hope. On the contrary, this is about celebrating life and valuing one’s experiences. I thought to myself – each one of us should be making memory boxes. These memory boxes should be updated ever so often. We need to share how we experience life while we live it. Ten years from now I most probably will not remember how I felt about the highlights and lowlights of this year. There are lessons in these moments and if we do not document it, it is lost: to ourselves and to others. One day, my daughter or son, when they are the same age that I am now, might want to know how I experienced or handled age-related challenges. If we document our lives, we will be able to engage with wisdoms gained from our past experiences.

I am learning many other lessons from this journey with cancer. One of the most profound lessons of this journey is our desire to keep our dignity even when disease or other circumstances threaten to steal our grace and composure. It leaves me with the question: what is human grace and how do we live a life that will protect our own dignity but also the dignity of others?


The Spear of the Nation:

I am deeply saddened by the recent events surrounding the Brett Murray solo art exhibition, Hail To The Thief II. This exhibition was hijacked by every possible and impossible pressure group, political party and affiliation to score points in the public eye and to whip up sympathy and loyalty for their own agendas. How sad that this exhibition was commandeered by so many causes, grudges and political motives as we can find in South Africa.

I believe that there are many stories to this exhibition and it could be understood in many ways. I would like to highlight only a few important cultural issues which I see: In most black societies’ a black man’s genitals should never be exposed. It is private but also probably the most graphic symbol of his power and superior position in our patriarchal society in terms of gender relations. It begs the question: was this offensive to Mr. Zuma and his supporters – yes I am sure it is to many. Was it insensitive and risky to use this image? Of cause it was, but can you think of ANY other image which would provoked as much response and attention?

Is this racist? To a certain degree some might see it as such. However, in my mind the only racial aspect is that many white (and black) South Africans) did not realized how sexually repressed we are as a nation and how differently we interpret sexual images. Our almost bewilderment about the different responses by the respective racial/cultural groups of South Africa still speaks about a deep sense of mistrust and lack of understanding of each others’ cultures and ways of making meaning and therefore neither white or black could appreciate the immense reaction to this. I think many of us were surprised but the outrage this painting caused – sadly outraged for very different reasons than one would have hoped for.

Did Mr. Zuma benefit from this circus and media frenzy – I believed he did, as now both his enemies and supporters are rallying behind him to defend his dignity and honor. Is this about Mr. Zuma’s private sex life, multiple wives and mistresses and illegitimate children? Well maybe to a certain degree, but in my mind this was not social commentary on sexual morality as such, but rather on gender morality and political power. When I speak of political power I am not referring to political parties but to power relations. Allow me to explain myself. The media and all other parties involved mostly focused on the Spear of the Nation painting in terms of exposed and vulgar sexuality without really contemplating the context of the exhibition and commentary thereof, as a whole.

To my mind this exhibition was about the abuse of power fuelled by a psyche of entitlement and corruption that has become almost endemic to most power structures in South Africa. It would also seem as many have a sense of retribution – this is now our time to have the good life! Maybe such a state of mind reflects the idiom which states: The oppressed becomes the worst oppressors. For me this state of mind is depicted by the changed position of the raised fist which used to be symbol to proclaiming freedom and strength. In Murray’s painting the fist is now in the position of a fist bounding on a surface – an action which I read as “we demand and  control”. This represents a subtle shift from strength and solidarity to that of power and control. The raised fist no longer represents taking a stand against injustice and freedom for all, but instead that of a demand of loyalty that will be achieved by control and force, whatever it takes. The control and force are supported and established by money!

I believe that this depiction of the coat of arms of the ANC crossed over by with a notice “For Sell /SOLD” comments on money being now the policy maker. I believe that this is a reflection about the ANC having lost the vision and spirit of the Freedom Charter, as it would seem as if it has become an organisation which is willing to re-write history in terms of the highest bidder’s agenda. If so, how incredibly sad and what more opt comment to this than “Biko is dead”!

I see most of the paintings as being about the view of  many South-Africans, who believe numerous comrades of the new regime became obsessed with self-enrichment, power and self-justification in the face of millions of poor people and a youth with so very little promise of any future.

Sadly, as a nation we look at this exhibition and all that we can see is a red penis exposed to the world – shaming and insulting of Mr. Zuma’s dignity and position. Have we become such a sex-obsessed society that we cannot see anything else? How is it possible that the media and most of the South African public zoomed in on the exposed genitals of a man without ever having a conversation with the artist about this “indecent exposure”? What should this conversation have been about you might ask? Well I would love to know what, according to the artist’s understanding, is happening in our society that he felt the need to use this image to make a social comment about abusive power, corruption and lost vision.

However, if we insist to make this painting about sex, let’s do so. Let us look the sexual legacy of our country. Rapes and gender based violence – highest in the world. Need I say: rape is not about sex but about power, which brings me full circle: back to power and the abuse of power. To my mind this exhibition had very little to do with sexual immorality, indecent exposure, sex or lust, but about power and the misappropriation and abuse thereof. Is it only me who can see this message of Brett Murray exhibition or did I got lost in translation or interpretation? Is this about sex or about abusive power? You decide.



In South Africa we traditionally had very specific gender expectations and prescriptions for mothers. These prescriptions were often linked to and reinforced by religious ideas regarding gender roles within marriages. Men were seen as the head of the home and rightful breadwinners of the family, whilst mothers were supposed to be the homemakers/nurturers and the secondary (if at all) breadwinners. A pious mother was one who selfishly sacrificed herself for her family and preferably doing the sacrifice in such a way that no one will notice. Neither was she supposed to expect any recognition for her sacrificial serving of her family and community – thus a “exemplary” mother was subservient, soft-spoken and sacrificial.

These ideas have been internalised by most of the South African societies and many men and women still define motherhood and a mother’s morality in terms of her willingness and ability to be a homemaker. Thus to create a home which is inviting, cook wholesome food, bake wonderful treats, take care and be omnipresent in the lives of her children. She needs to be unconditionally supportive of her husband and be available to her greater family, circle of friend homely and the greater community. A noble idea, but to my mind a very tall order!

Mother’s day cards often sing the praises of women in terms of fulfilling roles of serving, unselfish care for others and always being strong, available and cheerful. Yet mothers are not honoured for taking care of themselves. They are not honoured for developing themselves as separate beings – outside the roles of mothers and wives. They are not honoured for setting boundaries that will ensure their own well-being and happiness. What message do we send to women (mothers) if we continue to only focus on and honour the traditional roles of mothers on Mother’s day?

Therefore I would like to invite you to honour your mothers (biological or other) this Mother’s day in different ways. Honour her for her ambition, for the example to create financial independence for herself, for being wise and taking time out when she needs it, for defining herself as so much more than just someone’s wife, mother or daughter.

This year I would like to honour my mom for always insisting on her right to have her autonomous and independent political views, even if it differed greatly from my dad’s. This caused many disagreements in our home, but now, as an adult, I can appreciate it. I would also like to express my appreciation for my husband’s mother. She raised a man with ideas that are outside the conventional traditional gender ideas. This is no small feat especially if one considers the time and socio-cultural and political context in which she raised her children. I honour these two mothers for their belief that there must be different and more life-giving ways than what the norm prescribed in their time.

Please share with me what unconventional and non-traditional ways of your mother you would like to honor.