Women in Policy Making: Thoko Mpumlwana

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Women in Policy Making: Thoko Mpumlwana

26 Oct 2019

4min min read
  • Women's rights

In the fifth edition of our series focused on 'Women in Policy Making', (see Part I, II, III and IV), Lynsey Chutel, a freelance reporter and producer, sat down with Thoko Mpumlwana, Director at Gender Links and long-term activist in South Africa.

Thoko Mpumlwana has always grappled with gender equality in some form or another throughout her life. Now on the board of non-profit Gender Links, the 66-year-old has had an illustrious career, serving as a commissioner for the Commission for Gender Equality and has sat on numerous boards, including the Independent Development Trust (IDT), the Foundation for Human Rights (FHR), the Women’s Development Foundation (WDF), South African Women in Dialogue (SAWD), the Film and Publication Board (FPB), and the Council of the University of Pretoria. 

Gender equality has been ever-present in the professional roles she has played, precisely because of her foundation, an exception for a young black girl during the apartheid era.  Raised by an activist mother and educated at the girls-only Inanda Seminary outside of Durban, equality for women was a concept the young Mpumlwana took for granted. 

“We were never made to feel inferior,” she says, marvelling at the sense of confidence the school instilled in young women, while also laughing at the memory of studying domestic science, which today would be considered a gendered curriculum. 

But it was at university in the arena of student politics that she began to reckon with inequality, particularly the priorities within the student movement. It was the 1970s and students at Fort Hare were consumed with the fight against apartheid – a cause for which Mpumlwana would later be expelled - but the women activists also fought on another front, that of gender equality. 

They were forced to prioritise the broader struggle for racial equality over that of gender equality, with the dominant narrative, particularly from the young men who dominated student politics, that the two could not be fought at the same time. Ambitious young women would undersell themselves for the sake of the broader struggle, says Mpumlwana.

A member of the Black Consciousness Movement from high school and at the time of Steve Biko, Mpumlwana and her contemporaries were grappling with issues of intersectionality long before it became the term du jour. While she did not study feminism at university, her experiences and interactions with other women activists introduced Mpumlwana to the theories of gender equality, and the lived experience. She did not struggle to reconcile her own Christian beliefs and African identity with feminist theory, rejecting the critique that this was a western concept.  

It was also during this time that Mpumlwana, then Mbanjwa, met her husband Malusi Mpumlwana. Beyond the university campus, Mpumlwana’s work in the church exposed her to further entrenched issues of gender inequality. 

“We were still struggling with very simple, mundane issues, of what role women are playing in the church,” she says, particularly on leadership in the church and the ordination of women. Now a bishop of the Ethiopian Episcopal Church, Malusi Mpumlwana credits his wife for the initiative the church showed in destigmatising HIV/Aids at the height of the pandemic.  

“We are not where we ought to have been by now,” she conceded.

Yet, in a new political era, Mpumlwana believes that women still bear the brunt of socio-economic equality. While the gains made after apartheid were enormous, it is still women who have the highest levels of poverty and unemployment and it is the rising number of households headed by single mothers who are stuck in a cycle of poverty.

If policy priorities were up to her, Mpumlwana would focus on education and economic policy in order to level the playing field, particularly for poor women. Take the thousands of women who support their families as informal traders, Mpumlwana says by way of example. These women have to navigate red tape and a hostile bureaucracy and the innovation hubs and start-up incubators that have sprung up to support small to medium enterprises but rarely focus on women, despite their contribution to the informal economy. 

The education system in turn focuses on preparing young South Africans for degrees without proper opportunities for graduates. What’s more, women are disproportionately represented in the social sciences, facing even scarcer employment opportunities, she says.

Feminism doesn’t mean a world without men and women’s empowerment will not disempower men, but Mpumlwana says she has faced backlash from the men she has worked with and spoken to. As a solution, she’s drawn on South Africans’ experiences in racial reconciliation and the need for transformation, arguing that the same lens and empathy should be applied to gender equality. When it comes to matching progressive laws with patriarchal customs, Mpumlwana says this needs to come from within communities and organisations. 

“We need more networks, more champions of causes with a focus on human rights,” she says. These champions could foster buy-in from communities on transformation, translating it from the sometimes alienating language of policy to a grassroots dialogue. “The issue of justice and equality and the humanity of the other cuts across but I cannot be prescriptive because contexts are different.” 

"You have to listen, you have to put on your gumboots, go there and listen to the people for whom the policy matters most."

South Africa is lucky because it has a strong civil society. Beyond our borders, Mpumlwana holds Kenya in high esteem. 

“I’ve always looked up to Kenya,” she says, as  she fondly remembers the women activists from Kenya who guided their South African counterparts in the run-up to the first democratic elections in 1994. But Mpumlwana is less impressed by Rwanda, now held up as the model of gender equality with the majority of parliamentarians being women. 

“Because there’s a benevolent dictator—that’s my belief—they can behave, but we don’t know to what extent those women in Rwanda can be said to be champions if the benevolent dictator is not there, to what extent they will uphold equality.”

Even in South Africa, while gender equality is enshrined in our progressive constitution, it has not been fully inculcated by the population at large. It is why, Mpumlwana says, any policymaking should start on the ground. 

“You can never be a policy maker if you don’t know what it is happening and you’re not committed to the movement on the ground,” she says. “If you don’t know what is happening on the ground, it will all be intellectual, it will be what the UN says and then you’ll tick the box and say you’ve done it right.” 

“You have to listen, you have to put on your gumboots, go there and listen to the people for whom the policy matters most.” 

(Main image: Thoko Mpumlwana at a press conference at the Film and Publication Board offices on June 1, 2012 in Centurion, South Africa - Gallo Images / Foto24 / Bongiwe Gumede).

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.