News & Media

Reflecting on freedom and equality on Freedom Day

Prof Edith Phaswana, Acting Head of Academic Programmes: Thabo Mbeki School of Public and International Affairs, Unisa

Every year on 27 April, South Africans observe Freedom Day, the anniversary of South Africa’s first non-racial election held in 1994, and the day that marks the country’s liberation from 300 years of colonialism and the end of apartheid. Celebrating 27 years of freedom and the end of discrimination, it is also the opportune time to reflect on our journey towards equality and empowerment both in terms of race and gender.

Since 1994, the country has made significant strides in improving the social, economic and political lives of the majority of its citizens. There has been some progress in reducing the inequalities that existed during apartheid, although the effects of apartheid still linger in the South African society.

During the transition, South Africa signed several international treaties and conventions, and regional charters and protocols designed to eradicate all forms of discrimination in society, including racial and gender discrimination. At the highest level, government institutions were created to ensure that gender equality principles are inserted in legislations. As to whether these initiatives have been able to effect change in the lives of South African women, remains a subject of contestation.

The government demonstrated political will to support gender equality and empowerment of women through legislations, policies and institutions such as the Commission for Gender Equality Act 39 of 1996, the Equality Act 4 of 2000, the Commission for Gender Equality; the then Office on the Status of Women (established in 2007) and the now Ministry of Women, Youth and People with Disabilities. However, without the necessary resources allocated for the implementation of these ideals, the achievement of gender equality and women empowerment remains only an ambition. Women’s equality and socioeconomic independence are important for domestic development and growth, and constitutes a vital part of sustained development and democracy. This is because gender inequality tends to amplify all other disadvantages and at the same time heighten vulnerabilities.

As we celebrate Freedom Day signalling the end of inequality and discrimination, there are some changes and continuities regarding women’s life experiences worth reflecting on. The changes include the advancement of women into key decision-making and leadership positions. South Africa ranks third out of 12 countries of Southern African Development Community in terms of women leadership, just after Lesotho and Namibia. According to the Department of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities’ 2019 findings, more women have been participating as cabinet ministers, judges (from one woman judge in 1994 to 35.5% women judges in 2018) and Members of Parliament (41.7%). The gap between women and men at senior management level within the public service has also been narrowing from 5% in 1994 to 41.3% representation in 2018.

However, the gap between men and women at top management level in both the private and public sector remains wide. In 2019, the representation of women at top management in the public service was below 30%, while men were consistently above 70%. The picture at public universities does not look much different and, since 2015, only 5 out of 20 vacant positions for the vice-chancellor have been filled by women.

The South African population remains divided in terms of race, gender and space. The levels of inequalities are deepening, threatening the already fractured society. Women experience inequalities, barriers to opportunities, poor access to services and worrying forms of violence. South Africa is a perfect example of how gender legislations and policies are not a panacea to improving the life circumstances of women. Laws passed without necessary resources and support, including targeted training for those implementing them, are likely to yield no tangible outcomes for the beneficiaries. Poverty, inequality, unemployment and violence continue to affect millions of especially black women living in rural areas.

The phenomenon of violence is a thorn in South Africa's social fabric. The 2018 Global Peace Index found South Africa to be one of the most violent places in the world, ranked 38 out of 163 because the country has one of the highest murder rates found globally outside of a war zone.

Sexual and gender-based violence remains one of the biggest challenges facing South Africa. In 2016, South Africa had the fourth highest female interpersonal violence death rate out of 183 countries in the world. Sexual offences remain the most common form of sexual and gender-based violence affecting women.

The scourge of violence against women is threatening social relations at familial, workplace and societal level. South Africa needs to work towards the total eradication of all forms of discrimination to achieve its constitutional aspirations of equality, dignity and human rights.

* Submitted by Prof Edith Phaswana, Acting Head of Academic Programmes: Thabo Mbeki School of Public and International Affairs

** Teaser image sourced from

Publish date: 2021/04/27