On 30 September 2017, Democracy Works Foundation (DWF) in partnership with the South African Union of Students (SAUS), The Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre (JHGC) and Business Leadership South Africa (BLSA) hosted an inter-generational dialogue of young and senior women in leadership.

Inspired by the theme of Heritage Month – ‘Reclaiming, Restoring and Celebrating our Living Heritage’, the dialogue recognised the linked, generational struggles of women to redefine their representation and participation in democratic spaces and political leadership. It further explored ways of cross-collaboration across disciplines towards creating a shared future that advances women as change leaders.

Held at the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre the dialogue hosted a diverse cross-section of society with the 65 participants representing student groups, youth organisations, business, academia, trade unions and civil society. It presented a vital platform for participants to share personal reflections and insights on themes of gender and democracy, systemic oppression and political agency, as well as ways to strategise around increasing women’s representation in democratic spaces.

DWF director, Busi Dlamini opened the dialogue pointing out that the work of ensuring healthy democracies required that access to democracy not be taken for granted, nor responsibility for strengthening democracy abdicated. She highlighted the ever-present challenge of including not only women’s voices, but the more marginalised dimensions of women’s voices – colour, age, class, location, and sexual orientation – as well as African and global perspectives into the broader framework of strengthening democracy.

SAUS representative, Fasiha Hassan challenged participants to lend strength to each other in their efforts towards building a democracy that benefits women, particularly those disadvantaged, and to consider what interventions might bring about such necessary changes.

Guest speaker and former ANC Member of Parliament, Dr Makhosi Khoza added to these issues by highlighting the challenges faced by women in the current political environment.

In such an environment, girls and women are discouraged from being vocal participants in democracy. “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller,” she said. Women are obliged to exercise caution and remain in a constant state of alert in order to understand their environments. They face a pre-existing disadvantage in their engagement in democratic spaces by the very virtue of being women”.

She spoke of the need for South African women to make themselves heard and their presence felt, to find spaces to excel in and in so doing force recognition, for; “human nature cannot resist logic and sense. If you do it well, you must be recognised”.

Working from the recognition that access to democracy is not equal, the event provided a platform to create a community for women in which to undertake the necessary work of engaging on and building an intersectional democracy that is inclusive.Spanning the gender, race, sexual orientation and age

Spanning the gender, race, sexual orientation and age divide, participants contributed to discussions facilitated by a select group of senior women in leadership and facilitators. The discussions revolved around unpacking the first session question of, “What are women’s unique and honest lived experiences with democracy?”

While acknowledging that some progress has been made to forward the cause of women and other marginalised groups in South Africa, the discussion reflected the ongoing lack of inclusivity experienced daily by women and the sense of frustration at continuing to exist as ‘other’ in a male-dominated world.

Women spanning the corporate sectors from banking to law reflected on the lack of meaningful representation and transformation within these spaces. The importance of giving women access to better career opportunities in a world where such access remains limited was highlighted as being essential.

Education remains critical to the upliftment of women. While it is taken for granted that all South Africans know their constitutional rights, it was illustrated that in reality, many South African women, particularly those in rural areas and disadvantaged circumstances remain ignorant of their basic rights.

Other obstacles to accessing democracy that was highlighted over the course of the discussion encompassed prevailing cultural norms, the lack of transformation of language and inadequate engagement. This exclusion from democratic processes not only disadvantages the excluded but robs the process itself of the wealth that comes from including marginalised voices in efforts to uplift society.

A prevailing refrain during the course of the dialogue highlighted the emotional burden women face in challenging layers of sexism, racism and other forms of marginalisation, and the importance of openly acknowledging this.

The second session discussion noted the chasm between South Africa’s progressive constitution counter to the reality and challenges of living in the current socio-political climate in South Africa

It was suggested that political bodies and organisations that purport to drive a non-sexist approach to democracy, but in practice reinforce patriarchy and female oppression, are in need of review. Either, they benefit from the modern perspective that new, young voices might bring, or alternative spaces should be established for women’s politics.

South Africa’s youth were identified as being central to advancing a more inclusive transformation process. Political youth movements, which hold an important place in advancing inclusive democracy were also considered to be in need of review, since, impeded by party politics, they are becoming sites of apathy and disillusionment.

Throughout the dialogue, participants emphasised the importance of recognising one’s individual responsibility for advancing democracy and leveraging collective efforts rather than focusing on what government and institutions are doing or failing to do. It made a call for the development of a sustainable, inter-generational feminist movement in South Africa that may help enable greater participation of women in decision-making processes.

Busi Dlamini closed the dialogue by reminding participants of the opportunity women have to shape each other’s thoughts and ideas and improve upon how they take responsibility for advancing women as drivers of democracy. Acknowledging the female talent, great minds and leaders at the dialogue and in the country, she encouraged women to strive to influence the spaces they inhabit, to energise each other and move forward collectively.

The dialogue successfully demonstrated the collective power and energy of women provided with the space to engage, drew to a close with a strong sense that the conversation once begun needed to continue. It further showed the impressive social awareness of young people, particularly women, and the value of nurturing and building youth movements to advance democracy.

Democracy Works Foundation's Chief Editor can be one of our communication team members, a director or a Reference Group member.

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