Between Patriarchy and Freedom for Women in South Africa

In South Africa, it is well known that women suffer the brunt of our many social and economic issues. This is largely how females are viewed across South African culture, rather than as a matter of law. According to the Economic Freedom of the World index, South Africa scores 1.0, the highest possible score, according to the gender adjustment variable. This variable measures the extent to which women are treated relative to men under the law.

Not surprisingly, the bulk of countries that score poorly are in the Middle East. South Africa has full constitutionally-enshrined equality between men and women. A good thing too, since this is the second most important variable after low inflation for those countries that want to boost their economic growth.

40 to 50 percent of men in South Africa have perpetrated physical violence against their partners; 1 in 5 women older than 18 has experienced physical violence and 3 women die at the hands of their partners every day. — Oxfam, 2017.

The last point comes from a regression analysis done of all 43 Economic Freedom of the World variables in order to ascertain the impact on GDP per capita growth in a year. It was found that the difference between the most gender unequal countries and the most equal could be as much as 0.48 percentage points in terms of GDP per capita growth.

This is hardly surprising. Putting up arbitrary restrictions on half of your economically active population is not a good idea. Arab countries that restrict women’s rights to work and trade are learning this lesson the hard way.

In South Africa, official government policy may not discriminate against women and that should continue being the case. But we still have a problem with how women are viewed socially. This is not really a matter for government policy, but families, in particular, should strive to free girls and women from the burdens of patriarchal expectations. Girls can do anything they put their minds to, just like boys can.

It is harder to measure the impact of culture on aggregate economic variables like GDP, but the same logic that explains the impact of oppressive (against women) laws on the economy, should still hold when discussing oppressive cultures. It is simply not a good idea to stop someone participating in the economy based on something other than that individual’s competence, which is something only a free market can determine.

Freedom is the birthright of us all, no matter what gender we belong to. Virtually every country on earth has a history of sexist economic restrictions. Only in the past century did this change, and we can only guess at the extent to which the global economy has been stunted by this short-sightedness.

South Africa also needs to deal with threats to the rights of women, like male primogeniture under customary law. This is the practice by which female heirs are overlooked in favor of their male siblings or other male relatives. This cultural practice has undoubtedly had a negative effect on South Africa’s economy despite our gender-neutral written laws.

Male primogeniture is a way of depriving women of their property rights. This becomes a particularly serious problem in areas where land is communally owned, where the traditional authority has effective control over who gets to use the land.

If South Africans are serious about solving the problem of extreme poverty, getting to the point where women have de facto as well as de jure equality with men will be a critical part of achieving that. No country can overcome the magnitude of what South Africa and the rest of Africa need to deal with while tying one of its hands behind its back. Free women and free the economy, otherwise development and progress will remain a dream.

Mpiyakhe Dhlamini is a data science researcher at the Free Market Foundation.

Photo Credit: EPA/Kim Ludbrook