- Women in the South African Parliament: From Resistance to Governance
With its 2003 election, Rwanda catapulted to the top of the list of countries with high percentages of women in a single or lower house of parliament. Nearly half the seats in Rwanda's Chamber of Deputies are now held by women. As the result of that election, Rwanda jumped ahead of several Scandinavian countries, which had long led the world in percentage of women in a national legislature. Elsewhere in east and southern Africa—Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, Mozambique, Namibia, and South Africa—women made great inroads into parliaments in the 1990s and 2000s, usually achieving memberships in the 30-percent range. Women in these countries were on a fast track, whereby, primarily through the use of electoral gender quotas, they were entering parliaments swiftly and in unprecedented numbers. Eschewing an incremental track—which may take decades and rely upon socioeconomic, cultural, and political developments—women are opting for the fast track (Dahlerup and Freidenvall 2005). Recent studies have examined the use of electoral quotas to gender parliaments in Africa and beyond (Dahlerup 2006).
But what happens once this cohort of women reaches parliament? For one African case, Hannah Britton's Women in the South African Parliament: From Resistance to Governance helps answer that question. Joining Sylvia Tamale's earlier (1999) study of women in the Ugandan parliament, Britton's book is one of few book-length treatments of the subject. Relying heavily on exemplary qualitative research, in which Britton, the expatriate researcher, painstakingly locates herself, it utilizes interview material with dozens of female Members of Parliament (MPs) during two formal periods of research, in 1996–1997 and 2003, participant–observation, and archival research. In so doing, it gives us glimpses of some of the newest members of South Africa's parliament—and their accomplishments and challenges.
As in many African cases, a postconflict or posttransition period offered a window of opportunity in South Africa. The transition to black majority rule, the writing of a new constitution, and the drafting of new electoral laws gave women activists an opportunity to ensure that women would have greater political participation and political representation. In 1994, after one election, the percentage of women in national office leapt from 2.4 to more than 26. The percentage increased significantly again, in parliamentary elections in 1999 and 2004. In seven chapters, Britton takes us from the pretransition period to future generations of women MPs. She [End Page 117] describes the implementation of a national gender machinery, women's roles in South Africa's liberation struggle and transition to democracy (in particular within political parties), women's integration into South Africa's first parliament, identities among them, institutional and legislative changes wrought largely by them, and their future as parliamentarians.
Women in the South African Parliament is replete with compelling findings. Britton argues that in South Africa, as elsewhere in Africa, women and women's groups sought to underscore shared identities, rather than differences, in order to rebuild their nation after war and interethnic strife. This tactic was manifest in the unity forged within the Women's National Coalition (p. 39). Britton documents the political learning that prompted South African women exiles to rely upon high levels of associational autonomy during the political transition in order to ensure their demands for political representation (p. 42). Britton recounts many challenges stemming from the genderedness of the legislature and bureaucracy that the new cohort of female MPs in 1994 encountered—challenges including a double workload and resistance from male MPs and the invisible structures of sexism and the double workday. As others have done recently, Britton challenges the concept of "critical mass" as loosely applied in the women-and-politics literature, contending instead that deeply important case-specific factors often limit women's success in political office, regardless of their seemingly high numbers (p. 82). Britton presents a typology of female MPs in South Africa's first National Assembly and finds that those who most closely resembled the majority of...