SOURCE: Pambazuka
To what extent do South Africa's municipal participation mechanisms enable meaningful engagement in development planning and local governance by poor or marginalised women? What interventions or alternative approaches are required? This article finds a disconnect between women's experience and knowledge and state policy and programmatic responses. It proposes two, formally linked, strategies to address this problem: 1) the creation of women-only forums, supported by training, to enable women to develop recommendations; and 2) the input of those recommendations into formal participation structures and processes.


South Africa's Constitution states that 'local government must encourage the involvement of communities and community organisations in the matters of local government'. Despite legislation on participatory local governance, however, the state's public participation exercises remain cosmetic and peripheral. They do not yet involve a genuine attempt to solicit community input to inform policymaking.

The key vehicle for citizen engagement in municipal processes is the ward committee. This develops a ward Integrated Development Plan through community-based planning and facilitates the consideration of community issues in council deliberations. Ward committees are intended to include up to ten people representing 'a diversity of interests' in the ward, with women 'equitably represented'.

Regarding women's participation, in 2007 the Department of Provincial and Local Government launched a Gender Policy Framework for Local Government, outlining comprehensive institutional arrangements to address gender and a detailed Gender Management System. Initial research suggests, however, that despite this elaborate gender-focused machinery and the provision of guidelines on gender mainstreaming, gender remains a 'side issue' in local government:

  • In local development processes, participation by women is variable. Even where women dominate in numbers, they have limited influence due to power relations within institutions.
  • The current system of ward committees, the primary driver of public participation at the municipal level, does not in itself enable meaningful citizen deliberation of development and planning issues, let alone women's full participation. The Municipal Structures Act stipulates that ward committees must include 'equitable representation of women and of a diversity of interests in the ward'. In practice, municipalities have tended to understand this as, after ensuring geographical representation, including 'one member from each sector representing women, youth, business, religion and the disabled'.

Given that new participatory spaces tend to reproduce existing power relations, mechanisms for participation must be designed and implemented differently if they are to enable women to influence state policy and programmes. The water committee model indicates the potential for participatory structures to be designed that, supported by training, enable women to articulate their needs and preferences in technical local governance processes. However, the inclusion of men in water committees resulted in women being marginalised. Women-only forums are therefore likely to be needed to protect women from inequitable power relations, enabling them to develop agendas that can be voiced in formal decision-making processes.

Issues requiring further research and experimentation include the location of a women's forum. Should such a forum be a formal component of the municipal participation architecture, or should it be a civil society forum?

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