Rwanda & South Africa: Unfinished Journeys

By Dr. Gertrude Fester

It is an irony of history that in April 1994 while South Africans celebrated their first democratic elections, Rwandans experienced trauma of genocide. At the same time that Nelson Mandela was being inaugurated as South Africa’s first democratically elected president, nearly one million people, mostly Tutsis, were killed in 10 weeks of violence that would have profound national and regional implications.

Each country faced enormous challenges. Rwanda was devastated, had no infrastructure, and was left with a deeply traumatized population – many of whom had lost loved ones or had themselves been gravely wounded. South Africa had emerged from a history of colonialism and apartheid that had created one of the world’s most unequal societies. For nearly 400 years, indigenous people were deliberately impoverished and dispossessed (1913 Native Land Act) while the recent history of apartheid brutally codified racial and economic injustice.

In the wake of their respective national traumas, both Rwanda and South Africa embarked on vigorous democratization and transitional justice programs. Both sought ways to address deep social divides and overcome large-scale poverty, while looking to enshrine human rights and equality in their new foundations and each can claim important successes. However, some issues, such as that of gender equality, have seen more mixed results.

South Africa’s efforts, spearheaded by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) gained global attention. In Rwanda, the government immediately initiated procedures to begin healing the divided country. These included the establishment of the annual mourning period of April 7 to July 4, as well as the creation of the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission and the National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide. Rwanda also empowered a process of grassroots community-based truth telling, forgiveness and reconciliation – the gacaca system.

The transformation of the gacacas from a problem-solving structure open exclusively to male elders, to an inclusive one encompassing the paralegal training and including women, showed the value of the gacacas as a tool for transitional justice.  As a result, more than one million cases were heard and the reconciliation process received great momentum with the sharing of confessions, forgiveness and retribution.

Twenty years later, today is an opportune moment to reflect on each country’s efforts to promote values of democracy and equality. As both countries have made a concerted effort to promote the rights and well-being of women –  Rwanda has the most women in government (64%) and SA’s representation has always been in the top six globally – we can now ask what are the gains achieved, challenges still to come, and the gaps yet to be addressed?

The negotiations for a democratic South Africa that began in 1990 and culminated in the 1996 constitution caught the attention of many around the world. During the negotiation process, strategic groups were formed with the aim of helping shape the resulting constitution.  These included the Congress of Traditional Leaders (aiming to assert customary law), the National Women’s Coalition (a strategic coalition of feminist, professional and activist women’s groups) and the National Coalition of Gays and Lesbians.

To reach consensus among the diverse parties with conflicting interests was extremely challenging. However, the tenacity and determination of visionary leaders paved the way for the first constitution (1993), and later the final constitution (1996). South Africa’s new constitution was the first  in the world to ban discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. International and regional instruments were ratified, and laws and gender-sensitive structures were put in place. However, despite these legal protections, domestic violence continues and patriarchal traditions and cultures persist.

Parallel to legal developments is the practice of culture. In both countries, many men and fathers still believe that they are omnipotent lords of families. This view is reinforced by narrow interpretations of religion and tradition and an influx of conservative religious missionaries with considerable resources. While these missionaries have done much to assist poor communities, their traditionalist dogma threatens to overturn the human rights gains of the past.

In addition to cultural practices, economic policy has played a large role in reinforcing outdated gender norms. As a result, confronting inequality means interrogating not only cultural norms, but also the neoliberal economics that both South Africa and Rwanda have embraced. These policies have increased inequality internationally, disproportionately disenfranchising women. Issues such as how the private work of women kept largely outside the realm of wage labor and official GDP statistics must be addressed. There must be a radical transformation of attitudes towards domestic work – still largely seen as a private, women’s-only domain.

How do we change the hierarchical gender relations and attitudes? This is an issue I will discuss at length in future installments, but we can start with a few overarching ideas. First, it is imperative that marginalized civil society groups, especially those focused on women, be strengthened. There are currently no viable national strategic and independent women’s movements that can be a force and promote women’s agency. This is due in large part to the challenge of uniting older feminists with younger women, some of whom believe that equality has been achieved, and some of whom have internalized patriarchy. Some are oppressive towards other women. So there are lots to reflect on and to collectively work towards resolving. The African Feminist Charter(19/01/14) is a comprehensive document that could be a guide to future women’s strategies.

Both South Africa and Rwanda have demonstrated the political will to promote gender equality. But as they go forward, each must ask: How does one embark on a national equality project that does not perpetuate patriarchy? I believe that as long as there are structures promoting and reinfofrcing patriarchy gender equality, the feminist project of women as citizens is unattainable.

There is work to be done. A Luta continua!



Dr. Gertrude Fester is Professor and Deputy Director, Centre for Gender, Culture & Development (CGCD), Kigali Institute of Education, Kigali, Rwanda. She is a former Member of the South African Parliament, and a Commissioner of the Gender Commission. 

[Photos courtsey of UN Women and Antonio Olmedo]

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