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SA Research Chair in Gender Politics

For the past five years Prof Amanda Gouws and her collaborators have worked on a book to analyse the design of the South African National Gender Machinery (structures in the state that promote gender equality). The main focus was on the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) that is a constitutional oversight body, written into chapter 9 of the Constitution. Prof Gouws was a commissioner for the CGE from 2012 to 2014 and together with four other previous commissioners, Prof Sheila Meintjes (Wits), Prof Cathi Albertyn (Wits), Dr Janine Hicks (UKZN) and Prof Gertrude Fester (UCT), as well as other analysts that have kept a close eye on the CGE they put together an edited collection on the history of the CGE, from its inception in 1996 to its current dysfunctional state. 

The book titled “Feminist Institutionalism in South Africa: Designing for Equality" appeared with Rowman and Littlefield in October 2022. It is the first South African book to be included in the Feminist Institutionalism series of the publisher. The book deals with feminist institutionalism through asking the key question: can gender equality be designed? It provides a critical analysis of the South African Commission for Gender Equality to assess its successes and failures over a more than 20-year period and provides insight into the design of structures of national gender machineries – how they are designed influences the outcomes for gender equality. The research sheds light on choices for institutional design of national gender machineries during democratic transitions, the co-optation of institutions, the silences and collusions of those selected to work in the institutions, and the resourcing of institutions and their impact on policy making for women's substantive equality.

Embarking from the perspectives of state feminism the authors showed that the original design of the South African National Gender Machinery (NGM) was rooted in feminist imaginaries, activism, and praxis. This is an illustration of the unique trajectory that state feminism took in the transitional state of South Africa, through its design of institutions and a feminist struggle that positioned the South African women's movement as a central node of engagement with the state. 

One of the aims of this book is to show that South African feminist scholars have develop literature and a strong body of theory on state feminism over many years. There are parallels with European and North American scholarship, but important divergences show that state feminism in new democracies and transitional societies that have to transform from authoritarian to democratic regimes run up against different challenges than the global North.  The development of state feminism in these countries is not on a linear trajectory. Research shows that gains are made, and often rolled back, depending on factors that are historically contingent and related to the co-constitutive nature of relationships between structures and agents. The South African case shows a remarkable success story of state feminism, but also a degeneration over time when the relationship between the women's movement and the state broke down.


Some of the main findings confirm findings of the 20 Year Review Report of the CGE, done by the HSRC:

  • ​The CGE has an ambivalent relationship with the state, because it has oversight over the parliament, but is also accountable to parliament.
  • A lack of strategic focus because of the unwieldy mandate set out in the CGE Act.
  • Limited powers to make recommendations binding on the state.
  • A lack of strategic leadership.
  • Insufficient funding.
  • Ideological differences among Commissioners and a problem of commissioners not being non-partisan as demanded by the CGE Act.

But the most important finding is that unless there are committed feminists in these institutions who are also activists who demand change these institutions become captured by technocrats, and action becomes derailed because of infighting between commissioners and members of the CGE secretariat (that do the bulk of the work).

The book captures an important period in the history of institution building in South Africa and contributes to the feminist archive in South African scholarship.

user.pngProf Amanda Gouws