Gender Equality

Women’s rights have come a long way, in South Africa, since Charlotte Maxeke,1 formerly a Kimberley school teacher, became the first black woman to receive a Bachelor’s degree – and that was in 1905. But it has been a slow road – white women were not allowed to vote until 1930, the first group of Indian females matriculated only in 1935, and the ANC officially opened its membership to women in 1943.2

In 1960, only 15.5% of women were economically active, the figure rising only to 31.5% by 1980. There again, until recently (relatively speaking) women could not even enter into contracts without the cooperation of their husbands, and the so-called (male) marital power over the person and property of his wife was abolished only in 1993.3 Before 1994, less than 2% of members of Parliament were women.4

Directed by the Constitution, in 1996 Parliament passed the Commission on Gender Equality Act 1996. It provides for the composition, powers and functions of the Commission, one of the main purposes of which is to promote respect for gender equality, and indeed the protection, development and attainment of gender equality.

The Commission has wide ranging functions, and has extensive powers of monitoring and evaluating the policies and practices of statutory and public bodies, organs of state, and also of private businesses, institutions and enterprises.

Obviously, members of the Commission can conduct investigations, and for this purpose can enter and search premises, as well as interrogate people.

  1. Any person who:
    • refuses or fails to comply with a notice to produce specified articles or documents; or refuses to take the oath or to make an affirmation at the request of the Commission; or refuses to answer any question put to him; or refuses or fails to furnish particulars or information required from him;5
    • gives false evidence before the Commission;6
    • interrupts the proceedings at an investigation or misbehaves in any manner in the place where such investigation is being held;7
    • defames the Commission, or a member of the Commission in his capacity as a member;8
    • in connection with any investigation does anything which would constitute contempt of court;9
    • anticipates any findings of the Commission regarding an investigation, in a manner likely to influence its proceedings, or such findings;10
    • does anything likely to influence the Commission improperly; or11
    • interferes with, hinders or obstructs the Commission or any of its members,12

    commits a criminal offence.

  2. Any person who enters or searches any premises, or attaches anything, without an authorised warrant commits an offence.13

  3. Any person who acts contrary to the terms of a warrant commits an offence.14
  1. The Johannesburg Academic Hospital is named after Charlotte Maxeke. 


  3. The abolition, via section 11 of the Matrimonial Property Act 1984 was introduced in 1993. 

  4. ‘Twenty Year Review’ paragraph 3.2.8. A publication of the National Government, at

  5. Section 18(a) read with section 12(4)(b) and section 12(4)(c). 

  6. Section 18(b) read with section 12(4)(c). 

  7. Section 18(c). 

  8. Section 18(d). 

  9. Section 18(e). 

  10. Section 18(f). 

  11. Section 18(g). 

  12. Section 18(h) read with section 10(2) and section 6(1) or section 7(1) or Section  7(5). 

  13. Section 18(i) read with section 13. 

  14. Section 18(i) read with section 13.