With the dawn of democracy in 1994, many South Africans celebrated because they believed there would be endless opportunities.
But 27 April wasn’t significant only to the black majority who had been denied the right to vote, among other things, but it was also of great importance to women, who’d been marginalised, whose place in society was seen only as being a wife and bearing children.
And although many women played a vital role in the liberation struggle, significant as the role they played was, they were still at the bottom of the food chain.
Fast-forward to 2016 and women are still facing some of the challenges they faced before 1994, if not more. They still earn less than their male counterparts, and their representation as leaders in business and politics is still minimal compared to that of men.
Added to that, they still need to be fully involved in raising their children and being wives. All in all, the challenges women have to deal with haven’t lessened over the years – instead, they’ve increased.
Magdalene Moonsamy of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) was admitted as an attorney at the high court on Monday. She completed her degree years ago, but wasn’t able to do her articles and write the board exam, which she needed to do in order to be a qualified attorney.
Not wanting to give up on her goal – and being aware of how becoming an attorney would be helpful to other women – Moonsamy decided to go back to law school, and in 2013 went back to do her board exam. She also did her articles in 2015.
Of course, this didn’t come easy, as she had to take a step back in her political career and put a hold on her role as EFF treasurer general.
“I had to suspend my political career because the Law Society doesn’t allow you to participate in other remuneratory benefits or any other activity, should you be doing your articles,” Moonsamy explains.
She adds that being a woman in the law fraternity is a challenge on its own as the profession is still dominated by men.
“Being a woman in such an environment, both in a political and a professional environment, is a challenge for any woman in South Africa. We haven’t reached a point where we are at the same point financially to operate on a par with men who occupy this space,” she says.
“It hasn’t been an easy choice and it hasn’t been an easy journey. However, after being politically active and being in a leadership position, to have to humble yourself to the journey of an article clock was a conscious decision because I believe women have to diversify themselves to gain a professional balance,” she says.
Moonsamy believes that gaining more skills and equipping yourself, especially if you’re in politics, not only helps towards your own development but is also beneficial to people you want to help.
“It’s necessary that we don’t create an impression as women that we’re solely dependent on deployment or on a political party. We do have a lot to offer and are able to stretch our abilities and scratch [the surface of] our talents and our potential. That doesn’t come easy. It requires sleepless nights and is more than what an average person can do,” she says.
However difficult and challenging the journey was, Moonsamy says being admitted as an attorney was a great reward.
“In our society, there are women who get their degrees but can’t take them beyond that point. I say this because it took me so many years before I could realise this achievement, because of financial limitations,” she says.
Getting her law degree has also been an eye-opener as it gave her an opportunity to get a broader idea of the challenges women still face. While being admitted as an attorney, Moonsamy says she felt sad when she realised there were no other women of colour being admitted with her.
“Not being admitted alongside other African women was a burden for me,” she explains. “We should still see that the masses are represented sufficiently. When you see that you’re numbered by the minority, you realise the leaders of change haven’t been radical enough and that something in the system is preventing the full emancipation of women. Whether it’s politically or academically, there’s still that thing that inhibits that full progression.”
She adds that women who have the tenacity need to come out and show young women that achieving isn’t just for the individual but for the betterment of society.
“As much as the journey wasn’t easy for me as an individual, I wanted to achieve this because it’s a bigger contribution I can make to society. Then I can [promote] the cause of women in South Africa and women on the continent.”
With women still being sidelined when it comes to opportunities, Moonsamy says they need to work extra hard.
“Last year I started doing a master’s in law and I might have to continue in June this year,” she says. “From there, I’m going to work towards a PhD, so we’re able to say that we own a certain space in society as women – and that our competitive edge and the respect we garner doesn’t have to be on the basis of what we wear or what we look like, but on the credibility of our input and our contribution to society.”