THE controversial Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill, which would have obliged companies to progressively achieve 50% representation for women in the top levels of management, has been withdrawn to allow for further consultation.

The new Minister of Women in the Presidency, Susan Shabangu, pulled the bill. It was considered the trophy achievement of former minister of women, children and people with disabilities Lulu Xingwana, but was met with strong opposition from business and opposition parties.

The bill was fast-tracked for adoption by the National Assembly in March ahead of the elections, but President Jacob Zuma has not yet signed it into law. It was processed through Parliament even though it was withdrawn with the agreement of all social partners in the National Economic Development and Labour Council last year due to its vagueness and ambiguity.

Ms Shabangu told Parliament’s portfolio committee on women in the Presidency recently that the bill was tabled without sufficient consultation and would be retabled to allow this to take place. The emphasis in the revised bill would be less on numerically equal representation between men and women.

It would be more on ensuring that there were effective mechanisms to achieve “proper and effective” representation. These mechanisms should ensure the empowerment of all women.

Further, the focus would be on achieving excellence and ensuring that quality was available.

The bill stipulated that public bodies designated as such by the minister would have to submit plans for progressively achieving 50% representation for women in their decision-making structures. Non-compliance carried heavy penalties.

Companies faced fines as high as 10% of annual turnover while the directors or CEOs of designated bodies could be liable on conviction to imprisonment for a period not exceeding five years. The bill would override all other laws dealing with empowerment.

Inkatha Freedom Party MP Liezl van der Merwe welcomed the withdrawal of the bill and expressed appreciation for the “refreshing, new approach” of Ms Shabangu. It was disconcerting that the submissions by the public and private organisations, and comments by committee members, were largely dismissed by the department, she said.

Further, Ms van der Merwe said the bill aimed to empower those lucky few who were already employed in the public and private domain. It was not going to achieve true and meaningful empowerment for all women, especially those in poor, disadvantaged and rural communities.

Business Unity SA director for social and transformation policy Vanessa Phala also welcomed the withdrawal of the bill. The business body opposed the bill as the 50% equity target was “unrealistic and unattainable” and would criminalise employers for being unable to achieve “the impossible”.

by Linda Ensor, 10 July 2014, 09:13