Back to Africa Check

ANALYSIS: Gender equality in South Africa’s cabinet – beyond the numbers

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has been hailed for the important milestone of appointing women to half the country’s cabinet posts for the first time. 

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women, posted a tweet congratulating Ramaphosa for South Africa becoming “one of 11 countries in the world with gender equal cabinets”. 

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau also tweeted about the country’s “gender-balanced cabinet”, as did UN secretary-general António Guterres and African National Congress chief whip Pemmy Majodina. It was reported by the BBC, AP and CNN.

Ramaphosa announced his new ministers on 29 May 2019. But is the cabinet really one of 11 in the world that are gender equal? 

Split is 47% female – not 50%

The simplest way to measure its gender equality is to count the men and women appointed and compare the numbers to the total cabinet size. 

South Africa now has 28 government ministries. Fourteen of the ministers are women. So there is gender equality in ministerial positions.

But Kevin Foster, an independent policy consultant and political analyst, told Africa Check that this could not be said for the whole cabinet. The country’s constitution says “the cabinet consists of the President, as head of the cabinet, a deputy president and ministers”.

Foster said the president and deputy president “are clearly members of the cabinet”. 

“This is not the case in all countries with parliamentary systems of government, where the president is often the head of state in a ceremonial role outside of cabinet, rather than in a head-of-government role.”

Ramaphosa and deputy president David Mabuza bring the size of the cabinet to 30, and the number of men in the cabinet to 16. 

With 14 women, the new cabinet is currently just short of a 50/50 gender split. It is 47% female.


One of 11 equal cabinets?

It’s more difficult to verify global comparisons of gender equal cabinets. 

Organisations like iKNOW Politics monitor cabinet gender equality around the world. It is a joint project of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, the Inter-parliamentary Union, the UN Development Programme and UN Women

Its latest data is for 1 January 2019, when it reported that just nine countries had gender equal cabinets. But rankings such as this have limitations. 

First, it is a snapshot in time. The ranking will not reflect changes – ministers resigning or being fired – since 1 January. South Africa’s former president Jacob Zuma was known for reshuffling his ministerial deck. 

Second, the composition of a cabinet varies by country. iKNOW Politics says deputy presidents are not included in its assessment. But South Africa’s constitution includes the deputy president in the cabinet.

Less prestigious ‘feminine’ portfolios for women?

The women in South Africa’s new cabinet are in charge of half of the ministries, but that does not necessarily mean there’s gender equality in who makes government decisions. The president and the vice president are both men.

A 2012 journal article argues that while some countries have appointed more gender equal cabinets, women have historically been “mainly allocated portfolios with ‘feminine’ characteristics and lower levels of prestige”. 

In Britain, for example, the four most important cabinet posts (prime minister, chancellor of the exchequer, foreign secretary and home secretary) are known as the “Great Offices of State”. It was only in July 2016 that half of these posts were first filled by women. The chancellor of the exchequer has never been a woman.

The four posts do not always have direct equivalents in other countries, as different states divide ministerial responsibilities in different ways. In South Africa the first three have close matches in the cabinet, but the equivalent responsibilities of the British home secretary are split between three ministries.

The only women in the six South African positions are Naledi Pandor, the equivalent of a foreign secretary, and state security’s Ayanda Dlodlo, who is responsible for a third of a home secretary’s broad portfolio. By this measure, the new South African cabinet is still a way off gender equality in the Great Offices. 

Nomkhita Gysman, a gender programme manager at the Southern African Development Community Parliamentary Forum, wrote in a recent article: “In the new cabinet women are leading some strategic ministries, most notably the ministry of state security and the ministry of defence and military veterans.”

South Africa’s new cabinet is not mathematically balanced between men and women, but it does appear to divide quite equally the more meaningful balance of prestige and responsibility. 

Simon Freemantle, senior political economist at Standard Bank, told Africa Check that the new cabinet could be viewed as achieving gender equality beyond a simple numeric division between men and women.

“The most high-profile posts in cabinet have been fairly evenly spread between male and female ministers. It is certainly not the case that the ‘top’ posts have been retained for men,” he said. 

“The departments of international relations, state security, defence and military veterans, basic education, and the vital portfolio of agriculture, rural development and land reform are all led by women.”


Markus Korhonen is an associate at the global political and security risk management consultancy S-RM. He previously worked as a lecturer at the Department of Political Science at Stellenbosch University and the Department of Political Studies at the University of Cape Town.


Republish our content for free

We believe that everyone needs the facts.

You can republish the text of this article free of charge, both online and in print. However, we ask that you pay attention to these simple guidelines. In a nutshell:

1. Do not include images, as in most cases we do not own the copyright.

2. Please do not edit the article.

3. Make sure you credit "Africa Check" in the byline and don't forget to mention that the article was originally published on

Add new comment

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
limit: 600 characters

Want to keep reading our fact-checks?

We will never charge you for verified, reliable information. Help us keep it that way by supporting our work.

Become a newsletter subscriber

Support independent fact-checking in Africa.