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Decentralisation and engendering democracy: lessons from local government reform in South Africa

By Jo Beall


Localisation and decentralization are frequently presented as good for women. However, the reality is not so clear-cut. Local government is in an ambiguous position. It is the part of the state closest to society and as such has the potential to engage most effectively with women. However, informal systems and institutional relationships, many of which are deeply patriarchal, also cut across local government. Drawing on the experience of democratic reform in South Africa, which is invariably held up as an example of good practice in advancing gender equity in governance, the paper points to some of the paradoxes of engendering decentralisation and governance at the local level. Local authorities in South Africa are relatively weak but are nevertheless repositories of not insignificant power and resources. The paper shows first how competing interests remain clustered around local government in ways that tend to exclude women. Particularly important here is the role of traditional authorities in local government. Second, and perversely, it is demonstrated that it is also at the local level that women in civil society are organising most vigorously and effectively. This is because the neoliberal policy framework that frames decentralisation in South Africa has adversely affected household incomes and services that are important to women. Third, the paper suggests that South African women do not have as secure a footing in local government structures as in other tiers of government. It concludes that the engendering of local governance constitutes a fundamental litmus test of the success of women’s political representation and access to and involvement in public office

Topics: HQ The family. Marriage. Woman, JS Local government Municipal government
Publisher: Crisis States Research Centre, London School of Economics and Political Science
Year: 2004
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Provided by: LSE Research Online

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  1. (1995). National Machinery for Ensuring Gender Equality’,
  2. (1989). Traditional Authority, Institutional Multiplicity and Political Transition in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa’, Crisis States Working Paper, 48, London: Crisis States Research Centre, London School of Economics,

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