Gender in South Africa

Many of us have a pretty good idea of the state of race relations in South Africa, but what of gender relations? How do men and women fare in the rainbow nation? We interviewed Grant and Lillibet Retief, who work in Durban and were visiting Australia for the Geneva Multiply Conference


What can you tell us generally about gender relations in South Africa?

At a political, ideological level South Africa has a constitution that is one of the most progressive on the planet. The new dispensation is unequivocally committed to equality. Our government has one of the world’s highest ratios of female members of parliament and government ministers. The desired ratio of female to male elected representatives is 50%, and currently we are in the upper 40s. It’s an intentional policy, part and parcel of correcting the wrongs of the past in terms of both racial and gender inequality.

However, we remain the rape capital of the world, and there is widespread abuse against women in our country. The problem is exacerbated by high unemployment and the social evils that go with that.


So much lack of dignity for women in the population seems at odds with electing so many female representatives.

Yes, there is a disconnect between our constitution and the reality on the ground. This is inevitable given our history and how young our democracy is. The government has done well to legislatively correct the wrongs of the past, and already some of the correctives are noticeable in the school curricula, but it will take a while for them to seep into all of South African life.


What is the state of gender relationships in churches in South Africa?

In the liberal Anglican Church of the Province, women have been able to be ordained to be priests for at least the last 20 years now, but I am not sure about women bishops. In the large independent charismatic churches (who have more members that the Anglican church), there is notional adherence to male headship, but it is quite usual for both husband and wife to be called ‘the pastors’ and for the wife to preach. In the township churches, the pastor’s wife is very powerful and influential; she often has a prominent upfront role alongside her husband, but there is no doubt that the husband exercises headship in the relationship and the church. Many of our less discerning leaders and their wives have been influenced by the American televangelist couples, which causes problems.


Many of the rural and indigenous churches here in Australia struggle to find men willing to lead churches. Would that be similar in South Africa?

Yes, a lot of rural churches can’t afford full-time workers and are lay-led, and because of the absence of men an older woman will lead the congregational meetings. Sometimes it will be 15 women under a tree with no men or young people. If men are present, there would be an expectation that they would play a role but may not be in the ‘driver’s seat’. There is a conception in townships that church is for women and children, so the men are often absent. So practice is driven by pragmatics rather than ideology.


Are there historical reasons for this state of affairs in South Africa?

There is a crisis of the family in South Africa. Apartheid played a sinister role in breaking up families. The social engineering that has occurred is quite wicked. Under the apartheid migrant labour scheme men were taken away from their families for 11 months per year to work in the mines a long way from home. Nuclear families were broken up—families were essentially fatherless. Brothels were tolerated near the mines to ‘service’ the men who were away from their wives. And now because of the ravages of AIDS, there are more than two million orphans in the country who often live in child-headed households (sisters, etc.) or with grandmothers. In those cases men are again absent from families.


What about your network of churches in the Reformed Evangelical Anglican Church of South Africa (REACH-SA)? What is happening there?

REACH-SA is not fighting the battles that complementarians in the UK and Sydney are fighting. Our recognition of women and their contributions is way behind others. We don’t have women deaconesses, but we are biblically persuaded it is okay. So we are now talking about how to do it: the orders involved, the liturgy, etc. We are in effect playing catch-up. Women headship is not an issue at all now, but will undoubtably become so as we increasingly secularize. There is no objection to full-time women workers in REACH-SA. A number of women are employed to do ministry in some of our bigger churches.

Those women who do struggle with complementarianism have had a liberal university education and been influenced by feminism in an academic setting. As they become Christians they are faced with the biblical conviction of male headship, and they need time to process that. Part of our discipleship of new Christians is helping them resolve questions around the Bible’s authority, especially the Bible’s view of gender.


What are your great challenges in South Africa around this issue?

A great weakness (and sadness) is that if a woman is gifted in word ministries, there are scarcely any employment opportunities for the women in our structures. As I said before, this is not due to a theological conviction that women shouldn’t be employed to do ministry. It has more to do with economics. This means, in some cases, that there is no equipping or training of women in some churches. In other churches there would not be any women teaching the Bible… either leading Bible study groups or teaching the Bible one-to-one.

The second challenge is to get men to read the Bible with their wives and children and to lead them in prayer, even if it is only once or twice a week; to put their family and church before work and sport. Taking spiritual leadership is often a new thought—even for Christians.


Grant and Lilibet Retief live and minister in South Africa. Grant is the Senior Pastor of Christ Church, Umhlanga in Durban. They are part of the REACH-SA network of churches (the Reformed Evangelical Anglican Church of South Africa). They have three delightful children—Talitha, Elisabeth and Levi.