Nontokozo Madonsela. Picture: SUPPLIED
Nontokozo Madonsela. Picture: SUPPLIED

We have almost come to the end of another women’s month in SA, a “moment” in the annual content calendar I’ve reluctantly come to dread because it has morphed into a marketing exercise rather than a reminder to make space and usher in change.

I have nothing against the content-calendar-view of the year in itself — hell, as a freelancer I’ve written much in the way of Women’s Day copy — but as the crimes against women stack up year after year I find my resentment building. A casual glance at Twitter suggests I am not alone.

The core frustration for me lies in the vast chasm between knowledge and action, in real life and in the realm of social slacktivism. How can we claim to be a nation that recognises the contributions of and celebrates our women when we have arguably the worst record and statistics of crimes against women of any country not at war?

In the latest batch of crime stats released by the police, 171,070 contact crimes against women were recorded. We can go into all the ways in which those numbers are likely to be inaccurate (on the underestimation side), but even if we accepted them as reliable this means an average of 468 contact crimes against women are reported daily, with the emphasis on “reported”.

Apart from the very real threat of physical harm that SA women face daily, economic inequality is profound. Even in “modern”, “progressive” spaces women make up about 20% of directors in JSE-listed businesses, and after Maria Ramos’s retirement in 2019 there wasn’t a single woman at the helm of a top 40 JSE company until Naspers appointed Phuti Mahanyele in July.

Flipping the M is a symbol. The aim of the campaign is to counter the fact that women tend to be apologetic for their successes, [and] to be reserved in the workplace, and [to emphasise] that success requires confidence.
Nontokozo Madonsela

It was against this backdrop that I first happened upon Momentum’s “Womentum” campaign and #sheownshersuccess on Twitter. The text of the post I saw spoke about turning the M upside down, and it felt — at the time — like another instance of pure lip service. Spare me, I thought, but I fired off an e-mail to them, saying: “I’m not a fan of the campaign, but I want to have an honest, cards-on-the-table chat about the issues it raises as well as the perils of social media campaigns.”

I was surprised (and thrilled) when four high-ranking women from Momentum jumped on a Zoom call to chat with me, including deputy CEO Jeanette Marais and group chief marketing officer Nontokozo Madonsela. Having run through the numbers with them, I’ve (happily) had to revise some of my positions. And for the record, I have no stake or other interest in singing Momentum’s praises.

The company might not be doing everything right but — credit where it is due — its pay parity numbers are impeccable and gender representation at all levels is good and improving. For example, 48% of the top 2,100 earners at Momentum are women. On a cost-to-company basis women bringing in less than R500,000 a year earn equal to men in the company; from R500,000 to R1m women earn 95% of the salaries of their male colleagues; and from R2m to R2.5m women earn 101% what men do.

“Flipping the M is a symbol,” said Madonsela, “but the depth [of commitment] is in the conversations we are having, in the coaching we provide. The aim of the campaign,” she added, “is to counter the fact that women tend to be apologetic for their successes, [and] to be reserved in the workplace, and [to emphasise] that success requires confidence.”

Fair play to Momentum on that matter. I want to publicly challenge other local companies to put their literal money where their social media mouths are. Prove this isn’t just a game of likes and shares.

Best weapons

I still think it’s not women’s inability to step up that holds them back, but that there is an active incentive for men to resist any efforts to make space, to make business more equal. That’s a tone thing from which as media and language fundi I won’t back down.

The stats and the tone matter — and never more so than in a world with a shrinking attention span and contested digital media space. Transparency drives change in the corporate world, and as our finances transform so — the theory goes — will our power disparities. This is, I can’t help but think, one of the best possible weapons in the fight to change the treatment of women in SA.

But before I’m accused of being Mary Sunshine on the topic because I have rethought my response to one company, the cost of not doing so — on Twitter and in real life — is human life. Tshegofatso Pule and Amahle Quku are just two of the latest lives snuffed out in incidences of gender-based violence. Their faces have joined the endless parade of murdered, missing and abused women whose “last known locations” and photographs flood our timelines and feeds monthly.

And this is why I am simply not excited by spa vouchers, pink golf balls, haircuts and discounts on pantry staples (all of which were actual Women’s Month shopping offers I’ve seen online this year). Let’s do better.

• Thompson Davy, a freelance journalist, is an impactAFRICA fellow and WanaData member.

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