Gender activists welcome new woman deputy prime minister

Swazi gender rights groups have welcomed the appointment of a woman to the post of deputy prime minister in a country that only this year granted women equal rights under the constitution.

"I think it is about time we had capable women in that position," said Lomcebo Dlamini, director of the Swaziland branch of the non-governmental organisation, Women in Law in Southern Africa. Constance Simelane, who served as education minister, succeeds Albert Shabangu, who died last month, as deputy premier.

Until the adoption of the new constitution at the beginning of the year, women in the kingdom were regarded as minors under the law – unable to own property or open a bank account without the permission of a male relative or husband. The traditionally low status of women has been linked to the staggering levels of HIV infection: 40 percent of adult Swazis are estimated to be HIV positive, the highest rate in the world.

However, the deputy prime minister's role became largely ceremonial this year after responsibility for the national development authority was shorn from the portfolio and handed to a new ministry, Regional Development and Youth Affairs. The Prime Minister's post itself has so far been reserved for men who share the royal family's Dlamini surname

A phone survey conducted by the Times of Swaziland, the country's only independent newspaper, noted that despite the appointment, traditional views about the role of women prevail in Swaziland's deeply patriarchal society. "We are giving too much power to women. They don’t cover their heads even inside Parliament. What's left for us but to get a female monarch?", complained one respondent.

Much has also been written about Simelane's past performance as education minister. One glaring failure was the government’s stated commitment to educate orphans and vulnerable children. Free school textbooks were provided for the first time this year to in an attempt to lower school costs to caregivers and parents, but a lack of policy on school fees made the gesture meaningless.

"As long as this country is ruled under the present system we will continue to have such appointments," said one respondent to the Times of Swaziland survey. "Constance has failed the education ministry."

Simelane's appointment was part of a reshuffle announced last week by Prime Minister Dlamini, who used the occasion to attack the international media for undermining Swaziland's image. He named House Speaker S'gayoyo Magongo as the country's new Minister of Information to counter the perceived negative publicity.