Can a female president champion the rights of women?
Tsoaledi Thobejane looks at the role played by gender in South African politics
THE celebration of Women’s Month this year coincided with a concerted drive by the women’s league of the ANC to have the party elect its first woman president.
Previous winners of the party presidency have gone on to become heads of state. But, what will a woman president do for the advancement of women’s struggle and their positionality in the country? Who can be the best woman president? And, are the three woman ANC leaders campaigning for the top job – Nkosazana-Dlamini Zuma, Baleka Mbete, and Lindiwe Sisulu – what the country needs to fight the scourge of violence against women?
Granted, South Africa needs a leader that will help it overcome its myriad problems that include a declining economy and high unemployment as well as corruption, mismanagement and poor delivery of basic services. But, it also needs someone to lead it in the fight against sexism and patriarchy and the ushering in of emancipatory politics and an anti-sexist society devoid of racism, patriarchy and hegemonic masculinities.
While the efforts of the three eminent ANC stalwarts taking a shot at the top job of the Presidency of the country and/or the ANC, a political party governing South Africa was hailed as good for gender equality, it is worth cautioning that these women are not necessarily feminists in the context of feminism espoused by Hill-Collins (2003), Hooks (2004), Mohanty (2001), and Lather (1998) to mention just but a few feminist activists. They come from an ideological grounding of the ANC, which is not radical enough in advocating against sexism and patriarchy.
I recognize the participation of women in the struggle for liberation and also note that the struggle for economic and cultural emancipation is as protracted as the struggle against patriarchy and masculine hegemonies. When we think of a woman as a likely candidate for the presidency of the country one cannot help but bring to the fore, one of the USA’s first African-American woman who campaigned for the position of president in 1972, Shirley Chisholm. This was at a time when human rights abuses against African-Americans were at their peak and when the Ku Klux Klan was running amok.
Of course, it was also unheard of at that time for a woman, let alone an African-American woman to be seen to be at the forefront either as a CEO of a company or any private or public sector. Chisholm was the first AfricanAmerican woman to be elected to the congress in 1968 and to seek for the party nomination for president of the United States in 1972 under the Democratic Party.
As democracy matures in South Africa; we will see more women who would like to lead. The struggle for gender emancipation, which is interlinked with the struggle for socio-economic and cultural liberation is not yet over. Therefore, those who would like to lead must have transcended the misogynistic tendencies and patriarchal bearings of their male counterparts and would like to advocate for a more advanced and anti-patriarchal society wherein all people of race, colour, creed or religion as well as gender, will live equally at peace with each other.
However, for a feminist agenda to be prosecuted, it should also embody the idea that the struggle for gender emancipation does not have to be in the hands of a woman as many have proven to be so reactionary and accommodating of the patriarchal and misogynistic social order.
Feminism as a broad school of thought would not be content just to see a woman (by way of using biological definitions) being the President of the country. This woman Presidential hopeful must interpret those historical belief systems that would like to relegate women to the periphery of socio-economic development, and then set herself on the path to destroy these systems. She should be seen not as taking part in the political order that justifies and essentializes male hegemonic discourses.
Presently, the ruling party in South Africa is facing turmoil. It also faces the need for fresh political thinking within its ranks. Many of its female cadres – Nkosazana-Dlamini Zuma, Baleka Mbete and Lindiwe Sisulu – are now showing some interest to become the first (Black) African woman President of the ANC and subsequently, the country.
While this is hailed as a good move by some feminist thinkers; it is also worth cautioning that these women are not necessarily feminist in outlook.
They come, as a collective, from the ideological grounding of the ANC which has a track record of not championing women’s rights to the satisfaction of feminism as a broad international movement. The goals of the ANC are not about the ushering in of a socio-political-economic order which advocates for a socialist transformation as a vision of many feminist thinkers.
For instance, Marxist feminism sees Capitalism as being intricately linked to patriarchy. Theorists of patriarchy such as Hartmann (2006) argued that men are in alliance with capital to exclude women from certain jobs. The Neo-Liberal Policy of the ANC which has made the organization the “darling” of international monopoly capital is what really defines these women presidential hopefuls.
They should therefore be viewed as candidates who would perpetuate the status quo as it stands today, rather than tackling head on; issues such as misogyny, Hegemonic Masculinities, the Machismo of the South African populace as well as a patriarchal capitalist world order which thrives under a capitalist mode of production.
If we would like to view their eligibility for the position of the Presidency in the narrow defines of Neo-Liberal Politics, then all of them qualify for this race as their individual track records have shown. for presidency; we would of course look at them individually in terms of their contributions to a democratic order defined only in terms of where South Africa is or was in the pursuit of a Neo-Colonial and/or neo -liberal (Pre-Apartheid and Post-Apartheid South African) order. In this context, we would undoubtedly say that all of them championed the anti-apartheid struggle very well (i.e. the struggle for equal rights, albeit in different categories).
Many will remember the role played by Nkosazana-Dlamini Zuma as the African Union chairperson and as a former Minister of Health and then minister of foreign affairs, not forgetting her struggle credentials. All these titles set her apart from the others in terms of her experiences in leadership. Nkosazana-Dlamini Zuma is remembered for her role as a Minister of Health and then minister of foreign affairs. This experience set her apart from the others in terms of her quality in leadership. She championed policies that made health care free to children under the age of six and also poor women.
One would also say the same about Baleka Mbethe who is the National speaker and the National chairperson of the ANC, member of the National Assembly, former deputy president (2008-2009) and member of the president panel under Social Development and Community Services, as well as a struggle veteran.
Baleka Mbete, apart from her chequered past record, including being involved in the scandal about the misuse of parliamentary air tickets, as well as obtaining her driver’s licence dubiously, has proven to have good qualities.
Lindiwe Sisulu, another human rights struggle stalwart, has experience as Member of Parliament since 1994 and served as minister of housing from 2004 to 2009. She is currently serving as Minister of Human Settlements. Lindiwe also worked as the intelligence officer in President Zuma’s cabinet. She has the added advantage in that, since she does not subscribe to any faction within the ANC, it is believed that she can help unite the party, and perhaps even manage to stem the tide of corruption.
Sadly, their voices have largely been missing on the serious problem of violence against women in the country. This, despite South Africa having one of the highest incidences of violence against women in the world. According to Statistics South Africa ( 2016), on average, one in five South African women older than 18 has experienced physical violence. Four in 10 divorced or separated women reported physical violence, as has one in three women in the poorest households.
Despite their positions, they are not known for their interest in domestic and gender based violence. This is exemplified by their silence when Mdu Manana was accused of battering women. Instead the ANC Women’s League, to which they all belong has made excuses for Manana. Their experience in politics warrants that they be considered for such a position but, fall short on their vision for an antisexist and anti-patriarchal South Africa.
The three candidates, despite the strong struggle credentials, are more likely to perpetuate the status quo of male dominance, rather than tackling misogyny and patriarchy. If we would like to view their eligibility for the position of president in the narrow confines of neo-liberal politics , they undoubtedly qualify. As South Africa’s democracy matures, women will be seen joining the band wagon of those who would like to lead. Each of the three ANC stalwarts are making names for themselves as the first prospective woman president of both the ANC and the country. But, they will have to do more in order to win the hearts and minds of the marginalized women.
On a daily basis, women experience an emotional and psychological scarring such that many are convinced that they are indeed second-class citizens. They actually believe that such belittlement and denigration describes who they are.
This mental oppression and self-loath is exemplified by the way they bleach their skins to look white, and the way they are obsessed with wearing foreign or Caucasian hair on their heads as they only see beauty in the context of whiteness. This they do because colonialism and apartheid has taught them that everything black should be loathed, and that everything white should be valorized. It remains to be seen whether the three female Presidential hopefuls are ready to unravel this form of cultural imperialism on women, and champion an agenda that is problack and liberatory to the country and the Black woman in particular.
There is no need to have a woman who will just serve as a token in the office of the presidency. The ANC is at a cross-roads. The name “African National Congress” is presently synonymous with corruption. The growing voice of dissent no longer sees the ANC as a dedicated voice of the toiling masses, the marginalized, voiceless and the dehumanized women.
However, a woman might bring a fresh perspective into what leadership ought to represent. Their leadership qualities might lead this country out of her political quagmire. Perhaps the voice of a woman President will rekindle that spark which was ignited by the Mamphele Ramphele’s of this world, the Lilian Ngoyis and the Mme Sobukwe’s anti-pass campaigns, the Imbeleko women’s organization under its female leader, Magauta Molefe, a woman who said that there is no clear or true social revolution without the liberation of women.
This sort of woman President if elected, will have to urge women to rise and take back their power. She will have to fight against exploitation of women, child labour and sex trading of innocent girls, hegemonic masculinities, misogyny and a patriarchal social order that continues to eat away at the moral fibre of this beautiful country.
Baleka Mbethe Picture: Visual Buzz SA
Lindiwe Sisulu Picture: Denvor de Wee/ Visual Buzz SA
Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma Picture: Visual Buzz SA