My switch is flipped, José

Powerful woman: African Union Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, seen here with President Jacob Zuma, was recently described by a news agency as his ‘ex-wife’. (Simon Maima/AFP/Getty)

Powerful woman: African Union Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, seen here with President Jacob Zuma, was recently described by a news agency as his ‘ex-wife’. (Simon Maima/AFP/Getty)

“Dress for success: wear a white penis.” That’s one of my favourite old feminist slogans, together with “Rights, not roses!” although secretly I’d quite like rights and roses.

White penises have been on my mind this week more than usual, owing to the release of the annual report of the Employment Equity Commission (EEC). In news that will surprise very few people, the body found that the white male dominance of the private sector continues unabated.

EEC chairperson Tabea Kabinde was quoted in one report as listing the challenges as follows: “They include that white men still remain in power; organisations have policies where salaries are confidential so it is easier for bosses to be dishonest; white men constantly feel threatened; white men feel designated groups are incompetent; and the top level of the world of work is considered men’s work, and women have to work twice as hard to be recognised.”

I’ve got to be honest: that description doesn’t really sell white men, if you know what I mean. And before someone feels the need to write in and complain, let’s consider all our #NotAllWhiteMen boxes ticked, okay? There are some specimens, however, who do epitomise the problem pretty well.

Last week I begged a reputation management firm to let me have a crack at interviewing one of them – Cell C’s now notorious chief executive, José “Bitch Switch” dos Santos.

They couldn’t or wouldn’t set it up before deadline, which was a pity, because there were a number of pressing questions I wanted to ask Dos Santos, and I’d flipped my switch in preparation.

One of them was whether he routinely uses the word “bitch” to describe women in a mood that displeases him. Another is whether it’s true that he once expressed a desire to increase mobile sales by hiring women with big boobs in tight dresses, as a source informed me.

Dos Santos has become the most recent public face of this aspect of the corporate world, but of course he is not alone. A former boss once told me that he hires pretty women “because they cost the same as the ugly ones”. I reckon he and Dos Santos would have some epic banter together. Pretty women may cost the same as ugly ones, but you know who they don’t cost the same as? Men.

But it’s not just white men who keep dominating the most prestigious rungs of the South African workforce – it’s men, period. The Employment Equity Commission’s report revealed that, in the private sector, women hold just over 20% of top management positions.

This is a numerical discrepancy that should be considered so extraordinary that the relevant government ministers should be taking the kind of steps the sports minister, Fikile Mbalula, announced this week to deal with racial transformation in sport.

Inevitably, though, very little will happen. It was reported that the Commission for Gender Equality will meet with employers later this year to “educate them”. Isn’t it absurd that people should need targeted education in order to realise they should give half the country’s population the opportunities they deserve?

Then again, when wo-men do manage to be professionally successful, it’s still considered kinda irrelevant. Example A this week was a headline on the Fin24 website: “Mother of three introduces science in box to learners”. If you had read the accompanying article, you would have discovered that the mother of three in question was also a chemist, a social entrepreneur, a part-time MBA student and a manager at a tech company.

Jose dos Santos
Not alone: José dos Santos. (Mary-Ann Palmer/ Rapport)

Even just thinking about how accomplished this woman is makes me want to have a little lie-down. Yet in the hands of a subeditor, the fact of her motherhood becomes the most noteworthy aspect of her life.

On a similar note, the AFP news service rightly got it in the neck recently for identifying Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as “Zuma’s ex-wife”. Say what you like about Dlamini-Zuma, but it cannot rationally be argued that being divorced is more significant than being the head of the African Union Commission.

The subeditors responsible in each case could well have been women, by the way. If there’s one thing that Dos Santos got right, it’s that women sometimes aren’t as professionally supportive of each other as they could be.

There’s no such thing as an old girls’ club. Dudes are swanning around giving each other secret handshakes and eyeing each other’s school ties. We women could stand to be a little more like that. We need our own version of the Freemasons, basically.

Where Dos Santos was wrong again, however, is that the reason why sometimes women aren’t particularly accommodating of each other is not because we are genetically programmed to hate each other. It’s because the whole system is set up for women to be in competition for male approval.

We see it in everything from the ongoing existence of Miss South Africa to rapper Lil’ Kim altering her appearance to mimic white women. This works out awesomely for men, because true female solidarity would be terribly threatening to patriarchy. Sometimes it couldn’t hurt for more of us to act as if we have a white penis.

Rebecca Davis

Rebecca Davis

Rebecca Davis has a master’s in English literature from Rhodes and a master’s in linguistics from Oxford University, UK. After a stint at the Oxford English Dictionary, she returned to South Africa, where she has been writing stories and columns for various publications, including the M&G. Her first book, Best White (And Other Anxious Delusions), came out in 2015. Read more from Rebecca Davis


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