/ 11 August 2008

Blind women’s bluff

My role models have always been my grandmother and my mother, strong women who led their families like matriarchs, setting values and cajoling us to action. Their reserves of leadership blended with a seemingly infinite ability to nurture, which astound and inspire me to this day.

Corralled by circumstance to lead only in the sphere of family, their lessons also included ones such as ”Men eat first” (at weddings and funerals).

My political role models who brought the messages of gender equality were always those arraigned into the ANC Women’s League and its political broad front, the Women’s National Coalition.

From these women, I learned through the Eighties and the Nineties not only that ”We eat together”, but also the lessons of patriarchy, empowerment, equality of and for all, including the rights to safety, representation, free speech and association.

They were heady times, the architects of which were people like Baleka Mbete, Barbara Masekela, Cheryl Carolus, Jessie Duarte, Pregs Govender and Frene Ginwala. Then, the league was at the forefront of setting the agenda to ensure gender quotas that would make South Africa a world leader in the representation of women in political life.

The league pushed for changes to the laws to prosecute sexual offences, helped to design empowering labour laws and mooted the first women’s budgets (where the design of the national fiscal pie would include a look at its impact on the struggle for gender equality).

For an impressionable young woman, these women were the makers of the brave new world. I voted for them not out of historic loyalty but through a politically conscious choice. Mine was an act of hope for the future.

And they delivered. Personally, I know I would never have had my dream job but for these women who pushed and insisted that we take a wider look at leadership and prodded for business to look at the other half of the population as it expanded the edges of opportunity.

A plethora of laws were passed to untangle decades of apartheid patriarchy, grants expanded to the poorest (inevitably women) and some of these same women delivered when it came to the crunch moments of democracy pushing against the forces of traditionalism to draft legislation that would expand freedom to ensure that it was not only non-racial, but non-sexist too.

One even spoke out against Aids denialism and the arms deal but already, even then, we should have known that when it came to the crunch, the party would trump all. Why was Govender’s a lone voice?

And so it’s come to pass that this Women’s Day week, the ANC Women’s League has become a husk of itself. It is a kanga wound around the axis of ANC president Jacob Zuma’s ambitions.

My inbox is full with exhortations to feminist activism or celebration. From the women’s league there is nothing but a press statement alerting us to the fact that the league is supporting the vacuous one million signature campaign to ensure Zuma’s case is thrown out of court. The statement also invites us to night vigils outside a high court of the democratic era.

The league and the ruling party’s leading women are party to this bastardisation of what used to be a legitimate response to the nakedly political trials of the Eighties and Nineties: the vigils, the protests, the defiance and the turnout of solidarity brigades. It all seems so empty and so tragic now, this misuse of a glorious past to fight the battle of a man, ANC president Jacob Zuma, who made poor personal decisions and now wants to drag through the mud the very instruments of democracy his party established. Of course, he is entitled to defend himself in as many courts as he likes, but does he have to misuse the political culture of one of the world’s great liberation movements for his own ambition?

This week as women’s month begins, it is so extremely painful to see my sheroes like Mbete and Duarte assigned to support roles for a man in a week that should be used to assess how far we have come and how far we must travel. Is this the price of political ambition?

It was a week that would have provided a perfect moment for the league to peg out a different future. Inspired by what the Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is doing in office, the league could have used the leadership vacuum (canyon might be a better description, perhaps) to begin to groom a presidential successor candidate, but the league is so embroiled in the party battles that it failed even to nominate a female candidate for the presidential race ahead of Polokwane.

Everywhere, you see this sublimation of strong women to party imperatives even though it might not be the best thing for its grass-roots support base. Take the parliamentary hearings into the dissolution of the Scorpions. This week I saw the safety and security portfolio committee chairperson Maggie Sotyu declaring on television that it didn’t really matter what we think, her mandate was to exorcise the Scorpions and she would do this. I wonder if Sotyu even knows of the fine work the Scorpions have undertaken to deal with rape and gender violence; if she knows of the National Prosecuting Authority’s special sexual violence courts? None of this seems to matter to Sotyu; all that counts is her career and, if it means ignoring her electorate and riding roughshod over some fine female prosecutors and investigators, so be it. The rallying cry has been altered; now it is Wathinta Zuma, Wathint Abafazi. It used to be: ”You strike a woman, you strike a rock.” Now it’s: ”You strike Zuma, you strike a woman.” We are in the middle of the game called blind women’s bluff — this is one of my saddest women’s days ever.

This is a longer version of a contribution to a Human Sciences and Research Council panel on Women’s Day this week