Where are our Palins?

Where are the Sarah Palins of South African politics? This is not a search for gun-toting, abortion-bashing conservatives in politics but for interesting female public representatives with a bit of a past but, more importantly, with a future.

Palin is interesting. She has what American presidential candidate Barack Obama has called a ‘compelling personal story”: five children, a fisherman husband who is also an award-winning snow-mobiler and a brand of politics that has turned Alaska upside down.

It’s the fact that one child is pregnant that has made the headlines but more interesting is that she is a totally involved and available mother, even as Alaskan governor. It is a phenomenal juggling act. An opponent (some say only recent) of pork-barrel politics, Palin made her name stopping big-ticket bling projects — an even more remarkable pedigree in a system built on the power of lobbyists with large cheque books, particularly in her own Republican Party.

Our interesting female politicians are almost all in the opposition. Why is that? The ruling ANC led us into the present of enshrined and advanced gender equality, but it has snuffed out the potential of female politicians, painting them all in shades of grey.

The ANC once brimmed with interesting, complex and sophisticated female leaders. Whether they were those who had emerged from the grassroots to capture national and international attention (Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Ellen Khuzwayo, Albertina Sisulu, Pregs Govender, Jessie Duarte) or those who came back from the trenches of exile to build democracy (Frene Ginwala, Baleka Mbete, Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, Naledi Pandor), the party was a hothouse of flowering women, whom many of us looked up to for tilling the new soil.

To write or think of them now is to go on a nostalgic journey, to yearn for what was rather than what is. There are exceptions, but on the whole the ruling party’s women have diminished in power. There are other examples such as Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Graça Machel, Hillary Clinton, but I use Palin because she’s so current. Read beyond her pro-life quackery and look further than the trophy bear throw that decorates her office suite (her father shot the poor thing) to hear the story of a woman who dared go up against her party’s aristocracy on several occasions to campaign against graft.

That’s the first problem with our politics — there is no opportunity for straight talk or shades of difference. The ANC still identifies itself as a revolutionary movement with strict hierarchies of control and discipline, necessary in times of struggle but stultifying for modern politics.

It means that you cannot differ with your comrades in government.

Because she sought to create a new practice of democratic freedom, Govender faced the cruel opprobrium of party bosses for challenging them on Aids and the arms deal.

Ginwala’s legal brilliance and her potential in Parliament was cut off at the knees when she lost credibility for stubbing out a nascent parliamentary inquiry, led by an ANC MP, into the arms deal. In the executive, interesting politicians became so consumed by statecraft that they began to talk entirely different languages, their spark subsumed by the daily grind of wresting a democracy from the harshness of an apartheid regime.

Here I think of Fraser-Moleketi, who should be unshackled from the important but dim world of public service to do something interesting, like intelligence.

System problems also prevent women from shining. Education Minister Naledi Pandor is leaving for many reasons, but a huge push factor is the system of provincial government that gives her no power to implement her vision.

Careerism is ruinous for ANC politicians for you must watch your back (to see who’s aiming a knife) and your front (to see who’s watching you perform). And it can push you to defend the indefensible as ANC spokesperson Jessie Duarte must do almost every day if she is to secure the Cabinet position now within her grasp. While President Thabo Mbeki thought he would achieve the dual ambition of anointing his own successor (Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma) and ensuring his legacy as a feminist, he must instead go down as the man who used gender advancement to enshrine sycophancy.

The damage done to provincial politics by his elevation of a group of no-name-brand premiers is being felt in the paroxysms convulsing the ruling party in the Free State, Eastern Cape and North West. By spinning us a yarn of gender advance, he swore in Beatrice Maarshoff, Nosimo Balindlela and Edna Molewa, none of whom had constituencies or a knowledge of the provinces they were placed in charge of.

The closest we come to a Sarah Palin is probably Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille or the Independent Democrat’s Patricia de Lille. Neither is a raving rightwinger but they are straight-shooters unafraid of taking on the pork-barrel politics of the time. Both would make fantastic deputy presidents.

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