Ironically conservative

My feminism was not learned from the tomes and leaders of the West, as much as I appreciate the foundations they set.

It’s been a feminism grounded in the progressive movement that equated apartheid inequality with patriarchy. My sheroes were sisters and soldiers, symbolised largely by the women of the liberation movements who taught many of us a progressive African feminism, which is clear that cultural practice can never be an excuse for inaction or inequality.

So it was with profound disbelief that I listened to Thandi Modise, sister, soldier and now deputy general secretary of the African National Congress, at the Mail & Guardian‘s Critical Thinking Forum two weeks ago, which asked the question: is the personal political?

The topic was chosen because of a debate ignited on our pages by Arts and Culture Minister Pallo Jordan, who told the media to butt out of the private lives of politicians. His anger was sourced directly from the media’s coverage of the love life of President Kgalema Motlanthe, but indirectly from the many gendered questions that the private life of our incumbent president Jacob Zuma raises.

Among these is whether polygamy can square comfortably with progressive leadership and what evidence uncovered in the course of Zuma’s rape trial (he had an affair and unprotected sex with the HIV-positive daughter of a friend) said about his personal practice versus the policy of his party. Modise weighed into the debate by saying: “This is Africa. We are Africans. We should resist taking [on board] Western notions … there are a number of men who have more than one wife,” she said, adding that if she chose to be a second wife it was part of her culture.

It seemed a retreat into culture that ignored decades of struggle by women across Africa for equality and progress within traditional practice or religious belief. And it revealed the extent to which the women’s movement within the ANC has changed as it contemplates a new era of leadership, which, in my opinion, is going to be more socially and politically conservative than we have yet seen in the post-apartheid era.

Our own Constitution is a careful balancing act that enshrines both cultural practice and advanced gender equality — rights that can and do conflict with each other. Many Constitutional Court cases are fought to secure the balance one way or the other and, until now, the ANC generally supported gender equality, though this now seems a contested space in the ruling party. As author and healer Mmatshilo Motsei said: “Culture is a problematic and contested space; it can become a laager that I retreat into and say: ‘Don’t touch me, it’s my culture.’

“Even though we are a diverse society, there are some things that are universal and culture is often used to legitimise patriarchy.”

Debate: the backbone of democracy
On the question of whether the private lives of politicians are fair game for media coverage and an indicator of public probity, the panellists reflected a wide range of views. Here are some of them.

Thandi Modise
I do not agree that my private life must be different from the individual who’s not a leader.

Ryan Coetzee
Democratic Alliance
It depends. It depends on asking at which point a public figure’s life becomes in the public interest. If a leader abuses his or her position, then that is in the public interest, but I’m not sure if it’s relevant for the public to become involved in the private life of a public figure.

Lance Greyling
Independent Democrats
We all have different beliefs and although the media often argues for the public’s right to know, we have to ask: which public? There are many publics, some of which may believe there is a right but others may find it [delving into privacy] offensive. I can think of three instances where it may be relevant: if a person campaigns on a moral platform and their private life does not live up to it, if it [their private life] is illegal and if their financial problems indicate they may not be good fiscal managers.

Bantu Holomisa
United Democratic Movement
There is no escaping the reality that political leaders are held to a higher standard and there should be personal accountability. [But] is there is no such thing as dignity and a private life for politicians? It could be argued that the relevations about Motlanthe were a sensationalist intrusion into the life of a politician.

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