Are you 'big' enough, Mr President?

Dear President elect Jacob Zuma

As I write this letter to you, I am looking at the invitation to your inauguration on Saturday May 9. I must say that I have never felt so ambivalent before about being invited to an event at the Union Buildings. Maybe I am just shocked that I even made it on to the guest list.
I would not rank up there with Zapiro among your detractors (I see the shower head is to remain in his cartoons) but I certainly have been a vocal critic.

Also on my desk is the April 18 to 24 edition of The Economist, calling you “Africa’s next Big Man”. In one of its more measured assessments of an incoming African president, the magazine puts its finger on the nub of the matter: what will you use your bigness for? Will the patriarchal underpinnings of that phrase just become a natural extension of unbridled power, or will you use your bigness to accept your shortcomings and accept the advice of those around you?

If the latter, there is the incredible possibility that your presidency might create for South African women even more possibilities than Thabo Mbeki’s. One of the bright spots of his checkered legacy is his progressive stance on women. It was Mbeki, you will remember, who appointed 42% women to his Cabinet and who, in the words of former deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, could be counted on “to be on the right side of the argument where women’s rights were concerned”.

You, on the other hand, start with the cards stacked against you: a rape case in which the judge did not find sufficient evidence to convict you, but in which you famously inferred that an HIV-positive woman who regarded you as a father, dressed in a traditional wrap-around skirt was asking for sex; in which you said you took a shower to prevent yourself getting infected.

When there were crowds outside the court baying for this woman’s blood, you did nothing to stop them. As you prepare to take office, she lives in exile, unsafe in the land of her birth because she dared to take up a case against the “Big Man”.

You are openly defensive about having several wives (though I doubt you would countenance any one of them having several husbands) and have not espoused any coherent policy on women’s rights (or on many other issues for that matter).

In fairness, however, there are some hints that you could use your bigness in ways useful to our cause. One of the great ironies of your ascendancy is that some strong women rights activists silenced under Mbeki are finding their feet again.

Pregs Govender, who “resigned from Parliament, but not from politics” over her disgust at spending on arms while millions died of HIV/Aids is back in public life as a commissioner in the Human Rights Commission. And, under the interim administration of Kgalema Motlanthe, Barbara Hogan replaced Manto Tshabalala-Msimang as minister of health, giving a breath of fresh air to an era of disastrous policies on HIV/Aids.

On the numbers front you have, so far, upheld the ANC’s policies of gender parity. Bar a few anomalies (such as you and Motlanthe both being at the top of the election list) the ANC list followed the “zebra” pattern of one woman, one man, agreed at Polokwane, with the result that 49.2% of the ANC’s candidates and 42.7% of overall candidates to Parliament are women. That places South Africa fourth in the world where women’s representation to the legislature is concerned (after Rwanda, Sweden and Cuba).

Despite signs of revolt from the provinces, you appear to be sticking to the gender parity principle in the appointment of premiers. An obvious case in point is passing over Gauteng provincial chair and incumbent Paul Mashatile for the former minister of safety and security Nomvula Mokonyane. She comes with strong credentials and fewer questions than Mashatile, not to mention a strong track record on women’s rights. Her choice is not only good for gender equality; it’s good for governance.

The focus inevitably turns to your new Cabinet and to your policies. The assessment of your bigness by gender activists will go beyond numbers. Yes, we will look at whether you carry the 50-50 principle through to Cabinet. But we will also scrutinise the calibre of the women you bring in. Will you, for example, victimise Hogan for having been the only member of the Cabinet to speak out openly against barring the Dalai Lama from visiting South Africa, or will you celebrate and welcome principled, independent thought?

When ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema calls DA leader Helen Zille a “racist little girl” will you reprimand him for sexism and racism, mindful that it is highly unlikely that a male politician in this country would ever be called a “racist little boy”? Or will you just let that pass, as you did the witch hunt outside the court room?

Will you seek to strengthen the National Gender Machinery or will you allow it to continue in disarray? Will you ensure that the credibility of the Commission on Gender Equality is restored or replaced by a viable alternative? Will you open a national debate on the idea that there should be a ministry of gender equality and women’s empowerment where such structures have failed dismally in every other country and seek the best possible option before this is implemented?

Will you openly invite your rape accuser back to reclaim her citizenship and offer her the protection to which she is entitled? Will you encourage the debate that has started since your rise to power on whether polygamy is a violation of a Constitution that has gender equality as one of its cornerstones—regardless of your personal position on the issue?

If you are big enough to do all this, Mr President, I am happy to take a seat at your inauguration. For leadership is ultimately a lot more than narrowly escaping this or that court conviction. It is about how bigness is used.

Yours sincerely
Colleen Lowe Morna, executive director, Gender Links

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