/ 19 May 2009

A step backwards

Helen Zille and Ferial Haffajee debate the Western Cape premier’s men-only cabinet. Also read Nothing wrong with this picture

Invited to the launch of the Democratic Alliance’s manifesto at the Constitutional Court earlier this year, I was impressed.

Being a schmaltzy sort, I bought into the theme of ”Over the rainbow” — and believed that Helen Zille might finally be the leader who steered the opposition party from its white heartland to find a nonracial soul. You should’ve seen it! On the stage was a careful assembling of leaders of each hue of our rainbow. Stage-managed, sure, but it did suggest a commitment to break its pale-male image.

When her lists came out, my colleagues were impressed that Zille had the authority and political chutzpah to put people like the academic and writer Wilmot James as well as the adroit young politician Lindiwe Mazibuko in secure positions.

Now it appears the rainbow was a mere voting gimmick if the make-up of Zille’s all-male, largely pale, Western Cape cabinet is anything to go by. Both her Western Cape and national leadership choices suggest that all she crossed was the Rubicon, not the rainbow.

While the ANC Youth League’s statements against her last week were pathetically patriarchal, so are her action and her words.

In explaining it Zille says that to put women in position via quota is degrading and insulting. To exclude them totally and to suggest that an all-male, largely pale cabinet is the only way to ensure a better Western Cape is what is degrading and insulting. This is old-style politics of baaskap which assumes that while this country is held together by the glue of women, they still don’t know what’s best for them. It’s worth noting that as in many other provinces the core family structure in the (black) Western Cape is the single-female-headed household. For generations the Mother City and its satellite towns and villages have been kept going by the paid and non-paid labour of women. How else do you overturn patriarchy and exclusion if not by policies that allow people a hand-up and for new leadership to flourish?

It is at the heart of our employment equity policies and included in our Constitution. Does Zille believe that without these policies she would be leader today? Forget it. The party would have kept to the leadership paradigm that encouraged a cabal of clever men to rise to the top. And so, as a beneficiary of empowerment, she now disses these policies in pursuit of a narrow politics of merit.

We know women leaders like this. Get into power and then forget that you represent a group and that it is incumbent to use that position to grow new female talent. Instead, Zille’s made lame promises that the gender pendulum may indeed swing in other directions in other spheres.

Rather than a thumbs-up, Zille’s given a middle-finger-up to women leaders in the composition of her leadership at the sphere in which she exercises real power.