Women are in a toxic space

Monday was International Women’s Day, which celebrates the economic, political and social achievements of women. So what is the status of South African women in 2010?

The pronouncements of the gender officialdom come thick and fast: the number of global treaties signed on women, the international gatherings attended, the number of women in Parliament and, of course, the state of the “gender machinery”. But none of these speak to our daily reality.

Like the nation as a whole, South African women, especially African women, find themselves in a toxic space.
Every day we are treated to the unedifying spectacle of the ­ruling party ­- its men in particular—at war with its members; of a rudderless ship of state; of provincial departments and municipalities struggling to provide healthcare and basic services; of corrupt officials; and of an increasingly belligerent police and spying apparatus.

South Africa is one of the only countries to have recorded an increase in maternal and child mortality in recent years, a shocking reality for which both former president Thabo Mbeki and President Jacob Zuma share responsibility.

But Zuma’s recent State of the Nation address confirmed his lack of visionary leadership, not least in relation to women. If you were dozing and missed it, a single line in the speech, uttered as if by rote, tiredly declared his government’s commitment to women’s emancipation.

Ironically, it is Zuma who will lead his party into its centenary in 2012, fulfilling the ANC’s full-on retreat from its once-proud history of ­struggle for a non-sexist future.

Founded in 1912, the ANC’s historic mission was to deliver universal franchise to the black majority. Over time, and especially since the 1950s, women’s liberation became integral to the goal of building a united, nonracial society.

But judging by the evidence, the party’s commitment to women’s equality seems to have gone into reverse. This regression began in earnest during the campaign to install Zuma as president of the republic after he was fired as deputy president in 2005. We all remember the horror that unfolded inside and outside the South Gauteng High Court during Zuma’s rape trial. His accuser was legally lynched and portrayed as a woman “asking for it”, while a goon squad declaring its support for Zuma threatened her life outside the court. Zuma was acquitted, but the experience left a great many women and men justifiably wondering about the future of our “non-sexist” democracy.

The ANC’s response to the recent sex scandal involving the president has poured salt on the wound. When it was reported that Zuma had fathered a four-month-old baby out of wedlock, his party unashamedly invoked an ethnic and sexist stance, against its own traditions, to defend the behaviour of its leader. Spokesperson Jackson Mthembu declared that Zuma was a self-proclaimed polygamist and that his sexual relations—including, apparently, with daughters of his friends—should be understood as part of his Zulu culture. Students of Zulu tradition were at least honest enough to see this for what it was: Zuma culture.

Mthembu’s statement, supported by ANC women, dealt a final blow to any pretence that the leadership of the ruling party stands for the emancipation of women. The officials of Cosatu and the South African Communist Party also kept quiet in the face of this assault on the dignity of women. Women are paying the price for this attachment to “the cult of Jacob”.

After 1994 women came to believe that ours would be a future where we could stand tall and rid ourselves of what Thomas Sankara called “the weight of centuries-old traditions which relegated women to the rank of beasts of burden”.

Today, instead of discussing emancipation, our national discourse is framed by polygamy. Rapper 50 Cent declares “have a baby by me, baby, be a millionaire”. Our president, himself a singer and dancer, seems to say “have a baby by me, baby, be a first lady”, much to the delight of cartoonists.

We laugh, but the joke is on us. The growing conservatism in the ruling party threatens the future of all women and all democrats.

So what is to be done? Do we laugh or cry as we witness the tragicomedy emanating from Luthuli House and the Union Buildings? Part of the answer is that we must speak out and do so forcefully. Too many nations today are in a permanent state of despair because good men and women keep quiet, while others provide intellectual cover to justify political degeneration. Zimbabwe comes to mind.

The democratic movement that triumphed in 1994 restored our right to dignity and contributed to boosting the self-confidence of black women in particular. Asserting our dignity and speaking out confidently today are part of what stands between us and a banana republic.

Our country is experiencing a monumental crisis of leadership. A new leadership is needed, untainted by the rot associated with the current ANC leaders and drawn from a broad progressive political spectrum that includes the many good men and women who still pledge their loyalty to the ANC.

The party that went to Polokwane in 2007 was sick; today, it is terminally ill. Besides Zuma, who really is a jovial fellow, it has been a long time since any of the ANC leaders appeared as though they were actually enjoying their jobs. Instead, they just look exhausted.

Supporters of a democratic future need not tire, even as the ANC exhausts itself with daily scandals, but should speak out against these “men and women of the people” whose actions threaten our dignity, our future and make a mockery of women’s rights.

Palesa Morudu writes from Cape Town

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