Where are South Africa’s young lionesses?

It’s not everyday you get to sit opposite your heroes. It’s even less frequent that you’re one of 20 people present.

Picture having a dinner with your favourite celebrity and you’d know how I felt.

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of attending a small and high-powered gathering to discuss the empowerment and equality of women in South Africa. I was the only journalist at an intimate dinner to greet the new head of the United Nations Development Programme — herself an inspiring woman. Helen Clark is the first female in this, the third highest UN position, responsible for overseeing all development activities and branches of the UN globally. Her nine years as New Zealand’s prime minister, from 1999 till 2008, has got those in the know excited about the practical leadership she could bring to the body.

She wasn’t to be outdone. Around her sat female stalwarts of our country’s blood-and-tears struggle and victories: Frene Ginwala, Mamphela Ramphele and Zanele Mbeki, among others.

I’d read so much about these women and their work that it was almost surreal to hear an influential advisor of former president Thabo Mbeki’s, Advocate Mojanku Gumbi, laughingly chide Ramphele after a particularly long exposition: “Dr Ramphele seems to forget she’s no longer lecturing at UCT”.

“What is that supposed to mean?” exclaimed Ramphele in reply.

It was more fantastic still to hear Mbeki and Ginwala reminisce about hammering out the legislation around women’s equality late one night “on Thabo’s computer”, in the heady rush to birth a new South Africa. Ginwala reflected that the country’s impressive gender policy got through because “of the articulation of women, not the understanding of men”.

“Men get really angry when I say that,” she said to laughter.

I, and a few young women from the UNDP present, listened somewhat dumbstruck. Not that our voices were needed — there was barely time or silences enough to allow for these heavyweights’ multiple opinions and interjections.

Which was as it should be.

Ginwala, Ramphele and others are part of a generation of political leaders whose work has earned them a place in the history books. Admirably for our country, there was a culture in the struggle that meant women were treated as intellectual and political equals. Here were female leaders to look up to and respect.

But the recent death of another stalwart of that era — Fatima Meer — showed that one thing is for sure: this is a generation on its way out. And the frightening thing is, while there are wannabe young lions aplenty to take the place of men, there is a serious dearth of new female political leadership in the country.

The young firebrands churned out by the ANCYL to populate Cabinet positions are exclusively male. The great female hope, Cope’s Anele Mda, was punted as the answer to Julius Malema but proved even more embarrassing in her political crassness and immaturity.

The only young female politician I can recall with any excitement off-hand is the DA’s Lindiwe Mazibuko — but hers is a relatively low-profile position. Where are the trailblazers — especially in the ruling party?

The M&G‘s list of 300 young South Africans to take out to lunch 2009 had a tiny fraction of women in the politics category. This year’s list seems to have a similar preponderance of testosterone. This is no fault of this newspaper, which searches long and hard to find the people on these lists. It is indicative of what seems to be a gradual alienation of young women in the country’s political landscape.

Ramphele spoke about an “uber class of young professionals” with nowhere to fit. “They want to belong to this country, they’re committed and there’s fire in their belly — but there’s no vehicle for them to get involved.”

She hit the nail on the head. I thought of the women I respected most in my, and older generations. They were passionately committed to the country. But they were making their contributions in civil society and other industries.

“They are lawyers, they are accountants, they are actuaries,” said Zanele Mbeki.

Where are the young lionesses in the country, is the question? I believe Ginwala got it right when she said the problem was that “everything becomes a party political issue — and that damages us”.

Young women in our country don’t want to apologise for not being black enough or connected enough to make a contribution. They don’t want to play some complicated political game. They just want to contribute. What they need are avenues.

Do we really want the political future to be dominated by the young lions we’ve seen coming out of the ANCYL of late?

I didn’t think so.

Let’s hope that one last contribution from those amazing women I dined with would be a body to continue what they started: feisty, principled and damn smart women taking this country forward.

  • You can read Verashni’s column every Monday here and follow her on twitter here.

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