/ 18 February 2014

All gender but zero representation

While all panellists made salient deductions and possibly contributed with exactly the same points a black woman may have done

In a world dominated by the privileged, we continue to see instances of debate around people and subjects without them being present to express their thoughts. We see plenty of examples of this, from American or European teens who "come to Africa to help out", to people within our own circles expressing opinions online about women's bodies and how they should react to men.

Last week, the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (Wiser) held a roundtable panel discussion hosted by researcher Dr Catherine Burns titled, "The Trouble with Being Female in Politics". It was meant to be a conversation about women in politics in South Africa today.

The entire discussion was based on reaction on Twitter, which has 7.5-million users in South Africa – a country with a population of 51-million people. That's hardly a fair representation of what it means to be a woman in politics, or how South Africa perceives her.

As the discussion continued and audience members gave their comments, it soon became clear to see why one person said it sounded as though gender was becoming "an elite problem being discussed by a group of elites".

On the panel was Daily Maverick reporter Rebecca Davis, radio host Eusebius McKaiser and Wiser writing fellow Khadija Patel. The discussion was arranged after Davis wrote an article about the perception of women in the media and the public, following the reaction to the Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Helen Zille's surprise announcement that Agang SA's head Mamphela Ramphele would stand as the DA's presidential candidate, and the even more surprising revelation days later that the deal was off.

After all three made their points – Davis mainly about being a woman, Patel about the implications of being black and a woman in South Africa, and McKaiser about the role class plays in both instances – the floor opened up to questions. I was the first to go, and I made the most obvious observation: there wasn't a black woman on the panel, which I found strange because we were talking about women in politics in this country, whose biggest population is black women. Not women who identify as black, but a population group most set back by apartheid legislation and patriarchal ideas.

A few more questions were taken, and the panel answered inconsequentially. Now here's where I will admit to not listening very intently: I heard Davis say something about not bringing other subjects into the conversation. But I wasn't sure whether she was answering my question. I asked another attendee, who said she hadn't heard my question answered either.

At the end of the session, I asked Burns the question again. She replied that Davis answered, and that she "was even looking right at you when she replied".

I explained that I hadn't heard it, and asked her to clarify. The conversation all but turned into a screaming match. While Burns was passionate about "bringing the conversation back to gender", she was unwilling to consider that a mistake might have been made in the selection of the panellists. She explained that the participants were chosen based on who replied first to Davis's piece on Twitter. She said current affairs TV host Justice Malala was also asked to join, but he cancelled at the last minute.

Now, while all the panellists made salient deductions and possibly contributed with exactly the same points a black woman may have done, none of them were black, and having a black man would add nothing further to the conversation. If the first 10 respondents were men, would Burns have allowed only men to talk about women in politics? I doubt it. Not because they are not able to contribute to the conversation, but because a woman deserves to have her voice heard as a member of the majority group of the country, and because they are the ones being spoken about. Similarly, a black woman deserves the same.

I'm not saying we need to have "one person to represent the views of a population group", as Burns accused me of thinking. But we should have a person express her thoughts, experiences and feelings as a black woman in this country because black women experiences the most prejudice – a point all three members on the panel and the audience brought up time and time again.

Burns explained that "nowhere [on the advert] does it state you should come for a representative panel", and I was struck by the fervour with which she fought my queries, to the point of shooting herself in the foot. She told me that I had not provided an "intellectual reason" for having a black woman on the panel, and she felt the points a black woman would have probably brought up was "raised sufficiently" by me and other members of the audience.

Despite saying that "people always ask me this", when referring to people asking her about representation on panels, Burns remained adamant there was nothing wrong with the selection and even asked me how I know Patel "does not identify as an African woman" – a pointed snub of the idea I was putting across.

I understand that academic institutions are not bound to representative panels when selecting people it thinks would be best placed to talk about contentious issues. But to ignore race and gender – and to a further extent, class I believe – will leave the conversation lacking depth and complexity.

And this is the biggest problem I've come across with academics. In this world, we have roundtable discussions with people of the same mentality, about people of the same mentality. We forget that there's the rest of the country out there completely unaware of what we're saying in the small lecture hall we're sitting in, sipping on coffee while we swoon in each other's genius and nod at our comments at the right moments.

How many of us, me included, asked non-middle class, non-Twitter savvy South African men and women what they thought of the whole Ramphele-Zille debacle? I don't know anyone who did. And if we're all really concerned about changing perceptions of women, black people and class prejudice, we might need to take the time and ask those people what they think too.

I'm sure Burns's heart is in the right place. I want a world free from gender bias too and it's common for discussions about gender equality to degenerate into arguments about race, privilege and history. But we cannot be blind to the fact that, as the panellists and many in the audience said a few times over, gender and race in South Africa are intertwined. A white woman's battle is not the same as a black woman's, and the same is true of coloured and Indian women, despite what they may identify as. This is due to centuries of unfairness, disenfranchisement and privilege. And to ignore that reality – and even acknowledge that this is irrespective of what your audience says – does not help the cause.