The ANC Women’s League says it is dismantling patriarchy in SA

Mmanaledi Mataboge’s analysis of the ANC Women’s League (The ANCWL is an obstacle to gender equality) suggests the mainstreaming of gender in our national politics has not been because of the efforts of the women’s league (among others), but in spite of them.

Your reporter’s position is unoriginal and ahistorical.

One would have hoped for a “docket” supporting the piece’s dramatic opening statement: “The ANCWL must die.” Instead, there is a potted history, conjecture, sweeping statements (The women’s league is only there to “prop up the party’s men”) and condescension.

Then there is the supposed “smoking gun”: the league’s failure to put forward a female candidate for the presidency.

In the book No Shortcuts to Power: African Women in Politics and Policy Making, the editors note that the internal dynamics of a political party influence women’s chances of having access to decision-making bodies. Political parties continue to be the primary (but certainly not the only) vehicle through which women have made political advances in this country. It is a naive assumption that “the league’s concern should be forcing those chauvinistic men to share power with women”.

The women’s league takes issue with the inferences that it is standing idly by as the patriarchy cuts a broad swathe across the political landscape. Or that the organisation lacks the political will to tackle difficult issues, such as women in leadership.

Had your reporter attended any of the media briefings at last month’s women’s league policy conference, she would know that building organisational leadership was one of the issues for discussion. It is a debate that is critical and timely – and certainly not “too little too late”.

Challenging and dismantling patriarchal attitudes within party structures that result in men being elected over women time and again (including by women themselves) will not follow a straight line.

We are not ashamed to acknowledge the social, economic, cultural and class impediments to the advancement of women. Whether your reporter acknowledges it or not, patriarchy is still prevalent in South African society: indeed, in the media industry itself. Last year’s State of the Newsroom report by Wits Journalism found that the number of female editors is declining in South Africa (72% are male).

It is true that women need to reclaim lost ground with regard to representation. Within our own party, the women’s league has done well. Several resolutions adopted at the conference provide the blueprint for how the league aims to empower the generation of female leadership, and grow a new, younger breed of female leaders within the organisation.

The league has influenced the ANC to appoint women into leadership: the appointment of female speakers in all the provinces following last year’s election was the direct result.

It is inaccurate therefore to state that the women’s league has “disowned any form of debate” around women’s leadership.

What we will disown, however, is simply “putting up a candidate” because she is female – with no consideration of leadership qualities and track record on gender activism. There are many senior women in government and in the ANC who are more than capable to be leaders, including as president of the country.

The article also presumes, as many do, that having a female “voice at the top” will advance women’s interests as a gender, or automatically translate into better outcomes in the policy and decision-making processes of government.

In South Africa, such a candidate would be expected to advance gender-friendly policies prescribed not just in the country’s Constitution but also in the constitutions of the women’s league and the ANC itself. However, they cannot do so single-handedly, but by working alongside existing structures as well as alongside other women.

Instead of issuing sweeping statements about “needing a woman”, the Mail & Guardian should be offering a more insightful view on what kind of female candidate is needed.

Should she be right or left wing? Should she be a Keynesian or a free marketer? What should her view on social spending be? What is her track record on supporting women-friendly legislation in Parliament? Surely it cannot be that, as your reporter suggests, none of this matters, so long as she is a woman?

This government, under the ANC, has more women MPs and Cabinet ministers than many other countries around the world.

To suggest that their presence owes more to considerations of party loyalty shows a patronising disregard for the abilities of the many women who have and continue to occupy some of the most senior positions and portfolios across government and Parliament.

The women’s league will continue to push for the advancement of the interests of women from the sidelines, from within party structures, and within government.

It is a hollow assumption that disbanding the league will “free up” female ANC members to “compete on the same level” as men – they are already doing so and have been doing so for some time.

As leaders of the progressive women’s movement in this country, we encourage all those committed to the cause of advancing women to engage with the women’s league instead of advancing shallow arguments that fail to take into account the realities facing South African women today, politically or otherwise.

Edna Molewa is head of communications for the ANC Women’s League

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