On the eve of the ANC’s January 8 anniversary celebration the ANC Women’s League reiterated its commitment to increase the number of women leaders in the party and made an unexpected public announcement declaring its support for Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as its preferred presidential candidate.
“After careful consideration and opening our eyes as wide as possible, Comrade Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is the only suitable candidate at this point in our history to lead the African National Congress in December 2017,” the women’s league said in a statement.
The Mail & Guardian has reported on the divisions caused by that statement, which is believed to have been issued by some national executive committee (NEC) members, including women’s league president Bathabile Dlamini, without the authorisation of branches. Although the women’s league had agreed on the principle of a woman president, no definitive name had been decided on at the time of the announcement.
With a wealth of capable women leaders in the ANC, the quick pronouncement on Dlamini-Zuma as the only qualified candidate raises the question of how much of this support for her is based on a genuine commitment to putting women in top positions and how much of it is simply informed by who she is and what some in the party believe she can do for them.
Dlamini-Zuma has proven herself as a capable leader. She has performed well in most of the ministries she has served in, including foreign affairs and home affairs. She played a central role in the formation of the women’s league and is also a popular leader in the party, having been persuaded to appear on both president Jacob Zuma and former president Thabo Mbeki’s leadership lists at the 2007 elective conference.
But, equally, there are other competent women in the ANC, some of whom have held senior positions in the government and the ANC. They include former deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor, ANC chairperson and National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete and National Assembly chairperson Thoko Didiza.
These names, however, have not been touted by those claiming to advocate for a woman president. Their omission, and that of other women, has raised a few eyebrows. It has placed Dlamini-Zuma at the centre of a narrative that links her to a ploy by the Zuma-aligned “premier league” to use the “ex-wife card” — to protect the president from prosecution once his term has ended.
Whether or not this narrative is true, it has stuck, threatening to taint Dlamini-Zuma and see her achievements overshadowed by the notoriety of those lobbying for her. The timing of the sudden vocal stance on women leaders raises questions about whether this is a genuine cause for the ANC or mere political rhetoric to shield Zuma.
The history of the ANC shows that women have played an active role in the liberation movement since its early days. But as political analyst Shadrack Gutto notes, their recognition has largely been limited to their march to the Union Buildings in 1956.
“Women have always been involved in the leadership of the ANC. Their role extends beyond the 1956 march to the Union Buildings, but the ANC has largely ignored that,” Gutto said.
If the 1956 march was just the beginning of a wave of women leadership in the ANC, then why has the party waited more than 60 years to finally decide to consider a woman as its president?
The ANC is the only political party that has a 50/50 gender equity policy, which was adopted in 2007 to ensure election candidate lists were representative of women. But ANC chairperson Mbete said fully realising gender equity goals was still hampered by slowly shifting personal attitudes.
“To change people’s mind-set, to change the actual personal or individual’s understanding and seriousness in their understanding and their acceptance that this is ANC policy, you have to be prepared to work hard still,” she said.
According to Gender Links, a nongovernmental organisation, the ANC also has one of the highest numbers of women representatives in local government — 45%, a score topped slightly by the Economic Freedom Fighters’s 49%.
Despite the 50/50 gender policy, provincial structures in the ANC still perform poorly on representation. After the 2014 national elections the ANC saw the election of only one woman premier, a move that was heavily criticised by deputy secretary general Jessie Duarte for its contradiction of the party’s commitment to women empowerment.
On the one hand the calls for Dlamini-Zuma to be president could be seen as an effort to change this dynamic.
But in the lead-up to the elections, the party has often said it wants to have leaders who are competent enough to secure election victory, and has not necessarily remained cognisant of gender.
This has very often resulted in men dominating in the structures.
And as the country heads towards the 2019 national elections, some ANC leaders have said the conversation about a woman president should rather be replaced by conversations about a president who can secure an ANC victory, regardless of gender. With the party weakened after last year’s municipal elections, the scramble to retain power in 2019 may see the women’s agenda sidelined.
Taking these factors into account, the ANC is falling short in showing a commitment to promoting the equal representation of women leaders. Because of this, the sudden catapulting of Dlamini-Zuma — with little mention of other women and their role — makes talk of a woman president and the gender agenda appear insincere. It affirms concerns that there may be an attempt to use her to fulfil another agenda.