/ 7 September 2017

Leaders must walk the talk of gender equality

Cyril Ramaphosa as a candidate for ANC leadership
Cyril Ramaphosa as a candidate for ANC leadership

What is of interest to the public is not necessarily in the public interest — that is one way of looking at the recent titillating claims concerning Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa’s alleged extramarital affairs.

If he were in France, where the prevailing view is that the private lives of leaders are just that, the Sunday Independent allegations of many infidelities would probably be relegated to the back pages.

If he were in the United States, where every detail of a presidential hopeful’s life is scrutinised, there would probably be a whole lot more investigation into the unanswered questions arising from the alleged emails with eight women whom Ramaphosa says he is supporting financially.

He is in South Africa, where he was chief architect of one of the most democratic constitutions in the world, one of the few that claims gender equality as a cornerstone, and the only one that recognises sexual orientation and identity.

I propose we set a new standard of where to draw the line between private and public. To the extent that private conduct reflects where a leader stands on women’s rights, it is in the public interest. Leaders must show us that they walk the talk of gender equality and of all values in the Constitution.

Many have argued on social media that it is hypocritical to rip into Ramaphosa while we are led by a president who narrowly escaped rape charges, is a polygamist and a self-confessed philanderer. This misses the point. On the gender score, and now on many others, Jacob Zuma should never have been president of one of the world’s newest democracies that won its freedom based on some of the highest ethical standards around. Let us not lower the bar as we seize the window of opportunity for new leadership in 2019.

Ramaphosa has dismissed the allegations as a smear campaign using state resources, because he has spoken out on corruption. He admits that he had an affair with a doctor eight years ago, but has “dealt with that” with his wife and now has a professional relationship with the woman.

He has not denied the existence of the emails (though he says they may have been “doctored” but gives no details on how), but he has denied that he is a “blesser”.

Why is a presidential hopeful, let alone the mainstream media, even using the biblical term that has been twisted to refer to older men who give young women material returns for sexual favours? Why do we persistently fail to recognise or question the obvious power dynamics at play in a deeply patriarchal society in which poor young women (the “blessed”) are easy prey for rich and powerful men?

Many other questions remain unanswered and the media is not pursuing them. Ramaphosa has a foundation for supporting the personal development of underprivileged South Africans. Why is that foundation not the one conducting the communication with the women students he is supporting? Why three email addresses under pseudonyms? Why does he conduct personal communication with the women and not the men he is supporting? Is this professional conduct for a philanthropist, not to mention presidential candidate?

Ramaphosa says he and his wife are supporting 34 women and 20 men. Why? Is that because women have been historically disadvantaged and this is his way of promoting gender equality? If so, why not come out with a strong statement on what he as president would do to promote gender equality, the most important political and social revolution of our time post-apartheid?

Where was Ramaphosa during the fifth anniversary of the Marikana massacres that involved one of his mining companies? What did he have to say to the widows? What is he doing for them?

These are the sorts of questions we need to be putting not just to Ramaphosa but to all presidential hopefuls. Among the line-up in the ruling ANC is Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe, who recently apologised for sending an SMS to a woman staffer asking for a picture of her clitoris.

He also commented most inappropriately at a march on gender violence, which included women’s rights to wear miniskirts.

When will we wake up to the fact that sexist comments that relegate women to being objects for the pleasure of men have no place in our democracy.

We scored a small victory during Women’s Month, when former deputy minister of higher education Mduduzi Manana resigned after a storm of protest following his assault a young woman in a nightclub on a Saturday evening. She and her friends were airing their views on the succession battle. His boss, Zuma, did not fire him — it took him several days to do the right thing — and he is still refusing to step down as an MP.

But as the first ever instance in South Africa in which a powerful man has had to pay the price for gender misconduct, this is a new standard we need to take to a higher level.

For the first time in our history, there are three women in the presidential line-up. These include speaker Baleka Mbete, Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe Sizulu and the former African Union chairperson and former foreign affairs, health and home affairs minister, Nkosozana Dlamini-Zuma.

Ramaphosa’s main rival, Dlamini-Zuma, rightly makes the point that she should be judged on her merits, as a minister under Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, and not as the former wife of Zuma, whom she divorced many years ago. But she has failed to distance herself from Zuma’s public endorsement of her candidature; she has failed to pronounce herself on state capture and corruption; and she has failed to put forward a blueprint for women’s empowerment under her leadership.

It is not good enough to jump on the bandwagon of “now is the time for a woman president”. This election must not be about jobs for girls, but gender equality for the nation. Can any one of the candidates out there tell us how that will be achieved? We are hungry for a real debate on the issues, and for leaders who lead by example — personally and professionally.

Colleen Lowe Morna is chief executive of Gender Links.