“On your marks! Get set! We are ready for Nkosazana!” These are the words to a catchy anthem composed for Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s presidential campaign as the ANC prepares for an elective conference at the end of the year.
Although she is considered a front-runner, Dlamini-Zuma isn’t the only woman vying for the top job. The speaker of Parliament, Baleka Mbete, and Lindiwe Sisulu, the minister of human settlements, have also thrown their hats into the ring. This unprecedented number of women candidates has caused many to believe we are getting closer to putting a woman in the Union Buildings and has sparked great debate about whether our nation is ready to be led by a woman. I cringe when such discussions come up, becauseI don’t believe in the concept of “being ready”.
I understand why this question has made its way into the national discourse: we have never had a woman president and we live in a patriarchal world. Electing a woman into the highest office would be a historic moment and I believe many of us would like to see this happen in our lifetime. Achieving this, however, shouldn’t depend our “readiness” for it to happen. We are never ready for revolutions of any kind and these aren’t announced, they simply happen. So too, if we want a woman commander-in-chief we need to get on with electing one instead of believing we need to prepare ourselves for that time. We will never be ready for a woman president until we have one.
There’s an underlying problem with the idea of “being ready” and both men and women are guilty of perpetuating this belief. The whole concept of readiness implies that a woman is not supposed to be there and that we need to reach consensus on whether we can live with the reality of her moving out of the kitchen and into the boardroom.
Subconsciously, we wonder who will do the cooking if she’s president? Who’s going to take care of her children? Where’s her husband going to sit now that she’s at the head of the table? Let’s call this out for what it is and admit that when we wonder whether we are ready for a woman to lead what we are actually thinking is : Are we ready to give her permission to lead?
When Hillary Clinton ran for president in the United States’ 2016 elections, many commentators expressed the view that while the country is ready (that word again) to elect a woman, they just didn’t want this woman. This notion of “not that woman” is, of course, never raised about men candidates and this was exemplified when the US elected Donald Trump, a serial divorcee who has said vile things about women.
Supporters of Dlamini-Zuma are guilty of this mentality because they too are not ready for a woman president, they are just ready for her. Bathabile Dlamini, who is also the president of the ANC Women’s League, for example, has lambasted Mbete and Sisulu for competing against Dlamini-Zuma. This is quite odd because one would expect the leader of a women’s organisation to be excited that a number of women are raising their fists and want to lead our country.
You see, we want to have a woman leader but we want it on our terms and we want to dictate who that woman is. If this is our thinking then we will never be ready.
This question of readiness is not only a barrier to women but to many other demographics. If we think we are ready for a woman president are we also declaring readiness for a gay, lesbian or transgender president? How about a president living with a disability or with albinism? I believe the answer to these questions would be a resounding no. We should therefore be concerned. Who determines when we are ready and who has to give this permission?
When we tell any of these groups that we are ready for them we are essentially saying we are making an exception for them. This means we are not ready and that we are simply dealing with a situation we consider to be a nuisance. We make a big deal of readiness so that women (or any other group) know what we are doing them a favour. This nonsense needs to stop.
Women and any other marginalised group of people need to realise that they can and should be president whether any of us are ready for it or not. This means a deliberate attempt to stage a revolution and to do this on your own timetable and not when somebody has said on your marks, get set and go. Change isn’t achieved by waiting for the right time for it to occur, the right time should be anytime.
During the past weeks, we have seen racially charged demonstrations by white supremacists in the US and one could easily forget that they twice elected an African-American president in the form of Barack Obama. He did not wait to be told that it was his turn to lead and he secured a victory in a country where people who look like him are the minority.
There is merit to the arguments that voters react differently to race and gender but what I hope to get across is that many black people never thought they would live to see a black president until it actually happened. They were never ready. I’m not naive about the fact that it would be more difficult for women to achieve this but what I’m clear about is that women shouldn’t patiently and politely wait for us to give the thumbs up. Instead, women must shatter that glass ceiling whether it makes us comfortable or not.
Mondli Zondo is a columnist and a Mandela Washington Fellow. He writes in his personal capacity.