In a trailer for the ANC’s 54th conference, the eNCA news channel interviewed a broad spectrum of South Africans on what they know about Nkosozana Dlamini-Zuma (NDZ), who this week lost narrowly to Cyril Ramaphosa in the race for president of the ruling party.
Almost all of them referred to her as President Jacob Zuma’s ex-wife. One or two said they thought she was connected to the United Nations (she served as chair of the African Union Commission). No one mentioned her having been South Africa’s minister of health, foreign affairs and then home affairs. Her claim to fame remained in the public mind her association to Zuma, whom she divorced more than 20 years ago.
The trailer is a telling reminder of one of South Africa’s biggest, unmet challenges — the patriarchal ideology that permeates every facet of society and relegates even the most prominent and successful women to an appendage of a man.
On the face of it, the ANC elections are a victory for democracy. Simmering internal discontent with Zuma and his association with the billionaire Gupta family that have “captured the state” expressed itself in Ramaphosa’s win, though he inherits a crown of thorns with three out of the new top six officials (deputy president David Mabuza, secretary general Ace Magashule and deputy secretary general Jessie Duarte) in the Zuma camp.
But with only one woman (Duarte) in the line-up, serious questions must be asked about what has gone wrong with the ANC’s feminist agenda, if ever there was one beyond the policy positions on gender parity in all its ranks and endeavours.
Just as the Guptas have captured the state, patriarchy has captured many in the ANC, including many of its women cadres.
First to answer should be NDZ herself. In one telling interview with Independent Newspapers, she expressed her frustration with the constant association with her polygamous ex-husband. She noted that they share children and have conversations beyond politics but she had no special place in his sprawling Nkandla home (another source of the corruption charges hanging over him when he vacates the presidency in 2019).
Yet in her campaign NDZ failed dismally to distance herself from Zuma after he publicly endorsed her, and happily drew on all his support bases, notably in their KwaZulu-Natal home province that became a litmus test for the heart and soul of the ANC.
Dlamini-Zuma, the seasoned minister who banned smoking in public places in South Africa, led the South African delegation to the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, cleaned up the messy home affairs ministry, and profiled South Africa on the African and global stage, had the perfect opportunity to make a clean break from the family dynasty politics that worry this young democracy.
Yet she carefully side-stepped the issues in former public protector Thuli Madonsela’s State of Capture report.
The burning issues of corruption that featured ever more prominently in the Ramaphosa campaign barely featured in hers.
In response to criticisms that she seemed to have no clear agenda, NDZ came out blazing in the final days of the race on “radical economic transformation” that seemed more a call to populism than a well-thought-through agenda. Gender equality, it must be said, was not a prominent feature in the campaign of the first would-be woman president of South Africa.
Also needing to introspect are NDZ’s enthusiastic backers in the ANC Women’s League, found huddled in a meeting in the media centre after the announcement of the top six. They are led by Bathabile Dlamini, the minister of social development, on whose watch there have been many scandals relating to mental health and social grants. She has survived in the past thanks to Zuma’s patronage, and despite several calls for her removal.
Not so long ago the women’s league announced that South Africa was not yet ready for a woman president. The women’s league changed tack after Zuma publicly endorsed Dlamini-Zuma.
One of the greatest ironies of the ANC’s claim to the high ground on gender equality is that its women’s league has been among the most enthusiastic backers of Zuma — who was acquitted of a rape charge but found sorely wanting in his behaviour towards women shortly before he became president in 2009.
So vitriolic was the response to his accuser (Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo, dubbed Khwezi, who died recently) that she spent most of her remaining years in exile, with no support from the struggle organisation that she grew up in, let alone its women.
It must be concluded that the only reason the women’s league supported Dlamini-Zuma was the Zuma name, not the promise of a woman president.
Indeed, if that were the agenda, why did the women’s league not equally support Lindiwe Sisulu for deputy president?
Crying over spilt milk is not useful; to quote respected analyst Justice Malala, “it was never a principled campaign”.
Ramaphosa, who in all likelihood will become the fourth president of a democratic South Africa in 2019, also has some reflection to do.
Nelson Mandela’s favourite to succeed him (put aside as a result of party pressures to make Thabo Mbeki his deputy), Ramaphosa is
a seasoned trade unionist, chief architect of the Constitution and
a negotiator turned businessman. But he comes with his own baggage — the Marikana massacre in which 34 striking miners were gunned down at Lonmin Mines where he was a nonexecutive member of the board, and leaked emails of alleged inappropriate relationships with women students he is said to be sponsoring.
Much as the latter were probably politically motivated, Ramaphosa failed to use the platform to put forward a clear agenda on appropriate conduct of powerful men towards less powerful women, the heart of the #MeToo campaign that has taken the world by storm.
There are examples globally of new age men presidents who have put forward feminist agendas — Justin Trudeau in Canada, for example. Amid the minefield that Ramaphosa must walk to restore South Africa’s democratic values, there is an opportunity for the new ANC leader to go beyond numbers in the ANC’s gender equality agenda. With the new deputy president of the ANC (Mabuza) also being a man, we seem to be further than ever before from a woman president.
Is it too much to hope, in the short term, for a feminist president who will begin to get gender discourse back on course?
Colleen Lowe Morna is chief executive of Gender Links, a nongovernmental organisation that promotes gender equality and justice