Dear Mr President,
As you wound up your State of the Nation address (Sona) last Friday, I was at the Jo’burg Theatre watching South Africa’s inspirational production of The Color Purple, Alice Walker’sheart-rending story about Celie, a young woman who emerges triumphant after being brutalised by incest, marital rape and verbal abuse.
I wished you had added a line to your speech pledging to take this remarkable display of South African talent, and its deeply relevant message, to every corner of the country.
You made all the right noises about gender equality. But after nine years of Jacob Zuma, who took his oath fresh from being acquitted of rape charges that left troubling questions about the conduct of an older man towards a young woman who had regarded him as a father, we need a lot more. You have a chance to help us reboot. Here are some suggestions.
First, nail your colours to the mast — declare yourself a feminist. In Sona, you recalled that 2018 is the centenary of the births of both Nelson Mandela and Albertina Sisulu. Women have all too often been relegated to the wallpaper of history. You reminded us that there is also herstory. Paraphrasing Mandela, you declared that “no liberation can be complete, and no nation can be free, until women are free”.
Globally, there is a tug-of-war between strongmen politicians marred by allegations of sexual misconduct such as United States President Donald Trump and the “new men” in politics like Justin Trudeau in Canada and Emmanuel Macron in France, both of whom have declared feminist policies, appointed women to senior positions and require all government directives to pass a “gender marker” test.
Which brand will you choose? Purple fields are the hope that lifts Celie in The Color Purple. Purple is the colour of the feminists who demanded equal pay and the right to vote at the turn of the previous century. Purple is the colour of the One in Nine campaign that supported Khwezi when the rest of South Africa condemned her. Purple is the colour of the Women’s March after Trump took office, gaining ground with the #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns against sexual abuse. You wore a purple tie for Sona. Let’s paint South Africa purple!
Second, deal with your demons and lead by example. In Sona, you talked about the need for moral and ethical leadership. Under Zuma, the dichotomy between a leader who purported to support equality in his public life but failed to practise it in his private life left patriarchy smiling.
As chief architect of our nonsexist, nonracist Constitution, you have the moral high ground. But there are blots on your CV such as communicating inappropriately with young women sponsored by your foundation. There is also the Marikana massacre. You were a Lonmin nonexecutive director when 34 miners were shot by police. Confront the past. Build it into better policy for the future.
Third, strengthen government’s gender machinery. In 1994, South Africa set up a unit in the president’s office to vet all policies and budgets for gender compliance. Former president Thabo Mbeki added a women’s advisory council. Zuma abolished both, establishing a women’s ministry but failing to ensure that all ministries promote equality. You want a leaner government, so cut the numbers but boost the strategy and the clout of a portfolio.
Fourth, ensure gender balance in all your appointments, but go beyond numbers. Zuma appointed women who, for the most part, compromised their principles by serving in his Cabinet. It is important to judge women ministers on their record. Bathabile Dlamini, for example, has failed women in her stewardship of the social development ministry.
Consider for your Cabinet feminists such as Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi and Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. Appoint men who are not afraid to call themselves feminists.
Last, resurrect the National Council on Gender Violence and give it the same clout as the South African National Aids Council, which you chaired. Declare zero tolerance for gender-based violence. You are right that radical economic transformation cannot be achieved without empowering black women. It also cannot be achieved when half the population is unsafe in their own homes.
As I end this letter, I am watching you take an early-morning walk, urging South Africans to be fit for purpose. I am sending messages to all my friends, saying: “Walk the talk with President Ramaphosa!” Let’s do it, literally and figuratively.
Yours in purple,
Colleen Lowe Morna
Chief executive of Gender Links