Dear Doctor Dlamini-Zuma


First, I want to start off by saying ngiyabonga ngako konke osuke wakwenza ukulwela inkululeko. Imisebenzi yakho nabanye iyabonakala. 

This must be a stressful time for you and your colleagues. We appreciate the work that you do. We appreciate your service. I see you as a formidable force, and it is in this spirit that I pen this letter, MaDlamini: I am angered on your behalf; absolutely infuriated, as I have been for a long time.

There has been a constant narrative that aims to reduce you to an ex-wife of a former head of state. This is factual, but in mainstream media there seems to be no other description of you.  

How have they forgotten the different facets of your existence: your life in exile; your untainted political career;  your former position as chair of the African Union Commission; the health minister who took the tobacco industry to court and won; who stood tall against pharmaceutical companies and caused them to cower and withdraw? These are not the achievements of an ex-wife, they are those of a warrior. 

Somehow the single story of your life in the mainstream media is that of former president Jacob Zuma’s ex-wife who does not want the country to be happy. Clear evidence that what is repeated becomes the only story.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks of this in her Ted speech: the danger of a single story

It reminds me of a time you were campaigning, Mama, and the narrative was the same. It looks like the only way they can discredit you is to throw your ex-husband into the mix. I dare any journalist worth their salt to write an article about you and not mention him. In fact, I triple dare them. It seems to be satisfactory for the world to live in the past, even in the midst of a pandemic.

Your nature must be that of peace, Ma, because you have seen this and let it reign while you do your job, the job the president himself has trusted you with. 

The decision to ban cigarettes was taken by you who, before anything else, are a trained physician. Any decision you make has to uphold the Hippocratic Oath, which these journalists and media influencers are not bound to. The difference in your outlook and theirs is separated by one defining factor, qualification. I am most angry because none of them has a leg to stand on. Your responsibility is not to individual South Africans but to South Africans as a collective. 

Keyboard activists cite anxiety as the main reason they want to smoke, and understandably we all have our crutches. One can probably also understand the plight of the smoking South Africans of suburbia who will probably smoke responsibly, even though they risk compromising their lungs to a respiratory disease. The argument is constantly centered around smoking already being a health hazard and how adults should make their own decisions. 

A middle-class smoker, however, can probably pay for medical treatment at a private hospital.They will recognise the earliest symptoms because they are hyper-aware of Covid-19 from multiple sources on their smartphones and high-speed internet. 

Another smoker on the other side of suburbia, in a highly populated area where the masses of South Africans live, doesn’t necessarily have the same resources. If their lungs are compromised by smoking, they probably won’t be aware of the symptoms posted and shared multiple times on social media. The people exposed to them between the time of infection and eventual diagnosis and isolation could have weakened immune systems. 

If this is the state of the masses, do we not run the risk of collapsing the public health system? Or is it a matter of not having to think about the collective that makes people intoxicated with their own desires at the expense of others? 

That a genuine health concern for millions of people on an already strained public health system can be attributed to cheap politics is astounding. 

I watched your campaign speech, Ma. Considering myself apolitical, I watched it out of pure curiosity. I wanted to understand your politics. I didn’t even know you were running for office at the time. People only understand the tagline of your campaign “radical economic transformation”, but nobody took the time to understand what you really meant. 

You spoke of smart cities and rapid transportation systems. You spoke of the ideal cadre of the ANC, who is a light in their community and morally upright because you do not want burglars and thieves as part of a South African society. You spoke of a non-sexist society and the emancipation of women, you quoted research about how 70% of a woman’s income is spent on the home compared to the 30% of a man’s income globally. You spoke of a desire for a skills revolution to drive the country’s economy to prosperity. You spoke of free and compulsory education. I wonder if anyone was listening to you? 

I mention this in particular because during your campaign, everybody I ever heard was speaking about your association to the former president. Everyone who spoke against your campaign did not have any facts against it other than this looming fear of your defending the charges against him. In fact, I have never even heard you speak of these charges, I don’t know your stance, yet everybody seemed to become judge and jury about how you intended to deal with this situation. How could anybody, let alone mainstream media, know your intentions?

It is not uncommon for society to think on behalf of women, to conclude our actions without knowing anything, to become our voice and speak to our sympathies before we have even expressed them. What can any journalist reference to agree with these sympathies other than their own assumptions that became fact after enough repetition? 

Does this happen to white women? No. Who is the closest male associate of Helen Zille? I’ll wait… 

That said, I have nothing against Zille, I respect her politics even if I don’t always agree with them. I just use this as the most striking example. Mainstream media doesn’t always agree with her, but her opinions remain her own, introduced as the opinions of Zille, an individual. There is no man lurking in her shadows, she is allowed to be a woman in her own right.

Is it that mainstream media would rather paint you a puppet of a man who has the sword of Damocles over his head than acknowledge your reasoning skills as a health professional? 

It reminds me of Mama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and other women vilified as if nothing good had ever come from their existence other than being wives. The mainstream media of South Africa has little regard for female leaders in general; a lack of respect lingers in their tone. Read an article about Mama Winnie and you will almost taste their disapproval. 

As a young black woman, this is painful. I grew up being told to become a great woman first and a wife later, if ever. To reduce the greatness of a woman to her marital status basically removes all that she has worked for and replaces it with the closest man they can associate her with. Her worth is tied intrinsically to a man.

The submissive black woman narrative is a lie. A tragic one at that. A lie that I refuse to be silent about. A lie none of us should be silent about. 

The main concern in all of this is the smearing of your name. 

You are greatness in your own right, and I hope people come to realise that while you are alive, rather than sing praises at your funeral. I want assurance that my nieces will know you as a warrior woman. To know that nothing stops a black woman’s power. That we recognise your strength, Mbokodo. Anyone who tries to diminish your name to that of wife — or ex-wife —  is highly mistaken and quite ignorant of you and your achievements.

Aluta continua. Victoria acerta.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

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Lindelwa Mpilwenhle Dlamini
Lindelwa Dlamini is an apolitical, enthusiastically unapologetic lover of Africa whose black consciousness feminist values are unwavering

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