Q&A Sessions: ‘Keeping quiet is not an option’ — Charlotte Lobe

Your role at the department for international relations and co-operation (Dirco) encompasses many tasks, including being part of the steering committee on generational equality. How does all of it work?

The position I’m actually contracted for is that of chief director of transformation and transversal programmes, dealing with gender equality and women’s empowerment, change management and service delivery, and organisational development.

Since March 2019 I’ve been acting chief operations officer, providing strategic support to the director general. I’m also chair of the departmental Covid-19 steering committee. I’m the South African focal person on women, peace and security and a member of the global multistakeholder steering committee on generation equality.

Do you have time for anything else?

On a personal level, I’ve been working on two books. The first book’s working title is My Father, My Hero, My Zero and it focuses on my father as both a present and absent parent in my life. My manuscript is complete and I’m currently talking to publishers. The second one is about the erasure of women from South African history. I’m 70% there and hoping that I can finish it by the end of the year.

How did your gender activism start?

My father was a policeman, and me and my older sister, Gertrude Mothupi, joined the struggle against apartheid as a form of rebellion. My father had left my mom and we wanted to be the direct opposite of everything he stood for. My mother was married to a man whose heart belonged to many. That is the most modest way of putting it. Everything about him aroused feminism in us: we wanted to be independent women and not be reliant on men.

We found a home in the liberation movement in late 1987 and joined the Botshabelo Students Congress and the Botshabelo Youth Congress. We identified with women like Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, a household name for women of my generation.

Do you think there is space for a feminist foreign policy in South Africa, like in Sweden or Canada?

If a feminist foreign policy recognises the right of women and recognises that people are equal and must have equal opportunities, then how different is that from the South Africa’s foreign policy, the diplomacy of ubuntu? 

Is it in name or is it in what feminism has to achieve in the context of foreign relations? One of the tenets of our foreign policy is recognising that South Africa is a product of solidarity, and we affirm our humanity through affirming the humanity of others. The ubuntu of diplomacy has also enabled us to focus on women’s rights as fundamental to human rights. Since 1994, many women have been appointed heads of mission and diplomats, but a lot remains to be done.

Can South Africa push internationally for peace-building with the current levels of gender-based violence at home?

Earlier this year the United Nations security council noted that there are one billion small guns and light weapons all over the world, of which 60% are in the hands of individuals, meaning they are in our homes. In South Africa, it has been proven that the proliferation of small guns and light weapons has a huge effect on gender-based violence and femicide.

If we want to silence the guns, we need a paradigm shift and to understand that silencing the guns isn’t just about the big guns used in wars, but also those in our communities. We also acknowledge that it’s not only about guns, it is also about people using any instrument, including their hands, to violate women, and the national strategic plan on gender-based violence and femicide provides a good basis for this fight. We need a shift in mindset and for our people to understand that women are not punching bags.

What has happened in between you leaving the Congress of the People (Cope) and now?

After being excommunicated from the ANC, Cope became my home for a while, but it did not last. After leaving active politics in 2009, I was unemployed until 2012 when I got part-time work at the University of the Free State, co-ordinating the community learning programme linked to governance and political transformation. I chose not to ride on my political background and rejoined the ANC only after I found a job. The revolution owed me nothing.

It must have been difficult though?

As a result of my background, I couldn’t get any job in the Free State. I was blacklisted, persona non grata in the private sector and in government because of my history of leaving the ANC. I am also one of the people who was pro-Khwezi [Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo, the accuser in Jacob Zuma’s rape trial in 2006].

I left the Free State and applied for a deputy director position at the Independent Police Investigative Directorate’s [Ipid’s] parliamentary office. I used my maiden name, Pheko, and I used only my matric certificate and my diploma [Lobe holds a master’s degree in politics].

I was excited. This was a big breakthrough. By the time people knew I was employed by Ipid, it was too late for anyone to do anything about it. Then I attended the ANC’s January 8 rally in Cape Town [in 2014], and when people saw me they took me to the VIP section, where I bumped into Minister Susan Shabangu. She was excited to see me and asked me to come and work as media liaison [in the department of women]. 

At this time I longed for something more challenging, and applied for the position in Dirco. It’s the best decision I’ve made in my whole life. I work in an environment that is professional and dynamic.

You were on the ANC’s national executive committee when you resigned in 2008, and Free State provincial secretary and ANC Women’s League spokesperson before that. You were also an MP and an MPL. Do you regret joining Cope?

I don’t look back with shame. I believed it was the correct move. It was in the interest of my people. It has been an extremely difficult journey, and it was even more difficult to be reintegrated. But I have no regrets: I am a product of this journey; I am shaped by my experiences.

With the incidents that were taking place [now being laid bare in the state capture commission] I feel vindicated because people now understand why some of us took that decision at the time. Maybe I should have stayed in the ANC and fought the battles within the ANC with the hope that we will eventually win. Truth be told, most of us did not leave the ANC: the ANC left us. Maybe I should have kept quiet like many did, but that is not an option for me. 

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Carien Du Plessis
Jill of all trades but really, mistress of none, Carien has of late been a political tourist chasing elections and summits in various parts of the world, especially in Africa. After spending her student days at political rallies in South Africa right through the country's first democratic elections in 1994, and after an extended working holiday in London, Carien started working for newspapers full-time in 2003. She's pretty much had her share of reporting on South African politics, attending gatherings and attracting trolls, but still finds herself attracted to it like a moth to a veld fire. Her ultimate ambition in life is to become a travelling chocolate writer of international fame.

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