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Women, politics and leadership: Empowering towards an equitable future – webinar

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This Mail & Guardian webinar was hosted by the Mail & Guardian and sponsored by the Democracy Development Program (DDP). It featured as its speakers: Professor Mpilo Pearl Sithole, a Social Anthropologist working in the fields of governance, gender and development, the politics of knowledge production, and social inequality; Ayakha Melithafa, the youngest Commissioner for the Presidential Climate Change Committee; Mabel Sithole, the Building Bridges Programme Manager at The Mandela School; and Paul Kariuki, Executive Director of DDP, who has worked in the NPO sector for more than 10 years. It was moderated by Sanusha Naidu, a Foreign Policy analyst who has worked at Open Society Foundation for South Africa and the Centre for Conflict Resolution, and introduced by Lynn Schmitz of the DDP.

Schmitz kicked off proceedings by outlining why August is Women’s Month — because of the historic women’s march on the Union Buildings in Pretoria, which took place in the month of August in 1956. She said women’s struggles are far from over; women face more unemployment than men, and they also face the challenges of GBV and femicide, which the DDP condemns. Women should be free to live as equals and enjoy the same prosperity that men do.

Sanusha Naidu

Sanusha Naidu thanked Schmitz and said the focus of the webinar was on the path travelled since 1994, and the progress made regarding women’s rights. GBV is still a serious blight on our democracy, and women are challenged in not only the public but also the private spheres. Women are the fabric and backbone of every society, but they face huge hurdles. 

Pearl Sithole said the discussion takes place in the backdrop of events in South Africa, including the recent murder of Fort Hare student Nosicelo Mtebeni by her boyfriend. Where do we start with solving the gender inequality issue? Does talking help? We all know that women are second-class citizens, but why can we not translate this knowledge into changing their status? 

There has been a “resounding failure” by the state and officialdom to effect change, so I am writing a letter to our president, said Sithole. In it I state that there has never been a woman president or minister of finance. Institutional patriarchy is a reality. The constitution appears to protect human rights, but in reality the government promotes material inequality and favours men, just like a patriarchal family does. Women in government are kept there for reasons of appearance, but have no real power. Strategies are planned from the top down, and women have no relevance in them. 

Women are associated with ordinariness; capitalism only lets women in as a favour. Anything indigenous has no value — women are only allowed to have land in communal spaces, but the idea of communal land is now being rejected. The national strategic plan is essentially masculine, and the church plays a huge role in terms of enforcing women’s subjugation. Sithole also talked about the double day, of how women have to work and then come home and work again, and how Covid-19 has brought this to our attention.

Ayakha Melithafa

Regarding the rage of men, there needs to be a dialogue of ubuntu accompanying the rights-based approach, as our culture and religion have “promised” men that women are merely second-place citizens. Any approach to gender has to discover what it is that enrages men so much in their spousal relationships; what disparities exist between what they feel has been promised them and the situation that actually exists in the household.

Ayakha Melithafa introduced herself and said she became a water activist because of Cape Town’s water crisis. She noticed that her mother, who is a farmer, had to adjust to the droughts in the area, whereas the rich white farmers simply drilled boreholes and carried on with business as usual. She became aware of climate change, which then caused her “climate depression”; she then joined a climate organisation and found a community of people who were making changes. Becoming a climate justice activist soon led to her becoming a social justice activist. 

“There comes a time when being ‘resilient’ is not enough; we have to stand up and make a stand before our livelihood is destroyed,” said Melithafa. Being young, black and female, she has had a tough time talking to ministers and presidents who are usually old men; she has to fight harder to make her voice heard as a “Gen Z” youth.

Mabel Sithole said although there are shifts to greater equality in Africa, there are still several barriers in many processes, including peace processes and political processes. Women’s bodies are battlefields, particularly in liberation struggles; in some of these conflicts, women were regarded as “warm blankets” whose role was to provide “comfort” for senior freedom fighters. Sexual violence is the leading form of violence against women in the continent, accounting for 42% of all violence against women. The list is ongoing, and includes abductions. Political militias in particular target women and are almost never punished for their transgressions. This violence against women all takes place against a backdrop of patriarchy.

Building networks of solidarity, such as this webinar, is one way for women to share their experiences. Women at times perpetuate and even practise patriarchy, which limits their full participation in these spaces. Women are limited in global decision making, and although Africa is making strides in women’s representation in political processes, there is often resistance to true change due to institutionalised patriarchy. 

A Wits study revealed that senior positions in the legal sector are still dominated by white men; “the transformation challenge permeates all sectors”. Women who are able to enter positions of power have, according to Mabel Sithole, a greater responsibility because they need to mentor younger women. Men have a huge responsibility to alter the way they raise their sons; there are feminist men out there, who support women as equals, but men must play a bigger role in transforming patriarchy. 

Mabel Sithole

It’s important to protect our informal traders, as most of them are women, particularly in the context of Covid-19. We need gender-responsive budgeting, to support women, and transparent accountability is essential in this regard; it is still in its infancy in our region. More political commitment is required. Big business is still influencing policy implementation regarding natural resource distribution, and strategies that don’t benefit communities and harm the environment are still being adopted, said Mabel Sithole.

Melithafa said that the women in Khayelitsha around her tend to perpetuate patriarchy. They view themselves as objects, and talk about their boyfriends hitting them as though it is not abuse, but as them being “strong men”. Are we waiting for the men to save us? You can’t ask the people perpetuating the problem to fix it. Women must provide the solution; they have been complaining, but few changes have been made by men. Gen Z is not going to sit back and take things lightly. Women are the leaders in climate change movements; we are in a revolution, and we are tired of asking the adults to do their job and actually protect us. We have to all choose to sink or swim, to fight with the young people or to be part of the group that is complacent. 

Naidu pointed out that there are a lot of discussions, but little seems to be changing. She asked about the quality women’s representation in the electoral process; is it enough? How do we hold our councillors accountable? Is it enough to say, I won’t vote for you?

Pearl Sithole said she is tired of rigid strategies; she wants different regulation; she is tired of women’s representation being seen in terms of numbers. I have farmed successfully on my own small plot of land but nobody wants to recognise that. If I am going to vote for political parties, they must engage me on things that matter. 

Mabel Sithole said in her experience women working at local level, such as councillors, get very little support. Councillors face big challenges, and are sometimes even killed. Women in power face greater criticism from the public, and may be accused of sleeping their way to positions of power. Who writes the narrative about women in leadership? Often it is to be seen, but not heard. Is this real equity and inclusion, to just have a seat at the table? Those in power sometimes don’t want to let go, bring others in, and share the space.

These things have to start at a young age, said Melithafa; how girls are seen and treated in the family influences all their later interactions. It’s no good to have a seat at the table, but still believe one should remain silent, because of your past conditioning. And, who is going to do the unpaid social work if women are successfully entering the workspace? Either the men or the state must then take care of the children, not a nanny, not another woman.

Paul Kariuki

Naidu asked Mabel Sithole about her experience of being a woman in the music industry. She said it is not an easy space for women, especially since Covid-19 struck; many venues have closed, for instance. Women must bring their own authentic selves to musical situations, not fit into any prescribed box. I was recently asked to sing in a high-level meeting, so I broke into Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (she sings the first verse). We have to learn to occupy our own space.

How do we learn to occupy our own space, asked Naidu? Melithafa replied that she was lucky to have a mother who taught her to not doubt herself, to not compare herself to men. Because of this support I have never felt intimidated by men; I know where I come from, and it’s a powerful lineage. I am confident in myself and my skills, and more girls and women need to find this confidence; I am able to hold my space even when I talk to presidents.

Pearl Sithole said when we are knocking on doors to get into certain spaces, we want to do so on our own terms, and be ourselves in them. Women bring something to spaces that matter; academia presents itself as being very liberal, but it isn’t. I publish my own research, and please the “gurus” just enough to stay employed. I pin my hopes on the new generation, and I hope they are mad enough to challenge us and take things further.

Naidu said that the “first citizens” of the world have been put on notice; no longer will women do what the men think they should do. The pandemic has made us realise that we have left things in the hands of men for too long, and now the earth is mad with us all.

Kariuki closed proceedings by saying he was very excited about what was discussed. We have had enough of policies; now is the time for action. South Africa must become a safe space for women; the atrocities they endure must end. Women have a huge role to play at all levels, including academia, to ensure that their voices are heard. More spaces must be created such as this one, where the status quo is resoundingly challenged. 

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