South Africa

Politics: Where only the strongest women survive and thrive

By J Brooks Spector 20 May 2014

In the wake of the charges and countercharges over the dissension and desertion in Helen Zille’s Democratic Alliance, J. BROOKS SPECTOR contemplates just how she stacks up against other female politicians through history.

Ever since the results of South Africa’s national election were announced nearly two weeks ago, observers have been astounded by the spectacle of Helen Zille, the leader of the Democratic Alliance party, in a public state of something approaching a near-meltdown, despite her party’s credible showing in that election. First there was the astonishing moment when the party’s young parliamentary leader, Lindiwe Mazibuko, announced she was no longer prepared to serve in that position. Instead, she would be leaving South Africa to go to the US to enter Harvard University’s Kennedy School for a master’s degree program in the coming academic year.

That surprise announcement unleashed a political rugby scrum over who is going to have which party position going into the new parliamentary sitting – and much of this infighting continues to be played out via leaks to the media that have generated increasingly acrimonious news stories. This, in turn, has generated stories and commentary about the party leader’s predilection to push former Gauteng premier candidate Mmusi Maimane forward to become the next parliamentary leader despite his inexperience with the parliament.

In addition, there have also been Helen Zille’s own problematic public outbursts – sometimes live on radio or television – disparaging Mazibuko’s parliamentary effectiveness and even her basic competence, after she, Zille, had been the one to have propelled Mazibuko into her job in the first place. In effect, Mazibuko was tossed overboard with a dismissive good-bye wave, apparently without even a gold watch or farewell banquet.  All of this has disheartened many party members, just as they should be focusing on a parliamentary strategy and thinking how they will take the fight to the ANC in some of the country’s biggest cities in two years’ time.

Previously of course, the Democratic Alliance has been rocked by periodic defections by prominent senior strategists like Ryan Coetzee, as well as yet others recruited away to serve as South African diplomatic representatives. Given this latest imbroglio for Zille’s party, the result is, increasingly, being seen in the public discourse that is a fundamental component of her leadership style. That is, Helen Zille will regularly cherry pick, groom, promote, mentor – and then discard bright young “leaders in training” – if they choose to disagree with her. And that doesn’t even include that disastrous quickie courtship, marriage and divorce (or annulment) with Agang’s Mamphela Ramphele.

As a result, the air being breathed by DA politicians is now thick with the scent of preliminary backroom discussions that may yet ultimately lead to a gentle shove into political retirement before Zille thoroughly disrupts her own party. A political version of Icarus’ fatal problem, perhaps.

But what kind of leadership style is this? Is there something at play here beyond just personal quirks on the part of Helen Zille? Remote psychoanalysis of leadership is a delicate subject, of course, and one fraught with pitfalls the size of a Gauteng pothole. World War I-era US President Woodrow Wilson was famously analysed from afar for the way his personality contributed to his failures in dealing with the US Congress as well as his domestic and foreign allies – and even his antagonists. Years ago, US political scientist James Barber tried to suss out a set of definable, predictable and distinctive personality types to help judge the likely success or failure of presidents and other leaders in advance of their selection or election.

But consider the picture of female political leadership in particular. How does Helen Zille compare with, say, the late Margaret Thatcher or even Hillary Clinton? Are there threads in common here?

Regardless of one’s orientation towards her political opinions, the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher became one of the commanding politicians of the twentieth century. Breaking through to the top tier in what was an almost exclusively male domain, Thatcher, of that famously “the lady’s not for turning” presence, demonstrated a dominating political style after winning 1979 elections, a forcefulness of purpose and willingness to take real risks in pursuit of her political goals – as with her pursuit of the Falklands War and the thorough grinding down of the political power of Arthur Scargill and his miners’ union.

She bestrode the British political scene like nobody else had done for decades, disdaining the vacillating, compromising, old style “wets” in her own party who weren’t imbued with the same fervour and purity of purpose as she was. There she stood until a collective éminence grise cabal from her own party rebelled at her disdainful manner and dismissive approach to others’ opinions. They carried off a bureaucratic-style palace coup, and summarily replaced her in 1990 with Casper Milquetoast, er, John Major. In Major they had found a leader they could work better with: he returned the favour by winning the election over Neil Kinnock’s labour, but ultimately lost, after seven years in power, to Tony Blair’s new labour.

Do Helen Zille and Maggie Thatcher share any characteristics in common? Both styles nurtured a tight core of bright, articulate devotees, vigorously dedicated to a kind of personality-driven leadership that became a near “cult.” Both leaders seem surprisingly intolerant of criticism – both public and private.

Moreover, both appear to have been fascinated by the power of words to reshape the nature of the political environment they found themselves in. That said, though, Thatcher seemed significantly more capable of tossing off a phrase that crisply summed up her political philosophy – and that resonated nationally and beyond, even if her words were not, ultimately, equal to those of her great wordsmith predecessor, Winston Churchill.

Frequently examples include: “To cure the British disease with socialism was like trying to cure leukaemia with leeches” and “Standing in the middle of the road is very dangerous; you get knocked down by the traffic from both sides.” By contrast, so far at least, the best Helen Zille seems to have been able to offer is her often-stated phrase,  “the open opportunity society” – but those words have yet to truly resonate with most South Africans.

But are the leadership styles of these two individuals influenced in some significant ways by virtue of their gender? Now here is a real minefield of a topic truly studded with live ones. Is there a special gender-based distinction in leadership that can be picked out from the larger texture of leadership? Did Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi, Boadecia, Cleopatra, Elizabeth I, Catherine the Great, Ching Dynasty Dowager Empress, and Margaret Thatcher all actually have something important in common? There seems to be at least one thing:

Like them or not, each of these women were practicing a craft so profoundly male that their very presence at the pinnacle could send metaphorical (and sometimes real) shivers down the backs of male counterparts and subordinates. Moreover, each of these extraordinary individuals seems to have held close to a strong, even overwhelming, set of basic principles about their fundamental political values – most often centred on the preservation of their respective nations or states. In support of such a goal, they were prepared to carry out extreme measures, but with great flexibility in strategy and tactics.

In that sense, it seems Margaret Thatcher unconsciously imbibed these lessons and turned them to her real advantage during her decade-plus stewardship of Britain. And to a rather lesser degree of success, it seems Helen Zille is attempting to achieve the same thing – turning her female-led minority party into a centre of political principle in a starkly male-centred political universe in South Africa.

But such efforts also almost certainly rely upon the more general need to motivate followers, colleagues and opponents. Richard Nixon once declared that in politics one had to keep your friends close – but your enemies even closer. But an even better lesson comes from the great Renaissance political theorist and inventor of real politic thinking, Niccolo Machiavelli, who gets the last word.

In asking how best to motivate and keep obedience by subordinates and opponents, as well as supporters, Machiavelli had observed, Upon this a question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with. Because this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you.”

And he concluded his advice with the advice, “Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated, which will always be as long as he abstains from the property of his citizens and subjects and from their women.”

Now don’t those words of advice set out exactly how Margaret Thatcher ruled her roost all those years, and how Helen Zille has been attempting to manage her own political world – only with a bit less success so far? Of course, Zille’s universe may be an even tougher than was Margaret Thatcher’s – given Zille’s position as a white woman of presumed privilege in a predominately African nation who has run her party – and now a province – with a very firm hand on the political tiller.

As a point of comparison, consider the situation of Hillary Clinton for a moment as well. While she is not yet the head of her party by virtue of its candidate for president, let alone already elected by her nation as its leader; should she run as the first female American candidate for president from a major party and win, she will face many of the same challenges already confronted by other political women around the world. She, too, will have to perform in a predominately man’s world, even as she will have to demonstrate that presumed “masculine” strength of purpose on policy as an essential side to her character, even as she will simultaneously need to hold on to and vividly demonstrate what is often assumed to be the “feminine” character. Doubtless she will study the lessons of Margaret Thatcher, but she may want to take a look at Helen Zille’s career as well. And if she eventually runs and wins that final campaign, Hillary Clinton, too, will find that like every other politician she will need to keep her enemies even more tightly bound to her than her presumed friends, she will also need to find her own unique pathway to instill both fear and love so that she will have a chance to be a success in what will almost certainly be her final political challenge. DM

Photo: A photograph made available on 09 April 2013 shows Margaret Thatcher, when she was British Prime Minister, during a press conference in Jerusalem, Israel, 27 May 1986. EPA/JIM HOLLANDER

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