All too often, we measure our progress in the process of gender empowerment by counting the number of woman politicians in Parliament and Cabinet. There is also now a new dynamic in ANC politics with talk of the prospect of a woman leading the organisation and the country next. At first it looked as if President Jacob Zuma was merely being politically correct by saying South Africa could have a woman as president sooner than we think. He repeated the sentiment last week during a briefing with Chilean President Michelle Bachelet. This means that the issue will progress from a “nice to have” to a real debate in the ANC.
Is having a woman president the ultimate goal in the struggle for gender equality, though? Perhaps on some levels it is. Having a woman in the Number One spot in the country means that the glass ceiling is finally shattered. It means that no position in the country is out of reach for females – except perhaps coach of the national soccer team. However, does the relatively high representation of women in politics now translate into empowerment of women in other sectors, into the upliftment of women burdened by poverty, and does it help counter sexual violence and others forms of abuse of women?
The question should perhaps be whether women in power use their positions to break barriers and adequately represent the problems women stuck in a power imbalance face. Of course women in politics are not there only to champion the gender cause but also the policy mandate of their political parties. How high gender issues feature in these policy mandates, however, often depends on how hard women push these issues in their parties.
One thing that has been glaringly obvious and disappointing in South African politics is how women who rise to positions of power in politics lose touch with their constituencies. Ministers and Deputy Ministers in particular hide behind their privileges such as high-security state-funded mansions and escorted cars, creating a social distance between them and those they claim to represent. They move in an exclusive circle of the political and business elite and only occasionally dip into communities to launch projects or when they are forced to in crisis situations.
Both men and women who conduct themselves in such a way make a mockery of political representation and the fundamentals of democracy. They can hardly be upheld as models younger generations would aspire to be, unless living a high life courtesy of the state is exactly what the leaders of tomorrow desire.
National Women’s Day in South Africa is a commemoration of the 1956 anti-pass march to Pretoria by 20,000 women. While protest marches are commonplace now under a democratic dispensation, this was an act of courage and bravery in the oppressive conditions that existed for 58 years. The women across race and class were acting in unison not for their own interests but against discrimination and racism in the society they lived in.
There are many people in society today who walk in the footsteps of that generation.
A few months ago, few people in South Africa knew who Thokozile Masipa was. In exactly a month, people across the world will watch her deliver judgment against paralympian Oscar Pistorius in his murder trial. While Pistorius’ entire life has been laid bare since he shot and killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on Valentines Day last year, little is known about the woman who will decide what his future will be. Judge Masipa has presided over the sensational, highly publicised trial meticulously, never once revealing which way she was leaning. Despite the high drama around the case, and every moment being broadcast live, she has managed it as if it were any other, with a firm hand, but being considerate towards everyone involved.
According to a report in The Observer, Masipa is at her desk by 6:30am every morning to prepare for court. Because of her busy schedule, her husband, a tax consultant, does the cooking.
Masipa grew up in a poor home, one of 10 children in a two-bedroomed house in Orlando East. She first worked as a clerk, then a messenger, then a tea lady, before she was able to go to university to study for a BA in social work. She then worked as a crime reporter and at the age of 29 was arrested for protesting against the detention of several male editors and demanding press freedom. While working as a journalist full time, she obtained her law degree, which helped her become the second black woman in history to be appointed to the bench.
Masipa has not forgotten her roots – she contributes to a crèche for poor children being run at her childhood home and also finances a nearby project that her sister runs for unemployed women.
She is an exemplary model of the success of gender empowerment in South Africa, both through her own courage and determination and the laws that allowed her to take a seat in the High Court.
Chantal Morris is not someone who would have been known had she not suffered unimaginable pain and suffering. Morris is the mother of four-year-old Taegrin Morris, who was killed in a horrific hijacking incident that saw him being dragged for several kilometres outside his family car travelling at high speed. The incident stunned the nation because of the incredibly gruesome way the child died.
The country reached out to Chantal Morris for the extreme trauma and pain she must have felt when her little boy was ripped away from her, and having to witness him being dragged alongside the car. Her grief at finding his lifeless, mangled body must have been more than any human being can endure.
But through this tremendous pain, Chantal displayed forgiveness and wanted her child’s awful death to have some benefit for their crime-ridden community at Reiger Park. “On Saturday night my child’s life ended and transformation for Reiger Park began,” she said in media interviews. Her husband Elwin was, completely understandably, dealing with his grief more visibly, as many other people in such a situation would. He was angry, and the trauma was written all over his face. The community of Reiger Park was also boiling with anger, on the verge of vigilante activity to hunt down Taegrin’s killers.
But somehow, Chantal Morris’ calm response helped others make peace with the incident. She showed extreme courage and concern for her community at the worst moment of her life. Taegrin’s awful death brought out the strength in his mum and South Africa got to see the power of incredible human being who refused to be defeated by crime, and was willing to do something about it.
South Africa loves Graça Machel, mostly because Nelson Mandela did. She is the only woman in history to have been the First Lady of two different countries. But Machel is a towering figure not because she was married to two exceptional leaders, one of which is an international icon. She was the Minister of Education and Culture in Mozambique before marrying Samora Machel and later became involved in humanitarian work. Since then she has become a prominent activist on child refugees, education and woman empowerment. She is a member of The Elders, a group of who contribute their wisdom and leadership to tackle the world’s toughest problems.
But that is not only why South Africa is lucky to have a claim to Graça Machel. Machel gave Madiba so much love and happiness, which was what he for so long had yearned for. She also took care of him and gave him the dignity he deserved. She made him smile shyly and laugh uproariously. Madiba had been exploited and disrespected by so many people, which Machel could only watch.
When Madiba died, Machel grieved. She really grieved for him. She refused to be sucked into the vortex of battles in the Mandela family during the last months of Madiba’s life and during the funeral period. She displayed unparalleled dignity and poise throughout the time of mourning and even now.
Machel knows she needs not compete with anyone for material possessions or positions in society. She has the eternal love of Nelson Mandela and desires nothing more.
South Africa did not give our beloved Madiba the best send-off. Perhaps it was all too much, perhaps current politics made us stupid, perhaps we just did not know how to say goodbye.
Fortunately Graça Machel was there to hold his hand, to tell him how much the world loved him, and to say goodbye. It took a strong woman and an incredible human being to do that under the circumstances.
South Africa should be forever grateful to Graça Machel, and to women like Judge Masipa, Chantal Morris, Thuli Madonsela and many others like them, women who get up every day and give their all to a country so haunted by incompetence, hopelessness and a sense of omnipresent injustice. It is these women who preserve this nation’s essence and keep us from losing our humanity. They do not need a state-funded charmed lifestyle or to show that they are better than everyone else, but stay true to who they are and use their strengths so this country can have a chance to prosper.
They are the true heroes, many of them never to be known and never to be rewarded for keeping their families together, their communities thriving and hope alive for future generations.
They are the rock on which South Africa stands. DM
Photo: Women march in Soweto on National Women’s Day on Saturday, 9 August 2014 re-enacting the historical march 58 years ago when 20 000 women protested against apartheid and the laws enforcing racial discrimination. Picture: Jacques Coetzer/SAPA
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