South Africa, Maverick Life

Analysis: The dress that brought the Mpumalanga legislature to a standstill

By Rebecca Davis 1 April 2015

‘Does this dress make me look unparliamentary?’ On Tuesday the business of the Mpumalanga legislature ground to a halt while MPs argued whether this dress made DA Mpumalanga deputy leader Jane Moloisi-Sithole look too provocative. This is not some sort of belated April Fool’s joke. By REBECCA DAVIS.

On Tuesday, MECs in the Mpumalanga provincial legislature were tasked with answering oral questions. One query was put regarding growing concern over the prevalence of drugs and prostitution in Witbank.

The MEC completed his response and the discussion continued, but shortly afterwards, ANC MP Vusimuzi Windvoël rose on a point of order. He hinted that there was an MP present who was dressed like the people under discussion (prostitutes).

Speaker Thandi Shongwe asked to whom he was referring. Windvoël replied that he meant DA Mpumalanga deputy leader Jane Moloisi-Sithole. In footage of the session seen by the Daily Maverick, Speaker Shongwe laughed, duly inspected Moloisi-Sithole – and then sided with the ANC MP.

She ordered members to dress “formally” and “traditional”, warning them against displays of cleavage.

Addressing Moloisi-Sithole, the Speaker requested her to “put on your scarf”.

When DA leader in the legislature Anthony Benadie attempted to remonstrate with her, Speaker Shongwe replied that what Windvoël said was “proper”.

“I was expecting her to call [Windvoël] to order,” Moloisi-Sithole told the Daily Maverick on Wednesday. “If the Speaker had objected [to my dress] from the beginning, maybe I would have thought she had a point.”

Moloisi-Sithole says she found Shongwe’s response doubly confounding because on a previous occasion, Shongwe had instantly reprimanded an EFF MP who made an insulting comment about the dress of a female ANC MP.

“I was shocked by the response of the Speaker, to agree that I am dressed like a prostitute,” Moloisi-Sithole said. “I think her judgment got clouded completely. What is there to cover up?”

As you should be able to make out from the photograph, the dress that caused all the problems displays no cleavage. A fashion expert contacted by the Daily Maverick summed it up as follows:

“If I were to describe this dress I would say it’s a simple shift dress with cut-out shoulder detailing and what appears to be a chiffon contouring on the bodice with diamante detailing. It’s a below-the-knee, extremely conservative cut.”

After Benadie protested against the Speaker’s ruling, he was asked to leave and the DA staged a walk-out.

sitole inside

Photo: DA Mpumalanga deputy leader Jane Moloisi-Sithole.

“The DA firmly believes that Honourable Sithole was dressed appropriately and [in a] dignified [manner],” Benadie said in a subsequent statement which described the comments about Moloisi-Sithole’s dress as “sexist and perverse”.

The DA has indicated that they will be filing a formal grievance against the Speaker, and will also approach the Commission for Gender Equality with a complaint.

When the Daily Maverick contacted Speaker Shongwe for comment on Wednesday, she directed us to legislature secretary Josiah Silinda.

“Up to this far we have not received any formal complaint from the DA,” Silinda said. “During the sitting one of the honourable members just made a point of order…he made a remark that [Moloisi-Sithole] was not appropriately dressed.”

Silinda suggested that the comment was intended “to break the formality, to laugh”. Silinda said on a different occasion, another male MP accused a fellow (male) parliamentarian of wearing pyjamas, to the hilarity of all. Silinda also argued that freedom of expression should protect Windvoel’s comments.

“It was not an insinuation which was meant to hurt,” he said. Silinda agreed that Moloisi-Sithole was not dressed inappropriately.

He disputed that the Speaker made a ruling on the matter of Sithole’s dress, saying instead that she had delivered a “general statement” that members should be appropriately dressed.

This is not the first time that a female parliamentarian’s dress has come under fire in South Africa. In June 2013, the ANC’s deputy minister Buti Manamela suggested that DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko had “bad fashion taste” and should be arrested by the “fashion police” for her attire, which consisted at the time of a paisley dress, black stockings and a red jacket. Female ANC MPs cheered and clapped in response to this comment.

Afterwards, ANC Chief Whip Moloto Mothapo stood by the criticism of Mazibuko’s dress – even though he was seemingly unable to pinpoint what was wrong with it. From a report at the time: “Asked by the Mail & Guardian to say what exactly was wrong with Mazibuko’s dress, Mothapo said it was too casual. ‘It would be difficult for me to describe it,’ he said.”

At the same sitting, ANC MP John Jeffery veiled a sly dig at Mazibuko’s weight as a statement on her gravitas: “While the Honourable Mazibuko may be a person of substantial weight, her stature is questionable,” he said.

Attacks on female politicians’ weight are by no means solely the province of the ruling party, either. DA leader Helen Zille was once accused of referring to ANC MP Zodwa Magwaza as an “elephant”, while DA MEC Theuns Botha once allegedly compared current Public Enterprises Minister Lynne Brown to a “hippopotamus”.

Male MPs are sometimes on the receiving end of comments about their appearance, but the tone tends to be lighter. EFF MP Mbuyiseni Ndlozi was recently chastised by Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande for wearing the same socks two days in a row, but the effect was teasing. There was no suggestion that Ndlozi has exposed himself, or inadvertently revealed something about his sexual proclivities.

Dressgate in the Mpumalanga legislature has a number of unsavoury strands. The most obvious is the policing of women’s bodies and appearance, and the attempts to shame them into silence by publically sexualising them. Another is the use of the label “prostitute” to denigrate a woman, which serves to further vilify sex-workers. A third is the allegation of political bias on the part of the Speaker, which – if true – suggests that protecting the rights of women falls behind the mandate of protecting the ruling party.

Any way you look at it, it’s women who lose – and little wonder that women might be more reluctant to seek public office if they can expect to be shamed for their appearance in this manner. DM

Photo: DA Mpumalanga deputy leader Jane Moloisi-Sithole.

Read more:

  • Jeffery’s low blow: That fatuous ‘fat’ comment, on Daily Maverick

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