The Gender Contender: Dlamini-Zuma and Mbete vie to be the woman on top
- Ranjeni Munusamy
- 18 Jan 2017 12:56 (South Africa)
The ANC national working committee (NWC) has decided there should be no public engagement on the succession issue until after the policy conference in June. As this is the hot topic this year, it is virtually impossible to put the genie back in the bottle. There is massive public interest in who succeeds President Jacob Zuma and a lot at stake for the ANC factions competing for dominance. The declaration by the ANC Women’s League (ANCWL) that they would campaign for Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to be the first woman president puts her firmly in contention. But the Speaker of the National Assembly, Baleka Mbete, will not let Dlamini-Zuma run on the gender ticket without a fight. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
Because of how the succession battle in the ANC is framed, there might never actually be a proper debate on gender issues and what a woman president would mean for the party and the country. Candidates are not meant to campaign so they cannot explain what their priorities would be, what they would do differently and what the ANC and the country could expect during their term as leader.
It would therefore be up to their proxies to lobby on their behalf and tell the country what they stand for. This is what the ANCWL did at 8:29pm on Saturday, January 7, when they issued a statement saying that Dlamini-Zuma was “the only suitable candidate” to be elected as the ANC president. On the eve of the ANC’s 105th anniversary rally in Johannesburg, the statement caught everyone by surprise, including the ANC leadership. Dlamini-Zuma has not uttered a single word yet on the succession matter and it is not known if she was aware that she was being endorsed.
The ANCWL said in their statement that they had the responsibility to campaign for “gender equity and parity”.
“We have come to the appreciation that nobody will break that glass ceiling but ourselves as women of the African National Congress.”
Apart from announcing their support for Dlamini-Zuma’s candidacy for president, the ANCWL said they would also lobby for more women in the ANC’s top six posts.
“In line with the 50/50 representation in the officials, the ANCWL has resolved to lobby for Cde Baleka Mbete, Cde Jessie Duarte, Cde Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, Cde Lindiwe Sisuslu, Cde Maite Nkoana-Mashabane and Cde Nomvula Mokonyane to be considered in the other five of the six official positions of the African National Congress in December 2017. Of importance is the decision that Cde Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is a presidential candidate of the ANCWL and nobody else.”
While Mbete’s name leads that list, the slates allegedly being considered by the groups backing Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma do not include her for the top six. Her current position as national chairperson does not carry much significance and she is unlikely to retain it. So in order to remain in a leadership role, Mbete has to throw her hat into the ring for the top job.
She told the Sunday Times she had been “approached” by many people to consider running for president and that “after agonising for a long time”, she decided to make herself available for the job. But after an NWC meeting on Monday, during which the ANC decided to put a lid on succession talk in its structures, Mbete had to backpedal.
“I am saying‚ yes‚ people raised this matter but it’s not yet time for me to pronounce on it. But indeed‚ in general‚ it is known that I’ve always obliged to the ANC because I’m a cadre of this ANC. But it’s not a discussion I am willing to have a full-on engagement about in public because it is wrong,” she said in an interview with Xolani Gwala on Radio 702 on Tuesday morning.
Asked by Gwala whether she was disappointed by the ANCWL’s endorsement of Dlamini-Zuma, Mbete said:
“I was surprised. It was not disappointment. We have got to be very careful with choice of words.”
Before the ANC’s embargo was imposed, Mbete told the Sunday Times she did not feel betrayed by the ANCWL’s announcement. She said even though the ANCWL had declared that Dlamini-Zuma and nobody else would be their candidate, this would not discount her from entering the race.
“No, not at all. I mean, all it does is it clarifies the views of the leadership of the ANCWL… that’s all it does, it says they are also committing themselves to campaign and persuade other members of the ANC to agree with them on their position, that’s all. It does not say nobody else should be nominated.”
With the ANC now barring further discussion on succession matter, all the contenders will not be able to engage or answer questions about what they stand for. The Sunday Times interview was timeous for Mbete as she was able to say a bit about how she would advance the gender struggle. She said having a woman as president would deal a blow to patriarchy and sexism, and that a woman leader would put more emphasis on addressing social ills. The ANC needed to come up with measures to support women who occupied senior positions in the public and private sectors, as they were often set up to fail, Mbete said.
Dlamini-Zuma has maintained radio silence so it is not known whether this would be her focus if she were to be elected. There is a real danger that the election of a woman leader for the ANC might be largely symbolic as the party’s policies are determined by the collective. It is only if the ANC leader becomes state president that she would hold real powers. There is no telling whether the ANC will maintain its majority in the 2019 election.
While the status of women has improved over the years through the country’s equity laws, there is a long way to go to ensure better representation of women, particularly in the business sector. There is also much to be done to combat high levels of abuse, inadequate access to economic opportunities and the exploitation of women. While South Africa has high rates of participation of women in politics, the correlation to the improvement of the lot of women generally is not always obvious.
A woman leader who is elected on a gender ticket would therefore have a lot of heavy lifting to do. The big question is whether Dlamini-Zuma or Mbete would really be candidates that advance the cause of women or whether the mandate from those supporting them would be to maintain the status quo. Many of their backers have vested interests in preserving the political and financial landscape. It is the reason they are dead against Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa’s candidacy as they fear he would shake things up. Ramaphosa has not clarified his intentions or his campaign strategy but his remarks so far point towards a political clean-up and a clampdown on corruption.
The person who has the most interest in preserving the status quo is President Jacob Zuma and he has said several times – the latest was in a radio interview last week – that he supported the idea of a woman president. This has been interpreted as his endorsement of Dlamini-Zuma’s candidacy. Dlamini-Zuma is technically unemployed since her term as African Union Commission chair expired. Speculation is rife that Zuma will reshuffle the Cabinet soon to include Dlamini-Zuma and thus line her up for the top job. But Zuma is also close to Mbete so he could end up backing whomever undertakes to protect him and his interests.
It might be quite ironic if the woman candidates, Dlamini-Zuma and Mbete, lead the “preservation of the status quo” tickets while the male candidates, Ramaphosa and possibly Zweli Mkhize, campaign for change. Former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, who outside the ANC is possibly the most popular choice to be South Africa's first female leader, articulated a growing concern about the woman president debate.
“I would love to have a female president, but not a female who is a proxy. That makes her worse than a man,” Madonsela told the Cape Town Press Club on Monday.
With the succession discussion now shut down by the ANC, the space for proper engagement and interrogation of the candidates’ visions is narrowed. The media would have to read between the lines every time the contenders speak and rely on their proxies for information. ANC members, who also source information from the media, will have to depend on their knowledge of the candidates’ track records and possibly private discussions to decide whom to vote for. As with the past two elective conferences, they might also be instructed to vote in blocs for factional slates.
It will be several months before the nominations process begins and the country will know who is on the field of play. Until then, the game goes underground and the candidates need to pretend they are not in the fight of their lives for power. DM
Photo: (LEFT) Then the African Union Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (L) talks to South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma during the close of the 26th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the African Union (AU) at the AU headquarters in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, January 31, 2016. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri (RIGHT) Baleka Mbete in Mangaung 2012. (Leonie Marinovich)
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