This week in Parliament, one female MP was called a straat meid – essentially, a sex worker – while another was subjected to a cat impersonation while she attempted to make herself heard. Heckling in Parliament is nothing new, but should these specifically gendered and sexualised insults continue to be tolerated? REBECCA DAVIS takes a look.
“She’s a straat meid!” yelled a male ANC MP at the DA’s Phumzile van Damme as she attempted to deliver her response to President Zuma’s State of the Nation Address. And then again: “She’s a straat meid!” One may quibble over the literal translation of straat meid, but its most common understanding is to refer metaphorically to a sex worker.
Van Damme told the Daily Maverick that at the time, she did not hear the insults due to the noise emanating from the front benches – and that if she had, she would have made her feelings clear. Van Damme named the MP in question as the ANC’s Mervyn Dirks, who did not respond to questions from the Daily Maverick on the subject.
“His label of me was quite despicable and is typical of men who think women should be demure, agreeable and never raise their voices,” Van Damme said. “It is also a term reserved for black women, and is therefore not only deeply sexist, but also racist. I do expect an apology from him. Not only to me, but all women he insulted. He ought to be ashamed of himself.”
During the same parliamentary session, Congress of the People MP Deidre Carter was subjected to cat noises from the ANC back benches as she spoke: something Carter has endured for a number of years. The origins of this “tradition” – as one news outlet termed it – are unclear.
Sexist abuse within a Parliament which ostensibly pledges itself towards the empowerment of women is not a recent phenomenon. It arguably reached its peak during the period when Lindiwe Mazibuko served as parliamentary leader for the DA. Mazibuko was the target of a number of insulting comments about her weight, style and hair, to the extent that one attack against her featured in a Guardian list of “the top 10 sexist moments in politics” worldwide.
Neither is it solely the ruling party doling out the sexism. Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe Sisulu was branded a “Barbie doll” by EFF leader Julius Malema in Parliament in 2014. In the same year Small Business Minister Lindiwe Zulu was also referred to by Malema in a press conference as a “street meid”, not so long after Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe had called Zulu a “little street walker”. The EFF’s Mbuyiseni Ndlozi has on more than one occasion termed female ANC MPs “mistresses” in Parliament.
Of course, male MPs are also the target of demeaning language in Parliament. In 2012, the DA’s David Maynier was infamously referred to by Lindiwe Sisulu as having a “flea-infested body”. In this week’s parliamentary session, the insults “clown” and sell-out” were directed at male DA MPs, while Van Damme herself called a male ANC MP an “idiot” and instructed him to stop his mouth with KFC.
The difference, though, is that male MPs in the National Assembly have rarely been subjected to the same brand of sexualised insult. One notable exception was when EFF MP Mbuyiseni Ndlozi was accused (without evidence) by ANC MP Lulu Johnson in 2015 of being a “rapist”. On that occasion, however, the slur was taken sufficiently seriously for the House to be temporarily adjourned, with Johnson made to apologise at once upon the resumption of proceedings.
This week, too, Speaker Baleka Mbete read out a heartfelt apology from North West Premier Supra Mahumapelo for having sworn at DA Chief Whip John Steenhuisen during the State of the Nation Address. By contrast, there has thus far been no public attempt on the part of Dirks to apologise to Van Damme. A Daily Maverick inquiry to the ANC Women’s League as to their views on this use of sexist language went unanswered.
Dirks also escaped without censure from acting Speaker Thandi Modise – who, like van Damme, may not have heard the comments at the time that they were made. The episode invites the question, though: if the offending MPs are not subjected to any disciplinary rebuke for this kind of sexist behaviour, is there any action that can be independently taken against them?
The Women’s Legal Centre told the Daily Maverick on Thursday that the labelling of an MP as a “straat meid” constitutes a form of sexual harassment in the workplace.
The Protection from Harassment Act, promulgated in 2013, guards individuals against “any unwelcome sexual attention from a person who knows or who reasonably knows that such attention is unwelcome”. It includes unwelcome behaviour, suggestions, messages or remarks of a sexual nature that have the effect of “offending, intimidating or humiliating” the complainant – criteria which clearly fit the bill in this instance.
Mosima Kekana, attorney at the Women’s Legal Centre, added that the insult to Van Damme also constitutes defamation of character, as well as the obvious violation of parliamentary rules.
“We believe that the crux of the matter is that in the President’s SONA speech, he specifically indicated that government would take up the role of championing women in the workplace, particularly within government,” Kekana said. “Thus, the use [of such terms] by male MPs, in particular those from the ruling party, is in direct contradiction to the president’s commitment to champion women.”
The Women’s Legal Centre said that the incident was a “clear violation of parliamentary rules and [female MPs’] workplace rights”.
Parliament is well known as a place where the rhetoric can be brutal and only the thick-skinned survive. Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine another workplace in the country where a male worker could publicly refer to a female colleague as a whore and escape censure. DM
Photo: A general view of the Parliament during a session to debate the president’s State of the Nation Address, Cape Town, South Africa 14 February 2017. A joint sitting of Parliament started debating the president’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) that was delivered on 09 February. EPA/NIC BOTHMA