The ANC Women’s League says that the fact that the ANC’s new Top Six are all male bar one is the result of patriarchy in action. They may well be right, even taking into account some justified misgivings about their chosen presidential candidate, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. But as Tuesday’s ANC Women’s League press conference demonstrated, the vials of hypocrisy and inconsistency that the league stirs into its so-called feminist positions mean that the body seems set to remain one of patriarchy’s most constant friends. By REBECCA DAVIS.
Any ANC Women’s League press briefing is doomed from the start by the starring presence of its president Bathabile Dlamini. At this stage Dlamini is an irredeemably compromised political figure, lurching from one disaster to the next as Social Development Minister and in the process quite literally putting the lives of South Africa’s most marginalised citizens at risk.
It is impossible to separate Dlamini as ANC Women’s League President from Dlamini as Social Development Minister. Indeed, there’s no valid justification in trying: it is women who are disproportionately dependent on Dlamini’s department for social assistance, and disproportionately harmed by her incompetence. Dlamini’s Women’s League spiel about the need to empower women rings exceptionally hollow when juxtaposed with the evidence of her track record within Social Development.
Such is Dlamini’s reputational bankruptcy that she is fated to take the ANC Women’s League down with her for as long as she remains its president. And Dlamini is going nowhere, as was made clear on Tuesday.
The disastrous effects of the league’s poor leadership have been starkly exposed by the ANC election results. Because, make no mistake, patriarchy is alive and well within the ANC. Dlamini is probably not wrong to point out that two men rose to the top on Dlamini Zuma’s coattails, only to toss her aside when it suited them. Dlamini is also probably not wrong to suggest that the only reason Jessie Duarte won the sole woman’s position in the Top Six was because the only fellow contender was another (less well-known) woman.
It must be particularly galling for the league to see David Mabuza and Ace Magashule succeed where Dlamini Zuma failed. Mabuza did not run any public campaign at all, using calls for “unity” as a cloak for his own ambitions. Magashule’s win remains mystifying and possibly unlawful. Dlamini Zuma, whatever her other flaws as a candidate, worked hard on her campaign. She grafted, travelling the country and engaging with branches. Her male colleagues – who are unarguably more compromised than Dlamini Zuma – have won. Dlamini Zuma has lost.
Any woman who has worked her ass off, only to see a man ride off with the rewards, could probably muster a sliver of sympathy for Dlamini Zuma on Monday night.
The pill must be rendered even more bitter for the league and the NDZ Camp if reports are true that it is Mpumalanga businessman Robert Gumede who used his clout to sink Dlamini Zuma’s campaign, partly as an act of revenge for Dlamini Zuma cancelling a corrupt contract with his business while she was Home Affairs Minister.
None of this is to say that Dlamini Zuma would have made a better ANC president than Cyril Ramaphosa. It is merely to point out that it may well be the case that Dlamini Zuma has indeed been screwed over by a bunch of men, as the Women’s League alleges.
But politics is a brutal business, and both men and women get screwed over all the time. Which brings us to the topic of Lindiwe Sisulu.
Sisulu, who unsuccessfully ran for president on her own before seeing the writing on the wall and accepting nomination as deputy on Cyril Ramaphosa’s slate, had the audacity to launch her campaign without the official backing of the ANC Women’s League.
Indeed, she had no option but to do so. Sisulu explained in a radio interview in July that the league believed that “the only woman who is qualified and ready to lead the ANC is Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma” – a stance she labelled “undemocratic”.
In response, ANC Women’s League leadership were scathing towards Sisulu, accusing her of engaging in “politics of populism and opportunism”, and also taking a swipe at the fact that she was not sufficiently active at a branch level of the ANC Women’s League. Informally, Sisulu was consistently painted as haughty, aloof, and entitled.
Bathabile Dlamini continued to bash Sisulu in public, saying that the league only nominated “progressive” women – the implicit suggestion being that Sisulu did not fall into this category. Dlamini’s attitude towards both Sisulu and the other female presidential contender, Baleka Mbete, was that their bids were fundamentally illegitimate. She told a rally in August that the two women must “clarify” who chose them to run for president, since the Women’s League had not.
It was downright surreal, then, to hear Dlamini on Tuesday railing against delegates for not supporting Sisulu. As journalists pointed out to her, the league’s support for women did not extend beyond the three female candidates on Dlamini Zuma’s slate. The league had urged its members to vote for Dlamini Zuma’s chosen allies, not for women candidates. That meant picking David Mabuza over Lindiwe Sisulu.
Asked why the league had not supported Sisulu for deputy president, Dlamini simply could not answer. She resorted to terming the question “unfair”. But the answer is obvious, and everyone in the room knew it: the league’s concern was not with getting women into top positions, but getting their women into top positions.
It was the umpteenth moment at which the hypocrisy of the Women’s League was exposed. More was to come in the same briefing. Why had the Women’s League not criticised deputy Minister Mdu Manana, convicted of assaulting a woman? Why had the Women’s League alleged that Cyril Ramaphosa was a wife-beater, but were now dutifully pledging allegiance to him?
ANC Women’s League press conferences are rare events. One got the sense that many journalists had years’ worth of burning queries to put to its leadership. But beyond this, it was hard to shake the impression that some of the questions from female journalists were equally motivated by a deeply personal sense of betrayal, disappointment and frustration. Whatever your political affiliations, the ANC Women’s League is far and away the most high-profile organisation in the country tasked specifically with lobbying for the rights of women.
Many questions; absolutely zero satisfactory answers.
“When there is an issue of violence against women we are always going to support a woman,” claimed Dlamini.
To be truthful, she should have added: “Unless the woman in question is alleging rape by the President, or any other form of mistreatment by one of our male allies.”
The Women’s League is utterly, utterly lost.
Even the way Dlamini speaks about women is problematic. Explaining that the league would abide by an election result they found disappointing, she said: “Women are very loyal in their nature.” Mistreat ‘em all you like – they’ll stick around.
Finding the engagement with journalists on Tuesday unpalatable, Dlamini lashed out at the “patriarchal media finding fault with us”. This was despite the fact that the majority of questions she received were posed by women of colour.
The most frustrating aspect of the pitiable circus that the Women’s League has become is that their every word and action weakens arguments that in other contexts are totally valid.
The ANC is patriarchal, and so is South Africa. It is more difficult for a woman to be elected leader. Women do get reduced to their proximity to powerful men. It is bullshit that the ANC bleats about gender parity in its structures and then elects just one woman to its Top Six.
All these are facts – but from the mouths of current Women’s League leaders, the facts are reduced to fake news: fodder for contempt and disbelief.
They are now reaping the fruits of what they have sown. The league’s selective and dishonest approach to female empowerment has enabled and emboldened the patriarchal culture of the ANC. The league has served as patriarchy’s handmaidens, rather than its foes. As long as its current leadership remains, meaningful advancement for South African women will happen in spite of the ANC Women’s League rather than because of it. DM
Photo: ANC Women’s League President Bathabile Dlamini during the 54th National Conference at Nasrec, Johannesburg, December 2017. Photo: Daily Maverick