Opinionista Sisonke Msimang 15 October 2013

The Women’s League is right: The ANC is not ready for a woman president

The ANCWL can be proud of how it has weathered the post-Polokwane storms that have battered the ANC. In the race to make jokes at the expense of the sometimes-clumsy wording of the League’s leadership, South African society is losing out on a critical and mature voice in conversations about women’s rights.

Last week Angie Motshekga, President of the ANC Women’s League, told a press conference that her organisation would not be putting forward a woman presidential candidate in the run-up to elections. She made the point that “no one wants to go into a futile battle.” Unsurprisingly, this prompted derision and ridicule from the chattering classes.

Curiously, there have been very few column inches commending the Women’s League for stating, in the same press conference, that “cultural practices and traditions that promote the violation of women’s rights must be abolished and these include, among others, ukuthwala, ukungena, and virginity testing.” The Zulu royal family blasted her, suggesting she go and live in another country for uttering such words. Civil society and commentators, for the most part, remained silent.

Many middle-class South Africans have written off the ANCWL. Disappointment with the body peaked at the Polokwane conference where the League backed Jacob Zuma over Thabo Mbeki in the leadership race. After the conduct of Zuma’s supporters outside the rape trial, after his statements on the stand, this seemed like a bitter pill to swallow for many. The truth is that the Women’s League did not have a simple choice to make. It was not as easy as Zuma bad, Mbeki good.

Both leaders had their strengths and weaknesses. While Mbeki had an excellent track record in terms of promoting women in leadership, many argued that the delay in rolling out ARV treatment programmes had a disproportionate effect on women and that his style – which was seen as stifling debate rather than encouraging it – was not helpful to the party. On the other hand, there was Zuma.

In the end, although his personal conduct was highly questionable, women in the ruling party did not have the luxury of pretending that their president represented an exception. Zuma is not the only man in the party – indeed in the country – who has trouble keeping his pants on.

In the fullness of time it has become clear that the Women’s League made the right call and that the organisation continues to carefully balance internal party politics with its mandate of promoting gender equality in wider society.

I have been a tough critic of the ANCWL in the past, but given how bitter and bloody the factional wars were in the ANC have been, the ANCWL has done well to stay alive. At Polokwane and again in Mangaung, the League did what every other bloc in the party did: it picked a side and actually, it picked the winning side. Everyone has chosen sides in these wars, but as usual, women have been most heavily chastised for their choices.

When Angie Motshegka says that fighting to get Nkosasana Zuma, Lindiwe Sisulu or any of the other highly qualified women in the party to make a run for the Presidential seat would be “futile”, it probably means that it would be, well, futile. It is difficult for women to introduce radical change and new energy into a party that continues to privilege male voices over female ones – this is true for all political parties.

Across the world, the best women candidates for political office come from the ranks of the party, usually from within women’s caucuses. They use party structures and processes to advance and they learn how to fight party battles. This means change is indeed slow. Those who ascend do not do so overnight, and they succeed because first and foremost, they are party women. There is nothing wrong with this: indeed it is what sustains solid party leadership.

Angie Motshekga may not present her arguments in the most media-friendly manner, but her point is clear. There are indeed long traditions related to leadership and succession in the ANC, and over the years, the ANCWL has become adept at using these to their benefit. The Women’s League used its insider power when it fought for women’s representation at CODESA. It used its influence in pushing forward the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act in the face of stubborn opposition from many men within the ANC.

Remembering this history and drawing on it will be key if the Women’s League is to make a case that it should be listened to both within the party and outside it. It will also need to demonstrate that it has a gender strategy that looks beyond the lobby of Luthuli House.

The first order of business, however, will be to develop a more circumspect communications strategy. This should include a media training to teach its President to avoid making statements that can be easily quoted out of context. The League has a message; it just needs to rediscover its voice. DM


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