Whenever public criticism involves women such as Mamphela Ramphele and Helen Zille, you can be sure that a certain school of feminists will launch into a tirade blaming it all on sexism. Disputing their claims does not deny sexism is real. On the contrary. Crying wolf is only a problem if the wolf actually exists.
Even before I started writing this column, I got it from all sides. My crime? I observed that, “If sexism is all you ever look for, sexism is all you’ll ever find.”
The comment was a response to an analysis piece by Rebecca Davis, about “the trouble with being female in politics”. It was sparked by the recent brief political fling between Helen Zille, leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA), and Mamphela Ramphele, the leader of the recently-formed party Agang. Ramphele had agreed to be nominated as the DA’s candidate for president, but had backed out of the deal before I could even write a column about it.
The Davis piece was not an analysis of whether the DA was engaged in black fronting or genuinely wanted Ramphele at the head of its election list. It was not an examination of the fiasco that first witnessed a joint announcement without much consultation in either party, only for Ramphele to “renege” on it five days later, as Zille put it. It was not an attempt to understand why, as it would appear, Ramphele was about to jump ship to save her own political career, before realising too late that it would seem like a betrayal of the supporters she abandoned on a sinking ship.
No, Davis’s piece purports to analyse how “political aspiration” is “greeted differently if it comes from a woman”.
“The fact of their being female should be irrelevant to the response to this,” she wrote hopefully, “although – predictably – there are already signs that it won’t be.”
That did not take a great deal of prescience, since she proceeded to make the next 1,300 words all about the fact of their being female.
I can’t say I’ve read every word of coverage of the “DAgang” affair, but the Davis piece was the first time I even thought of it in gender terms, or encountered actual or alleged sexism in regard to it. It didn’t ring true.
Perhaps that’s because I’m a sexist pig, blinded by my own male privilege. Or perhaps it is because I tend to notice when the merits of public figures are viewed through a lens as deceptive and superficial as race or gender. When I don’t see a race or gender card played, I’m always relieved that we don’t have to scratch at that old wound.
“Ah, you just made some patriarchal bigot’s day,” I was told.
My view was myopic, daft, childish and unprofessional, I learned from Michelle Solomon, a gender activist who assured me these terms weren’t intended as insults. “To act as if it isn’t endemic is insane,” she wrote.
“You’re seriously going to write a column critiquing the idea that SA political discourse treats men and women differently?” asked Davis, incredulously. But she had no time to argue, so she fobbed me off with, “But in advance: I’m sure the status quo thanks Vegter, again, for its un-needed defence.”
Of course, these weren’t the only responses. Khaya Dlanga replied that he’d like to say the same about racism. Samantha Perry said: “Some of the points [in Davis’s article] are valid but others I’m not so sure.”
A man (though he lives in California, so he gets a free liberal pass), added: “I think there’s a Buddhist saying, something like ‘he who looks only for discord will find it under every stone’.”
But in the mind of the angry feminist, there are only two possible positions. Either you believe women are perpetual victims of sexism, or you’re complicit in perpetuating misogynistic patriarchy. And because I proposed to dispute the former, I must be defending the latter. My own gender merely underscores my obvious guilt.
The truth is rather more nuanced, and far more important. I believe that Davis is harming the cause of feminism. By that term I mean simply the view that nobody ought to be disadvantaged, dispossessed, disempowered or discriminated against, solely on the grounds that they are female. It is part of my broader world view, in which every individual, no matter their physical attributes, ought to have sovereignty over their own person and property, and equal rights before the law.
The story of the boy who cried wolf is instructive. On the face of it, it is a lesson not to raise the alarm when there is no cause for alarm, lest we are ignored if help is truly needed. But key to the story is that it does not claim there is never cause for alarm. On the contrary. It argues that because the wolf sometimes does come for the sheep, you don’t want to undermine your credibility by crying wolf without good reason.
In the same way, I certainly do not propose to argue that sexism does not occur in society in general, and in South African political discourse in particular. Of course it does.
The feminist movement has achieved a great deal, and much of today’s gender studies discourse revolves around so-called “post-feminism”. Still, some of the examples cited by Davis are quite valid. I agree particularly about Julius Malema’s offensive terms for female political figures with whom he disagreed. More generally, I’d agree that many South African cultures – the country is far from uniform in its outlook – are conservative and patriarchal.
But let’s consider Davis’s actual argument, rather than the vague assertion that some sexism exists, which is a straw person with which nobody in their right mind would argue.
She asserts that Ramphele has been subjected to “deeply personal vitriol”, noting such terms as “ego”, “narcissism”, and “hubris”, and reference to her having been the mistress of the late Black Consciousness leader, Steve Biko.
She interprets those as gender-related insults.
I fail to see how she makes that connection. She contrasts it with the commentary about the Congress of the People, a breakaway party that became mired in an ugly leadership struggle and court challenge not long after its formation.
I seem to recall plenty vitriol against that party and its self-serving leaders, including from one Julius Malema, who called them arrogant. When Alan Boesak joined that party, much was made of his adultering, thieving past.
Thabo Mbeki, South Africa’s former president, has been called paranoid, and the entire ANC has been called narcissistic.
Ramphele herself raised her long association with Biko as part of her political credentials, notably in an interview with the UK Mirror last year. This affair, conducted while Biko was married to Ntsiki Mashalaba, produced two children, one of whom did not survive infancy.
About snide references to this relationship “in some quarters” which she does not specify, Davis observes: “The hypocrisy of this attitude barely warrants spelling out, in a country where the president fathered his 20th child out of wedlock, with the daughter of a close friend, almost 30 years his junior, in 2010.”
Perhaps Biko has not been called a philanderer, although I wouldn’t bet on it. If so, it might be because he is dead and is not proposing to stand for election as South Africa’s president. Living political figures are bound to come under more scrutiny than their long-dead counterparts who lack the ambition for higher political office.
About Jacob Zuma, she is plainly wrong. He has been called a philanderer – and despite his acquittal in court, a rapist – on many an occasion, by many people in the media, in politics and the general public.
Zuma’s inability to keep the spear of the nation sheathed led to paintings of the president rocking with his cock out. Cartoons feature a shower fixture attached to his head, after he claimed a quick wash could substitute as a prophylactic against HIV/Aids.
These caricatures constitute “deeply personal vitriol”, in an overtly sexualised context. They depend on the existence of a presidential penis, which is only common among the male of our species.
Discussions about Zuma’s expansive private homestead at Nkandla would often devolve to his supposedly cultural tradition of keeping a large flock of wives and a vast brood of children.
What is all that, then? Reverse sexism? Misandry? Or is it a “double standard” because it is racism when applied to Zuma, but sexism when applied to Ramphele?
Davis also takes issue with “possibly the most odious response to last week’s announcement”, namely “the strange, sexualised circulation” of Zille and Ramphele kissing. Apparently, she saw an edited image which morphed the kiss between them into a picture of Britney Spears and Madonna kissing on a stage ten years ago.
Despite fairly well-developed search skills, I could not find the image that offended Davis, but I doubt I’d find it equally offensive. She’ll have to explain to me what’s wrong with a lesbian kiss.
It couldn’t have escaped her notice that the Zille-Ramphele kiss was not just an innocent greeting between two friends. It was orchestrated as a symbolic political gesture, carefully positioned in front of the DA logo, and in full view of media cameras. If it wasn’t intended to evoke the metaphor of a romantic union or marriage, it was ill-chosen.
That kiss was absolutely fair game for satirists, commentators and amateur photoshop jokesters, especially in light of the subsequent fallout. Taking offence is petty and over-sensitive. If the joke was sexist, then so was the original kiss. Two men would just have shaken hands.
Davis claims that the description of Julius Malema as a “firebrand” somehow “conjures up a degree of admiration for his passion”. I always saw it as a denunciation of his populism, immaturity and demagoguery. It is thoroughly negative. And the term “narcissist”, that apparently is sexist when applied to Ramphele, has also been applied to Comrade Julius.
Such terms are not sexist when applied to a man, for the same reason they are not sexist when applied to a woman. Gender just doesn’t enter into it, unless you have a twisted mind.
If you need any more counter-examples, look no further than Marthinus van Schalkwyk, the former leader of the New National Party, presently serving as Minister of Tourism as a reward for his obedience to his new masters, the ANC. He has for years been known as “kortbroek”, or “short pants”. This derisive nickname infantilises him in much the same way that the term “skirt” or “girl” (or worse, “tea girl”) might do in the case of a woman. And he’s not only male, but white! The sheer effrontery of it!
When I couldn’t find much basis in Davis’s article for the claim that the discourse about Zille and Ramphele revealed “insidious linguistic inequality”, but Davis claimed she was too weary and busy to argue, Solomon took up the baton.
“It’s actually worse than [Davis] wrote in her column – the sexual comments about Ramphele have been astoundingly sexist,” she wrote, adding: “Ramphele has been called all kinds of sexist slurs, incl ‘side chick’, ‘political prostitute’, mistress, ‘tea girl’.”
Let’s leave aside whether a term such as “political prostitute” is even sexist, as opposed to merely being a colourful insult to the integrity of the politician – male or female – accused of selling themselves for shallow motives.
It would not surprise me if sexist terms had indeed been used by the kinds of comment-thread troll who routinely sacrifice mature debate in favour of personal abuse on racial, gender, religious or ideological grounds. But trawling up some slime from the sewers of the Internet hardly supports the claim that the “political discourse” about Zille and Ramphele was sexist.
I certainly hadn’t seen any of these terms in the coverage I’ve read, so I looked them up.
Not counting a sprinkling of reader comments, the only reference I could find to Ramphele as a “side chick” was in a thoughtful blog post two months ago, by a teacher from Cape Town named Athambile Masola. She questioned whether South Africa’s conservative public is quite ready for a woman who is sufficiently liberated to openly admit her past affairs.
The term “political prostitute” likewise appears only very rarely, in a few sharp-tongued anonymous comments, and on a blog by someone named Mike Smith whose love for Apartheid South Africa appears to be strong.
The term “mistress” does not occur very commonly in the South African political discourse that Davis decries. Daily Maverick journalist Khadija Patel heartily endorsed a tweet by someone named Imran Garda that hardly seems sexist: “Mamphela Ramphele, known as the DA’s former mistress…”
Elsewhere, Jerome Starkey, the Africa correspondent for The London Times, described her as Steve Biko’s “mistress and political soulmate”. Perhaps a particularly sensitive editor might have changed that for the sake of political correctness, but frankly, I don’t see a great deal of disrespect there, either.
Finally, “tea girl” is a phrase that Julius Malema, when he was president of the ANC Youth League, used for Lindiwe Mazibuko, the DA’s parliamentary leader. I could not find anything that referred to Ramphele in these terms. Nor, outside his mob of supporters, have I ever heard anyone defend this phrase.
So, unless they can show more than rare anecdotal evidence in the mainstream “political discourse”, the view that Ramphele has been the victim of “all kinds of sexist slurs” seems to be an exaggeration at best. And like all exaggeration, it leads to over-reaction, which is all Davis’s analysis was.
Davis and Solomon might think that any criticism of their strident feminism is an attempt to deny that misogyny does exist, and can be found if you go looking for it. Far from it.
Crying wolf would not matter if the wolf did not actually exist. The problem is that it does. That is why, when feminist activists pounce on the most flimsy evidence and strained comparisons to support the claim that criticism of female politicians is driven by sexism, the cause of gender equality is undermined. By exaggerating about Ramphele, they devalue and trivialise allegations of sexism.
A hair-trigger on the rhetorical weapon of sexism is as destructive as lightly crediting someone’s success to affirmative action. It is as corrosive as blaming failure on racist discrimination.
Ramphele was not criticised because she was a woman. She was criticised for being self-serving, and inconstant in her loyalty to both her supporters and the new political partner for which she threatened to leave them. She was criticised for character traits – ego, narcissism, and hubris – of which many powerful men have also been accused.
Perhaps what really got the feminists riled up was that Ramphele was not treated with kid gloves, but as the equal of a man. DM
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