Having lived in the United States for six years, I often felt a covert, subtle racism that gave me a constant sense of being unwelcome and undesired in certain spaces. It was a polite racism that never made me fear for my life, but it certainly made me feel othered.
In general, I had a good experience of American friendliness, kindness and hospitality. But even among individuals who were welcoming, in the same space there would be individuals who were polite, but often made me invisible, or treated me as if I were a curious artefact from the little-known Africa.
Donald Trump did not invent the racism that we saw in his campaign. He merely made it possible for that racism to come out into the open; where racist individuals and groups were given permission to shake off the shame of their racism, and even embrace it.
The fact that the majority of white women who voted, voted for Trump despite his deep misogyny, is proof that white privilege is still more important than a progressive and gender-equal America. Often, women are not just complicit in patriarchy, but are willing agents in all forms of oppression and inequality. This is the reason why Hillary Clinton could not get through to white women despite her promises of a shattered glass ceiling, of greater opportunities for their daughters, or promises of equal pay, etc. Of course, the issues of concern to these voters were not solely about race, but it was an important factor in this election.
In South Africa, we also are on the precipice of potentially electing a woman president for the first time. Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma of the African National Congress has been endorsed by some structures of the ANC, including the Women’s League and Youth League. However, if she is elected as president of the ANC, Dlamini-Zuma will also have to contend with the race factor in the national general elections. She will have to address the concerns of a black youth increasingly disillusioned with government generally, and the ANC particularly. A black youth that is demanding the dismantling of structural inequalities and exclusion. A black youth that is demanding access to fundamental human and constitutional rights.
However, Dlamini-Zuma is not as divisive or contentious a personality in the way that Clinton has been. There are, however, commonalities and comparisons that can be made about them. Dlamini-Zuma will face as difficult a task as Clinton did.
First, she will have to unite a fractured party. The Democratic Party in the US was divided over Clinton’s candidacy, as many Democrats had been diehard Bernie Sanders supporters. Similarly, Dlamini-Zuma will have to court those ANC members (the same way Clinton had to court Bernie supporters) who would have preferred Cyril Ramaphosa as president.
Second, having been a Jacob Zuma ally in the ANC, she will have to convince ANC members and the South African public that she will not risk the integrity of the state and its institutions to protect Zuma through her powers as president.
Third, she will have to excite those ANC supporters who have switched to other parties, and those who stayed away from the polls in the August local elections when the ANC suffered its first major defeat since 1994.
Another challenge that Dlamini-Zuma will share with Clinton is the deep misogyny that exists in both the USA and South Africa. Gender inequality and misogyny were among the biggest campaign topics in the US. The issues concerning women were as diverse as abortion rights, equal pay, and sexual violence. A mere couple of weeks before the election, an audio recording of Trump explaining how he sexually assaults women was leaked. But he still won the majority of white women voters. Democrats in the US have typically been able to attract women voters because of their progressive stance on women’s issues. They have been able to rely on young women voters particularly. As the full election results picture emerges over the coming days, this will be an important facet the democrats will have to reflect on.
In South Africa, outside of violence against women, gender equality has become a buzzword but one which does not address the specific issues in terms of what material, institutional and structural oppressions women face. In 1994 women from various backgrounds voted for the ANC. And typically, women in South Africa are more likely to vote than men. However, women have been unable to form a united voting bloc to hold leadership accountable for addressing gender inequality beyond Women’s Month speeches.
Women live multifaceted lives, and the intersectionality of identities and experiences in terms of class, sexuality, gender identification, and race are major obstacles to the unification of South African women. And how can we forget the ANCWL coming out in support of Zuma during his rape trial? They failed to at least symbolically represent South African women and girls who have been violated. Therefore, Dlamini-Zuma may face similar struggles in securing a woman’s vote.
In other words, we cannot assume that the candidacy of Dlamini-Zuma will rouse South Africa’s women into coming out in droves to support her, even if she does perform an explicitly pro-woman or pro-gender equality campaign. In fact, she may experience a backlash from women voters who cannot be swayed to switch party allegiances merely because of their gender, or those women who are not ANC members, or those ANC women supporters who are disillusioned with the ANC in general.
The emotional appeals of South Africa finally being “ready for a woman president” (as has been said by the ANCWL and ANCYL) may ring hollow for many. And it goes without saying that sexists, misogynists, etc may outright reject her as president. We can also expect her to experience attacks from the public, politicians (ANC and non-ANC), the media, and others, because she is a woman and exactly because our patriarchal country is seemingly not yet ready for a woman president.
Indeed, if she has too much support we may need to be suspicious. Perhaps patriarchs and misogynists would support her if they felt she could be controlled and used to advance their own agendas. Dlamini-Zuma has as high and steep a mountain to climb as Clinton did. DM