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She Conquers chooses not to empower women but controls their sexuality


Sinethemba Zonke is a political risk analyst who comments on South Africa and African developments. He shares his views on his blog Prometheus Unbound

The decision by She Conquers to “force” president, Jacob Zuma's bride-to-be, 24-year-old Nonkanyiso Conco, to resign has less to do with its principles and objectives but rather a politically expedient stance to distance itself from Zuma's toxic reputation.


Last week it was reported that our infamous former president, Jacob Zuma, would be taking a seventh bride, 24-year-old Nonkanyiso Conco, who had just given birth to the president’s son. Zuma, who has more than 20 children, has been a figure of controversy and ridicule for years.

His private behaviour was a political aberration in a country with public and private institutions that are Eurocentric regarding cultural norms and customs. Zuma brought African traditionalism to the foreground of South African politics, mostly using it as a defence against legitimate criticism of his moral failures; such as corruption, and his misogynistic as well as ignorant views exposed by his remarks in his rape trial.

The Zuma years as president almost destroyed the institutional pillars keeping South Africa’s constitutional democratic order intact, and it is still inconclusive whether we are in the clear.

It is therefore understandable that many have an adverse reaction whenever the former president is a subject of a story. However, this time round it seems that our spite for Jacob Zuma has gone beyond his private person. The woman set to marry Msholozi has been forced to resign as a result of her affiliation with the former president and so has been found guilty by association by her employer.

The She Conquers Campaign, where Conco was the National Executive Committee treasurer and communications officer forced her to resign. However, I feel that she had the right to remain in her position and the organisation had no standing to dismiss, on a moral basis and most likely on a legal basis too.

Her private affairs have not damaged the reputation of the organisation nor do they negatively impact her ability to do her job contrary to what has been said by She Conquers, which purports to be in the roleof “empowering young women in every phase of their lives”.

Conco, who is entering a new phase in her own life as a mother and wife, is deemed unworthy of this empowerment.

The organisation stated that they respect Conco’s traditions and were not seeking to dictate “who she should marry or choose to love”. Instead, they are “looking at the betterment of the campaign and young people” and want to be seen walking the walk.

Another reason for forcing Conco to resign is that the campaign claims that she was not transparent about who she was going to marry. Conco is being judged on the reputation of Zuma and not her achievements. Her experience, as a Radio DJ, an owner of a massage parlour and as a director of a youth and cultural development organisation does not matter. It seems that the “walk the walk” that She Conquers is referring to is that of shaming and punishing Conco for her private decision.

She Conquers spoke about the issue of blessers which they mentioned because of the 52 year age gap between Conco and Zuma. They state that since they “promote economic empowerment and self-dependency of young women to eliminate the concept of reliance on ‘blessers” Conco’s relationship with Zuma is against their organisational principles. However, the organisation denies that they believe Conco is a blessee raising a question on why they bothered raising the issue of blessers.

The issue of blessers and blessees is a major social phenomenon to be discussed and engaged on. South Africa has a significant challenge of inter-generationally transmitted HIV rates among young women who have been infected by older men. In our patriarchal society, the economic imbalance between men and women impacts social and sexual relations.

A key objective of She Conquers is to “decrease new HIV infections in adolescent girls and young women, decrease the rate of teenage pregnancy, decrease gender-based violence and increase economic opportunities”. However, they do not make a credible case on how Conco’s continued employment at the organisation would diminish these efforts. She is not an adolescent or teenager, and she is not promoting gender-based violence by being involved with Zuma.

The organisation further claims that Nonkanyiso was not transparent with them. What kind of transparency they are referring to is unclear. Is it about the basic employment rules for employees of public organisations concerning their relationships with government officials or is it about what an individual is required to reveal to her employer about who she invites to their bed. She Conquers’ decision seems based on the latter. That somehow, they have a right to be informed of the identity of Conco’s sexual partners.

Would these details be expected of all employees of the organisation? Would the backgrounds of these partners be investigated to ensure they have no skeletons in the closet that go against the organisation’s principles? Conco’s mistake is that her choice of partner just happened to be a publicly well-known figure, and she has, therefore, been treated unfairly and found guilty for this connection. What happened to freedom of association?

The decision made by the organisation goes against their own principles of female empowerment and reeks of a desire to control a woman’s sexuality by punishing her for what she as an adult chose to do. In fact, the whole idea of fighting blessers infantilises young women, even those of adult age, as if they have no agency regarding their life choices. It is a backwards and narrow-minded view of sexual relations, viewing women merely as passive actors or passengers in modern courtship.

A 2008 study by Professor Suzanne Leclerc-Madlala titled Sugar daddies and HIV: is it really about money, money, money?” highlighted that young women actually had engaged in active decision making when it comes to who they have sex with. The study indicated that young women did not get into relationships with older men simply because of their impoverishment, as even those from well-off backgrounds would participate because of broader social psychological needs.

The study by Professor Leclerc-Madlala suggested that being with rich and influential men not only helped these young ladies score “vital points in the social status game”, it also “boosted young women’s confidence and self-esteem.” These women don’t view themselves in the neutered, and passive description from She Conquers but see themselves as “active decision-makers and modern, empowered women, able to extract financial and material resources from older men in exchange for sex”.

The study also suggested that because these women don’t view themselves as victims “HIV-prevention programmes aimed at tackling poor, desperate, women-as-victim’ stereotypes will not be hugely successful.” In alignment with some of She Conquers objectives, the study does suggest that “Educating girls and empowering them for financial independence is vital” to meet the complex sociological needs that could see them seek the company of older men. However, empowering and education does not include the exclusion or penalisation of independent and individual decision making.

While we may not agree with Conco’s choice of husband it is a personal decision which has to be respected. I do not believe the decision made by Conco harms society. Indeed, the issue of out of wedlock births, the matter of unprotected sex are problematic occurrences in our society, but this does not entail the punishment of those making these decisions by an institution established by the state.

Conco’s choice is not an endorsement or promotion of a particular lifestyle any more than is one’s decision to be single, to date or get married. It is an individual choice, and society should allow a diversity of options for a diverse population. She Conquers has behaved in the manner of some feminist advocates who believe in a singular story of what it should mean to be feminist and therefore shame women who choose not to work and instead raise their children in their unique situations.

In its actions against Conco, She Conquers is not empowering women but seeking to control of a woman’s choice and sexuality. One wonders if the institution requires transparency about the private nightly and weekend activities of all their staff members. Would casual sex or one-night stands be seen as dismissible offences? Is an out of wedlock pregnancy viewed negatively as promoting under-age pregnancy? Should such activities become public in the same way as Conco’s life, and would they judge these individuals as having gone against She Conquers’ principles?

She Conquers is hypocritical when they claim a commitment to principles of women’s empowerment in forcing Conco to resign when they had accepted her considering the most controversial aspect about her background – her participation and endorsement of virginity testing in KwaZulu-Natal. This is a cultural practice which is not backed by any science and is instead a reinforcement of patriarchal notions around the purity of women, and therefore an effort to control their sexuality.

Conco has also been a participant and defender of the Umhlanga Ceremony, the Royal Reed Dance, which sees thousands of young female participants whose virginity is tested before they are allowed to participate. The ceremony is practised in both Swaziland and in KwaZulu-Natal. The Zulu King, Goodwill Zwelithini introduced the practice in 1991 as a means of encouraging young females to delay sexual activity until marriage to avoid HIV infection. Despite the implementation of this practice, KwaZulu-Natal has the highest prevalence of HIV across South African provinces standing at 16.9%. Conco’s views on virginity testing have a more robust case in terms of questioning her involvement with She Conquers.

It looks like She Conquers’ decision has less to do with its principles and objectives but rather a politically expedient stance to distance itself from Jacob Zuma’s toxic reputation. It is a short-term public relations’ move, which must be condemned for its implications about the rights of individuals and personal privacy.

Empowerment requires the ability to respect individual choices made by women and not have rigid rules on how they should act, especially when it comes to decisions that harm no one. Furthermore, She Conquers probably has transgressed the labour rights of the young woman, who does not seem to have broken any particular company rules.

Lastly, it has been surprising and disappointing how silent gender rights groups have been regarding the treatment that Conco has received. Had she had a child with any other polygamous individual besides Zuma, we may have had an outcry. Worse had this been done by an institution run by white people, we would have had most certainly seen outrage over overt discrimination against a black woman because of her culture. Instead, because of the association of Zuma, a blind eye has been turned while this young lady is thrown under the bus. This is appalling and a reflection of the selectivity and lack of consistency by some of the loudest voices on gender rights issues. DM


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