The critique and engagement of Minister Lindiwe Sisulu’s views should be welcome in a society such as ours, but the sexism and misogyny which have accompanied it are alarming, for the same reason.
I often think that had my mother been a man, she would have been a very successful businessperson. Growing up, she was extremely enterprising, hard-working, and determined. She had the stomach to leave her young children behind and go to work.
My aunt often told us how, when I was just a little baby, my mother went to work at a fish store in town. Some readers will know the Captain Dorego of the 1990s Queenstown. As my aunt recalls, at some point, I had been crying so much that they decided to fetch her from work to come care for me. That was the end of that job for her. I suspect that it was recognising the challenges of being a working mother of small children that led her to become more enterprising — making things, buying and selling things, and so on.
One time she took me along to the offices of what was then the Transkei Development Corporation (TDC), where she was part of their incentives programme. She had a knitting project in which she employed three to five other women at a time. I remember that she used to pay them R20 a jersey they produced, which was a percentage of the value of the jersey. In parenthesis, I should mention, with bitterness, that as part of the sales team and the debt collector, I was not paid a cent.
Anyway, periodically, she would complete the pages of these large books recording the transactions which were required to be submitted to TDC. On the day she took me along their offices, she was in her finest — wearing a green and white floral crimplene two-piece suit and high heels. Lalokhwe yokulila nokuhleka. I’m surprised that still today, she wears very high heels with ease.
At some point, she had to leave me in one office while she had to go to another office for something else. This was often the case in government offices — a thorough run-around where many times you were confronted by a jacket hanging on a chair, which suggested the official had just stepped out. Too often they would’ve been away for days. She left me in a chair there with the two male officials who had been attending to her.
I remember after she walked out one of them saying, “mhle yena usisi. Qha akho business inokuphuma kwi chops”. In other words, “she may look good, but no business can come from high heels”. That stuck with me for a long time, and informed how I thought about dress codes.
For my mother, business was a huge struggle, and she was often undermined and sabotaged. Eventually, in 1998, she gave up business and found a job as a domestic worker.
I have always been sensitive to sexism and misogyny because while I walk the world with the privileges of a man, in many ways, my disadvantages have been because of the sexism that my mother had to endure.
Again it is worth repeating that Minister Lindiwe Sisulu is well critiqued for the article attributed to her appearing on the Independent Online website, but I have been taken aback by the amount of sexism and misogyny which has emerged amidst the engagements both in mainstream and social media. For transparency, I should disclose that I have previously served on the minister’s advisory panel. However, this will not be about that.
One prominent writer and activist tweeted: “The defender of African values in pink gloves showing the country how hard she works for the poor.” This tweet was in response to a video of an altercation the minister was involved in during a visit to an informal settlement some time ago. This tweet triggered the memory of how my mother’s work as a businesswoman was dismissed because she was dressed up and in high heels. Indeed, what work could come of someone in pink gloves? There have been others referencing the minister’s dress and hair to the same effect.
The sexism hasn’t been limited to just her dress. In the critique by ANC stalwart, Ntate Mavuso Msimang, he begins by noting that, “[Sisulu] is a person with an impressive track record that dates back to her training as an Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) cadre who specialised in security.” It is interesting to note that this characterisation has not stopped many people dismissing her appointment into senior government roles as owing to her father’s name, one prominent commentator noting how this happens when one’s legitimacy is owed to their parents.
Again, this is reminiscent of how women are often said to be in the roles and positions they occupy because of their parents or the men they have slept with. Anything but their own efforts. The same could not be said of men of course.
So while a woman leader whose father was a leader in the ANC could be called a princess, a man of similar heritage would not be called a prince. We can think of many comparable examples in our political environment. This insulting and derogatory way of viewing and assessing women’s roles and positions in business and politics of course is not limited to Sisulu. Many have noted how Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has constantly been spoken of as “Zuma’s ex-wife” despite her own political pedigree. Spectacularly, one leading newsman noted how she doesn’t smile. Again, reinforcing how women’s physical appearances have been weaponised against them.
As scholars have noted, attitudes and perceptions about women are integral to the violence they’ve been subjected to. In an article titled, “Dress and violence: women should avoid dressing like ‘sluts’ to avoid being raped”, Sindi Kwenaite and Ariana van Heerden of Tshwane University of Technology argue that “violence against a woman is socially constructed to reflect her role in an attack against her, hence she shares the responsibility for her violation with the perpetrator”. The way women dress is an important determinant of the treatment they receive in society. “Dress is integral to visual culture. Judges, cultural vigilantes and in some cases, females themselves, have expressed or supported the notion that a woman deserves to be violated for her choice of dress,” Kwenaite and Van Heerden note.
In my last conversations with the late Dr Thandi Ndlovu, she asked why I was so passionate about raising women’s issues. After a long discussion, she encouraged me never to lose the inclination to speak out. It is often dangerous to do so, she noted.
It should go without saying that there is nothing wrong with engaging a woman’s expressed views. However, it should not be so easy to use the violence of sexism and misogyny or overlook it as so many have during this debate. Importantly, we should also realise that our worst traits and our most vile selves come out when we feel affronted. The affront many feel from Sisulu’s views has once more revealed our inclination for violence, and the status of women in our society. DM