What are the prospects of a first woman president in the ANC via Lindiwe Sisulu defeating President Cyril Ramaphosa at the ANC conference in December 2022? As an analyst, I have been asked this several times and the question has been posed again and again after Sisulu’s open letter in January, seen by some as launching her challenge to Ramaphosa for the ANC’s hot seat.
Pundits concluded that she is becoming a presidential candidate of a faction called the RET forces, named after the ANC resolution to pursue radical economic transformation. Like Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (NDZ), who contested Ramaphosa at Nasrec in 2017, Sisulu is also being loosely connected with the Zuma legacy in both positive and negative form. Pundits seem to take for granted that anyone challenging the current president must be a relic of the Zuma past, harking back to “nine wasted years”.
Very quickly, Sisulu’s candidacy ceases to be her own ambition to lead or a political cause of its own or a feminist challenge to the patriarchal tendencies in the ANC and general South African politics. It becomes a factional candidacy preserving the patriarchal traditions of politics within the ANC, including these men-led factions tearing at each other for top positions in the governing movement. Her gender becomes nothing but a bargaining chip on behalf of one of the patriarchal factions.
At this point, as happened with NDZ, it does not matter what Sisulu thinks about policy, power, economy or the lives of people. It doesn’t matter what she feels about the burden of political leadership. It doesn’t matter what she envisions as a politician, including her feminist aspirations, her whole political persona becomes an extension of long-designed factional strictures. No time to critically engage with the content of her emergence, whatever it is.
As with NDZ, she must wrestle hard in order to become her own person, wrestle with patriarchy seeking to capture her for the benefit of its factions so she becomes only a figurehead rather than an effective leader. She must also wrestle with the other faction that wants to project her as nothing but part of the Zuma past.
Like NDZ, she may decide not to really fight these tendencies in a spirited and gallant way, hoping that her record and message will somehow filter through this maze of patriarchal contests. She may decide to accept her fate as a politician captured by a faction because this may guarantee the numbers needed to win the electoral contest.
In her open letter, Sisulu sought to present herself as she saw herself, a politician committed to radical change in the direction of the country, tackling well-known stubborn challenges facing South Africa. She shared her thoughts and sought to demonstrate her independent thinking as a person. She came across as strong, forceful and thoughtful. But she still did not escape the suspicion that this was nothing but a polished message of the RET forces or an unkind challenger to the beloved Ramaphosa. Perhaps she contributed to this perception trap. That is a story for another day.
Even the media failed to listen to her, but fell into the trap of intra-ANC factionalism. She ended up quite isolated in the media-based public discourse that was interested more in what was wrong with her rather than what she sought to say, whether her analysis was correct or not, and whether she had what it takes to lead South Africa. Of course, her missive had the implication of inviting us to participate in internal ANC battles that are supposed to be battles for ideas but that have become battles of personalities. We generally chose not to engage honestly and sincerely with Sisulu.
The same happened to NDZ after several speeches echoing the ANC’s resolution in Mangaung calling for radical economic transformation. We did not listen to her take on the issue — pundits in the mainstream saw this as a label on behalf of a despised Zuma faction. They ignored that Ramaphosa too referred to this ANC resolution a lot in the same period.
We know how much financial muscle Ramaphosa’s campaign had in this contest for votes in the ANC and for image in the public arena. We do not know how much NDZ had, but it was probably much less. So, she did not only lose in the court of dominant public opinion influenced through the mainstream media, but in the resource contest dominated by the rich and famous. She also lost a gendered contest, a lesson for Sisulu to take to heart.
We hardly noticed that regardless of what NDZ thought, she carried the disadvantage of being a woman in a society where women continue to be paid less than men for the same job, where women are subject to violence and patriarchal oppression of various forms. This is a society that has many gallant women who run families, community organisations and networks without causing society to alter its embedded patriarchal tendencies. This is a society where many women CEOs live with the burden to prove to society that they deserved those appointments. This is a society where women, especially black women, continue to be inferior in the eyes of the dominant forces of society.
The ANC itself belongs to this society so that, in spite of its bold statements in favour of women’s empowerment, women remain largely number sixes in top six elections from regions and national structures. Progress made to swell the ranks of the National Executive Committee may deceive one into thinking patriarchy is dead, but it is very much alive.
In his 1961 Weapon of Theory speech to liberation movements delivered in Havana, Cuba, Amilcar Cabral as a liberation fighter himself observed that while the colonial empires present a challenge to movements, it was the struggle with their internal weakness that was the gravest threat.
We might add to his list of weaknesses the failure to undertake gender transformation. This limits their ability to offer real change to a society made up of women in the majority.
How will Sisulu, if she decides to contest, strategise against these impediments? How will she get funders to fund her agenda and her womanhood? How will she escape the trap of patriarchy among those who support her and those contesting against her? Will she learn from the NDZ experience and those of other women who were bold enough to step in where others dread treading? DM