Dina, you didn’t have to put on the red shoes

2013-08-18 14:00

It’s not about your shoes, but the steps you take forward, writes Ferial Haffajee.

Woman’s month provides a perfect moment to reflect on the state of our women in power.

Looking at the bigger picture, you can’t fault President Jacob Zuma’s designations in his Cabinet.

Women occupy many crucial and atypical portfolios.

They have leading roles in defence, international relations, public service and, until recently, communications.

And for me, communications is the most important.

It holds the key to our modernisation.

Securing better broadband and faster internet access will help younger generations enter the economy faster and reduce the divisions in our society.

In the exciting industries of mobile phones, data, television and broadcasting, competition has to be provoked, and consumers have to be protected by a strong and competent regulator.

But the industry regulator, Icasa, appears to have fallen into a coma.

By all accounts of her time in office, the former communications minister, Dina Pule, did not understand her role or its potential.

The Sunday Times investigation also revealed how she used her office to serially enrich her boyfriend, Phosane Mngqibisa.

The range of revelations the newspaper stacked up against her suggest the minister hawked her independence to her boyfriend.

She allowed him to colonise her decision making and made a mockery of women in power.

You only need to read the jokes and see the cartoons to grasp how Pule managed to play into a full range of sexist stereotypes.

Sometimes, the women who walk on the shoulders of the pioneer generation – Albertina Sisulu, Winnie Mandela, Amina Cachalia, Helen Joseph – seem not to realise the stewardship of history and responsibility they carry.

I can’t begin to imagine the bravery it took for those women to organise across racial lines to battle apartheid and walk up those stairs to the Union Buildings in 1956.

They laid the basis for the gains women enjoyed after 1994.

Many women who have elevated roles have no political sense of their place in post-apartheid South Africa as pioneers who are appointed to reshape power dynamics, leadership cultures and, in the case of the regulatory ministers, to grow entire industries and therefore have an impact on the economy of their country.

Pule did not have to put on those red-soled shoes Mnqibisa bought for her with sponsorship money meant for the ICT Indaba.

Now she’s fallen flat on her face.

Besides Pule’s horrible August end, how are our women in power doing?

The high number of women in political power – the outcome of a Constitution that encourages equality – is indeed an outcome to applaud.

We are world leaders in this respect.

South Africans shaping events on the world stage include the new head of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka; the African Union Commission head, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma; the UN Human Rights Commissioner, Navi Pillay; and the former freedom fighter and minister, Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, who will take up a major role at the African Development Bank shortly.

Their appointments are accolades for them, but also for South Africa, which has groomed them for maximum impact.

Back home, I’d argue that the picture of effectiveness is uneven. Politics is rough and tumble. It can be cruel and turbulent, so it has claimed scalps.

North West Premier Thandi Modise is an example. Modise is an interesting politician with a sterling pedigree, but she has been unable to achieve anything of significance as premier because of the factionalism gripping North West.

Often, when you see her, she is dodging bullets, both metaphorical and real.

Tlokwe, where the ANC has been serially embarrassed, and Marikana fall in her province, which is so divided that almost no social development happens.

She often looks simply exhausted in office – as does Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga.

I think Motshekga suffers in a system of such complex law making that she has power but no influence to implement or execute it.

Our system of intergovernmental relations often makes politicians less impactful than they can be.

Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Ngqakula’s experience during the Guptagate scandal reveals what happens when you are undermined and your power is appropriated.

She wanted to do the right thing and refuse the Gupta family the privilege of a Waterkloof landing.

But the decision was made on her behalf.

The picture is not all bleak.

There are wonderful examples of women who use their power and influence in creative and path-changing ways.

Public Protector Thuli Madonsela is bookish and knowledgeable.

I’ve seen her quote chapter and constitutional verse without referring to the ground law.

She never loses her cool and uses the media very well to allow the public to be a constituency.

Another example of perfect technocratic skill is Home Affairs Minister Naledi Pandor, who aces each portfolio she is placed in.

My favourite example of the possible is the Independent Electoral Commission’s chairperson, Pansy Tlakula, who has helped shape an institution that safeguards the credibility of our elections.

When you cast your eye north to Zimbabwe’s election at the end of last month, you may want to buy a pair of Christian Louboutin shoes for Tlakula in appreciation. (Resist the urge.)

And then there is Mamphela Ramphele, the leader of Agang SA and a woman who makes no bones about wanting to be president.

I have no doubt that she would make the finest president with her tough-talking style. But our arcane political setup means Ramphele is likely to play a future role in the mould of Helen Suzman – a powerful parliamentary voice, and goodness knows we need one.

Western Cape Premier Helen Zille is South Africa’s best premier by a mile.

And then there is somebody who shows that it is quite possible to be the best street fighter on the block and do so in the finest high heels.

Public Service Minister Lindiwe Sisulu is trying to reshape a rather poor public service. She is decidedly future presidential material.

In high heels.

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