Now for the real gender debate

2014-05-25 15:00

As expected, there were tins, pots and kettles, stones, and large rocks hurled in the direction of Luthuli House this week when the line-up of provincial premiers was announced.

The appointment of seven male premiers and just a single female in provinces run by the ANC was seen as totally unacceptable and a major step backwards.

Even one of Luthuli House’s main players, Jessie Duarte, lashed out at her own organisation, saying this was a “strange outcome, which is not an acceptable one”.

She continued: “I would like to call it a political structural fault line?...?The fault is with us, and the fault is that we need to deal with the transversal reality of the structure of the ANC at provincial level and make sure parity means exactly that.”

The decision also got warning lights flashing that this might lead to the culling of women from the leadership of municipalities in 2016.

So was the outrage justified?

On the face of it, yes. This week’s move was the biggest reversal of the ANC’s 50-50 gender representivity.

It marked a big departure from previous elections when the ANC president and national executive committee went out of their way to ensure that women were represented at the highest levels. It also undermined the party’s ability to point fingers at business and other sections of society that fail to empower women.

There are many who will argue President Jacob Zuma and those who advised him took a selfish decision that was purely about their own political security.

You see, most of the men who head up the provinces have been loyal and disciplined disciples of the Zuma cause.

Some were at the forefront of the campaign to oust Thabo Mbeki in 2007 and to beat off the challenge from Kgalema Motlanthe in 2012.

All of them, with the exception of Gauteng ANC secretary David Makhura, are chairpersons of their provinces. They wield lots of power, which could determine the comfort of Zuma’s second term and be key in determining the trajectory of the political careers of other officials.

So their appointments were an exercise in realpolitik.

This lowly newspaperman would like to argue that the ANC’s leadership made an honest decision, no matter how selfish.

It was honest because it reflected the reality of the organisation. Every three years, the ANC’s provincial structures go to elective conferences and the contests invariably throw up male names for the chairpersons’ positions.

This is not because there are no capable women to take up these positions. It simply reflects the culture and character of the organisation.

So, to circumvent this, the ANC has in the past resorted to overriding the popular choices of its members and has imposed female premiers on structures.

The result has been disastrous, because it ended up being a form of affirmative action gone crazy.

The choices made by the national leaders – under the respective administrations of Nelson Mandela, Mbeki and Zuma – were hugely insulting to womanhood.

Among the individuals to have occupied premier seats were Winkie Direko, Beatrice Marshoff, Maureen Modiselle, Nosimo Balindlela, Noxolo Kiviet and Hazel Jenkins.

These were women whom very few people in the provinces, let alone the rest of the country, had ever heard of. When they came into power – if one can even call it that – they amounted to nothing more than office decorations.

The ANC felt good about itself and boasted about its female empowerment record. But the people of the respective provinces were robbed of real leadership.

It was a recipe for disaster: the male chairpersons ran the real shows by dictating the appointments of MECs and micromanaging the tender-rich municipalities.

What happened this week was that the ANC acknowledged these arrangements were artificial and the provinces should be run by leaders whom party members had chosen. It said bluntly that, if they are males, then so be it.

Gender activists and other progressive people should have welcomed this development as it reopened an important debate about leadership in South Africa.

The artificial arrangement of making token appointments to the top jobs in provinces was covering up a deeper problem in the governing party and society in general: that citizens, both curvy and flat-bodied, instinctively want to be led by men.

The ANC has now indicated that it will revisit the issue of gender parity at its next national general council, which is scheduled for the middle of next year.

This should allow for a proper discussion by all South Africans on this subject and give proper context to the debate about a future female president.

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