SA can benefit from Mlambo-Ngcuka’s UN appointment

2013-07-16 00:00

LAST week, the Secretary-General of the United Nations confirmed the appointment of Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka as successor to Michele Bachelet as the executive director of the UN Entity for Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women, commonly known as the UN Women. The question is: so what?

Mlambo-Ngcuka has thus become the chief advocate and enforcer of a global consensus on women’s rights and responsibilities, which involve the full participation of women in national, regional and global affairs.

The hopes and dreams of feminist movements the world over now rest on her broad shoulders.

She will also be expected to play a significant diplomatic role as a catalyst for governments to implement international standards on the empowerment of women and gender equality.

It is not difficult to explain why Mlambo-Ngcuka was selected for the position. The first of three reasons I propose is that she has a distinguished history as an activist in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, infusing gender considerations in the social movement.

The second is that, as the UN statement highlights, she is being recognised for playing a notable role in the post-apartheid government of South Africa, as deputy minister and minister for years, before she became the first woman to hold the position of deputy president from 2005 to 2008, after Jacob Zuma was relieved of the position.

In this position, she led the country’s world-acclaimed fight against HIV and Aids.

The third reason is that she is an African woman and comes from the rising global south, a region still under-represented in the top echelons of western-dominated international governance institutions.

Therefore, her appointment is a major boost at the centre of global power, for the voice of the south and Africa. It is women of the south, and especially black women, who occupy the bottom rungs of global patriarchy, being victims on the basis of their race, class and gender.

They, more than any other category of women, understand best the vagaries of power hierarchy and should be best placed to lead the efforts to build more equal and caring societies.

Mlambo-Ngcuka succeeds another subaltern woman, as non-western people are called, the former president of Chile.

But whether Mlambo-Ngcuka will live up to the expectations that she contribute to the creation of a post-colonial and gender-equal world order depends on how she harnesses the opportunity.

UN Women is a new body, established in 2010 after a unanimous vote of the UN General Assembly. Its mandate is to oversee the UN’s programmes on women’s rights and development, and thus ensure that member states achieve gender equality, equity and the full participation of women in their individual state affairs.

The resolution required that the head of the agency be a person with a wealth of experience in strategic leadership, consensus building and institutional management. This is because she has to manage the evolution of the young institution, while giving direction to the world fight for the empowerment of women.

Consensus-building skills are necessary because, invariably, the head will have to practise complex shuttle diplomacy to keep countries committed to the global consensus on the women’s agenda, to help them manage the complications that come with different national cultures and religions, while factoring in member states’ national interests, such as the cost implications of true gender equality.

She assumes the position as many countries and regions lag behind in the implementation of the Beijing agenda for the empowerment and equality of women, as they focus instead on the economic crisis, or as the resurgence of conservative political attitudes take precedence over issues of social justice in the world.

She will have to draw a lot from the South African success story.

The SA government stands to gain immense prestige and reputation if Mlambo-Ngcuka succeeds.

But it must strategise on this, as part of building its global stature and soft power, and to build its influence in the UN body in which it has so far not had a distinguished role.

South Africa can thus become known as a champion of a global agenda for the empowerment of women, which will also help put pressure on it to improve its own gender machinery, including turning around the new ministry responsible for women, which is yet to distinguish itself as an effective champion of women.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue.

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