A few days ago the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama addressed the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte in the United States endorsing her husband, the incumbent president, for the second term in the highest office of the most powerful nation in the world. She brought the house down when she delivered a moving speech with much vigour, emotion and eloquence that many denoted as the “most powerful love letter” to support her Barack Obama in the American presidential race. Her eloquence and the power in the tone of her delivery substantiated the saying that “behind every successful man there is a strong woman.” Michelle, a mother and a law graduate, is currently involved in various social interventions such as education and childhood obesity in America. In that case, we are allowed to say she is a powerful woman in her own right, following the footsteps of the likes of Dolley Madison, Abigail Fillmore, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jacqui Kennedy, Betty Ford, Ros Carter and Hillary Rodham Clinton to mention but a few, and the latter being the current US Secretary of State and also, in my opinion, a remarkable orator. No doubt these women were the pillars of strength and strong forces behind their men’s success and I also can argue that these women, to some extent, were the influence for their husband’s triumph to supremacy and the White House.
Let me ask some petty questions here; looking at the list of the past American First Ladies, how many of our African heads of states, especially in South Africa, have had the blessing of having such support structures in their lives that contributed to nation’s pride - women who stood by their husbands in hard times of office and who also lent a helping hand in shaping the cause of history? Of course to some, the name of Winnie Madikizela Mandela might, just might come to mind, even though her term as the first lady of SA was short-lived as her wedlock did not survive Madiba’s single term as president. But can we write her off as a source of power behind Mandela’s term in the Union Building? Some might bring in Graca Machel – the only woman to be privileged to tie the knot with two heads of states in her lifetime – who has been involved in various humanitarian activities both in Africa and all over the world. Does she deserve to be in the list of the most powerful first ladies? I would like to know. Let us look at the rest of the continent just to broaden our options. What about Grace Mugabe? What are her footprints in the sand of history? Is she all about overseas trips and amazing shopping sprees abroad?
At the moment we are prosperous to have a burgeoning list of the current first ladies that continues to escalate rapidly to choose from, as it were. Which Mrs Zuma stands out? Do we as South Africans have someone in the calibre of the women initially mentioned above? Women we take pride in because of their ability to enchant us with their acts of goodwill, and who transcend to enthral us with the words of astuteness and who exudes intelligence and splendour. Is there a comparison? Have we had any first ladies who played or who continue to play any role in shaping the leadership of their husbands, and who believed in their companion’s vision for the country and who make their husbands as “extraordinary” as Michelle makes Barack? These are trivial questions, perhaps farcical, but I think they are questions we want to ponder. Imaginably in a land where, “show me your partner[s] and I will tell you what kind of a leader you would be” is the dictum this will be important, but in Mzansi that does not weigh much, or does it?
Just to add another dimension to this; let me salute the female presidents hailing from the continent who strive to move Africa forward – President Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson of Liberia, president Joyce Banda of Malawi and hopefully many more to come, and yes the time will come to assess the characters of the men who stood behind them, if any. As trivial as these questions might be, I certainly do not think they are irrelevant.
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