The?problem with strong, confident?black women

2014-07-13 15:00

When I say ‘hired native’, it’s a problem. But what about the daily attacks on the dignity of female politicians?

Leading up to Women’s Month, it seems apt to reflect on the issue of women’s equality, even as we celebrate freedom of speech, democracy and all those good things we lay claim to.

Most times when we talk of the struggle for gender equality, we largely talk numbers.

Measured against that benchmark, we have done well. Actually, we’ve done exceedingly well, for I know of no other country that has attempted to legalise gender parity.

Equally commendable is our country’s resounding abhorrence and intolerance of such persistent ills as violence against women. We are at one in our focus that this scourge must end – giving hope that in time we will overcome this affliction.

The issue this article seeks to address is that most insidious outstanding issue: the continuous denigration of the dignity of women because it remains ingrained in our subconscious.

It manifests itself in the stereotyping and the disparaging way in which women are portrayed and treated in society for no other reason than them being women.

I begin with the truism that the struggle for freedom was not only a struggle against oppression but a struggle for dignity and respect of the individual – black and white, male and female. It is the lack of fulfilment of this dignity for women that will continue to be a stain on our canvass of freedom.

The denigration of women has been so commonplace as to be routine and in some cases has become part of our accepted lexicon.

A few weeks ago, Zapiro was interviewed on his remarkable achievements as a cartoonist. Asked what his favourite cartoon was, he replied it was the one depicting our disappointment when Cape Town lost the Olympic bid to Athens. The cartoon in question captures the depth of anger and dejection of a man walking away muttering “Athens se Ma se?...”. That cartoon says more about us as a society than we care to acknowledge.

In anger and frustration (and sometimes even in joy), we impugn women’s dignity with alarming ease. This is so commonplace, it is scarcely noticed. What made the cartoon “funny” is that its commentary was spot-on. But what went unnoticed is the sad commentary on the way we value women’s dignity in our society.

For me, the past two weeks have brought this to the fore in various exchanges between ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte and two males of different political persuasions.

The male responses degenerated to personal low blows, insinuating she had paid for her boyfriend’s ticket to travel abroad when she was MEC in Gauteng many years ago. This to reduce her voice to unworthiness because she should be paraded as a woman of low morals.

To set the record straight, Duarte was found not guilty of the allegations at the Moerane Commission of Inquiry almost 17 years ago. She admitted to wrongfully driving a car without a valid driver’s licence, and resigned her position as MEC. She did not need to be asked to resign.

Despite these facts, this matter was dragged out because it is a low blow for a woman.

But there are no rules around low blows for women, they are fair game. And we keep quiet when a woman’s dignity is violated. The deafening silence in the wake of this assault, as in the Zapiro cartoon, only attests to the fact that society has readily accepted the denigration of women as par for the course.

From where I stand, this silence is in stark contrast to the cacophony of opinions following my reference to Mmusi Maimane in Parliament as a “hired native”. I have no ill feelings towards Maimane and there was no insult there, only seasoned advice to him about the position he occupies.

He is indeed a native, born and raised in this country. More than that, the facts are available to all that DA leader Helen Zille has been on the prowl for a black person to give credibility to an otherwise pale party.

What struck me is that if you dare attack the interests of certain privileged groups, the response is loud. But when men insult and degrade women, especially black women, this does not generate any uproar. Instead there is an echo of silence.

The point is when you compare what was said to Duarte and reported very widely over the last week, and the brouhaha around my comment on the DA and Maimane, the argument becomes clear. The degradation of women is part of our culture – nothing out of the ordinary. It passes for nothing. It is, after all, the kind of treatment that is visited on women on a daily basis.

The struggle for the dignity and respect of women in South Africa is a struggle that women must be prepared to fight to the end. When other forms of discrimination are fast disappearing, the denigration of women still rears its ugly head in all walks of life. Notwithstanding the promulgation of many laws that protect the rights and dignity of women, black women in particular are still to this day regularly insulted, abused and denigrated.

When teachers’ union Sadtu took to the streets last year raising labour issues in the department of education, one aspect that stood out as a sad indictment on that strike was the matter of Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga’s supposed “underwear”, when strikers paraded a pair of panties to represent her.

The minister was derided and denigrated in this way for no other reason than that she is a woman. The attack was on her womanhood and society reacted with amused nonchalance.

This is how society objectifies women.

The case of the IEC’s Pansy Tlakula has been hogging the headlines for some time now. When it was initially raised, there was absolutely no doubt the saucy bits and hype about a romantic relationship were added to attract readers.

There was no onus on the reporter to prove the allegation, but it was salacious enough to sell newspapers.

What do these women have in common? They are strong and confident black women, and have the courage to stand up for what they believe in. They must be objectified to teach them their place in society, and denigrated to humiliate them into subservience and silence.

True gender equality will not come from merely passing vital pieces of legislation but will materialise only when society sufficiently accepts that women are equal citizens who must be respected equally. But pivotally, women must become their own liberators.

Their struggle will never succeed if there is no common cause where they raise consciousness and fundamentally change society’s mind-set to uphold not only the rights but equally the dignity of all women.

If this is not done, our gains towards equality will continuously ring hollow.

Sisulu is the minister of human settlements

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