Women’s leadership is a broken record

2013-10-15 10:00

There are no new conversations, only rhetoric that is uninspiring.

The South African public conversation on female political leadership is a stuck record.

It is predictably played out in the run-up to ANC electoral congresses as well as each time the country gears itself up for national elections.

Last week saw a rerun of a conversation between the ANC Women’s League, the media and South Africans across the board that we have witnessed before.

Repetition is not in itself always a bad thing. It shows what really troubles people in a society.

Concerns about female leadership will continue to erupt into public discourse until we find solutions to the challenges posed by predominantly male leadership.

Reappearance also points to the limitations of the debate itself.

We may grow tired of talking about female leadership and, desensitised and disillusioned, withdraw from the national conversation.

Or, we could expand the range of questions we ask ourselves and those we expect different leadership from.

Social media and airwaves were abuzz on Tuesday morning after reports that two senior women’s league office bearers – secretary-general Sisisi Tolashe and president Angie Motshekga – declared that fighting for a female president or deputy president would have been futile at the ANC’s elective conference in Polokwane back in 2007.

They were quoted as saying that the women’s league would “celebrate one day to say the time has come” and that this day, which was imminent, required much preparation within the organisation.

The announcement itself seemed unremarkable. Tolashe and Motshekga simply told us what we already knew, what their former spokesperson Troy Martens had told us in the run-up to Polokwane, as the women’s league announced its support for Jacob Zuma, Kgalema Motlanthe and Gwede Mantashe and its own reluctance to propose a female candidate for the leadership of the ANC.

Martens’ sometimes flustered responses to questioning are still fresh in my mind.

Like Motshekga and Tolashe this week, Martens had pointed to the gap between what the women’s league wanted and what is currently achievable in the party.

Various young women called into the radio station I listened to on Tuesday morning to express their dismay, fury and sense of betrayal.

One pointed out how she felt that the women’s league trivialised her small daily contributions to change perceptions of women at her workplace.

Another was exasperated as she listed many female leaders in SA politics.

A few callers chastised previous contributors to the show for not swelling up the ranks of the ANC and its various leagues in order to change the women’s league’s stance on this matter.

The familiar rebuke that women should be qualified for leadership rather than simply being elected for being female also reared its familiar, patronising head.

Those who make this last argument see no contradiction between what they say and the current abysmal male leadership.

Later on the same day, thewomen’s league released a statement that sought to set the record straight.

Noting its “full confidence in the ability of its membership and women in general to lead in all endeavours of life”, the statement asserts that a female president of the ANC is an inevitability the women’s league is committed to ensuring.

No explanation was forthcoming as to why the ANC was not yet ready or what this readiness entailed or looked like.

What measure is the women’s league using to establish that the party was not yet ready?

And how would it ensure a shift to readiness?

Explanations about internal party processes and the need for further branch work may make sense for ANC members who accept the league’s logic.

Such rationalisations miss the mark with many other members of the public.

Yet, several questions remained unasked by the many reporters who wrote on Motshekga, Tolashe and Martens’ pronouncements.

Given that it is safe to assume that ANC members are not any more patriarchal than members of other political organisations, why are smaller parties in the opposition less hampered by organisational readiness?

In the last few years, we have seen the rise of Helen Zille, Lindiwe Mazibuko, Patricia de Lille, Zanele Magwaza-Msibi and more recently Mamphela Ramphele, assuming the highest positions in opposition parties.

We have also seen a national deputy president in Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka from within the ANC, as the women’s league statement and a caller reminded us.

How does the league explain the gap between the large numbers of ANC women elected to leadership positions and this aversion to women in the highest leadership positions within the larger party?

Similarly, how do the opposition parties led by women account for their failure for more sustained female leadership beyond the top offices?

Equally importantly, if female leadership matters so much to ordinary South Africans, what are we all willing to do with the democratic resources we have at our disposal to ensure that it matters to those we elect to government next year?

»?Gqola is a feminist and a writer

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