Our own Iron Lady

2009-05-16 00:00

IT is perhaps timely that a couple of weeks ago the 30th anniversary of the election victory of Margaret Thatcher was marked.

Thatcher made history on May 3, 1979, to become the first female prime minister of Great Britain. The Iron Lady was accused of many things during her 11 tumultuous years in charge, but being a proponent of women’s rights or trying to advance women in politics was not one ever levelled at her.

Three decades later, South Africa has its own Iron Lady. Helen Zille, the leader of the official opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), and newly elected leader of the Western Cape, has had a baptism of fire since the announcement of her all-male cabinet.

As with Thatcher, Zille has been accused of many things — reasonably by the ANC, Cosatu and some women’s groups — and unfairly and in unacceptable sexist language by the ANC Youth League (ANCYL), the Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans’ Association and others. Notably, no one has accused Zille of being a camp fighter for women’s rights.

It is naïve to take umbrage at your political opponents for raising the issue of representivity in the South Africa of 2009. Zille responded to the ANC calling her provincial cabinet a disgrace by playing the man and not the ball.

In an interview with the Sowetan, the DA leader launched an unprovoked attack on President Jacob Zuma, saying he put all his wives at risk of contracting HIV. She said the ANC’s “professions of support for women’s rights ring hollow indeed against this background”.

Name-calling and personal attacks as practised by the DA, ANCYL and their ilk are totally out of tune with where most South Africans want the country to move in the wake of our fourth successful democratic elections.

By all means, oppose the governing party and their policies, but attacking Zuma personally is not contributing to the political discourse and is surely counterproductive.

There are many policy and governance issues where the ANC is vulnerable. Attacking them on their commitment to women’s rights and women’s representation in politics is a bit rich coming from the DA leader though.

Four of the eight ANC provinces have female premiers — including the powerful Gauteng province. The ANC chairperson is a woman. Two of the main ministries in government, Home Affairs and International Relations, are headed by women.

On the issue of representivity, the DA under Zille has been Freedom Front-esque. In the recent elections, barring one or two, the DA’s premier candidates were almost exclusively white men. Could South Africa’s official opposition not find one black man or woman who was good enough to represent their party at the highest level?

Two of the most senior women in the DA’s parliamentary caucus, Sandra Botha and Sheila Camerer, left politics this year. As with Thatcher’s Conservative Party, it seems there is no space for strong women in the DA — other than the Iron Lady.

Thatcher has proven that a government headed by a woman is not necessarily good for women. Helen Zille is seemingly proving the same point.

Zille is first and foremost the leader of the DA. Unless she wants her party to become a regional influence — like the IFP — she needs to cast her reach wider. The southern suburbs in Cape Town, the northern suburbs in Johannesburg and the majority of the Western Cape will vote for her anyway.

Her somewhat over-the-top performance as DA leader since the elections has certainly not won the party any friends outside its own support base.

Unlike Thatcher — whose reputation is forever tainted after she unleashed an unregulated financial free-for-all resulting in a legacy of greed, entrenched inequality and economic failure — Zille has time on her side.

The ANC will stumble in the coming years, all governing parties do, but for Zille and the DA’s criticism to resonate, they will have to show a more nuanced understanding of the South African political landscape.


• Jannie Momberg is the editor of News24.

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