The voice of SA's women

2009-03-09 00:00

There is a new voice resonating through the South African political landscape — well, not so much new as different, because it has been around since April 2008. The voice is that of the first women’s political party in the country — Women Forward (WF). The party is unusual not just because it is a women’s party, but because of the gentleness of its tone, its emphasis on peace, on nurturing and on building bridges.

The inspiration for this spirit is party president Nana Ngobese, grand-daughter of Nobel Peace laureate Albert Luthuli, who is one of the ANC’s most revered leaders. She is also the sister of Msunduzi Mayor and chairwoman of the local ANC Women’s league, Zanele Hlatshwayo.

Ngobese was at the recent event where political parties pledged to uphold the electoral code of conduct and while parties sniped at each other she spoke of women as peace-seekers. “Lets talk about the politics that unite [rather] than compete on the things that destroy our communities,”she said.

On meeting Ngobese, who is also a Pietermaritzburg resident, an obvious question is why she left the ANC to strike out on her own. She stresses that she is not against the ANC or any other party for that matter. While the ruling party has done a lot on women’s issues, it is too broad a church, she says. “There are too many voices and women’s issues are stuck in that space. It is impossible to bring everything to the forefront. Women Forward is an attempt to open spaces for women. The ANC ushered in the democracy that we enjoy. Now we have to think how much further we can take that democracy and this is our aim,” Ngobese said.

She said that when she decided to form the party, she consulted extensively with her extended family, who gave her their blessing. Her mother Jane, a community worker, is often on the campaign trail with her.

Ngobese, a former deputy director-general in the KZN premier’s office, said the idea of a women’s party had been in the making for a while. She said it was her work in the government that had inspired her. She met very strong women who were the backbones of their communities, holding things together, but totally lacking in understanding their own power. These are women Ngobese believes the party can work with to get them to believe in themselves, realise how much their communities need them and get them to take on leadership positions.

“This election is a test run for us,” says Ngobese, “Our real interest lies in the local government election in 2011 — this is where women matter, dealing with issues closest to the ground.”

Her work in government also exposed her to the fact that resources do not get to where they matter and the need for women to be empowered to access resources, to know where to apply and to challenge structures if they are not getting support. Women need to make the policies work for them, she says. Ngobese also has a number of practical ideas such as extending the stokvelsmodel and opening women’s banks.

The party aims to get women to be resourceful in their own right. One of the party’s campaign strategies is handing out bags of mealie seeds for women to plant. Ngobese believes in the power of positive thinking and making the best of situations, no matter how bad. She said she learnt this from her grandmother. Her grandfather, Albert Luthuli, remained a legendary figure in the background, but her grandmother was her role model. “She was the strength behind my grandfather and he always consulted her.

“One thing I picked up from my grandmother, was her always saying, ‘Don’t complain; rather do something about it, you loose energy when you complain’.”

For Ngobese, the most important role of WF is to deal with violence and aggression in South African society. She says women are victims of crimes that most people cannot even imagine.

“On a yearly basis the Department of Transport does a count of how many people die on the roads, yet there is women’s abuse and there are no statistics on a monthly basis from any organisation telling us how many women are abused.”

It is just not women as victims of crimes, but the deep-seated aggression in South Africa that is of concern. Something has to be done in our communities to address this politics of fear, and who better than women as peacemakers, she says.

Ngobese adds that she understands that women themselves play a role in their own oppression and this is why the support of women’s party counts. “There are so many issues where we are not taking our place to correct serious wrongs. For example, we are still sending out children to sugar daddies.”

Asked if she views polygamy as an issue that disempowers women, Ngobese, who wrote a book on traditional practices titled One Goat is Enough, said as she has become older she is less judgmental and realises how some practices are deeply embedded in African society. “I was in Mali and I came across a situation where four professional women were all married to the same man and accepted the situation. You go deep into the rural areas and these men are caring for their families as opposed to situations where men walk away or have a string of mistresses and no responsibility. I’m still pondering these issues — what does it mean for our society, where does it come from?” she says.

Ngobese may be reflective, but the words “passionate”, “enthusiastic” and “energetic” describe her better.

Since the party’s election campaign began, she has visited all the provinces and says the party has over 10 000 members. “We have strong branches in parts of northern KZN in Eshowe, Richards Bay, Gauteng, Limpopo. In fact, Limpopo leads the pack. I’m still trying to figure this out. It could be that they have a strong matriarchal system there. KwaZulu-Natal is far more patriarchal and highly traditional.”

The mother of four children, three of whom are at university and the youngest still at home, Ngobese says her husband, Mchuchu Nxumalo, is one of her party’s biggest supporters.

“My husband always says once women get it right, the whole world will get it right and I believe if women stop being fearful, they will get it right,” she says.

According to Ngobese, WF is open to men but they must know that the party promotes women leadership.

She adds that while on the election trail they meet young men who are willing to assist them.

“I believe many of them know how much their mothers did for them and how strong they have been in their lives. Deep down there is an understanding of the role of women, but we have to make it more palpable,” she says.

When not running her party, Ngobese is busy writing a book. She calls this her therapy and not work. The book’s focus is on the language of disempowerment and how the world can be made a better place if people choose hope over fear. This is what she has done by forming her own party.

And the way ahead is only forward, says Ngobese.

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