Guest Column

Practising your politics in a patriarchal world

2017-11-29 07:45
Lindiwe Sisulu (File, City Press)

Lindiwe Sisulu (File, City Press)

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Ashanti Kunene

In October, Lindiwe Sisulu gave a lecture at UCT as part of her 'it's a must' presidential campaign. T-shirts with the slogan were handed out. 

Arguably this was the first time many of us who participated in the 2016 wave of #FeesMustFall protests were together in the same space again; there was a tangible sense of euphoria in the air, permeated by the rise and fall of singing voices. 

We gathered to hear what message Sisulu had for us; to hear what exactly it is that 'is a must'. She kicked off by strongly calling out the patriarchy within SASCO stating that "(they) must be part of the change they want to see and must support women." 

What's interesting about Sisulu calling out patriarchy in a student space associated with the various hashtag movements is the larger question of feminist praxis amongst South Africa's national public figures that happen to be women. 

While I have nothing against Lindiwe Sisulu, her lecture opened up interesting questions around the praxis of, specifically, black women in politically powerful positions – unambiguously, questions around the feminist praxis of ANC women. 

Sisulu's lecture simply offers a starting point from which to explore inconsistencies involved in not walking your talk; to explore what it means to be a feminist working within a particular patriarchal context and how because of that, it has become more acceptable to talk one way but walk another. 

The ANCWL and the manner in which they handled themselves during the Khwezi rape trial is a painful case in point. They slut shamed and victim blamed Khwezi, saying things like, "She should feel lucky to have been raped by such a handsome man."

There has also been a very tangible lack of engagement by women in the ANC with the discourses that have emerged from the hashtag movements of 2015/2016.

Thenjiwe Mtintso, an MK veteran has argued that despite the gains made, "there are many steps we have taken backwards. What is beautiful, however, is the rise of a critical mass of young activists. If [only] the women's league, for example, was interacting with these young people. In general, though, we women in the ANC are not part of this movement that is rising."

So imagine the surprise when Sisulu flawlessly appropriated the hashtag feminist discourse that, up until then, we'd not heard her engage. In the words a fellow attendee, "well, she is running for president, she needs our votes and telling us what we want to hear is part of that."

So, what exactly are we supposed to do with leaders who find it easy to separate personal praxis from their political rhetoric? The appropriation of feminist discourse when it serves a particular political interest is something politicians like to do when they politick.

How is there an honest expectation to take someone seriously when they call out patriarchy but remains silent during the Khwezi rape trial, during #RuReferenceList, during #EndRapeCulture, during #RememberKhwezi? Where was her voice condemning the multiple femicides and brutal murders of women by men this year?

"But she has the audacity to stand in front of us and say that she stands for young people and women's rights?" asks Gugu Nonjinge, girl child activist.

Julius Malema, a figure with his own feminist challenges, recently questioned Sisulu's ideological message, indeed her very campaign slogan 'it's a must', saying he struggles to understand what exactly it means. 

As we sat there in that lecture listening to Sisulu speak it felt like she knew what to say, telling us students exactly what we wanted to hear rather than lay out any concrete message. 

There was one question she asked that really stood out for me. She asked, "what must you do to help us, your liberators, to free you?"

How profound a question. Its framing betrays a troublesome idea; that Sisulu and her generation (both men and women) are the only legitimate 'liberators' who can 'free us'.

Such ideas essentially erase the political agency we ourselves possess, especially we the youth, for it implies a belief that we would inherently defer our political agency to an older, more experienced leader, rather than exercise it ourselves. It is also indicative of the fact that our political elders are not actually engaging deep enough with contemporary activist discourses.

Beyond the inadequate discursive engagement, concepts like intersectionality and the emphasis it places on politics and political praxis raise larger questions of what it means to walk your talk especially in a neoliberal, capitalistic, patriarchal, anti-black state. About what it means to be a national woman in such a context, or more specifically in a state like South Africa where violence against women and children is both a crisis and a challenge that has reached epidemic proportions.

A friend of mine likes to say, "if we always practised our politics we wouldn't eat." The painful truth of this statement is such that, sometimes, powerful women find it strategically more important to play the patriarchal game than actually using power and positionality to disrupt and dismantle the patriarchy; to change the rules of the game. 

If anything, patriarchy subtly works to ensure women help uphold and maintain its violence whether consciously or not. It is this discrepancy between our personal and public lives that we must constantly assess, most especially when choosing our political leaders. 

While perfect heroes don't exist, is it really too much to ask for people to be accountable and consistently walk their talk? Is it really too much to ask of ourselves that we walk our talk?

- Ashanti Kunene is an intern in the Sustained Dialogues programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. She is also an International Studies Masters student with Stellenbosch University.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    lindiwe sisulu  |  patriarchy  |  16 days of activism
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