The sucker-punch of sexism in politics

After four decades of bloodshed, torture, economic mismanagement, corruption, and political violence under President Robert Mugabe, it was the firing of his Vice President, and the alleged pursuit of the title of president by First-Lady “Gucci “Grace Mugabe, that proved to be the final instigator for a coup in Zimbabwe.

Once dismissed as a lightweight shopping addict, “Gucci” Grace Mugabe, who owns the largest land and real estate portfolio owned by anyone in Zimbabwean history, had for years been positioning herself as a potential successor to her 93-year-old husband.

Although numerous factors drove the military to remove Mugabe from office, the question can be asked whether it was the threat of a female president that finally spurred action from the people of Zimbabwe? Or was the coup aimed at stopping another decade under the Mugabe family, with the first-lady at the helm? As simplistic as this assertion might be, given the current state of backlash to women as presidential candidates, sexism in politics is a topic worth investigating. Women have bobbed and weaved, pawed and parred, headbutted and hooked, ducked and dived, crossed and cut, shifted and sparred for centuries in the political ring.

The future is female

Recent times have painted a mixed picture of women’s progress in politics with the public enjoying ringside seats to these toe-to-toe contests. From the devastating defeat of Hillary Clinton in the United States Elections, to Jacinda Ardern’s election as the youngest ever female Prime Minister of New Zealand. In South Africa, the question of whether or not the country is “ready” for a female president has become a regular topic of political debate. Originating during the then female leader of the Democratic Alliance, Helen Ziller’s presidential campaign, it was analysed anew with Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma’s ANC election campaign.

From the weigh-in it is clear that men have an unfair advantage and shamefully partake in roughhousing tactics in politics without the risk of point deduction. The marginalisation of women in politics throughout history can be seen as the result of societal classifications of men and women into the roles of domination and submission, respectively. The fact that women now make up half the world’s population means that gender equality remains as relevant now as it did in the 1950’s. Much progress has however been made, a few rounds have been won as the percentage of women in cabinets worldwide has nearly doubled in the last decade, from just under 9 percent in 1999 to just under 17 percent in 2010.

There is a misinformed perception that women’s activism in Africa is a by-product of Western feminist movements. In fact, the political gains in Africa, far out way those of developed countries such as the United States, France and Japan, where women only occupy slightly more than 10 percent of parliamentary seats. This proves that Africa has not only incorporated international women’s rights norms and practices, but has actively contributed to them as well. In response to this growing movement in Africa, the fact that South Africa even questioned whether it was ready for a female president was problematic and attests to the patronising attitude that prevails in our otherwise modern society.

Prejudice and politics

In the past, women campaigning for political power was seen as a no contest, as the most senior position for an African woman was usually held by the leader’s wife, in what has become known as the “First Lady Syndrome”. Much progress has been made and Africa now boasts formidable leaders: from the first democratically-elected female president in Africa, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, to the youngest female minister in Africa, Evelyn Anite, Uganda's minister of finance for infrastructure and privatisation. However, the election of female heads of state in some African countries has not automatically translated into increased parliamentary representation in lower levels and vice-versa.

After years of women in politics having to roll with the punches it seems even our frontrunners are fading. This is evident in South Africa where women perform well on average in the lower house positions (Ministers 41%, Deputy Ministers 47%), yet struggle to break through to the upper house positions in parliament, with the highest short-lived presidential position to be achieved by Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka as Deputy President in 2005. Ministerial positions that are occupied, by women are usually in “soft” portfolios of communication and housing.

This limitation in strategic positioning is in part caused by patriarchal thought-patterns that still plague the population. An example is found in South African tribal beliefs as epitomised by AmaXhosa King Mpendulo Zwelonke Sigcawu’s assertion that “Africa is not ready for a female president.” Low blow statements such as these have caused many upstart female politicians to consciously or subconsciously throw in the towel. This patriarchal belief impacts overall thought patterns of women, with a recent poll among South Africans reflecting the overwhelming belief that men make better political leaders than women. This gender prejudice inevitably bleeds into politics.

The incorrect perception that men are more decisive, means that the top position of president becomes increasingly unattainable by women. This, despite that fact that studies have proven that women are more likely than men to ask tough questions, and demand direct and detailed answers. It is therefore easier for women politicians in Africa to enter as second-rank (or lower) on a party list, than to gain access to a single candidacy. It is therefore important to question how women can break through from the lower, to the highest seat.

Where is the training camp for women in politics in Africa? How can amateurs turn pro without the necessary backers and promoters? Covered in bandages and bruised by black eyes, how can South Africa’s female politician turn into a champion, if the political ring refuses to be a neutral corner?

By Mikaela Oosthuizen

(Mikaela is a Mandela Rhodes Scholar completing her Masters in Media Studies. She is involved with the Businesswomen’s Association of South Africa and is a YALI Young African Leaders Initiative delegate for the SADEC region. She is also a model and acknowledges the beautiful irony in the space she occupies.)

Twitter: @smilemikaela

Instagram: @mikaelaoosthuizen

Facebook: “Mikaela Oosthuizen” Public Page

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