Bathabile Dlamini makes a U-turn in her resignation letter. Or does she?

Former social development minister Bathabile Dlamini during the ANC's 5th national policy conference at the Nasrec Expo Centre on July 01, 2017. (Photo by Gallo Images / City Press / Muntu Vilakazi)
Former social development minister Bathabile Dlamini during the ANC's 5th national policy conference at the Nasrec Expo Centre on July 01, 2017. (Photo by Gallo Images / City Press / Muntu Vilakazi)

Race and class still take precedence over gender in the ANC. Patriarchal men are not the only ones to blame for this, unlike what Bathabile Dlamini suggests in her resignation letter, writes Christi van der Westhuizen.

In-between the self-justifications and finger-pointing, Bathabile Dlamini is right about one thing in her letter of resignation this week. Questions can indeed be asked about the status of women's empowerment as a much-vaunted political objective of the ANC's. But Dlamini's actions, including this letter, also illustrate how nationalist women can be swept up in party political power play at the expense of women generally, and of the greater public interest.

Dlamini's at-times disjointed letter of resignation reveals a sudden desire to fight patriarchy that does not fit with previous statements and actions that did the opposite. Who can forget that the ANC Women's League, under her leadership, sent a team of men to the party's national general council in 2017 to debate policy on their behalf?

Not only that: she actually justified this step by rolling out an old patriarchal stereotype, namely, that women are too emotional to express themselves properly. It is also under Dlamini's leadership that the league stated their controversial position in 2012 that South Africa is not "ready" for a female president.

Dlamini's discourse seems to have changed over the past year or so. She swung in a more feminist direction, for example, with her statement in September 2018 that men should not speak about land redistribution on behalf of women. This is exactly the opposite of her earlier justification of male representation.

Similarly, a year ago she condemned the ANC for letting patriarchy “rear its ugly head” after only one woman (Jessie Duarte) made the cut for the ANC's top six. This changed position on women's leadership is noticeable from 2017 onwards when the league decided out of the blue that South Africa was ready for a female president, after all. They supported Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as a candidate for the ANC presidency.

Dlamini's resentment about Dlamini-Zuma's failed leadership bid leads her to question the ANC's "willingness" to fight patriarchy in her resignation letter. She once again generalises by saying that the ANC is not ready to be led by a woman. That, according to her, is the "lesson" of the last leadership election that Cyril Ramaphosa won. The second lesson is that "some amongst us" do not understand the contribution that women organisations make to political parties.

What is true is that nationalist movements, in general, try to limit and restrict women's agency. Limitations on women are based on a patriarchal division that places men as active agents leading the nationalist cause. Women, on the other hand, are positioned as symbols and also as the physical and moral reproducers of the nation.

Impressively, looking back over the decades to the 1910s, nationalist black women have in their struggle against oppression been forging an ever-increasing space for themselves, in spite of men. Black women launched successful protests against the pass laws in 1913 and founded the Bantu Women's League in 1918. The ANC initially did not allow women at all, and then only as "auxiliary members" and also only if they were married to ANC men.

Women gained full membership status in the ANC in the 1940s. The Women's League was founded in 1948 but disappeared when the ANC was banned. During the years of exile, women once again insisted on their own political vehicle, and the ANC Women's Section was created. However, they were limited by the role of caregivers that nationalism likes to associate with women, as they mostly fulfilled welfare and related functions in the organisation.

But by 1990, the women restored the league and adopted a feminist stance. ANC women inside and outside the league made a decisive contribution to establishing women's rights as human rights in the Constitution. A series of laws and policies were consequently adopted that ensure women's legal position and protection as human beings of equal value today – at least in the eyes of the law.

However, the league's close association with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who was elected as league president twice in the 1990s, raised serious questions about its political and ethical culture.

ANC women's challenge throughout the decades has been that women's empowerment was not regarded as a fully-fledged part of the "national liberation struggle". The latter was understood in terms of race and, to a lesser extent, class. Gender was always placed on the side line.

Today, race and to some extent class still take precedence over gender in the ANC. Patriarchal men in the ANC are not the only ones to blame for this, unlike what Dlamini suggests in her letter. The league should also shoulder some of the blame.

Dlamini and the other women of the league do not move from a feminist position. Instead, they use gender as a strategic resource to position themselves and, in particular, to wangle government posts for league women.

The contradictory twists in the league's discourse on women show how strategically gender is used to manoeuvre within internal ANC power battles. The league women are as implicated as other leaders in the current factionalism. In Dlamini's letter, she not only complains about Dlamini-Zuma not being elected president but also rails against "monopoly capital", both of which indicate that she is still firmly part of the Zuma faction.

Dlamini's feminist-sounding discourse has the same function as the "left-wing" rhetoric of economic transformation that figures such as ANC secretary general Ace Magashule and Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane deploy. It simply aims to re-establish and legitimise the project of state capture. This opportunism has nothing to do with empowering women or overturning poverty.

- Christi van der Westhuizen is an associate professor at the Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy (Canrad) at Nelson Mandela University.

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