Jessie Duarte | Mzansi, why do you hate black women?

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Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu with President Cyril Ramaphosa.
Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu with President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Jessie Duarte writes that the Constitution, which Lindiwe Sisulu pledged to uphold and obey, guarantees her the right to freedom of speech, however in last month or so there has been an almost coordinated attack on her person and she has been trashed for simply raising her views.

Anyone who has visited the grave of Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery would have read the words engraved onto his tombstone: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it."

As one read and reflected on the debate started by Lindiwe Sisulu, with her column "Hi Mzansi, have we seen justice?" these words of Karl Marx came to mind, especially when reading the responses of trained lawyers. The reality is that our lawyers have only interpreted our law and, therefore our Constitution. The point, however, is to change it.

For what law or Constitution, the world over, has not changed? Even the American Constitution, probably one of the world's foremost democracies based on constitutionalism, has been amended 27 times. Our own Constitution has been amended 17 times. Yet it is "we, the people" that give life to this living document. 

Among the greatest constitutionalists of our time, the late Professor Kader Asmal writes in his memoir that "at a profound level, a Constitution is the embodiment of the will of the nation; if it is to enjoy legitimacy, it must come from the people. In other words, the authors of a Constitution must have a mandate from the people. This is why the Freedom Charter was so important."

Open to wider discourse? 

Eventually, much debate would happen within the ANC in the period roughly between 1987 and the signing of the final Constitution. This debate would centre around the notion of a "people's power perspective" led by among others Joe Slovo and Pallo Jordan. Still Asmal continued to emphasise that "the ANC's struggle was the emphasis on restoring political power to the people…in its simplest terms, the imperative of people's power was fundamental in the way that it continued to organize, mobilize and especially legitimate the struggle for freedom in South Africa."  

Already, some eyebrows would be raised to point out Kader Asmal's accentuating the notion of "restoring political power to the people." But critical to our own discourse in South Africa today is precisely the ability to debate matters and whether with the people's political power somewhat restored, we are to open wider the discourse and demand the people's economic power being restored as well. 

READ | Ebrahim Harvey: Lindiwe Sisulu's monumental gaffe

It is within this context that the 52nd National Conference of the ANC, in its Strategy and Tactics document, argued that "over the years of democratic rule, we have become even more keenly aware that we should not be blinded by form: the fact that blacks are, for the first time, occupying the highest political offices in the land; as distinct from content: the reality that colonial relations in some centres of power, especially the economy, remain largely unchanged."

Even more so that Strategy and Tactics document expressed the notion that "the ANC is faced with two options: either to act as a party of the present, an electoral machine blinded by short-term interest, satisfied with current social reality and merely giving stewardship to its sustenance. Or it can become a party of the future, using political power and harnessing the organisational and intellectual resources of society to attain the vision of a national democratic society?"

Up for debate 

In this respect, the question posed by Lindiwe Sisulu in her article becomes an emphatic one that the ANC must discuss and debate. If the ANC resolves, as it has done before at its conferences, that certain amendments to the Constitution should be introduced, then so be it. Needless to mention that these will be pursued in the prescribed manner. 

Yet there was another aspect to this debate which was stark but not surprising. 

As we saw five years ago, when a black woman put up her hand to stand for the presidency of the ANC, so too we now witnessed this complete onslaught of racist misogyny. For example, to this very day, articles are churned out in which Sisulu, a woman and freedom fighter in her own right, is referred to as a "princess."

For the sake of the rumour mongers and wedge drivers, let me be emphatic: one is in no way suggesting that Sisulu is running for president of the ANC nor is one leading support for such a campaign. Those days will come. What must be made clear is the orchestrated onslaught against black women when they dare to lead or raise a debate. 

The Constitution, which Sisulu pledged to uphold and obey, guarantees her the right to freedom of speech. The Constitution of the ANC, of which she is a long-standing member, encourages debate about the policies and programmes of the ANC. 

Instead what we have seen in the last month or so is an almost coordinated attack on her person and she has been trashed for simply raising her views. Commentators from abroad are invited to write articles while a flurry of responses from the predictable lot who coin themselves commentators have sought to censure her.

Right to speak 

Whatever happened to the democratic principle of 'I may wholly disagree with what you say but will contend to the death for your right to say it'? Or do these democratic virtues not apply when the interlocutor is a black woman?

Yes, there are indeed aspects of Sisulu's piece that one may not ascribe to, but I will certainly defend her right to speak, especially within the ANC because the ANC I grew up in is an ANC that has a battle of ideas not a battle of people.

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One of the aspects that was certainly not appreciated was the response by Sisulu to the statement released by the Presidency in the aftermath of her meeting with the president of the Republic. We must safeguard our institutions whether it is the Presidency or whether it is freedom of speech. The minister, who serves at the behest of the president, should have responded in a more measured manner. Sisulu's response lowered the debate, it did not elevate it and, I certainly think, did not do South Africa any good. In fact, her response to the Presidency statement undermined her standing as an important political actor in the country and diverted the attention away from issues at hand. Sadly, this time, she fell into the trap of playing the person and not the ball exposing a play for the ANC presidency.

There is little doubt that in a country such as South Africa, and as described by successive ANC documents, that the status quo is very suppressive and oppressive of a black woman. In fact in ANC literature the triple struggle of oppression is embodied in a black woman. Little wonder then that when a black woman dares to open her mouth, challenge the status quo and the mainstream narrative that we see the kind of reaction we have in response to Sisulu's article. 

We are fair game in the public discourse provided that we do not resort to slander and malicious debate. In fact, if anything gender-based violence seems to start through our pens and keyboards. This has to do with the response to a certain demographic of our population: black women. 

Support independence of the judiciary 

Unequivocally, we must support the complete independence of the judiciary. We must shudder away from calling people "negroes”. However, points on colonial education and its debilitating effects on the people who were subjected to it must be interrogated. The effects of WASP education will take decades to rectify.

READ | Aubrey Matshiqi: Lindiwe Sisulu saga - there is more than one way to conceptualise rule of law

Sisulu raised her ideas in an open debate on the challenges facing South Africa. She challenged the judiciary, an action which is not tantamount, as some wish to portray, to an attack on the Constitution or even the judiciary. To challenge is not to attack. 

It is activists like her who wish to enliven the words of Asmal on the Constitution and thereby not simply interpret it, in various ways, but yes, to change it so that it really becomes a document guaranteeing the right of black women to say threatening things about the status quo. To change the status quo. Yet even more so, to change the Constitution so that it may truly become a covenant of justice for the people of Mzansi. 

- Jessie Duarte is the Deputy-Secretary-General of the ANC.

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