Before the professional black was the professional woman

2012-02-29 05:50

I still remember the day it dawned on me what the ANC Women’s League was all about.

The League had ten precious votes to give at the ANC’s Polokwane conference in  2007 and held a national executive committee meeting to discuss where these votes would go.

A source who attended the meeting called me with the outcome. “We’re going with Zuma.”

I almost fainted. The Women’s League is stocked with the ANC’s finest – women who had more that their share of suffering by the hands of men and who would not let a chance pass to speak out against the abuses that go with patriarchy.

But then the source explained.

“Look,” she said, “we are all women who deserve to be in better positions than we are. We are clever, innovative, hard-working and we have paid our struggle dues. The tide is turning against Mbeki, and we are shrewd. We want to be there when it is time to eat,” she said.

A politically expedient decision that, turns out, has profound consequences for women and the role of women in society.

Because Mbeki has been relatively kind of women, and opened the way for women in the ANC to agitate for better representation in leadership and decision-making structures.

He appointed the country’s first female deputy president and with the way Mbeki was allowing her to chair cabinet meetings even when he was there, it was clear that Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka’s road may have led all the way to the top.

But the tide turned against Mbeki and the women at the top were increasingly uneasy of how secure their future would be if they continued to support Mbeki. So they made the political decision to go the other way even if the other way was a man who had archaic ideas about women and sex. Even if it is a man who takes doesn’t think twice about sleeping with a woman who he knows is HIV-positive, therefore putting himself and his wives at risk of infection.

In this time of debate about what is a “professional black”, was this maybe the rise of the “professional woman”?

Would we define her as the female political leader who certainly deserves a seat at the top table and should do her best to get there, but who is willing to make moral sacrifices along the way.

I can’t help thinking of these issues when I see women marching up to Noord Street taxi rank in Johannesburg to show men a bit of leg accompanied by the middle finger.

The front row was occupied by women who took that decision in 2007 to go with Zuma, who at that stage had none of the attributes one would expect of a leader who deserved the support of women.

But they picked the fruits of their decisions. Most of them were installed or retained in cabinet or premier positions. After pressure from the Women’s League leaders like Edna Molewa, who was in the to-go column of Zuma’s cabinet reshuffle balance sheet, was retained in cabinet.

But some of the fruits were not as sweet. They had to keep quiet when word came out of Zuma’s love child by his friend’s daughter – putting paid to all the protestations of marrying women instead of having mistresses.

The women’s ministry is indeed in place, but it has a paltry budget and almost zero influence on the way men behave, and therefore women abuse continues with no end in sight.

So looking back I wonder if those female leaders at that meeting in 2007 are proud of what their decision has achieved, and I know that  being a “professional woman” is equally fraught with complications as being a professional black.

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