Lindiwe Mazibuko and the Politics of Representation

2014-05-15 13:24

Lindiwe Mazibuko’s sudden departure from our political life cannot be understated. Notwithstanding her political views (which are open to contestation), the loss of a powerful female voice in an inherently patriarchal political environment is not a good thing. Irrespective of the reasons as to why she may have left, which are heavily disputed, her departure is not good for women’s progress in politics. 

Of the 13 parties that will be represented in Parliament only 3 are led by women. But, that does not guarantee that party leaders will necessarily sit in Parliament (as we have seen before, such as when Athol Trollip was the DA’s leader in Parliament but Helen Zille remained outside of it).  While the caucus demographics of the next Parliament is yet to be finalised, as final seat allocations are still underway, the average percentage of seats held by women from 1997 – 2010 is 28.4%. That is the case despite the fact that women were the majority of the population for that period – and still are the majority today.

There are several reasons that explain why women have been kept or stay out of politics. The first has to do with gendered understandings of the roles women and men have in society. Women were – are – considered to be the ones to manage the domestic environment. Cook, clean, look after the babies. Even among different social classes, this deeply conservative idea of women persists. Even though economic necessity – especially after WWII – may have changed that irrevocably and women’s movements have championed the cause of equal access and pay, patriarchy runs deep. Some men see women as only being there in name – not as equals. Frighteningly, some women do too. Patriarchy, like most forms of social prejudice, can be so strong that it even convinces its intended victims of its supposed veracity. Talk about Stockholm Syndrome.

South Africa is no different. Even though women played a significant role in the struggle, for example, the ‘women’s agenda’ was largely ignored in favour of (formal) equality and freedom. Given, however, that women were – and have been – made to be more vulnerable because of the institutional and cultural design which operated against them, formal equality, it can be argued, continues to benefit men more than it does women. While the struggle for substantive equality between black and white people still continues – the struggle for true sex parity still lags far behind. The progress made is not enough. Women are largely underrepresented in the professional class and are even scarcer at the top level of the spectrum.

The slow progress that women have been able to make is, in part, attributable to how co-option works. After the fall of Apartheid, it was not black women that were being welcomed into previously all-male white boardrooms, it was black men. While the colour composition of our country may have improved, its gender balance has not. Politics is no different. Neither is economics. Provided that strong vested interests do just enough to seem as though transformation is being achieved, they have been able to escape true societal scrutiny. And so the cause of a sex-balance is lost.

That has an impact on the way women can integrate into these environments. Putting the systemic obstacles aside, the institutional culture of these places remains largely male-oriented. Whether that has to do with flexible working hours, sanitary facilities or institutional culture, the ability for women to break through the ‘glass ceiling’ and remain there is inordinately more difficult than it is for their male counterparts. Much like how black professionals have to work doubly hard than their white ones in order to avoid the ‘token appointment’ label, so too must women.

That is why Mazibuko’s departure is worrisome. Her presence in Parliament and in our collective consciousness achieved the two aims of transformation: on one hand, it created an immediate and physical embodiment of the desired change and, on the other, it represented that the ingrained modes of exclusion were being challenged. The two are linked and it bears merit exploring.

Whether Mazibuko liked it or not, she was a standard bearer for women, and young black women especially. Margaret Thatcher once infamously quipped that she owed nothing to ‘feminism’ because, I suspect, she saw herself as an equal (or in her case, superior) to men. That she was born a woman was secondary. But, Thatcher’s comment belies her misunderstanding that even if she thought she owed nothing special to being a woman, millions of women, and men, respected her for that: she rose above the predetermined trajectory for those of her sex. And in so doing she made it possible that others may do so too. The same is true with Mazibuko.

It is understandable why prominent women like to ‘downplay’ that they are women in positions of power. Because, ironically, by praising them for that we engage in a process of reductionism that does not see beyond biological sex. The same applies with, for example, race and gender. It is a danger that we must be careful of. But it is also a feat that we cannot ignore. Having a woman at the table counts. But thinking that the only reason she got there is because she is a woman is as unacceptable as excluding her for her sex.

And, the fact that Mazibuko was not just present at the table but, to a large extent, determining what was discussed at it is worthy of praise too. Her role was a demonstrable positive example set to millions of other (young) women that sex parity is possible. The nuance she brought to the discussion of issues, within the DA and outside of it, means that the all-male culture of the institutions in which she served was affronted. Admittedly, when such conservativism is confronted, it can either harden (despite a women being present) or give way to something better. While it is too early to tell whether Parliament – and parliamentary caucuses – will go back to being ‘old boy’s’ clubs remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that in being true to herself and taking it all on Mazibuko has inspired other women, and men, to take up the cudgels and shake sexism – wherever it may exist – to its very core. And when she returns, I am sure she will do the same.

Although Mazibuko is departing, there are women who remain involved in politics that can do what she did. And one hopes that they do. But, all is not lost. Mazibuko’s securing a place at Harvard University’s prestigious Kennedy School of Government to read for a Master’s in Public Administration is not only indicative of her impressive intellect and profile but, again, an inspiration to many others. It is rarely the case that when one exits the political stage they do so on a high. Enoch Powell once quipped that all political careers end in tears. Whether Mazibuko cried when she resigned I am not sure. If she did, I hope they were tears of joy. Harvard is a unique achievement that not many, let alone those from South Africa, will achieve. And I for one sincerely hope that upon her return she will continue trail-blazing as she so memorably did.

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