Thandile Sunduza: Say Yes to the Dress!

2014-02-17 09:28

Perhaps it was the decided lack of content or reality displayed by President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation Address last week that allowed for picking on Thandile Sunduza, MP, to become the country’s favourite pastime.

SONA is the high theatre of politics: red carpets, swanky clothes, obscure figures and even more nebulous promises. This year was no different – save in one crucial aspect. South Africans participated in the character assassination of a female MP, who happens to seven months pregnant, with such ferocity that Sunduza landed up in hospital due to the emotional torment she suffered at the hands of internet trolls and serious newspapers alike.

I have seen various arguments attempting to mollify the sheer horrific impact that this has situation had. They have all, in various ways, attempted to justify and underplay what this was: the objectification and denigration of a woman for how she dressed. Had Sunduza not collapsed and had the life of her unborn child not been threatened, I wonder whether the same people would have attempted to blithely justify their mob-mentality in attacking her so. But, for those of us who monitor these things, attacking a female politician for anything other than how she does her job is commonplace in South Africa’s political discourse.

Some of the more amusing arguments I have seen have included: (a) that she was being criticised for her choice of fashion against an objective standard – not that she was female; and (b) that being an MP means she is expected to set an example and her choice, which was an allegedly poor one, made criticising her fair game.

The first argument is flawed on two grounds.

Firstly, the objective standard is hardly objective like all. As I wrote in an article about whiteness and excellence, our understanding of what is acceptable and what isn’t is as a result of socialisation and prevailing dominant cultural attitudes. These cultural attitudes are not value-free: they are as a result of complex power relations which shape our views on things like rights, culture and even fashion. That a ‘fat’ woman should not wear something ‘figure-hugging’ is as a result of the hyper-marketised projection of only people ‘in shape’ being allowed to wear such clothing. That in previous times, women ‘with curves’ were considered as being desirable and encouraged to show off their curves – and tin women were looked down upon – is indicative of how fickle, and thus unreliable, these ‘standards’ are.

This also covers the pithy second argument that she must set an example. In any case, if we were going to criticise her for anything, shouldn’t we be focusing on her track-record and performance in Parliament as opposed to whether her dress fit her? If we are trying to set examples, this episode basically tells young women that they must be seen and heard to say and do the right things and they’ll be okay: dare to be different and you’ll be crucified. Imagine how this is viewed in hindsight. On the occasion that the biggest policy speech was being made in our political year, a few months before the election, most people were frothing at the mouth over how a largely-unknown MP looked. So much for wanting to create a new generation of female leaders in South Africa.

Second, the fact that she is a woman cannot be separated from the criticism levelled at her fashion choice. While I loathe essentialisation of this kind, this inseparability comes about in two respects.

On one hand, no man would ever be subjected to this kind of scrutiny. Even if they were, it would be transient at best. Women seem to be in a special class: that we can criticise them for what they wear because women are concerned with fashion and that makes it okay. Actually, women should not mindlessly be associated with fashion. Like with everything, some care and others don’t. Similarly, if we create fashion to be reserve of women, what does it say about a fashionable or fashion conscious man? That he is womanly? Hmm, think not.

On the other hand, the aggressive way in which Sunduza was belittled is representative of the wider societal problem we have with women in South Africa. It is no coincidence that women are the most disempowered and the most brutalised: we live in a society where women are treated as the lesser, inferior beings and where we – as men but also as a society – can treat them as they wish. For all our lip service to the Women’s march of 1955 and 16 days of activism, we spend a lot of time letting women know where they belong: at the bottom of the pile. It may be hyperbolic of me to suggest that Sunduza’s treatment is in the same vein. Perhaps. But it symbolises how even if we don’t hit women physically, we continue to allow them to be broken down in other ways as well. We objectify them in the worst way.

I hate to take on the role of moraliser-in-chief. But something has to be said about how Sunduza was treated. For the harsh criticism that she was subjected to is not only about her. It is about how we view and treat women in politics and in general. South Africans should take a long hard look at themselves and realise that we have no right nor place to judge. Certainly not in the way that it transpired nor over what we all got worked up over. We deserve better. And so does Sunduza and countless other women.

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