Where are women leaders in the Democratic Alliance?

2015-04-28 17:00

The Democratic Alliance has focused a great deal on its need to transform into a party that majority of South Africans can easily identify with, both aesthetically and substantively. At the core of its pressures in recent years has been the need to fend off the idea that the DA is a white party, concerned with interests of big business (largely white owned in SA) and removed from the ‘bread and butter’ issues of ordinary South Africans. Effectively, many have put the legitimacy of the DA’s claim that it is the government of the future to test.

People have for some time been indicating that the DA is nearing its glass ceiling. By the party’s own admission, it has not penetrated black communities enough, especially poor black communities in rural areas. For this reason, there has been great effort in the party to elevate a black person into the position of Federal Leader. 2015 is the year wherein for the first time in history the DA will have a black leader in the person of Mmusi Maimane or Wilmot James. Some see this as the DA’s catharsis towards becoming truly representative of all South Africans and reflecting the demographics of our country. Yet, this is half the story.

Lost in the DA’s public repertoire on primary indicators for diversity in leadership has been the gender question. South Africa did not only suffer racist oppression under both colonialism and apartheid. These systems were by design and operation patriarchal. It is for this reason that at its inception, Affirmative Action also included white women in recognition of their oppression during the era of white supremacist patriarchal domination. Thus, South Africa is faced with a twin struggle of racism and sexism – calling for the dismantling of prejudice along these lines through effect redress of past injustices.

One of the shameful stains on Helen Zille’s legacy as the leader of the DA is her lack of grasp and articulation on the gender question. Indeed, she affirms that the presence of women in leadership positions does not equal to giving voice for the women agenda. Of course, she may speak about how policies of the DA are well meaning for the emancipation of all in society; however, this would be grossly undermining of the need for policies that deliberately target the empowerment of women in society.

The DA goes to its May 2015 Congress with 20 nominees who will fill eight positions; federal leader, federal chairperson, three deputy federal chairperson positions, chairperson of federal council (uncontested), deputy chairperson of federal council and chairperson of the federal finance committee. Of the 20 nominees, ONLY TWO are women and they are both contesting for the three deputy federal chairperson positions. This means, the DA could only have 10% of women in their list of nominees. This is worse than the 2012 congress when the DA had five women nominees out of 18 (28%). The graph is deteriorating and not improving.

As a party that presents itself as the government of tomorrow, by neglecting the gender question the DA through Helen Zille is caught up in regressive politics. It was Zille who appointed an all-male Western Cape cabinet in 2009, a move that earned her nationwide criticism, justifiably so. At the time Zille responded by saying that her cabinet represented “the best fitness-for-purpose match” she could find. This was no different from the sexist mantra that views women as lacking in competence and scarce in numbers.

Helen Zille has been at the forefront of side-lining and alienating progressive women like Mbali Ntuli and Lindiwe Mazibuko, who were set to rise to leadership positions within the federal executive and council. Somehow, she carries herself like a gatekeeper on women excellence. This is also done by some black people, in some corporate companies, who frustrate transformation because they want to be the only blacks in the boardrooms. It gives them an exaggerated sense of achievement and importance – basically it is a narcissistic practice. One Zille has been unable to avoid.

There are three important positions up for grabs in the upcoming congress and those are federal leader, federal chairperson and chairperson of federal council. All these will be contested by men only. All these will be occupied by men post the May congress. There is also great likelihood that after the May congress the DA will have an all-male leadership in key positions of political power. This is so because the two women (Ms Refiloe Ntsekhe and Ms Desiree Van der Walt) face stiff competition and are disproportionately outnumbered by the five other male candidates in the same category.

It is true that representation of women does not on its own mean they will have voice, especially in a way that pursues the gender question. Yet, even when voice exists there remains a great need for political will, resources and clear strategy on how to pursue the gender question. There is no doubt that South Africa presents a society that is more hostile and violent towards women. The reported rape and sexual assault cases against women run to well over 60 000 in a year. These are the reported cases; there are thousands of women who suffer in silence.

We also know that poverty, unemployment, poor education, crime, inequality etc. affects women negatively more than men. The number of child social grants are reflective of the number of children born to mothers that are unable to care for them. Thus, the gender question in South Africa is not a luxury of pontification, it is a historic material reality that needs to be addressed pointedly.

An all-male leadership does not inspire confidence that the gender question would be well advanced. Women are the true champions of their own struggle and being absent in prominent positions of power within the organisation sets them back, both in representation and voice. Also women making up a significant minority within political power structures sets them up for failure, as they risk being dominated and sidelined. The absence of women in positions of power also does little to inspire young women to be attracted to participation in politics.

The DA must be reminded that the diversity of a party is reflected and represented through its leadership. Diversity is both aesthetic and substantive. When it comes to the gender question on its leadership the DA meets neither. For a party that seeks to govern our beautiful land of promise, the DA has more than race to occupy itself with. Where are the women leaders? Because currently, the DA is another typical patriarchal organisation.

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