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Sexist leaders damage women’s rights agenda

Respect for women’s rights in patriarchal South Africa falls short of constitutional commitments

William Gumede

2009-08-06, Issue 445

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There is ‘a deep gulf between the call for women’s equality in South Africa’s model constitution and society’s predominantly archaic public attitudes towards women,’ William Gumede writes in Pambazuka News, with sexist views from leaders providing ‘a cloak of legitimacy’ for gender-based violence. If the country’s Gender Equality Commission is to succeed in its constitutional mandate to monitor whether the policy of gender equality is implemented, it must challenge prejudiced political leaders head on instead deferring to them, Gumede argues.

It is soon going to be Women’s Day, which will be accompanied by the usual turning up of the volume in public rhetoric from our leaders proclaiming their undying commitment to advancing the interests of women. Yet, there is a deep gulf between the call for women’s equality in South Africa’s model constitution and society’s predominantly archaic public attitudes towards women. More often than not, women are cynically used by the very same male leaders trumpeting gender equality to fill quotas, whether it is for political posts, or to secure or to secure the 'broad-based' empowerment criteria for a black economic empowerment contract or government tender. Furthermore, women are being pulled down by cultural, political, economical and religious prejudices, which undermine their full participation in the life of society, which in turn deprives both the broader democracy and economic development generally.

Continuing patriarchy in society means that women lack equality in sexual relationships, the family, workplace, culture, economy, politics and society. Male leaders will have to set an example. During the 2004 elections campaign, then President Thabo Mbeki said he would ‘klap’ (slap) his sister if she was to marry an opposition party leader. During President Jacob Zuma’s trial in 2006, he claimed he could tell by the way a woman sits or the dress she wears that she was ‘looking for sex’ and ‘culture’ compels him to oblige. Of course, there is no part of African ‘culture’ – or any other culture for that matter – allowing for this. In South Africa’s constitution, gender equality, over-ride culture. South Africa has high incidents of violence against women, and sexist views from leaders provide a cloak of legitimacy for such violence. How far we still have to travel can be readily seen in public attitudes about rape incidents. Women are still seen by society, the criminal justice and the political system as responsible for being raped.

African women felt the brunt of colonialism even more than men. Colonial and apartheid administrations introduced rigid rules that deprived African women of rights in the home, economy and politics. During the anti-apartheid period, African women, mothers and wives were the rock soaking up the individual, community and societal ruptures wrought by colonialism through dehumanising assaults on the dignity, identity and self-image of blacks.

Often the powerlessness of black men in the face of the violence of apartheid administrations exploded into violence against women in families, homes and communities. Furthermore, more often than not, manhood, whether in black or white communities, is expressed in macho terms. This is why it is so crucial that political leaders set a progressive example of male (white or black) self-identity that aligns itself with the values of the constitution. Alternative and more progressive definition of male identity must be forged throughout the public school system from the day a child enters school. It should off course begin at home. However, the reality is that with rising numbers of broken families and communities and the patriarchal views prevailing in society on the role of the women, many children are unlikely to get examples of more rounded male self-identity at home.

There is a real danger that women will again face the brunt of the devastation of the global financial crisis. Furthermore, in the midst of economic decline, feelings of powerlessness by male individuals, who often can see others more politically connected, but not necessarily better qualified, creaming it, while they remain in poverty, are likely to increase. Self-worth in South Africa is now depressingly increasingly measured through how much money you have. Those who don’t have are seen as lesser individuals.

But the democratic state has not been caring either. Our political leaders live in a cocoon of taxpayer-funded luxury, meanwhile, the poor and unemployed are being told to tighten their belts. For another, traditional social bonds in black society – such as extended families – that used to help soften the blow of those who are struggling, are now being broken, as families increasingly fracture. It is everybody for him or herself now, with a state that has been perceived, rightly or wrongly, as only catering for those who have the resources – financial, political and skills – who in any case look after their own welfare.

The ANC adopted a groundbreaking resolution at its national conference in Polokwane in December 2007, compelling 50 per cent representation for women in all ANC structures as well as government, parliament, and independent democratic institutions. Yet, as home affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma remarked it was up to the ANC leadership to ensure gender equality was ‘put it into practice’. ‘The ANC cannot run away from that struggle, it cannot preach the struggle and then not practice what it preaches,’ she says. The 50 per cent principle, if transformed into practice, may perhaps be the single most effective mechanism to transform not only the ANC from within and translate gender equality into the everyday life of the organisation, but also society.

It is a real pity that the ANC Women’s League is in such a mess: Rudderless, unfocused and muddling along. The Gender Equality Commission is also failing its constitutional mandate to monitor whether the policy of gender equality is implemented. To succeed, the commission must first take head on prejudiced political leaders, rather than deferring to them, or taking on soft issues, not to rock the boat. Amartya Sen, the great economist argues rightly that ‘nothing, arguably, is as important today in the political economy of development as an adequate recognition of political, economic and social participation and leadership of women’.


* This article first appeared in the Sowetan
* William Gumede is author of Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.

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