If the ANC is serious about addressing patriarchal domination in society, perhaps it should unlink this from biological identity. Dressed in a starched ice-white, long gown, punctuated by a green sash around her waist and head wrap, the woman hesitated to cross the street. Her daughter, in a children's version of the uniform and neatly braided hair, held her mother's hand firmly and looked at the driver as if seeking reassurance that it was safe to cross.
I signaled with my hand for the pair to cross without fear, it was their right of way. At the spur of the moment, I turned around and followed the worshippers to the Weinberg Family Park in Savoy, Johannesburg, (named after struggle veterans Eli, Violet and Sheila Weinberg).
My experience of independent churches meeting in parks is that congregants of different denominations overlap. While waiting for their services or after worship, people share news of one another's wellbeing, hold women's guild meetings and stokvels. My intention was to try to hold informal conversations about sexual violence and violence against women in general. How do people view news of ongoing violence?
What do they think must be done? Mingling among groups of women, I caught snippets of conversations. To my surprise, several groups were discussing one or the other news item, social grants, the Guptas and whether a female president would serve South Africans better. A small group formed around one woman. When I heard sighs and gasps from the listeners, I moved closer. I heard her saying: "They say Guptas have papers of the whole country. These papers show airports of the army."
"They say a female president will change things, and put an end to all of this and money will be used to create jobs," a younger woman said. There was a brief silence and then an older woman replied: "See those children [pointing at boys and girls who were hanging out nearby], God blessed us with them. They are our duty, we must do right by them - us, their parents, not politicians. Those female [politicians] are too far from us.
From high up, we are like ants, not human beings. How can they do these things they promise when they do not know what we think, what we need?" Others argued that a female leader is better. But who? They looked at one another and tossed around names that have been in public debate.
Each name was considered carefully. At the core of this evaluation was trust and intention. "How can you trust people who do not talk to you? People who do not listen to your pain, anxiety and hope?" Driving back home, I was struck by the distance between leaders and communities. It is not new realization, but the extent of the schism and trust deficit felt bigger. Most of the women in that park were domestic workers, some work in shops in Norwood and factories in the Wynberg area. These are women whom the ANC Women's League (ANCWL) claims as its primary constituency, black, working class women.
It was not always like this, of course. The history of the league is replete with women who took risks and were visionaries. They were visionaries, not only because of their individual talents, but because they listened, shared perspectives and broke bread with women in their communities and wherever they visited. This enabled them to speak from a position of authority, grounded in knowledge and close ties with women they represented in conferences and congress debates.
Long before the ANC was ready for a multiracial platform of women in the 1950s, the ANCWL took that initiative with other congress-aligned organizations - Congress of Democrats, SA Indian Congresses, Colored People's Congress and Black Sash - and they formed the Federation of South African Women (FSAW). The ANC was anxious about this platform and feared that the ANCWL would be overwhelmed in the FSAW. We also know that the 1956 march to Pretoria - the celebrated women's march - did not, in fact, have the support of the organization, until shortly before the march.
It is now almost unbelievable that the ANCWL forced the first ANC Conference after decades in exile, to debate a 30% quota for women in ANC national executive committee - back in 1991. That debate went on for five hours. The ANCWL lost. But it was a moment worth being recorded in the history of the league and the ANC. The gender parity battle was picked up during negotiations; 50-50 participation was won, as well as gender equality, nonsexism and nondiscrimination as part of indivisible rights in the Constitution.
So, what went wrong? Much has been written about the complexity and at times contradictory position of women and feminists in national liberation struggles and nationalism. This can be explained in terms of political and feminist theory and the dilemma of identity in the context of apartheid and colonialism.
These contradictions and contestations are different from self-serving pandering to the worst forms of patriarchal domination during President Jacob Zuma's tenure. Even the decision to contest the presidential position was crafted elsewhere. Zuma announced during an interview with Dali Tambo that "women have proven themselves. They are now ready for the position of presidency (sic)". Overnight, the ANCWL changed its position from "we are not ready" to "2017, female president". And it quickly endorsed Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as the ANCWL's preferred candidate.
Two other candidates have now emerged, National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete and Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe Sisulu. Besides ritualistic and essentialist references to women as good and empathetic leaders, none of the three women has articulated a gender equality-centred agenda. This absence of a clear position, beyond "it is women's turn", gives a sense that these women feel entitled to leadership and the presidency. That is not a problem on its own.
Men contest without being expected to articulate a feminist agenda or any vision, for that matter. However, using a gender ticket opens up the conversation about feminism, ethical pro-women policies and practices. On these grounds, there are uncomfortable questions that we must pose to Dlamini-Zuma, Mbete and Sisulu. Space does not permit for a deeper analysis of positions of these three candidates. Suffice to say, their sterling struggle credentials and track record notwithstanding, it is doubtful that these women are likely to drive a meaningful gender-centred approach to power.
As for feminism - that does not even appear on their radar screen. If the ANC is serious about addressing patriarchal domination in society, perhaps it will unlink this from biological identity. But I am not holding my breath.
The writer is a researcher and analyst on gender, politics and cultural issues, and a senior research associate at the Faculty of Law, University of Cape Town
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