"We have broken patriarchy’s back." These were the words of Nomvula Mokonyane at the ANC’s elective conference at Nasrec, Johannesburg ahead of the announcement of the election results for the party’s top six officials. There was a woman as candidate for the presidency of the 105-year-old organisation on the ballot. It was indeed a historic moment, she declared.
She was right, of course. To get a woman in the running was no mean feat. Bathabile Dlamini, as the ANC Women’s League president, indicated as much, hinting at the hard work it had taken for the women’s league to get Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma on the ballot, only to have her reduced to an "ex-wife".
Women make up more than 60 percent of the party’s membership, she told us, yet only one woman was elected to the top six. Patriarchy’s back was nowhere near broken, not in South Africa, nor in its governing party. South Africans do indeed need to confront their own misogyny and begin to work against its doleful consequences for the women who have to survive the violence it engenders.
However, it does not reflect well on the governing party that despite the hard work of the women’s league, it could elect only one woman into its top six. To lose out on the top job is one cause for concern for those who backed that woman, but they need perhaps to ask themselves tougher questions about their support for women more generally.
Such support must include not deflecting from the accusations or shielding the men accused of violating women. This test for the women’s league came in their response to the allegations against former Deputy Minister of Higher Education Mduduzi Manana. The women’s league has made several statements about women and their liberation, their emancipation, their equality, their status in South Africa. But their actions and reactions over the last two decades have also signalled to men and women in South Africa which women they value, and when.
Ms Dlamini indicated that one of her concerns around the Manana horror was the consistency on such matters in the party, and in society more generally. Ironically, that was precisely what many feminist activists had been saying about the women’s league’s responses to other matters, including that tear in South Africa’s post-millennial post-apartheid political fabric: the woman reduced to symbol, violated and erased from view until the last year of her life.
Ms Mokonyane is right: it was indeed a historic moment, the significance of which we dare not diminish. A woman got as far as the ballot. But we need to demand more. Beyond merely having women represented, it may be important to think of the politics of those women, whether they will enhance the status of women when they are in power. The record of women in power not improving the status of the women in the societies they govern is long. Let us not forget Indira Gandhi in India, or Margaret Thatcher in the UK.
If we in South Africa are serious about undoing the horror of patriarchy that makes this the misogynistic, femicidal society that it is, it is not enough to bemoan the fact that one woman lost her bid to be president of the governing party. We, and the women’s league, must take stock of and address the everyday misogyny that shapes political life in this country. And that may require organisational renewal beyond figureheads and symbolic victories.
The score-line is depressing. Patriarchy 5, women 1.
Quo vadis, ANC Women's League? Quo vadis, South Africa?