Thoko Didiza

Thoko Didiza

Date: June 6, 2012
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Globally, women constitute 3.7 percent of Ministers of Agriculture, Food Forestry and Fishing (IPU: 2000)

Changing the face of farming- South African minister of lands and agriculture, Thoko Didiza

Not too far from her office, the former teacher’s one time student, now Minister of Lands and Agriculture Thoko Didiza has a similar set of measures for her staff. At the beginning of her tenure, she created a mythical figure called Ma (mother) Zondi. Every time staff presented policy options, they had to tell her how these policies would affect the life of Ma Zondi, a poor rural farmer. In time, Sisi (sister) Pam joined Ma Zondi as another yardstick. Sisi Pam is young, educated, an entrepreneur who wants to become a farmer. And the question to staff is: how do we help her get there?

When Didiza counts her successes at the helm of the sector that most epitomises South Africa’s history of discrimination, she ranks highly the fact that gender is squarely on the agenda.

Apartheid relegated blacks, which comprised 85 percent of the population, to 13 percent of the land. Men had to go and work in the mines, on white commercial farms and in the industries in the cities. Women stayed behind, eking out a living on impoverished soils.

The government has land redistribution and restitution programmes, as well as programmes to afford labour tenants land rights. The danger of women getting left out in all this is stark. Traditionally, men hold title to land. Almost all those with restitution claims, in other words those who can prove title to land, are men. Without a conscious effort to include women, redistribution programmes elsewhere have proven that it is men who invariably benefit. And as almost all labour tenants are men (even when they have their wives and families with them) such programmes also have a heavy male bias.

Overlaying the past are the sensitivities of the present. The way in which land distribution has been handled in neighbouring Zimbabwe, crippling the commercial agriculture sector, has placed South Africa’s land programmes under the spotlight of international politics and financial markets. There are also ideological debates as to the extent to which the South African government should be helping peasant farmers (the majority of whom are women) versus creating a new class of black commercial farmers, small and large, of whom the majority would almost certainly be men, unless deliberate measures are taken to encourage women.

Enter Didiza, first as deputy minister of lands, and later as the minister of the merged ministries of lands and agriculture. “I had just finished being sworn in as an MP when I got a call from the president’s office with a request to submit my CV. I thought nothing of it- maybe they were just putting together a data- base of ANC MPs. It never occurred to me until I got home and my mother told me a friend had called to congratulate me that I had been appointed to cabinet. I watched the TV news, a habit from my father, and found out it was true. I left the room and went and cried. For a moment I did not know what to do. I had to pick myself up.”

“I had no background in farming. I said what will I do? I recalled the one person I had met, at the Women’s Development Bank, Bongo Njobe (now the DG in the ministry). After I started in office, I put together a team of people, with Bongi as team leader. For a period of three months they took me trough an intensive programme. Each day they taught me what I needed to know in the technical and political sense about agriculture. Then I went out to meet farmers. The majority of small farmers were women.”

Over the years, Didiza has skilfully balanced learning about her portfolio with an open mind and being true to her own convictions, borne of being both a political and gender activist. Didiza’s political awakening goes back to the days when the now Minister of Mines and Energy (see earlier profile) Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka taught her English during the apartheid era. She used to divide the days newspaper between the students, have them read and critique it: “In a subtle way she was preparing us to know what we need to know. It helped to build our English language, but it built more of our political consciousness. Choosing to become politically active became natural.”

Like the two ministers from Seychelles profiled in this chapter, Didiza began her career in a traditional role- as a secretary to a legal practise. She went on to work for a church-related NGO in Durban. In one of the early efforts to bridge the racial divide long before South Africa set on its course towards democracy, Didiza ran a programme that involved taking whites from their exclusive and secluded neighbourhoods to neighbouring black townships- “places so close and yet so far. Many never even knew how their domestic workers lived.”

After the banning of the United Democratic Front, the umbrella group that waged the battle for democracy within the country, and in which Didiza served as treasurer of the Natal branch, she became active in building the Federation of South African Women, a precursor to the Women’s National Coalition (see Chapter three). This had the “capacity to mobilise beyond political confines” and to arouse awareness on issues of race as well as gender: “The ultimate objective was to broaden political participation, but also to begin to see how women could redefine their role in society.”

Didiza’s interest in gender deepened when she became youth co-ordinator of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) in 1990. She travelled; took part in international conferences to campaign for disinvestments from South Africa; and spoke on the plight of children in detention in South Africa.

Post 1990, with the unbanning of the liberation movements and transition to democracy, the focus shifted to “ensuring that women were not left off the agenda.” Didiza became active in the advocacy around the WNC and inclusion of women in the multiparty negotiations, as well as the Women’s Charter that spelled out the demands of women.

She also remained active in the youth movement who persuaded her to make herself available for parliament at a time she would have preferred to go back to school and pursue her studies.

The call to cabinet took her in a completely new direction, but her roots in civil society and the women’s movement gave her the grounding for which she is forever grateful. “I have sought to balance the fact that I am a minister as well as an activist. Coming from the women’s movement, it is important for me not to lose the gender perspective in policies and programmes.”

The mythical Ma Zondi who has become the source of much good- natured humour in the department became the standard against which she measured success. Early in the process, Didiza set up a competition and female farmer award for both black and white women. She emphasises that there are many white women farmers in South Africa “who have never been acknowledged before. There is a clear difference in their management style. Their success is not only epitomised by affluence; you also see them taking social responsibility. At a local level, many have started crèches for their workers, or soup kitchens for children in the locality. They bring in a different level of care and management that is typically associated with women in society.”

The award had a cascading effect, sparking off the TWIB award in DTI (see profile of Mlambo-Ngcuka) and the women in water award in the ministry of forestry and water affairs (see Chapter Nine). “A majority of us in government have started to realise that you have to go the extra mile to change the gender stereotypes in our society by first empowering and affirming women,” the minister reflects.

Didiza’s gender lens picks up on many assumptions that in the past would go unquestioned. For example, she noted that the public broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) aired a programme “Calling all farmers” at 5 are. She talked to farmers about the convenience of the time for them. The men said it suited them, because that is the time they are preparing to go for work. The women said they would much rather have it in the evening, because in the morning they are tied up with getting children ready for school and husbands ready for work. “I asked again: what really works for Ma Zondi? ” The SABC had to rethink its time.

Didiza has two sets of gender performance indicators for the ministry. One is the institutional make up of the ministry; the other is gender sensitivity in policies and programmes. She notes that other than a woman DG, there are two women deputy director generals, a number of women chief directors; two out of nine women provincial heads of department and a woman president of the agricultural research council: “The change is slow, but the fact is that we are seeing change.”

With regard to programmes, the minister says she has commissioned Statistics South Africa to conduct a register of farmers, who they are, what commodities they produce and to disaggergate these by gender so that the ministry can track the gender impact of its programmes more closely. Gender equality features in the various white papers of the ministry, as well as in legislation on land (see Chapter seven). “We may not have reached the ultimate level of satisfaction but we have made tremendous strides,” the minister says. There are pockets of scepticism. When the foot to mouth disease scare broke out, with Didiza and Njobe in charge, they felt an undercurrent of distrust in their ability to handle the crisis. This would be articulated in comments such as: “‘It is not being handled correctly, more needs to be done’, and ‘our farmers are suffering’. Behind that you could hear: ‘can these women handle it? They are young. They are black. None of them has ever been a farmer.’ One year later, when it is all over and South Africa has escaped unharmed, it is all wow! And no credit for what we did.”

Zimbabwe has been a sensitive issue in her dealings with white farmers: “I know there has been a lot of fear. I have consistently said that will not happen in South Africa. But the real challenge is: how do we as South Africans, especially white South Africans, move beyond the rhetoric? What are we doing to have a stable land redistribution programme? My message is that if we do not swim together across the river, we face the prospect of drowning together along the way.”

On balance, Didiza feels she has won the trust and respect of all those in the deeply fractured farming community: “I came into the sector not knowing everything, willing to learn, but also willing to give political leadership. That is my responsibility: mobilising all South Africans. I don’t seek to please or to save face. I have had frank discussions with farmers, through their organisations, and I say when I feel they are not pulling their weight. But the heart of it is that at the end of that we always move on.”

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