South Africa: No proxy for president!

Date: January 20, 2017
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The race for the next president of South Africa is on! Will Nkosozana Dlamini-Zuma, outgoing chair of the African Union (AU) become South Africa’s first woman president? Or will Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa finally get his chance, after Thabo Mbeki trumped him to take over from Nelson Mandela in 1999?

South African author and former M & G editor Ferial Haffajee once observed that we can call Dlamini-Zuma “brilliant or boring”, but not the ex-wife of President Jacob Zuma. A liberation fighter and negotiator, medical doctor, former health, foreign and home affairs minister before she took over at the AU, Dlamini-Zuma certainly does not need her ex-husband to establish her bone fides! If anything, Jacob might benefit from being called the ex-husband of Dlamini-Zuma!

But there is something unnerving when the African National Congress (ANC) Women’s League openly declares its support for Dlamini-Zuma ahead of the December 2017 congress that will decide on Zuma’s successor. The League did so in the name of the ANC’s 50/50 gender parity policy and despite disapproval from the party leadership for upsetting party unity.

Remember how the tussle between Mbeki and his then deputy Jacob Zuma in 2008 became a case of “two bulls in a ring” with the ANC Women’s League supporting Zuma, who had been acquitted of rape, but found sadly wanting in his treatment of women. At the time, South Africa had its only woman deputy president, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, who might logically have been put forward as an option.

Yet it was left to a few dissident voices, like former ANC Secretary General Thenjiwe Mtintso, to write an opinion piece in the Mail and Guardian suggesting that a woman candidate might present a “third way”.  In 2012/2013, the ANC Women’s League prompted a storm of protest from women’s rights organisations when it suggested that South Africa is not ready for a woman leader.

So why the support for a woman president now? The penny dropped when last weekend, despite the admonishing of the Women’s League by Luthuli House for backing Dlamini-Zuma, the president as much as endorsed her in an SABC interview beamed to 10 million listeners.

First he poured cold water on the idea that the deputy president should automatically succeed the president. Next he endorsed the Women’s League position that “it’s time for a woman leader”. Then it got personal when he told a caller that if the ANC should back Dlamini-Zuma, the Zuma family would have no problem with that!

It’s not for us to speculate what Dlamini-Zuma’s relationship is with the Zuma family, nearly two decades since the divorce. What we should be concerned about is the perpetuation of family dynasties, nepotism and cronyism in our new democracy in whatever shape or form. As former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela told the Cape Town Press Club, while she would welcome a woman for president, that woman must not be a proxy!

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the relation of a leader running for office, if they have the credentials, integrity and independence to lead. But we need to subject all would-be leaders to issue and performance tests.

Former US first lady and foreign secretary Hilary Clinton ran for office twice after her husband Bill Clinton bowed out. But the gruelling US presidential campaign system put her views on the table and scrutinised every aspect of her performance. She was chosen as the Democratic candidate at a party convention, but with public opinion playing a crucial role in her final nomination.

Women candidates deserve to be treated fairly and equally. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that gender biases in the public psyche affect women candidates disproportionately. Look for example at the response by American voters to the E Mail saga that played a major role in Clinton losing to Donald Trump compared to the response to Trump’s philandering and misogyny, quickly brushed aside or excused.

We should not fall into the trap of judging Dlamini-Zuma’s fitness for office through stereotypical lenses. Nor should we praise sing her because she belongs to South Africa’s new royal family. We should judge her, Cyril Ramaphosa, and any other presidential hopefuls, on their record, including their demonstrated commitment to women’s rights, arguably the biggest unfinished business twenty years after the adoption of the new Constitution.

Let’s start with Dlamini-Zuma. As Minister of Health, she made a mark by pioneering anti-smoking legislation, and leading the South African delegation to the landmark Fourth World Conference of Women in Beijing. She oversaw the adoption of Choice of Termination of Pregnancy legislation, a key strategic gain for the sexual and reproductive health and rights of South African women.

But, in that role and other ministerial posts under President Mbeki, she did little to counter the aids denialism that resulted in millions of preventable deaths, especially among young women.  And, as Zimbabwean feminist Everjoice Win wrote in an article entitled “You let us down sister!” in the Mail and Guardian after the botched elections in her country in 2008, as foreign minister Zuma failed to stand up against Robert Mugabe at a watershed moment for South Africa’s beleaguered neighbour.

In her international role at the AU, Dlamini-Zuma has faced similar criticism. Former Chair of the Nigeria National Human Rights Commission Chidi Anselm Odinkalu maintains in an article in Pambuzuka news that “whether it was the Ebola outbreak, drowning of African refugees in the Mediterranean, famines, the return of the god-President, the International Criminal Court or popular uprisings by young people demanding revolutionary change, the out-going Chairperson of the African Union Commission failed Africa.”

As the first woman leader of the African Union, Dlamini-Zuma has played an important symbolic role in scuppering its old-boys country club image. There is a new feel about the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa: this year for example the summit is being preceded by a gender summit where Dlamini-Zuma is being heaped praises for opening new avenues for African women.

Yet scratch beneath the surface and its business as usual. Africa’s Agenda 2063, Dlamini-Zuma’s signature piece, is glaringly gender blind. When region’s put forward their positions for the global Sustainable Development Goals, Africa is the only region that failed to propose a stand- alone goal on gender in its common position, despite also being the only region led by a woman.

As chief architect of South Africa’s glistening rights-based Constitution, Cyril Ramaphosa also has an impressive CV, but with blemishes from his period building a business empire after he lost the presidential bid to Thabo Mbeki in 1999.

He came under heavy criticism for failing to stop the massacre of 34 striking mine workers at Marikana, in which his Shanduka company has a stake. Women and children of these mine workers have borne the brunt with little or no compensation.

Try googling Ramapahosa and gender. The mining mogul may have overseen one of the most progressive constitutions on gender in the world, but there is little in his record to show that he would declare himself a feminist president like Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau!

A bit like billionaire Donald Trump being voted for by blue collar workers in the US, Ramaphosa has the support of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) in his bid for the presidency. On the plus side as he has made his money elsewhere, he may be less inclined to the corrupt practices that have dogged the Zuma presidency. But what has he done to stop them?

The bottom line is that neither Dlamini-Zuma nor Ramaphosa has spoken out on issues such as Zuma’s rape trial, the Nklandla scandal, and the State Capture report. A pertinent question to put to both is what they would have to say to the four young women who mounted a highly publicised silent protest to remind us of Khwezi, Zuma’s rape accuser, who went into exile after the court case and recently passed away.

Could the ANC have the courage and the confidence to let its would-be leaders campaign openly for the job, and allow us the public to grill them, instead of making decisions about our future behind the cocoon of party unity for which we may as well read Zuma loyalty? A woman and or feminist president: yes! A proxy for Jacob Zuma: no!

(Colleen Lowe Morna is CEO of Gender Links. Lucia Makamure is advocacy and campaigns coordinator for the Southern Africa Gender Protocol Alliance, that is hosted by Gender Links).   

Author: Colleen Lowe Morna and Lucia Makamure

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