A front row seat on gender debates

Date: January 1, 1970
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Being the husband of a gender activist brings with it certain privileges, one of them being a front row seat to some of the most provocative debates regarding gender issues currently facing South Africans. Over the last few months, this has given me much food for thought.

Gender Links, a Johannesburg organisation working to promote gender equality in and through the media, together with a few partners, conducted a series of “Great Debates,” leading up to and following South Africa’s April elections, resulting in lively debates on issues like legislated quotas, polygamy, and just how much media coverage gender received during the elections. And I was there, quietly absorbing the arguments put forth by the various parties involved.
Being the proverbial “man on the street” with no prior experience in the gender arena placed me in a unique position to interpret some of the events unfolding as the debates got people talking during their coffee breaks or while standing around the braai. I realised that most people (sadly) are not gender sensitive.
The majority of people do not care about equal representation, or the plight of the women in grassroots communities fighting a rearguard action against the AIDS epidemic, or that justice and social systems often fail women, like the woman whose pastor encouraged her to drop a rape charge.
I remember listening to Rose Thamae (fondly known as Mum Rose), Director of Let Us Grow, a organisation in Orange Farm caring for people affected by HIV and AIDS. She spoke about pre-voting electioneering in her community – of the rapid erection of houses (approximately 100 in 3 months!), which “will fall on our heads three months after the elections.”
Gang raped and diagnosed with HIV, Mum Rose, together with her daughter, granddaughter and others, try and educate members of their community about HIV and AIDS, with very little government funding. Hope blossoms in my chest marvelling at the strength of these brave women.
As the elections drew closer, the fact that the president of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) was a polygamist became a real talking point around the office water cooler. Opinion was divided – would this affect the way he would run the country (should the ANC win) and how would the world view South Africa. After all, it is not every day that you get a polygamist as a president.
Some argued that his personal life was private. Others questioned how having five (or is it six?) wives or his admission he had a shower as a preventative measure after unprotected sex with an HIV positive woman, would impact on the impressionable youth of South Africa. Mum Rose also spoke of the fallout of Jacob Zuma’s shower and the message it sent to young people – “Zuma has a shower and I have to deal with the consequences.”
On the topic of polygamy, a surprising (or maybe be unsurprising) aspect was the surfacing of a few double standards. Obsequious ANC supporters, when asked whether they would be happy with their daughter becoming wife number [anything but one], vehemently protested. So it is fine for someone else’s daughter to be involved in an inherently unequal relationship, but not yours?
The term “free will” was bandied about, but is it really free? How do cultural, parental and economic pressures factor in? My opinion is that polygamy is an archaic practice that made sense back then when women could not realise their own agency. The world has moved on since then, and so should certain practices.
With the election furore subsiding, and the country adjusting to new power relations in government, it came as a huge surprise (not to some) when the Helen Zille of the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), a woman,  selected a largely white, male cabinet. Were women not good enough or competent enough for the jobs on hand?
I can already hear the DA supporters calling foul, and labelling me as a sycophantic ANC supporter. However, that is far from the truth. There is no love lost between the ANC and myself. I am a firm believer that the time for “struggle politics” is past. Unless the ANC can deliver on some of their promises then they are not going to get my vote.
It was a sad indictment when the ANC Women’s League failed to campaign for any women presidential candidates at their 11th annual conference, shortly before the ANC’s watershed Polokwane conference in 2008. I wonder what their reasoning was for this decision?
 The outgoing ANC Women’s League president at the time had a few words to say, “Having succeeded in advocating for the 50 – 50 representation of women in structures of the leadership, we left Polokwane without ensuring 50 – 50 representation … at the commanding post.”
So here we are, with two prime examples of women letting down women. I find that a strange state of affairs. Men have often been tagged with the label of belonging to the “old boys club.” It raises the question of whether the “sisterhood” is alive and well?
It seems like women in politics often forget that they are women, as well as party members. Sure, the party ideals are important, but what better way to make things better for other women than to instigate changes from the inside?
At a debate on the creation of the new Women’s Ministry, one panel member commented that women bring a wealth of experience and alternate points of view to the table. I’ve often heard the phrase “women operate on a different frequency to men,” generally by men, and in a derogatory manner. Yet, women are intrinsically different to men – not only physically but mentally as well – and this difference is one of their greatest strengths.
So why do some women forget to bring that strength to the table when they get into positions where they can make a difference? Why do they leave their “ace in the hole” at the door and start playing by the rules that men put into place generations ago? Until the day that women bring their strengths to the table, the odds will always be stacked in favour of the patriarchy.
I am sure I am not the only man out there to be affected by the happenings of the last few months, and hopefully I also not the only one to be shifting perspectives to look at events with a gender eye. Perhaps the ANC has one thing right – together we can do more – men and women need to work together to level the playing field, and only by recognising the importance of gender, can we do this.
Vernon Naidoo is a systems engineer working as a consultant with various South African companies, as well as a poet, though his most important role though is as a husband and father. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service.

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