How the media’s ‘dinner guest’ became Deputy President

How the media’s ‘dinner guest’ became Deputy President

Date: June 23, 2015
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The momentous announcement of South Africa’s first, and Africa’s third, woman deputy president largely caught the media flatfooted.

June 23: When I suggested to a group of financial journalists early last week that the media might have egg on its face for failing to regard Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka as a serious candidate for deputy president, I met with blank gazes around the room.
Clearly, none of the media practitioners attending a course on business reporting had thought for a moment that the then Minister of Minerals and Energy would emerge as President Thabo Mbeki’s choice to replace Jacob Zuma, who faces charges of corruption in the long running case involving Durban businessman Schabir Shaik.
The sequence of press cuttings presented to the influential group gathered at the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism illustrated the blinding effect of the gender biases in our midst.
In its annual report card on government ministers in 2001 in which Mlambo-Ngcuka scored a straight A, the Mail and Guardian began its assessment: “The feisty wife of Bulelani Ngcuka once again gets the thumbs up for the efficient, robust way in which she has run this difficult portfolio.À
At that time, few would have known the then director of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) Bulelani Ngcuka. Though senior to him, his wife had somehow to be identified and affirmed through her relationship to him.
In the years that followed, Ngcuka did shoot into the limelight with his decision to prosecute Shaik; the allegations from the Shaik camp that he had been an apartheid spy and subsequent commission of inquiry that acquitted him; his resignation from the post and the trial that led to Shaik being found guilty of a “generally corruptÀ relationship with Zuma.
In 2003, the Star chose to make Ngcuka newsmaker of the year. But Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, who had been maneuvering her way through stormy economic waters to craft a mining charter that would change the white, male dominated face of the industry, only made it to the top of the list of “dinner guests.À
“A brilliant leader, mom and wife,À the opening line declared, “her loyalty to her husband Bulelani Ngcuka is unwavering.À Fair enough. But is this really what made the Minister of Minerals and Energy newsworthy in 2003? Ironically at that very moment Bulelani had been speaking about the stress he had cased his family and the possibility that he would retire from public life to become a home maker. None of that, of course, featured in his citation.
Fast forward to 2005, the fall of Zuma and the frenzy around who would be the next deputy president. Expert male views on the subject abounded. A few noted that part of Mbeki’s legacy-building is to make good his fifty-fifty promises on gender equality. But they generally wrote off Foreign Minister Nkosozana Zuma because she is the ex-wife of Zuma (“can’t beat a man when he is downÀ) and Mlambo-Ngcuka because that would literally mean Bulelani moving into Zuma’s house!
Little wonder that the momentous announcement of South Africa’s first, and Africa’s third, woman deputy president largely caught the media flatfooted. The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) played the same piece of file footage of Mlambo-Ngcuka looking through a microscope over and over again and hastily constructed a profile from her official CV (bullet point one: 49 years old; bullet point two: “wife of Bulelani NgcukaÀ).
Two white male analysts had been lined up to interpret the day’s events: competent chaps no doubt, but on the day that South Africa gets its first black woman deputy president could there not have been even one black woman “expertÀ on hand?
Does this begin to explain why the Gender and Media Baseline Study in 2003 found that while black women comprise 45 percent of the population they account for seven percent of news sources? Or that women, who comprise 32 percent of members of parliament and 40 percent of cabinet, constitute a mere 8 percent of political news sources?
Other than that she is “hands onÀ the only real information that the public has been exposed to on Mlambo-Ngcuka are insinuations about her arising from the Oilgate scandal that her bother is said to have profited from, but without any evidence of her actual involvement. Media commentators have since largely reasoned that if there had been even half a chance of this, she would not have been appointed; not right after the Zuma affair.
So what can we expect from the leader who has shot overnight from being someone we hardly know to being “the most powerful woman in South AfricaÀ, probably in the whole of Africa? When I interviewed Mlambo-Ngcuka for the Gender Links study, Ringing up the Changes, Gender in Southern African Politics, what struck me most is that unlike other women ministers who said that they had been taken aback when asked to join the cabinet, she asked herself, “why not?À And while others shied away from talking about power, she took the line: “In a position of power you must exercise power.À
Coming from a teaching and NGO background and thrust first into trade and industry and then into minerals and energy, Mlambo-Ngcuka went into these white, male dominated sectors determined not just to flow with what she calls “the malestream.À
She told the energy board at a first meeting that one of their key performance indicators would be what difference they made to the girl child. When they stared back rather blankly, she explained that if every South African girl could have access to an electric stove to cook and lights at night to study that would count as progress in her book. “If you want a yardstick for measuring democracy,À she argues, “just check if it works for women.À
When a London newspaper warned that she would be walking into a lion’s den with her mining charter that sets targets for achieving 26 percent black and ten percent female ownership, she retorted “I am a lion myselfÀ. By the time she left, the headline had turned to, “the Minister, armed with charm, disarms the gloomiest banker.À
Reasoning that the driver of a car does not need to know how to manufacture car parts but definitely has to control where it is going, Mlambo-Ngcuka’s approach has been to stay focused on the big issues: “The key is knowing that I am not an expert and that I don’t need to be one. That does not mean I am stupid. I must be able to hold my own, so that it is clear I am no pushover. I know enough without having to know everything,À she says.
Commenting on her appointment, a spokesman for the arch conservative Freedom Front said that the problem with President Mbeki’s choice is that “he has not appointed a successor; only a caretaker.À   The underlying assumption in this and other conventional wisdom is that it is unlikely that South Africa will have a woman president any time soon. Fast forwarding to 2009, could it be that there will be more egg on the faces of our erstwhile pundits?

Colleen Lowe Morna is the Executive Director of Gender Links and Chair of the Gender and Media Southern Africa (GEMSA) Network.

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