SA Elections 2009: Holding leaders accountable on gender

Date: January 1, 1970
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This articles – one an open letter and the other a letter to the editor, are examples of how the public can access the media to not only promote the inclusion of gender in media and to hold leaders accountable on gender.

  • “Are you ‘big’ enough, Mr President,” Mail&Guardian, May 8 to 14 2009
  • Gender debate must address real issues and not amount to name-calling, diatribes,” The Sunday Independent, 17 May 2009

Click here for the article  “Are you ‘big’ enough, Mr President,”  on the Mail&Guardian website, and comments the article elicited from readers.

This article may be used to:

  • debate the need for citizens to access mainstream media to make their voices heard;
  • introduce the concept of citizen journalism. 

Trainers’ notes:
These letters appeared just before South African President Jacob Zuma was sworn into office. The authors, two prominent gender activists, take Zuma and fellow politicians to task for neglecting gender agendas and question recent attempts to address gender issues through the creation of a Ministry for Women, Children and the Disabled.

It is important to note that the two letters differ slightly. Morna’s open letter appears in the paper’s comment and analysis section. This affords her more space than her colleague’s letter to the editor and perhaps also necessitates that she is more even-handed in her criticism – while President Jacob Zuma has many “cards stacked against him” in terms of a rape acquittal and comments surrounding the trial, she does say that his presidency could offer South African omen more possibilities than that of his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki. Morna also goes farther regarding questions about quotas than most gender activists do.
In 2002, the ruling African National Congress’ Women’s League (ANCWL) pushed through gender parity quotas at the party’s national congress and many have since credited the ANCWL for introducing a concept that has pressurised opposition parties into attempting to follow suit. However, discussion surrounding the quota system has been mainly confined to whether or not it should exist and if it is being met. Here Morna expands this by saying it is also about the calibre of leaders that quotas can ensure are thrust into the driving seat. In doing so, she takes accountability to a deeper depth than usual.
Although open letters in publications are usually harder to come by, any member of the public can pen a letter to a newspaper and it remains one of the older forms of public participation. In this instance, Morna’s colleague has penned a letter to the leader of South Africa’s opposition party, Helen Zille, over her then recent criticism of President Jacob Zuma. Rama’s letter not only highlights newspapers’ age-old role in stimulating public debate and helping to promote the “market place of ideas” associated with democracy, but it reminds us that being a woman does not necessarily mean one will advance the gender agenda (see paragraph four “Gender debate must address real issues and no amount to name-calling diatribes”). Rama’s writing shows particular strength in its inclusion of bulleted and specific questions/issues she poses, helping to focus the wide-ranging gender debate. From a gender-perspective, her blanket statement about the prejudicial role of polygamy maybe too broad and perhaps reinforces subtle stereotypes about women’s lack of agency, however it is not a straight piece of journalism but her opinion.
Media theorist JD Lasica has classified citizen journalism, or journalism in which non-journalists produce and disseminate news, into various categories such as audience participation (i.e. blogs or local, community-written news); independent media news and information (i.e. those not under corporate ownership) as well as what could be classed as “thin media” or mailing lists, listservs or email newsletters. (For more, go to
 Discussion questions
  •  What helps or hinders citizens’ abilities to hold politicians and leaders accountable? Are these factors different depending on citizens’ gender?
  • What roles do non-journalists have in journalism? What are the positives and negatives associated with each role?
  • What forms of citizen journalism exist in your country and what media to they utilise?
  • Are women the best placed to advocate their own issues? Are women responsible for promoting gender agendas?
 Training exercises:
  • Make a newspaper of your own and recruit a local community member who is not part of the media to write a column for the paper, solicit others to write letters to the editor.
  • Hold a workshop for would-be female commentators from your community with the aim of letting participants create their own opinion/commentary pieces on gender issues. Use an existing blog platform on the internet to post the women’s entries and encourage them to update their own blogs.
  • Got a hot-button issue in your community? Hold leaders accountable yourself – organise a letter writing campaign letting people voice their opinions and questions to politicians by either writing government or your local press.
Other Training Resources
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