Southern Africa: Women in power! What power?

Date: September 6, 2013
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Johannesburg, 6 September: A male minister in Sri Lanka offers to marry the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe tells South African envoy Lindiwe Zulu that he loves her, after calling her a street woman. The chief whip of the African National Congress tells the parliamentary opposition leader that she can’t walk into the House wearing a short skirt. The list goes on. Despite the growing number of women in decision-making, it’s still a man’s world.

Pillay, who was also South Africa’s first black female judge, was in Sri Lanka last week after the government officially invited her to assess the progress on the implementation of recommendations from the Lessons Learned Commission. These include investigating allegations of war crimes committed by the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam during the last bloody months of 2009, following a three-decade civil war.

During her week-long visit, Sri Lanka’s Minister for Public Relations and Public Affairs, Mervyn Silva told the media that he was “willing to marry” Pillay. At a cocktail reception held in Pillay’s honour, United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) government Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva told Pillay, “Madam, don’t take our Minister Mervyn Silva’s remarks seriously.” Pillay aptly retorted, “It is not I who should take it seriously. It is you.”

The Foundation for Human Rights (FHR)-South Africa slammed the sexist and racist remarks, saying such denigration would not be tolerated. In a statement released by the FHR, they explained that the remarks not only trivialised her position in office but were also racist. “Playing on her Tamil origins, he offered to teach Pillay the history of Sri Lanka, taking her to visit Sinhalese sites. In Sri Lanka where ancient and recent history is fraught with ethnic division this is a disturbing coded message of racial superiority.”

This instance of sexism rings a number of frustrating bells.

At the recent SADC Heads of State Summit, which took place in Malawi just three weeks ago President Mugabe took the opportunity to ‘apologise’ to South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma and International Relations Adviser, Lindiwe Zulu. This came after a pre-election spat in July when Mugabe allegedly called on President Zuma to “stop this woman of theirs from speaking on Zimbabwe”, referring to Zulu as “stupid and idiotic”, after she spoke out against the Zimbabwean election date. On a separate occasion, Mugabe has also called her a “street woman.”

His remarks at the SADC meeting amounted to a patronising and sexist perversion of an apology, “I love you Ms Lindiwe, I love you, I don’t hate you,” Mugabe said.

This is almost reminiscent of another patriarchal blunder earlier this year when Zambia’s Defence Minister Geoffrey Bwalya Mwamba, suggested that ‘beating a wife is a sign of love’ and ‘mild’ forms of violence against women are acceptable.

Not only did our own president join in on the ridicule by saying to Zulu, “You missed your new love proposal from Mugabe yesterday”, but also our SADC Heads of State allegedly keeled over with laughter, not forgetting of course that Malawi President Joyce Banda and African Union Chair Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma were undoubtedly present.

SADC further validated this behavior and rewarded Mugabe and Zimbabwe for holding a violent-free, but disputed election, by bestowing on him the post of SADC Deputy Chair, meaning Zimbabwe will host the SADC Summit in 2014.

In June, the office of the African National Congress (ANC) chief whip scolded the Democratic Alliance’s parliamentary leader, Lindiwe Mazibuko for coming to parliament wearing a skirt that ended above the knee. Again, our respected parliamentarians were in stitches.

In April, some members of the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) displayed a pair of underwear bearing the name of Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, during a protest calling for her resignation and that of her Director-General, Bobby Soobrayan.

The chauvinism and sexism exercised by men in leadership clearly informs this kind of political culture, which manifests itself in marches intended to protest against inadequate service delivery, but instead turn into gendered attacks, where women’s bodies remain the primary battlefield.

This sustained practice can also be seen in the press statement released by former Secretary General of the Coalition of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), Zwelinzima Vavi, after a female co-worker dropped charges of rape and sexual harassment against him. The statement read, “I am pleased that the grievance has been finalised. I hope that we all can put this saga behind us so that we all can concentrate on the real issues of the day.” This completely snubs rape and sexual abuse as very serious issues in South Africa.

When men in leadership relegate official visits to marriage proposals, when they imply that violence against women is justified, when they twist apologies into patriarchal poems and perverted declarations of ‘love’, and when they dismiss rape as unimportant, it is evident that forms of gender-based violence exists in all sectors of society.

Those who speak from the podiums of parliament shape beliefs about women and inform the public and private spaces where gender inequality manifests in its worst forms. This persistent misogyny mocks all forms of violence that billions of women experience every day, and ridicules the few exemplary men that do actually care for equality.

It is clear that until we dismantle the patriarchal scaffolding on which institutions of power are built, women remain mere figureheads in positions of power, and the numerical value of 50/50 means very little.

Katherine Robinson is the Editor and Communications Manager at Gender Links. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.

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