The grass beneath the fighting elephants

Date: January 1, 1970
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There is an African saying that when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. In South Africa lately, the elephants have been the two biggest winners in the April elections-the African National Congress (ANC) and the Democratic Alliance (DA). The grass is democracy and women’s rights.

The Star hit the nail on the head when it called the sexist slurs traded across parties as “South Africa’s dirtiest gutter fight.” After President Jacob Zuma’s conciliatory remarks at his inauguration on 9 May, the DA sunk from a robust but loyal opposition to – in the ANC’s words – “enemy number one.”
While the underlying issues no doubt concern power, its loss or gain in the Western Cape, the political football that is being tossed around and the real victim in all this is women’s rights.
At the centre of the storm is Helen Zille’s appointment of an all male, 75% white cabinet in the province, the only one out of nine where the ANC is not in control.
While it is true that Zuma behaved in a highly irresponsible manner by having unprotected sex with an HIV positive woman and claiming that he could not leave a woman in a kanga “in that state” during the rape case against him in 2006, using attack as a form of defense for her cabinet as Zille did is lame and inexcusable.
Zille is correct that jobs for the girls do not, on their own equate gender equality. But she is wrong that having a cabinet so out of step with current day realities in South Africa is acceptable.
One woman at the top of the party means little when only 29% of the members of parliament from the DA are female (down from 35% in the last parliament led by Tony Leon). The numbers are even more paltry for the DA’s representation in the National Council of Provinces (20%) and a mere 9% (Zille herself) in the Western Cape cabinet, compared to 64% in Gauteng; 55% in Limpopo and Northwest (led by ANC women).
Indeed, the overall impressive figures of 44% women in parliament; 41% in the national and provincial cabinets; and 38% in the NCOP have come about almost entirely as a result of the ANC’s 50/50 quota. The question is whether South Africa can or should be edging towards gender parity in decision-making, as required by the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development by 2015, on the back of one political party.
The DA’s performance gives grease to the 50/50 campaigners’ call for a legislated quota obliging all parties, including the DA that is vehemently opposed to quotas, to shape up or ship out. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) should indeed be adding this to its arsenal of arguments before the Equality Court and Human Rights Commission.
The Commission on Gender Equality (CGE), the specific body established by the Constitution for “promoting and protecting gender equality” should be at the forefront of such a campaign instead of being mired in petty politics.
The fact that as a woman Zille argues so belligerently in favour of her all male cabinet has already led to the term “the Zille effect” being coined in gender circles to denote “women who behave worse than men” in political decision-making. Other than the lack of specific qualifications for their tasks of the men appointed, which has already extensively been commented upon, one wonders how qualified these men are to address the kinds of issues that Zille says are her priorities, such as drugs and teenage pregnancies.
The argument for gender balance in decision-making goes beyond numbers. It is premised on volumes of research that show that having all interest groups represented in decision-making is critical for transparency, responsiveness and good governance. The most basic demographic of any society, the Western Cape included, is that society comprises women and men.
 Following on from the “who feels it knows it” principle, one must ask Zille what her all male cabinet knows about the experiences of women, especially poor back women, in the Western Cape and how “fit they are for the purpose” of addressing the needs of half the population.
Zille’s cabinet opens her to accusations of racism and sexism, in exactly the same way as she is now accusing Zuma of being “a self confessed womanizer with deeply sexist views.” It should also be remembered that she opened the sexist slinging match with ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema by calling him an uncircumcised man. 
It is, however, equally unacceptable for the ANC Youth League to refer to Zille as a “girl” who “appointed an all male cabinet of useless people, the majority of whom are her boyfriends and concubines so that she can continue to sleep around with them.”  
Umkhontho we Sizwe Miltary Veterans Association has now also entered the fray, accusing Zille of “sleeping with more than her fair share of white males.” In all the mudslinging that takes place between male politicians, one has never heard these men accused of sleeping around with other women. It’s precisely this kind of “gutter” language applied to women politicians that results, the world over, in women shying away from politics.
Fortunately, Luthuli House has distanced itself from utterances that make a mockery of the Constitution and of the ANC’s proud history of fighting racism and sexism. The DA is apparently similarly calling Zille into line, and needs to do so more vocally and vigorously.
Both parties need to get back to the real issues, which are that women constitute the majority of the poor; the dispossessed and the unemployed; they are not yet equally represented in politics and they are heavily under represented in other spheres of decision-making including the private sector; the judiciary; the media; academia and law enforcement agencies.
The majority of women in this country are governed by a dual legal system that gives them rights through the Constitution and takes them away through customary law. The net effect is that many women remain minors all their lives: under their fathers, husbands, brothers-in-laws and even their sons.
South Africa has among the highest levels of gender violence in the world, exacerbated by the high levels of HIV and AIDS that are both a cause and consequence of gender violence. An estimated one in nine women never report these violations for fear of reprisals by family and because the legal system is at best unresponsive, at worst dismissive of their suffering.
It does not help matters that Zuma failed to silence those who bayed for the blood of his rape accuser and that, after losing her case, she now lives in exile, stripped of her citizenship because she chose to exercise her rights. Nor is it encouraging that the Office on the Status of Women that used to reside in the President’s Office has been relegated to a Ministry of Women, Youth, Children and Disability; and that the CGE is in such a toothless tiger.
While the DA needs to understand that you cannot have gender equality without having jobs for the girls the ANC needs to understand that gender equality is a lot more than jobs for the girls. These are the real issues. Let’s get back to them.
(Colleen Lowe Morna is Executive Director of Gender Links. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service that offers fresh views on every day news. A full analysis on gender and the 2009 elections can be found on

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