Women’s Day and celebrations of patronage

Posted on August 12, 2016


Should we, in South Africa, celebrate the fact that Women’s Day. August 8, has now morphed into the whole of August being Women’s Month? Or is this yet another example of hype, of much form and little substance?

There seems to be plenty of evidence for the latter with political parties and trade unions mouthing platitudes while maintaining a business as usual approach on the gender front. But at least, in a rather dramatic way, the whole issue was highlighted as the month got underway last week.

It was given an unexpected and headline grabbing start at the end of the tumultuous local government election campaign. That was when four young Economic Freedom Fighter gender activists staged a silent protest before the podium when President Jacob Zuma spoke at the announcement of the final election results.

Their placards again brought to the fore the swirl of controversy when Zuma was charged ten years ago with raping the HIV+ daughter of a family friend, known to the media as Khwezi. Nobody denies that Zuma was acquitted, that the sex was ruled to be consensual. But the circumstances surrounding the case still rankle among the ranks of gender activists, male and female.

It was not only the evidence led in court, such as the implication that a woman dressed in a khanga wrap-around somehow invites male sexual predation; it was also the sickeningly sad spectacle of the protests outside the court. There members of the governing party’s Women’s League (ANCWL) and other supporters screamed abuse at the woman who had accused Zuma of rape.

One placard noted: “How much did they pay you, nondindwa [bitch]?” And there were chants of “Burn the bitch.” Most of this from women.

It was a disgusting display in a country that claims, contrary to most available evidence, to be among the leaders in gender equality. The evidence shows that we have extremely high incidences of violence against the female half of humanity. At the same time, we maintain an official façade of growing gender equality based on filling posts, particularly in parliament, with women whose prime qualification seems to be loyalty to party and president.

Because we have 41% female representation in parliament, that rich man’s club, the World Economic Forum, elevates South Africa into the top 20 in the world’s gender equality stakes. But, as one senior (male) ANC MP once told a horrified audience of American women students: “Most of them [the women MPs] are dodoes.”

His remark went beyond implying that the women were selected only for their loyalty, a trait admirably displayed last week by ANCWL president Bathabile Dlamini. However, the male MP too had never outwardly displayed any independence of thought or action in parliament. So perhaps gender equality does exist among sycophants who toe the party line.

At least all these issues have come to the fore again, when debate has opened up about “blessers” and “blessees”, the new term for older, wealthier, more powerful men and the younger women they prey on, and payfor. It was also probably inevitable that a protest directed at Zuma would erupt.

The President effectively invited censure when he warmly embraced Marius Fransman, the Western Cape ANC leader forced to step down to face charges of sexual harassment. With a disciplinary hearing still to be scheduled, Zuma accepted Fransman as a fellow leader as they went on the campaign trail together.

This, as much as anything else, raised again the issue of the Zuma trial. And some of the reactions to that election results protest, especially from Dlamini, revealed how little has changed in the past decade. Here again were echoes of the sycophancy and vitriol displayed at the time of the Zuma trial.

What is clear is that South African officialdom should cease dressing up celebrations of patronage and worse as symbols of growing gender equality. It is time to face up to the reality that a culture of male sexual predation and violence has been allowed to fester and grow; that platitudes and annual rituals do little to disguise this.

At least the trade unions seem to provide a more honest reflection of gender reality: there is little or no window dressing. The top echelons remain almost exclusively male preserves.