Should the ANC heed the call to elect a woman to lead the oldest liberation movement in Africa, it would be a massive shift from the party’s grander politics.
When the party was initially formed in 1912, women were not even regarded as full members. This was because of the patriarchal stereotypes that linger whenever a woman is in politics (or any other field that has been coded as masculine): they were perceived as less intelligent and less logical, and were not seen as politicians who could be trusted with the affairs of governance.
And, as the ANC election campaign in 2014 had the pithy tagline “A Good Story to Tell”, what better story would there be for the governing party to tell than tracking the maturation of gender equality within the party over time to the point where a woman actually assumes the organisation’s presidency?
This would also be notable because, for all its many flaws, the ANC still enjoys popular electoral support. It is possible that, come 2024, South Africa could cap off its 30th year of democracy with a woman president.
It must be noted, though, that narratives do not feed the hungry. Having a woman president of South Africa would signify a positive shift in gender relations within politics. But South Africa needs more than a woman as the president. We need a leader who is ethically and morally above reproach, competent, politically astute, willing and able to deal with the internal dynamics of their party, and sensitive to the plight of the millions of South Africans who feel that our democracy was not created with them in mind. And so what is more important than merely having a woman occupy the Union Buildings is having a woman who cares about South Africans. Representation matters, but the kind of representation we get matters even more.
The power of representation
We should not take the benefits of representation lightly. Having a member of a marginalised group occupy a position of power, particularly if that position has historically been denied to members of the group in question, is inspirational. One of the main drawbacks of systematic exclusion is that it breeds a sense of inferiority within the group that has been excluded.
Members of that group end up self-disqualifying by not even attempting to present themselves as candidates for prominent positions. This ends up perpetuating the idea that members of that group – in this case, women – are not suited for these positions. That is why it is important for one person to chip away at the collective inferiority complex, and show other individuals that anybody can occupy any position in society. Representation’s biggest benefit is not the symbolic nature of what it means in the moment. It is the motivation that it offers to future generations who are empowered to see themselves as potential future leaders of society.
But systemic exclusion is not overcome simply by individual motivation. It is not enough for one to see someone who shares their social identity be celebrated for making history. Sooner or later, the cameras will stop rolling. When that happens, the structural barriers continue to hold the majority of members back from attaining their ambitions. If Lindiwe Sisulu, as rumour would have it, runs for ANC president and wins, that might motivate women to see themselves as future presidents. But it will not solve the problems that keep many women from attaining political power.
Sisulu is an anomaly. She is a second-generation politician who has served in most of the post-democratic administrations. This means that if she does become a top contender for, or win, the ANC presidency, it would also be because of her other political privileges. This is a problem. Not because privileges should not be used for one’s benefit, but because her reality as a woman in politics is so far removed from the experiences of most women politicians.
This makes her ill-suited to acknowledge the struggles faced by women in South Africa, should she assume power. Her stints as minister of various portfolios (she is currently the minister of tourism) have disastrously failed South Africans and have not shown any evidence that she adopts an explicitly feminist style of politics. This is important to note, because the essentialist notion of women intrinsically being pro-women is absolutely false.
A woman against women
Take the first woman Secretary of State in the United States, Madeleine Albright. The US government is seen by many as being imperialist and war-hungry, traits that have never benefitted individuals other than citizens of the United States. With Albright as Secretary of State, there existed an opportunity to unpack a new vision for the United States and the role that it plays in our international system. But this was not the case. Albright maintained the status quo, and was highly supportive of sanctions against Iraq, which led to thousands of civilians dying. She infamously even said in an interview that Iraqi children dying as a result of US sanctions was “worth it”. Margaret Thatcher and Kamala Harris can also be mentioned in the same breath as Albright.
Can we then honestly call Albright “progressive” and “a pioneer” if her legacy is just as destructive to the rest of the world as other men Secretaries of State? What did Albright do for the United States that was fundamentally different from her male predecessors, except give the illusion of gender equality? And is gender equality something that we should support if it just means equal opportunity for all genders to celebrate the deaths of innocent children?
These are questions of representation that we must constantly revisit if we want any chance of progress as a country. Yes, representation is important. The issue arises when people use representation as a ploy to amass political power without having any intention to use their status to shine a light on important causes that affect the community they supposedly represent.
Sisulu is a woman. Sisulu has also not been explicit about adopting a feminist, pro-woman ethic in her politics, despite having been a minister for the vast majority of our democratic dispensation. Both of those statements are true. Because of that, it might be premature to call Sisulu’s potential candidacy for the ANC presidency a “win for women”. That teaches us an important lesson about the power of narratives in political campaigning: some people use progressive language to sell an idea that is at odds with the character of the candidate in question.
The challenge with being the “first” is that it comes with a heavy burden. You aren’t judged as an individual, but rather as a representative of that group. So your failures aren’t just yours, they are that of the entire group, which is problematic.
If one were to publicly ask Sisulu what her visions are for a South African society that deals effectively with gender-based violence, for instance, her answer would probably fall short of presidential standards. That would not be because she is a woman. It would be because the basis of her alleged pursuit of the ANC presidency is not about women’s empowerment. More than anything, Sisulu teaches us a crucial lesson – representation is necessary, but not sufficient, for substantive progress.