It’s time for women to lead South Africa | by Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge

by Jan 21, 2013Magazine

amandla-28-women-lead-south-africaYou who have no work, speak.

You, who have no homes, speak.

You, who have no schools, speak.

You, who have to run like chickens from vultures, speak.

We must share the problems so that we can solve them together.

We must free ourselves.

Dora Tamana

Should we as women hold our collective breath in anticipation that Mangaung will deliver a woman to lead the African National Congress? Apparently not. Despite its previous calls for gender parity across leadership structures of the ANC, the Women’s League (ANCWL) has once again nominated a man to lead the party, stating further that women are not ready to lead the party.


Does the ANC not have capable women of integrity who can lead the party and South Africa? Surely women have proved beyond doubt that they are capable of leadership. Like men, women made huge sacrifices for our freedom.

What does this say about the ANCWL’s stated commitment to gender equality?

The answer might lie in what Shireen Hassim (2006) characterises as the competing discourses of nationalism and feminism. Hassim observes, ‘Within South Africa the perception of feminism as divisive was further reinforced by the association of feminism with demands for greater organisational autonomy, for more decentralised and democratic mechanisms for how power relations were established and maintained’ (p29).

Although women in the ANC had provided leadership in many areas, it took years before the ANC fully acknowledged the centrality of pursuing a specific women’s agenda. Under Oliver Tambo’s leadership, this was articulated at the highest level of ANC hierarchy.

Tambo proclaimed 1984 the Year of the Women in the January 8th Statement of that year:

It will be our special task this year to organise and mobilise our womenfolk into a powerful, united and active force for revolutionary change. This task falls on men and women alike – all of us together as comrades in the struggle…I declare 1984 ‘The Year of the Women’, and charge the entire democratic and patriotic forces of our country with the task of joining in the effort to mobilise our women to unite in struggle for people’s power!

While women in the ANC have provided clear leadership on a number of policy issues, they have not provided consistent leadership and support to the broader women’s movement. In 1956, under the banner of the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW), the ANCWL helped galvanise women for a massive historic march to the Union Buildings in protest of the extension of pass laws to African women.Since then the ANCWL has been ambivalent about strengthening the women’s movement, even withdrawing its support for the Women’s National Coalition after delivering the Women’s Charter in 1994. Perhaps the signs of this were already evident when in 1990, the ANCWL called for the disbanding of the internal women’s organisations affiliated to the United Democratic Front (UDF). This decision created a vacuum leading to the dismantling of the women’s movement in the early 1990s, a critical time of transition.

In Polokwane in 2007, the ANCWL was split between the Zuma and Mbeki factions and the opportunity for Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to emerge as a candidate for president of the country was lost. She was nominated as Deputy President on the Mbeki slate, and would have been a strong candidate for election as president of the country.

Similarly, when Baleka Mbete (a former Deputy President and Speaker of the National Assembly) was overlooked by the Zuma administration, there was no outcry from the ANCWL.

So while the Women’s League has motivated for gender parity, it is yet to make the bold call for a woman to lead the ANC. Nor has it insisted on gender parity in the top six. The ‘zebra stripes’ principle of alternating women and men on the party list does not seem to apply in the top echelons of the party.

But what kind of women leaders would we want anyway? And what sort of agenda would we want them to pursue?

Surely it is not just a matter of numbers. It is about the quality of leadership, and the difference that leadership makes to the reality on the ground for women. When the ANC discusses the second phase of the transition, where will the agenda of women’s full emancipation feature? Despite the constitutional right to gender equality in South Africa, the lived experience of the impoverished majority indicates that without working class women’s leadership, the agenda for women’s emancipation will continue to slide backwards as it has done since 1994.

It is clear that the women leaders we want should emerge from among the ranks of the oppressed, with a true awareness of the needs and aspirations of the marginalised majority of South African women. Can the ANC honestly say it continues to carry the banner for the poorest of the poor, when so much of the attention of some of its leaders, even those who call themselves economic freedom fighters, is focused on accumulating wealth?

We want a leader who understands that women’s leadership is ‘not a separate form of politics designed to pursue the interests of women as women, but rather the pursuit of feminist goals and aims within the context of a wider articulation of demands’ (Mouffe, C. in Hassim, S 2006: p1). Feminist goals in leadership aim at co-operation rather than competition in exercising power.

Transparency, effective listening and consultation should drive this process.

It is about valuing life and finding alternatives to war. It is about truth and integrity. It is about preserving the earth and the environment. It is about inclusion and an economics that does not exploit the marginalised and the poor.

These are the important issues that are facing the world today.

While ANC delegates at Mangaung will decide the outcome, all South Africans can participate in the dialogue about the qualities of a good leader. Weak, corrupt or indecisive leadership in the ANC means weak, corrupt or indecisive leadership of the country.

Crucially, the call for feminist leadership is a call for a politics of care, humility, wisdom and integrity. South Africa cannot afford another Sharpeville, Boipatong or Marikana before we act in empathy with people striving for their rights. The acid test for women in leadership is the quality of leadership they bring to institutions like parliament and government.

Attention should be directed at transforming these traditionally male-dominated spaces and re-prioritising government spending to meet the needs of all the people. Even more importantly, it is about allocating sufficient resources to make the criminal justice system work for all. Defence spending should be redirected to focus on human security rather than national security.

Many women still face enormous challenges. These include, but are not limited to, extremely high levels of domestic and gender-based violence, sex trafficking, ‘corrective’ rape, HIV/AIDS infections, and a prevalent lack of access to reproductive health, particularly in rural areas. This is compounded by the fact that women are often unable to make their voices heard with respect to major public issues. Political debates and leadership are not, and should not be, the preserve of men alone.

Women need to be active in party politics, uniting across parties on the common issues. We can build a vibrant and autonomous women’s movement – without this, women will participate in their own oppression and our country will be deprived of the contribution of more than half of its population. Lillian Ngoyi, Sophie Williams, Rahima Moosa, Helen Joseph and 20,000 women did it.

What is stopping us?

An autonomous women’s agenda would have stood more firmly and effectively behind the Rural Women’s Movement, particularly in response to the debates on the 2004 Communal Land Rights Act (dealing with land rights and the powers and functions of traditional leadership).

Indeed, the current debates on the Traditional Courts Bill testify to the power of united action. The Rural Justice Alliance brought together human rights and gender activists in support of the Rural Women’s Movement, effectively putting brakes on the Bill being passed in its present form.

As we look into the future, how do we ensure the dream of a truly non-racial, non-sexist and prosperous South Africa becomes a reality?

We need to continue supporting women organising themselves, rebuilding the feminist movement and developing theoretical analysis. When theory and action come together, women’s imagination can be unleashed for everyone’s benefit. This requires a shift in our response towards corruption to say: this is not the country we want. The foundation is already there. Like Dora Tamana said, we must free ourselves.

Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge was South Africa’s Deputy Minister of Defence from 1999 to April 2004 and Deputy Minister of Health from April 2004 to August 2007. She stands on the National Executive Committee of the ANC. She founded the Embrace Dignity project, an NGO that advocates for law reforms in trafficking and adult prostitution, see

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