Simply having a female president will not rescue the ANC

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A recent edition of City Press carried an article “The time is nigh for the ANC to have a woman president” (City Press, October 7) by Thenjiwe Mtintso, the veteran ANC leader and Umkhonto weSizwe commander who now occupies the position of South African ambassador to Italy.

In her article, she asked: “Has there never been a politically astute, capable, competent woman of integrity ready and willing to lead the ANC in one hundred years?” Mtintso is the right person to be asking this question at a particularly apt time in terms of the ANC’s electoral calendar.

What I wish to challenge in Mtintso’s call is her silence on how the ascent of a female president would rescue the ANC, which seems decidedly “set on a path of self-destruction”, as another writer, Mzukisi Qobo, recently stated.

It is not enough to dwell only on electoral challenges that face women in a largely patriarchal political party like the ANC.

We need to address the effect a female leader presiding at the helm of a fragile and increasingly undemocratic party would have.

Is the assumption that a female president would have unique capabilities to deal with the challenges faced by the ruling party at this time, or is merely calling for gender representation the right thing to do because women also deserve their turn in ruling Luthuli House?

We applauded when Rwanda became the first country with more than 50% parliamentary representation of women in 2008.

We applauded again when Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf became Africa’s first female president in 2005 and when our own country began to appoint women in previously masculine security positions such as foreign affairs, defence and energy.

But now, into the second decade of the millennium, some seriously uncomfortable “unfeminist” questions about the transformative impact of women’s access to these positions need to be asked.

For one, the paradox that Rwanda presents us with is that although the country has proven to be the ideal place for a female politician, it is difficult to overlook the decidedly authoritarian rule of the ­Kagame regime that was re-elected with a 93% vote in 2010.

How can we celebrate female emancipation when those individuals who have access to power are exercising it in an undemocratic manner with the presence of female leaders in governments?

The re-election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf by a small margin after a tight run-off last year was met with accusations that Johnson-Sirleaf has failed to transform the elitist and overbearing Americo-Liberian patronage-based status quo that contributed to plunging Liberia into 14 years of civil war.

In South Africa, although we celebrate the ascent of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to the role of African Union Commission chairperson and also applaud the work of other female leaders such as “Lady Justice” Thuli Mandonsela, we are, however, still haunted, for instance, by the dismissive leadership provided by Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga.

More recently, one of the most vivid images of the Marikana massacre was the protest of the dead miners’ wives, whose anger was directed at South Africa’s first female Police Commissioner, Riah Phiyega.

One of the placards held by the women hauntingly read: “(Phiyega) you celebrating your position by blood of our families.”

These examples are but some of the uncomfortable moments for African feminists as they continue to call for the increased leadership of women in government.

It is, therefore, not “unfeminist” to call for a much more nuanced engagement with what it would mean for a female president to lead the current ruling party and a state that continues to battle with militaristic tendencies, be they under Bheki Cele or Phiyega.

Unless the advancement of women at a political party and state level is accompanied by a preoccupation with how their leadership would contribute to addressing the ills of the current parasitic state, I fear a female president would not behave any differently at party or state level.

Until the marginalisation of female voices within the ANC is understood as part of the marginalisation of transformative voices seeking to rescue the party from its patronage trap in general, calling for a female president as a standalone issue is misleading and myopic.

Aubrey Matshiqi recently argued: “We must be open to the possibility that political realignment in South Africa is about finding a credible alternative to both the DA and the ANC.”

Perhaps we need to recognise that because of the limitations of being located within political party traditions, neither the current ANC nor the DA can provide us with the kind of female president who will lead us to transformative and healing politics.

  • Siphokazi Magadla lectures in the department of political and international studies at Rhodes University, Grahamstown. This article was published on City Press.