Women’s month: empowering banality

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This seems an auspicious moment to remember Helen of Troy. If Helen was the face that launched 1,000 ships, then August is the month that launched a thousand careers, held aloft by the winds of mind-numbingly empty phraseology.

The private sector was slow off the mark, but seems to be getting into the swing of things, with an army of event organisers, motivational speakers and advertising agencies now geared to sell to you during August. Women could "earn double points on all health and beauty products" at Pick n Pay. And a little black dress, sex toys and body-slimming underwear were on sale at Citymob.

But it is the official celebrations that really set the bar. On Friday, I watched President Jacob Zuma’s televised Women’s Day address, then read the speeches he has delivered on August 9 since becoming president. One thing is clear: the "national gender machinery" (yes, really) is very good at torturing the topic of discussion.

George Orwell once wrote: "When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases, one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of a dummy". How true.

For the past five years, the Ministry of Everyone but Able-bodied Men under Lulu Xingwana has been organising a big stadium event for Zuma to enlighten us on the state of women. In 2009, "Together, Empowering Women for Development and Gender Equality" seemed straightforward. On to 2010: "Working Together for Equal Opportunities and Progress for Women: Forward to the Decade of African Women."

Here, we have the addition of the "working together" strand, followed by several portentous nouns. Note the importance of equal opportunities and progress. Which would follow which? A real August puzzler.

In 2011, Zuma said his government would be "working together to enhance women’s opportunities to economic empowerment". The clever use of "enhance" suggests that, happily, 2010 was a good year! Last year, however, women would "unite in fighting poverty, inequality and unemployment". A climb-down from the enhancements of 2011?

But this year is a big one, marking "a centenary of working together towards sustainable women empowerment and gender equality". Phew! And to think that the centenary includes part of "the Decade of African Women" (see 2010). I am blown away.

When that passes, I will study the phrase "sustainable women empowerment" for possible meaning. One has to congratulate Zuma’s speechwriters for their consistent use of the present continuous tense. In 50 years, we’ll still be "empowering" and emerging markets will forever be "emerging".

In nearly all of the speeches, women’s political careers top the list of achievements. But what is there to celebrate? Xingwana has had a thriving career in the gender industry, but is unable to pull together a decent Women’s Day speech for her boss.

Perhaps we should celebrate former communications minister Dina Pule’s political career too, for lying and thieving.

Or we could celebrate that Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane’s political career allows her to pose with R10,000 LK Bennett shoes at an exclusive luxury shop in Hyde Park, where she happily declared that "shoes and bags are part of my therapy". Charlotte Maxeke would be proud.

Or even better, we could celebrate the political career of Candith Mashego-Dlamini, Mpumalanga’s health MEC. When 23 young black men were essentially murdered at initiation schools in that province, she commented that she could do nothing about initiation matters because she is a woman — and tradition is tradition.

According to the government’s own figures, at least 32.4% of the population lives below the food-poverty line of R305 a person a month. Most are women. Unemployment for women is 2.9% higher than the national average and only 30.8% of black women are employed. There is a notable increase in the appointment of conservative figures in the government and the judiciary.

Until we begin to tackle these problems, women’s equality will remain an empty phrase.

By Palesa Morudu

Morudu writes from Cape Town. She studied at Rhodes University 

Article Source: Business Day