Zille, Ramphele, Mazibuko, Ntuli: The trouble with being female in politics

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At time of writing, there is no longer any doubt that Mamphela Ramphele and Helen Zille have together presided over one of the most embarrassing political fiascos in recent South African history. The fact of their being female should be irrelevant to the response to this, although – predictably – there are already signs that it won’t be. But leaving Ramphele’s “reneging” out of the picture for a second, it’s worth examining whether political aspiration is greeted differently if it comes from a woman.

South African political discourse, while often brutal and sometimes puerile across the board, does not treat men and women the same way. This is evident in the negative attention paid to the physical appearance of figures like DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko. It is evident in the routine sexualising of female politicians; to take just one example, the comments of erstwhile ANC Youth League leaders Julius Malema and Floyd Shivambu in 2009 suggesting that Helen Zille had stocked her Cabinet with “boyfriends and concubines”. It is evident in the fact that the word “girl” is often used to describe female politicians who have very definitely arrived at adulthood.

This situation co-exists uneasily with a lot of lip-service paid to the need for adequate female representation in South African politics. The ANC has had a policy of 50-50 gender parity since Polokwane, but the head of its own Women’s League says South Africa is not ready to have a female president. The DA eschews quotas on principle. While it has prominent female representation at the top in the form of Zille, Mazibuko and Cape Town Mayor, Patricia de Lille, it’s worth noting that only three women head the provincial party lists recently revealed by the DA.

Into this landscape strode one Mamphela Ramphele last year, announcing that she was starting her own party – or something like it. Virtually from the outset, her decision was framed – in the public discourse – in terms of ego, narcissism and hubris. While there were genuine questions about whether someone of Ramphele’s ivory-tower profile – enriched by years at the World Bank and Goldfields – could really hope to galvanise South Africa’s political scene, there also seemed to be a touch of affront at the notion of a woman with so much self-belief.

By way of comparison, it may be instructive to consider the cases of Mosiuoa Lekota and Mbhazima Shilowa, who took a party which at one stage seemed to offer a genuine political alternative to both the ANC and the DA – Cope – and ran it virtually into the ground with their ego-driven tussles over who got to be boss. Yet both men seem to have escaped a lot of the deeply personal vitriol levelled at Ramphele; Lekota still commands a fair amount of respect for his reputation as a fiery straight-talker in Parliament.

Then there was the fact of Ramphele’s relationship with Black Consciousness hero Steve Biko while the latter was married. Ramphele herself has certainly benefited greatly from this connection: it has lent her a sense of political credibility she might otherwise have struggled to attain. But it has been a double-edged sword, in a conservative country with deep double standards about this kind of extramarital affair. Biko is never referred to as a philanderer – despite having hand-delivered love letters to Ramphele while his wife was pregnant – but Ramphele has never managed to shake off the reputation in some quarters of being an umakhwapheni (in colloquial speech, a “side-chick”), and for that reason fundamentally untrustworthy.

The hypocrisy of this attitude barely warrants spelling out, in a country where the president fathered his 20th child, out of wedlock, with the daughter of a close friend, almost 30 years his junior, in 2010.

When Helen Zille and Mamphela Ramphele announced that Ramphele would serve as the DA’s presidential candidate last week, responses were also tinged with sexism. At the press conference in question, the two women were asked if Ramphele’s promotion in this manner would not make the DA leadership “top heavy” with women. Writer RW Johnson, in a piece describing Ramphele as “an imperious and egocentric woman of 67”, commented that Zille “just seems more comfortable with other women”. As a colleague remarked, it’s hard to imagine an analyst saying that Tony Leon “just seems more comfortable with other men”.

Ramphele’s age has also been a lightning-rod for opportunistic criticism, with EFF leader Julius Malema suggesting that she saw Parliament as a “retirement home”. On social media she has been repeatedly referred to as a “gogo” (grandmother), and in the wake of the most recent debacle, as a “confused old lady”. As a man who will turn 72 this year, Jacob Zuma seems to have been largely spared this particular critique.

Possibly the most odious response to last week’s announcement, however, came in the form of the strange, sexualised circulation of pictures showing Zille and Ramphele pecking each other on the lips after announcing their new pact: an act by no means noteworthy for two women at pains (at the time) to play up their long friendship. A doctored version spreading on social media Photoshops the two leaders into a picture of Britney Spears and Madonna passionately kissing on stage at the MTV Awards in 2003 as an act of sexual provocation. Local satirical puppet show ZA News created a scene of heavy petting using Zille and Ramphele puppets, complete with Ramphele groping Zille’s breast.

Politics is never for the fainthearted, but there certainly seems to be a particularly gendered aspect to the treatment of female politicians – particularly female politicians from the opposition ranks – in South African public discourse. And it’s not perpetrated exclusively by men.

To illustrate, weekend papers reported on a dispute between Helen Zille and DA Youth leader Mbali Ntuli over Ntuli publically expressing concerns over the DA’s decision to march on ANC headquarters to protest against the ruling party’s jobs plan. Zille was reported to have called Ntuli a “princess” and a “prima donna”, and said she would not apologise for these labels: “I am entirely within my rights to describe several examples of Mbali’s conduct…as ‘prima donna’ behaviour,” the Sunday Independent quoted her as saying.

The problem with Zille’s choice of insults is that there really aren’t any male versions. You would not say that a demanding young man was “acting like a prince”, except perhaps with positive connotations, and the corresponding male term for “prima donna” is primo uomo, unused outside the context of opera. Terms like princess, prima donna and diva are invariably used to describe and diminish women who may be behaving badly, but who may also be simply outspoken about wanting what they want on their own terms. They are heavily gendered words and phrases, and the reason why English lacks male equivalents is because often behaviour which would be accepted unquestioningly from males is viewed as problematic from females, particularly when it is accompanied by evident confidence and ambition.

In this country’s recent history we have had another youth leader blessed with soaring political aspirations, self-belief, outspokenness, and a tendency to go against the party grain: Julius Malema. Malema has been called many terrible things – compared to Hitler frequently, but the evidence that this isn’t necessarily a gendered insult is found in the fact that Malema himself called Ramphele Hitler. Most frequently, however, Malema is termed a “firebrand”: a gender-neutral term, which conjures up a degree of admiration for his passion.

What this insidious linguistic inequality tells us, in ways we normally don’t even realise, is that male confidence and ambition in the public sphere is both appropriate and praise-worthy, while its female equivalent is often less tolerated. Despite the success of a handful of women at the top, female South African politicians still have a long way to go to be treated truly equally. 

By Rebecca Davis

Source: Daily Maverick

Photo: Johannesburg, South Africa, 18 February 2013. Mamphela Ramphele launched her new political party platform, Agang, in Johannesburg at the old Women's Gaol at Constitutional Hill. (Greg Nicolson/Daily Maverick)

Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford before working in lexicography at the Oxford English Dictionary. After deciding she’d rather make up words than define them, she returned to South Africa in 2011 to write for the Daily Maverick, which has been a magnificilious decision.