Politics’ Woman Problem: A young black woman’s experience

By Anele Nzimande (@Anele_Nzimande)

Anele shares her experience as a young woman entering the political arena where it seems the historical idea of women as auxillary members of parties has not changed much since the inception of the ANC such that today, in the era of “women’s empowerment” that attitude finds itself manifested in aspects such as the seemingly permanent deputisation of women and worryingly widespread sexual harassment. All in all, she finds that women are praised for presence and penalised for participation. 

The first time attended a political conference I didn’t speak the entire time I was there. I only spoke to those I had arrived with. I kept to myself and buried my head in the book that I had brought (perhaps ironically, Assata Shakur’s autobiography) for the duration of the conference. I wanted to be as invisible as possible in order to evade the ever-present sexual advances and sexual harassment, so much so that I even managed to avoid queuing up for food at meal times.

As a woman, I found the space to be incredibly overwhelming and unnerving. This was heightened by the fact that when a woman was called up on stage, for whatever reason, members of the audience would erupt with deafening applause, wolf-whistling and cat-calling. This was a man’s show and the women were there, in part, for the men’s private indulgence.

This is an interesting phenomenon in South African politics, as the political organisations continuously position themselves as organisations heavily vested in the advancement of women’s rights and gender equality.

Since its inception in 1912, the ruling ANC has had fourteen Secretary Generals and a whopping zero of them have been women as they continue to be relegated to the role of deputising. Need we mention that it was the ANC Women League’s President Angie Motshekga who declared that South Africa was “not ready for a female president”?

Here, we are, a hundred years later and we still pride ourselves with the presence of women in political parties and conferences even if their participation is contrived and limited.

But they are not alone: all three of the major political parties reflect this gender hypocrisy in many ways. For example, the Democratic Alliance managed to have an entire Western Cape cabinet with no women except for their leader Helen Zille who justified this citing “merit” and “competence”. Should we mention the DA’s recent sex scandal in which women were alleged to be giving sex for positions, but was quickly swept under the rug by party? The Economic Freedom Fighters also has a poor record on gender equality beyond rhetoric. Little is known about the women who form part of the top six of the revolutionary movement and the only time you get to hear them speak is when they are summoned to give a greeting or salutary wave to the crowds at political gatherings. In fact, we know more about some of the ousted and exiled male members of the EFF than the women who are actually existing members.How about that?

The second conference I attended was months later. In that time I had grown bolder and so, I was ready to speak up. A woman was introduced to the audience from stage and true to form the men wolf whistled, catcalled and undressed her with everything but their hands. When I rose during a question round and insisted that the conference needed to vanquish the demons of sexism and patriarchy, by sanctioning this type behaviour as and when it happens. Mid-speech I was interrupted by a gentle man rising on a point of order, so I took up my seat. The point of order he was raising was that I was “derailing the conference” and that I was “being prescriptive as to how people should express their appreciation”, and that men and women “express themselves differently”.

It seems to me that there is little room for women in the political space as visible, audible agents. The presence of women is still prioritised over the active participation. In the political space, we are both hidden and visible and are possibly absent even when we are present.

Women’s issues are trivialised. Men might claim to view rape as the most morally reprehensible act you can subject a woman to, cat calling and hurling any other insult if fair game in the name of freedom of expression. The woman who dares to demand more than just to be present, who demands an audience through her participation is one that disrupts.

This is not a new trend. The Combahee River Collective, a group of radical queer African American feminists formed in the 70s, conducted a study and found, unsurprisingly, that the reaction of black men towards black feminism has always been notoriously negative. The answer for this is simple, black feminism challenges black men directly in relation to their habitually sexist ways of interacting with and oppressing black women. It forces them to change.

In her article on the new intersectional politics presented by the Rhodes Must Fall movement Panashe Chigumadzi writes of the ways in which feminism has traditionally been shunned in South Africa’s struggle politics, with male party leaders often dismissing feminism as “bourgeois imperialist” and something to be dealt with “after the revolution has come.”

What is clear is that even in the era of “women’s empowerment” within the political arena, Black feminism is seen as too confrontational. It implicates black men and it holds them accountable and forces them to consolidate their views on black women. We are constantly shrinking ourselves to accommodate convention and avoid causing ripples in political circles as black women. The victory alone is in filling up the quotas and just showing up, making sure that 50% representation benchmark is met and the organisation can continue on like a well-oiled machine in the backs, sweat and blood of black women. There are too many political faces using high sounding words, priding themselves in having quotas in place to accommodate women but who are threatened when the discussion around redistribution of power and the habitual mistreatment of women is brought about.

  1. Hi Anele. I’m Zipho from UKZN (Howard College). I need no confirmation in concluding that the way you were brought to ‘order’ in that conference was and is despicable! Feminism is not a woman’s struggle. It’s a human rights issue which everyone should speak out against (however a woman’s Lived experience entitles her to a more ‘credible’ opinion – obviously). The Rhodes Must Fall Movement, along with RMF Oxford and possibly Transform Wits, has taught us the value of an aggressive movement. Sometimes it is wise to suspend diplomacy and meet the devil eye-to-eye. So I encourage you to be firm in your views and vindicating your presence in a threatening political atmosphere. Suspend diplomacy where needs be. ‘Rationality will always be used to silence the lived experience of those marginalised’. Best of luck in claiming your space.

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