No space for women in SA’s political arena

By Gcobani Qambela

Women in South Africa’s political landscape have always proved to be resilient forces in what has for a long time been a patriarchal cultural and political landscape concerned with positioning women in the kitchen as submissive ‘servants’ of men with nothing but a home-cooked meal to contribute.

Commemorations such as Women’s Day and the creation of special ministries of women have painted a façade of the post 1994 South African government’s position when it comes to fixing culturally, socially and politically entrenched gender inequalities, and indeed one may be tempted to say that ‘they are doing something’.

Political veteran Patricia de Lille was recently howled down by ‘unruly ANC supporters’ during her address a government Human Rights Day event in Cape Town on the 20th of March 2011. Now, while much of the commentary on the event has been centred around legal arguments on the right to freedom of speech and when it could be justifiably accepted when a person freedom of speech has been violated, very few analysts have really uprooted the permitting undercurrents behind the event.

The truth of the matter is that the incidence is instructive of the perceived role of women in political leadership in South Africa, by both government leaders and so called ‘ordinary’ South Africans. The political consciousness in both public and private South African spaces still paints the political arena as solely a reservoir for men, and men only at that.

De Lille’s jeering goes further than just civil disobedience and the expression of discontent at a leader, but it shows that South Africans are still not willing to accept female leadership into the political arena. While De Lille has more than proven herself as a leader and has contributed immensely to the (re)positioning of South Africa as a democratic state, which culminated in her recognition as one of South Africa’s “100 Greatest South Africans Alive” in 2004 (voted by South Africans themselves).

We still live in an intolerant and highly troubled country where despite the failure that has been male leadership, we are still ignorant of the fact that women can lead, and lead decisively at that. We are still closed to listening and engaging with women intellectually, so we “boo’ them to avoid contesting ideas.

We still associate anything that does not shout ‘phambili ANC, phambili’ (forward ANC, forward) as ‘counter-revolutionary’. But most importantly we have quickly forgotten the role of women in not only South Africa, but Africa’s liberation struggles more broadly and we have chosen to ridicule any woman who thinks that she can offer an alternative leadership to the prevailing male dominated power structures.

More disturbing however has been the government’s complacent and delayed response to de Lille’s public humiliation, with the President of RSA not addressing the matter as it boiled in front of him. That is nothing but a spit on the contribution of the sweat, blood and tears of August 9, 1956 women and many other who came before and after.

It is setting the prevailing tone with which the ANC led government wants the youth of South Africa to tune in. But most importantly it shows a need for a more robust engagement with the psyche on South Africans on gender issues. It shows that women are not only in South Africa devalued at the institutional level, but also that such gender bias is entrenched in mindsets of South Africans, both young and mature.

De Lille’s public humiliation still shows that the political terrain in South Africa is still largely patriarchal and that South Africans do not see a woman as offering any substantive contribution. And the government needs to act fast, or else for many women in the political landscape, ‘Human Rights Day’ will forever remain that for them -just a day.


2 thoughts on “No space for women in SA’s political arena”

  1. interesting observation bhuti,but i can’t help but wonder about the reaction to patricia.i think there are many layers there.partly her alliance to the da may have something to do with it and that could be a thesis of its own-two women charging the anc as the opposition.there are complexities with women in politics(lindiwe mazibuko’s debacle was also interesting to note in spite of the fact that media jumped on the race card).but could it not be that women are looking at other avenues apart from public office to make a change in sa?perhaps we need to look closely into those stories as well,but not to dispute women getting involved in public politics.


  2. I agree with much of what the article is arguing.

    I think that public politics in South Africa is an ever more masculine space.

    The booing of De Lille has to do with her own political choices, but also with the way in which she was being publicly positioned because she’s a woman.

    Much in the same way that Manto Tshabalala Msimang was juniorised in the media.

    Her policies had devastating effects no doubt. But one could always read the subtext


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