JOHANNESBURG – Manglin Pillay can be just about any other man who criss-crosses the streets of this beautiful country to hustle for a living.
He could be one of those who enjoy a good drink with other folks at the legendary Sisi Nthabiseng shebeen in my neighbourhood. You could spot him among the millions who always cheer the boys in black and gold at Soccer City, week in and week out. He could just about be any man anywhere. Except that Pillay is not an ordinary man. He is the chief executive of the South African Institute of Civil Engineers (Saice).
His position entrusts him to promote diversity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers. And when a powerful man such as Pillay makes disparaging remarks about women, it shows that those who think that the fairer sex has no place in the industry are not only in Phola Park. They are also found in powerful positions that influence the direction that our society takes. They count among their friends the likes of Mark Lamberti, Mduduzi Manana, Steve Hofmeyr, Donald Trump and King Mswati.
They are among the dangerous power-drunk elite who think that the best way to affirm their muscularity is to denounce women.
Science and Technology Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane put it well when she said Pillay and his ilk perpetuate stereotypes that women cannot compete on merit.
Kubayi-Ngubane said they also reversed continuing efforts to ensure that women, who constitute more than half of the population, received equal recognition and not stumbling blocks in ascending the corporate world.
Such a retrogression in women empowerment is amplified in a recent study by research firm Jack Hammer, which says that among the Top 40 listed companies on the JSE, only Absa has a woman as its chief executive. Maria Ramos still stands out as a sore thumb among the country’s top companies.
Jack Hammer says the number of women leaders in South Africa’s largest companies has fallen to the same levels as in 2015.
The research says while there has been some improvement in transforming the C-suites, female representation at board level has declined from 21 percent in 2015 to 19 percent in 2017.
Yet Saice felt it fair to give Pillay a little slap on the wrist and to whisper to his ears that his belated apology was acceptable because of his valuable contribution in broadening the engineering sector.
This from an institution that describes itself as inclusive, non-partisan, non-sexist, racially diverse, transparent and responsible. But such is the culture of culpability among South Africans.
We have become immune to the cries of women so much so that even taxi drivers feel justified to assault young women in public for wearing miniskirts.
The drivers know that they will never see a jail cell for their deeds and their bosses will only condemn them, but still tell the women to dress more decently.
It is this culture that changed the tide when former Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi snacked on a pretty young thing in the office.
Vavi’s followers justified this as nothing but an act between consenting adults. Never mind that Vavi was effectively the federation’s chief executive and the woman a mere underling in the powerful corridors of Cosatu.
She was vilified as nopatazana – a woman with loose morals – and a pawn in a battle to destroy Vavi.
Vavi’s political fortunes continue to rise in his powerful new role as the general secretary of the South African Federation of Trade Unions, while the society has largely forgotten about her. She has been exorcised into oblivion with no prospects of employment.
When former president Jacob Zuma was accused of raping a woman young enough to be his daughter, his best defence came from the ANC Women’s League.
The league, which is supposed to fight for the rights of women in South Africa, called the young woman the B-word and led marches after marches to denounce her.
Zuma went on to become the country’s most powerful man, while the woman was (re)condemned to the solitude of exile.
And when Cell-C chief executive Jose Dos Santos made his (in)famous b**ch-switch remarks, we all shook our heads form left to right in utter disbelief that such can be articulated by a powerful man whose company brought us the beautiful Take a Girl Child to Work Day campaign.
We just laughed him off as a naughty boy, when he declared that employing women was not a corporate imperative, but a stroke of genius to make men a little more productive.
So why then are we alarmed by the continuing scourge of women falling victim to powerful men in South Africa?
The answer lies in our collective inability to make gender discrimination as intolerable as racism.
We only put women at the centre of our agenda once a year and go on with our lives afterwards.
August is just about the only time that we get to remember that Bathabile Dlamini, the president of the ANC Women’s League, is also the Minister of Women in the Presidency.
And that her job is to champion legislation that has to protect women.
And that if she could just stop doing what a friend calls endless chewing at whatever it is, she could visit societies such as Germany to learn how they moved with speed to block the re-emergence of anti-Semitism in a country that was serious about regrouping from Adolf Hitler’s fatal escapades.
Instead of fiddling with the system, Dlamini should agitate for the detribalisation of women empowerment in the country. The courts have shown us how to deal with antisocial delinquents that afflict our body politic.
Vicki Momberg, who was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for a racial outburst against a black police officer who was trying to help her, is today a poster girl for the triumph of goodness over evil.
When Magistrate Pravina Rugoonandan literally threw the book at her, she also sent a clear message to closet racists such as Ernst Roets and Louis Meintjes to think twice before they open their mouths.
It is on such matters that Dlamini should be engaging our society.
It should also be what Mmusi Maimane advocates, instead of hiring right-wing strategists to belittle the country’s empowerment and employment equity policies.
Failing which our celebration of the National Women’s Day will forever remain hollow.
We will continue to breed the likes of Sandile Mantsoe, Thabani Mzolo and Siyabulela Ngqeme and be a safe haven for backward relics such as Pillay, Lamberti and Dos Santos.