THE FAIRER SEX: Members of the ANC Womens League remove a poster with the face of President Jacob Zuma outside the Goodman Gallery during a recent controversy. Recent statements by the womens league show that women are not willing or able to challenge male dominance and decision-making. Picture: Sizwe Ndingane

The outcry over the statement by Mpumalanga ANC Women’s League (ANCWL) provincial secretary Clara Ndlovu that South Africa is not ready for a woman president, has led to timely public debates about women’s representation and leadership in our purportedly democratic political sphere.

The ANCWL has called the reporting of the statements made by Ndlovu a “gross misrepresentation” that flies in the face of everything the league has been fighting for since its inception.

The league has qualified that its stance is not about the lack of women leadership in the ANC, but about making sure that it assists in “healing and unifying the organisation”.

The statement, issued after the publication of the article in the Sowetan made the case that the relative absence of ANC women provincial chairpersons, has led to the lack of support at national level for a woman candidate as branch delegations are the first to decide candidacy.

It needs to be said that the ANC and its women’s league have done well in establishing policy and legislation to ensure gendered representation.

Yet, in a radio interview, the women league’s treasurer-general Hlengiwe Mkhize qualified the issue further by saying the league’s stance is about “keeping the peace” and making sure that it was supportive of broader ANC party leadership sentiment.

The statement says a good deal about political party cohesion (or the lack of it). More critically, it inadvertently emphasises how women in the league are not sufficiently able to campaign for women’s rights in the ANC to sufficiently contest male dominance and decision-making.

The league, by trying to qualify its position, unfortunately falls back on the gender stereotypes and essentialisms it is working to eradicate, namely, women smoothing the waters and keeping the peace, instead of challenging and asserting their rights, in organisational as well as individual, terms.

Besides that, historically, the women’s league has played a far stronger role in championing women’s leadership strengths; it is hard to understand the organisational logic behind the support and even veneration for a presidential candidate who, in terms of gender rights and leadership, has shown himself to be inadequate. President Jacob Zuma has not proved himself as damaging to South Africa’s global political and economic position in his first term as many analysts expected. Yet this is due to the fact that his impact on national policy at any level has been minimal.

Indeed, the president gets into the media gaze more for his intriguing personal life at the age of 70 than for his political leadership prowess. The lack of leadership has shown itself particularly negatively through the crisis in the mining sector.

What emerges from the ANCWL’s qualifications on the presidential leadership issue is the vexing truth that patriarchy is alive and well within the ANC, from branch to national level.

The league has not exerted sufficient political leverage within the party to effect more systemic change.

From male-dominated alliances and allegiances emanating at all levels, the patriarchal ANC leadership is supporting a presidential second term for a candidate who is seen as a unifying factor for the wrong political reasons. Zuma’s leadership is evaluated primarily not in terms of democratic outcomes, or in relation to his leadership characteristics, but in terms of his ability to unite different factions in the ANC.

The conclusion is clear to many ANC supporters at grass-roots level as well. It was illustrated by a quick vox pop that researchers at the African Centre for Citizenship and Democracy (Accede) carried out last week in the largely poor urban areas of Khayelitsha and Langa.

We asked the question: “Why not a woman president?” The refrain, “party politics”, was the greatest common denominator used to answer our question across our informal survey of both men and women, most of whom are ANC supporters.

Accede’s formal survey in urban townships has also shown that, paradoxically, while most of the urban poor vote ANC, they are increasingly unsatisfied with ANC dynamics for a similar reason: party politics frequently affects the effectiveness of representatives and therefore their ability to ensure good governance at local level.

In terms of the importance of gender equality to democratic processes, it is worth reminding ourselves of the political theory arguments as to why women should be more represented politically and in leadership positions. The first of these is the justice argument, as women make up 50 percent or more of the population.

Second, they represent different lived experiences, be these biologically or socially constructed.

Third, they represent a dominant interest group perspective that is different from that of men.

And finally, there is the stress on the importance of setting societal role-models.

The possible double impact of the promotion of gender rights and excellent ethical leadership of the kind demonstrated by women such as founder of the Citizens Movement for Social Change Mamphela Ramphele, AU Commission chairwoman Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma or Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, could conceivably bring about the leadership watershed that would improve the image of the ANC.

Yet the women’s league has instead chosen the route of a lighted candle ceremony in church in veneration of Zuma, and have slipped from liberation struggle into help-mate mode.

Not using this opportunity to lobby for a woman presidential candidate is one the league will surely regret in the years to come.

l Professor Lisa Thompson is the director of the African Centre for Citizenship and Democracy and Pamela Tsolekile de Wet is an Accede researcher at UWC.