It points to a particularly bleak state of affairs that, more than two decades since the constitution - with its guarantees of gender equality - was promulgated, a woman’s ability to lead and, indeed, to occupy any position within society is being judged first and foremost by marital status and motherhood.
A case in point is the scurrilous attack on Dlamini Zuma published in last week’s Sunday Times that constantly referred to her as the president’s ex-wife. This is a below-the-belt, lowest-common-denominator argument also resorted to by critics of Hillary Clinton in the last US presidential election, when she was constantly referred to not as an experienced lawyer and politician, but as the “former first lady”.
Among the hollow reasoning that some are using to sway the public into believing that Dlamini Zuma is not the right person for the job is an age-old and flawed theory that she will put the interests of “home and hearth” before those of the country.
In South Africa today, sections of the mass media are allowed to get away with making all manner of untested claims - that Dlamini Zuma “won’t let her children’s father go to jail” or that she will be a puppet for her ex-husband, who will pull the strings behind the scenes.
This is an astonishingly sexist declaration that warrants critical interrogation; more so if one considers that most, if not all, men in leadership are “family men” with wives and children - yet this would never be a reason put forward to oppose a man becoming president.
Pigeonholing a woman because of who she is or was married to, and with whom she had children, bears similarity to the regrettable and widely reported incident earlier this year when, in the rivalry for leadership of the British Conservative Party, one politician (coincidentally also female) suggested that she, as a mother, had “more of a stake in the future” of Britain than Prime Minister Theresa May, who is childless.
What is more worrying is that there hasn’t been a murmur of dissent or objection from feminists or women’s organisations in response to this sexism directed against Dlamini Zuma - beyond the voice of the ANC Women’s League (ANCWL).
With perhaps the single exception of the Bill Clinton impeachment saga in the late 1990s, a male leader’s private life, no matter how colourful, has never been used to any real effect by political opponents beyond creating the swirl of scandal.
In South Africa, however, a senior woman leader’s private life (that hasn’t even been colourful by anyone’s standards) is being used in an attempt to discredit her. We are being made to believe that she lacks credibility or qualification because she is shackled to a surname.
Were one even to assume, albeit wrongly, that a woman leader should be forever associated with her surname, there is also the question of whether it is even remotely extraordinary that a female politician should incur some advantage or leverage on the basis thereof.
It is undeniable that the political futures of Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, Khaleda Zia, Eva Peró* and even Hillary Clinton were somehow tied to their proximity to power through husbands and fathers. The question is whether they ultimately proved to be “their own man” and led their parties and their countries capably and professionally.
The surnames of women leaders should not be a pre-determinant of how they will acquit themselves once in power, and in the case of Dlamini Zuma, it should be no different.
Were a more credible argument to be advanced, one that scrutinises her track record in government as minister of health in the first democratic dispensation, then as minister of foreign affairs and minister of home affairs, the argument being put forward opposing her candidacy would be more palatable.
Regardless of whether it is Dlamini Zuma standing for the presidency of the country or any other woman, marital status, motherhood (or lack thereof) or any other “female characteristics” are not a measure of whether or not one is up to the task.
The world has come a long way since the days when women required the permission of their husbands, fathers and brothers to open bank accounts, to vote, to travel and to otherwise conduct their own affairs.
As a result of hard-won gains by the women’s movement globally, we should have by now earned the right not to have our abilities measured by the yardstick of whether we are so and so’s daughter, wife or ex-wife. We should not find ourselves disappearing down the rabbit hole of sexual chauvinism just to score cheap political points.
* Edna Molewa is a member of the national executive committee of the ANCWL.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.