597 ANCWL's delegats on the first day of the leaugue's 11th conference held in Bloemfontein. 030708. Picture: Bongiwe Mchunu

Long before the ANC Women’s League (ANCWL) nominated President Jacob Zuma for a second term as president of the ANC, the choice was predictable.

The announcement confirmed a hitherto unarticulated position and standpoint on ANC leadership and the future of South African politics. For the ANCWL, the ANC is the father body that must be embraced even at the expense of the individual and collective freedom of women.

The decision was couched as a call for unity, strengthening the ANC and affirming the “movement” as larger than “sectoral interests”. How has the ANCWL determined that Zuma’s presidency serves the ANC and the country best? Is the decision based on an evaluation of his leadership? If there has been any serious probing and evaluation of what Zuma’s leadership of the ANC and, by implication, South Africa, has contributed towards a culture of constitutional democracy and non-sexism, the ANCWL has not communicated this to the public.

It is safe to assume that no such evaluation has taken place. This is confirmed by the explanations put forward for Zuma’s candidacy. According to the ANCWL, this is in the interest of “unity and continuity”.

This raises many questions, both about Zuma and the thinking that informed this decision.

Clearly, the ANCWL has not evaluated the merit of such a nomination. It has not provided any argument as to why he is the best to lead. It has also not explained what it means by “continuity”.

What must be continued – patriarchy, hetero-normative misogyny, lack of accountability and a tendency to undermine the South African constitution?

Instead of providing solid reasons for its leadership choices, the ANCWL has for the first time spoken of the “pre- and post-Polokwane trauma” the organisation says it has “suffered”.

Of course, lived experience is important. However, it is instructive that in the five years since Polokwane, the ANCWL has said nothing about the fallout from that conference on the organisation as a whole, not to mention South Africa.

Why? Has the ANCWL ever undertaken a process of serious reflection on that period and what followed? What lessons has it drawn from that? It would not be wrong to assume that phraseology reflecting trauma is used to avoid confronting the actual reasons behind the ANCWL’s choice of Zuma.

Yes, such processes are an internal matter. We know that the ANC has undertaken numerous “self-criticism” and “reflection” exercises. How productive these have been, only history will judge.

Undertaking introspection is even more difficult for the ANCWL than it is for the ANC. It requires willingness to confront the legacy of the decisions in which it was instrumental. Such an exercise would have exposed the most sensitive underbelly of the ANCWL – that of never actually representing women where it matters most, in relation to patriarchy in South Africa.

History is replete with examples of powerful women who, when accessing power, collude with and indeed adopt patriarchal practices and domination in society.

The ANCWL, in the guise of unity, evades grappling with this complex issue.

In 2007 it decided to back a process that has taken this country many years back and erased the very important role played by women in the ANC.

During the centenary celebrations, the ANCWL has colluded with a narrative that has erased or minimised women’s role in South African history.

We have not heard the ANCWL probing the role played by Charlotte Maxeke, the founder of the Bantu Women’s League, or the countless other nameless women who were de facto members of the ANC from its earliest years.

The ANCWL has not put forward any contestation of the dominant narrative that women were not members of the ANC until 1943. Not a word has emerged from the ANCWL about Maxeke’s presence at the 1912 founding conference.

Josie Mpama and many others have emerged only as slogans and footnotes in this history. And why would they not? Their history is complex and it would be difficult to speak of their legacy in the current politics of the father body.

Maxeke was one of the women who could go toe to toe with an ANC president and in public. This was not a sign of disrespect, but an indication of independence of mind and spirit, the very core of a person’s quest for freedom, the type of independent spirit so sorely absent in the ANCWL today.

Josie Mpama is an untidy hero for those who want to present a one-sided view of history. She demonstrated a fierce sense of power and of organising women independently, including strikes.

The women, whose history has been silenced or truncated with the collusion of the ANCWL, took the initiative to build solidarity across racial lines through the Federation of South African Women, a move that made ANC male leadership nervous at the time.

Their march in 1956 to the Union Buildings was initially opposed by ANC leaders. Lillian Ngoyi and others told the ANC that they were going ahead with the march, with or without their support. The ANC finally came around and “saluted the women”.

In the 1950s they warned ANC leaders that they would “wear the pants” and move ahead without them.

Interestingly, endorsing Zuma for the ANC presidency has laid bare a historical problem that many have written about before – the precarious position that many women carry: that of being insiders who are outsiders. It is not a state of victimhood or being excluded, but rather a conscious choice that women who enter into positions of power have made for themselves.

It is a conscious decision that goes far deeper than choosing not to “rock the boat” or “politics of survival”; it is a choice that is deeply embedded in the unconscious mind to self-negate and to trade dignity for positions.

This is at the core of the ANCWL’s decision to nominate Zuma.

Just after the ANCWL’s endorsement of Zuma was announced, a flurry of articles was penned by women who questioned this decision, bemoaning the fact that women did not “choose one of our own”.

Fundamental questions arise in relation to this approach. The first is who are “we” and who is “one of our own”? Surely we have to realise that the shifting sands of South African and global politics force us to question given assumptions of who we are. These notions of “who we are” have become ties of bondage for many men and women in our society. It is this approach that many leaders, including Zuma, rely upon when they speak of the “other”, “white law” and “our African ways”.

They know that most of us have not yet questioned these given assumptions and perhaps lack the courage to do so. So, we internalise these definitions and associate with definitions of who we are even as they negate our very sense of humanity.

It is a tricky and painful relationship between continuity and change, but one that we must interrogate. What do we preserve and what do we change and how?

Perhaps the question is not whether the ANCWL has nominated a man, important as that is. We need to ask: what kind of leadership does South Africa need for our complex journey?

Without doubt, there are serious contestations within the ANCWL, as there are in any organisation. There are those who still remember the statement of May 2, 1990, that defined patriarchy as deeply embedded in our society, including our culture. They know that Zuma is a prime exponent of that patriarchy so eloquently identified.

What can they do? The answer is as clear as it is difficult. They have to struggle against the tide. They have to find creative ways of changing the very idioms that the ANC leadership uses today.

But most importantly, they have to possess critical imagination that will help them move beyond the patriarchal culture that has taken root in the ANC. They will have to revisit and reclaim its history. They will have to reimagine the society they think they deserve and build from there.

If there are women in the ANCWL who have the courage to reject the destructive patriarchal culture within and outside the ANC, they will find there are many who will be willing to support them.

* Nomboniso Gasa is manager of programmes for the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution. These are her personal views. Follow her on twitter @nombonisogasa

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