FEMINISTS from across the political spectrum have been hopeful for some years that a woman president would be elected in South Africa.
Thus far, all the political parties remain headed by men or have an overwhelmingly higher number of men in office. This means that despite a constitution that promises equality of the sexes, the issue of institutional patriarchy persists.
Until we see equal representation of women in business and in politics, we cannot argue otherwise.
All this came to mind as I watched Lindiwe Sisulu give the keynote address at the annual memorial lecture in honour of struggle stalwart Lilian Ngoyi in Khayelitsha last weekend.
Her feminist and pro-poor delivery got me thinking about what sort of president she would make and how hard it would be for a woman of her stature to run for this position.
It was revealed in the media recently that Sisulu may join the presidential race and has been on the receiving end of death threats as a result.
Although she has not verified her involvement, political writers have indicated that she has the backing of key branches in the Eastern Cape as well as many struggle stalwarts, student leaders and MK veterans.
But in a male-dominated administration, it is clear that if Sisulu does campaign, she will not only have to run the gauntlet of men in power.
She will also have to deal with the lack of support from women within the ANC ranks since she is effectively running against the Women’s League choice of candidate, Nkosazana Dlaimini-Zuma. To complicate matters further, it has been said that Dlamini-Zuma is also Number One’s number one choice.
With a women’s league that has been harshly critiqued as an organisation that has lost its way and spends its time and resources spin-doctoring on behalf of President Jacob Zuma instead of fulfilling its mandate around women’s rights, it seems inevitable that Sisulu will not get support from those quarters within the cabinet.
It is said that they take their orders from the men on top and lack the feminist agency that one would expect from a movement with its roots in the struggle for justice for women.
Many have intimated that it is no surprise that Zuma is campaigning for Dlamini-Zuma, insisting that she remains beholden to him via relationship and history and is his “stay out of jail” ticket as well as a conduit through which he can maintain his network of patronage and his fingers in the Treasury coffers.
She has already been accused in the media of spreading divisive politics. This all compromises her own track record and as a woman in her own right.
Dlamini-Zuma, who attained her medical degree at a time when to be black and female meant exclusion, has held top positions in the ANC government and has just completed her term as the first female chairperson of the AU.
But the fact that she is backed by the Women’s League in cabinet means that no other woman except the one selected by Zuma himself, will receive the much-needed backing and lobbying from them – a matter that sources say has created tension within the ranks of the ANC. Apparently since Sisulu has been perceived as a potential contender, the gloves are off and she is being undermined and disparaged by many of her female colleagues, who say she is more of a fashion model than a leader.
If this is true, it is an all-too-familiar scenario that occurs in any environment where patriarchy has taken root and women are forced to play second fiddle.
Some independent studies suggest that until all women recognise systemic patriarchy as the thing that thwarts their progress, chances are they will turn on each other in the workplace, where patriarchal approval is often the only thing they can rely on to get ahead. Instead of uniting with other women to deal with this institutional chauvinism that continues to undercut them and sets them against each other, these studies suggest that women will often internalise patriarchy as a way to survive this inequality.
Nowhere is this divide-and-rule approach more visible than when women are vying for political power. And sources close to Sisulu say she is on the receiving end of this syndrome and is thus being frozen out by the pro-Zuma faction of the women’s league in response to her possible campaign for the presidency.
This response could have a lot to do with her stellar track record, not only as a former liberation fighter and senior in the MK, but also because she holds a senior position in the national executive committee, being one of the longest-serving ministers in the cabinet.
She also has an impressive record in good governance, a remarkable academic record and has published academic articles on to women’s contribution to the world.
This will endear her to many women from across the sectors, especially if her campaign highlights her contributions to knowledge-production around issues that affect their lives.
Her CV is studded with global awards and she is doing her second PhD with Leeds University.
Her work on the proposed anti-corruption bill will also stand her in good stead with many voters.
Is it possible that she is recognised as the dark horse in this race? Could this be why she received death threats even as a comrade who has held the office of minister of defence and military veterans, minister of public service and administration and who is now minister of human settlements?
Sisulu would come in as an independent candidate without any of the tribalism and benefaction baggage that Dlamini-Zuma has allegedly been coerced into dragging into her campaign for presidency.
This is the ideal point in South African history for women to band together and vote a solid woman candidate into presidency.
It could well be that Sisulu is exactly what the South African voting constituency is looking for after the Zuma and Marikana era, the ideal candidate to win this race and to stitch back together the ANC’s tattered image.
• Schutte is an activist, feminist, film-maker and writer. She has an MA in creative writing and is a founding member of Media for Justice.