Public Protector Thuli Madonsela

The ANCWL has finally responded to allegations of disparaging comments made about Thuli Madonsela’s looks, writes Pinky Khoabane


The ANC Women’s League finally responded to allegations of the sexist remarks supposedly made by the ANC Youth League and the Congress of South African Students (Cosas) about the Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela. The two groups apparently made disparaging comments about Madonsela’s looks, describing her as “that woman with the big, ugly nose”.

The Youth League and Cosas vented their fury towards the public protector following her report on security upgrades on President Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla home.

In their disagreement with the contents of the report, they felt it best, and most likely easier, to tackle her personally instead of addressing the issues she raised in the report. And rightly, the mother body moved quickly and came out to reprimand its youth and education group, describing the remarks as sexist and against what the ANC stood for. The women’s league followed suit, albeit much later, and it too, took the youth to task on the remarks.

Imagine for a second what the response would have been had they replaced ugly with pretty. For some reason, I doubt very much that there would have been a murmur, but that is a debate for another day.

The culture of besmirching opponents and detractors is pervasive in South African politics, and remarks can take racist and sexist slurs.

While statements by ANC members and Julius Malema, during his days at the ANCYL, managed to capture headlines, the opposition party has its own disparaging remarks which make Malema’s description of the DA’s parliamentary leader, Lindiwe Mazibuko, as a tea girl seem meek. Just last year, the DA had to strip Nelson Mandela Bay councillor Standford Slabbert of his membership after he had sent out an e-mail with disparaging statements about Zuma and the ANC. Slabbert said that Zuma had more wives than brain cells. The former councillor didn’t stop there, but accused the ANC of producing “dumb idiots who wait for handouts” and accused the political party of overseeing a country where a quarter of schoolgirls were HIV-positive owing to South Africans’ rampant spread of the disease.

In the Western Cape Legislature, Theuns Botha referred to a member of the provincial legislature, Zodwa Magwaza, as a bobbejaan (baboon). The same Botha called Lynne Brown, an ANC leader of the opposition in the Western Cape Legislature, a hippopotamus.

When Magwaza questioned the DA on its silence on the closure of schools in the Western Cape which she referred to as the “elephant in the room”, the DA’s leader, Helen Zille retorted: “There is only one elephant in the room.” Like her fellow DA member, Botha, she, too, went for Magwaza’s weight.

Attacking women’s looks and weight seems to be what politicians naturally defer to when they run out of facts to support their particular stance – but the DA MP Pieter van Dalen, who allegedly called Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson a teef (bitch), in Parliament, took the insults to another level and, remarkably, with very little resulting outrage. The minister, who is often at the receiving end of Van Dalen’s wrath on social media network Twitter, was accused of using delaying tactics during a debate on the Marine Living Resources Amendment Bill.

Van Dalen later denied the remarks and was reported to have said that the minister was hearing voices: “I don’t know if she’s hearing voices. She’s known for hearing voices.” In Business Day, he was reported to have said he called her a dief (thief).

Regardless of the denials, the MP’s remarks were met with deafening silence. There wasn’t even a public outrage demanding that the matter be investigated and the truth be established.

Chauvinist and sexist remarks, as Mazibuko called them when ANC MP Buti Manamela reprimanded her on her dress code in Parliament, have no place in a country that prides itself of being progressive. However, there is a stark contrast in the public’s response to these types of remarks when levelled at DA members.

Think back at the outrage at Manamela’s remarks and those by ANC John Jeffrey when he referred to Mazibuko: “While the honourable Mazibuko may be a person of substantial weight, her stature is questionable.” In his withdrawal of the pun and apology, Jeffrey said he had not been referring to Mazibuko’s weight but his statements were in reference to her influence and power. Mazibuko accepted the apology. A new hairstyle she donned was once mocked intensely in Parliament. The IFP’s Koos van der Merwe interjected a speech she was making and asked: “What on Earth have you done to your hair?”

While the racist and sexist rhetoric seems rampant, and is not only unique to South African politics, the question must be whether voters even care.

The statements made by some of the politicians in this country would see the end of their careers if they were in other countries like the US, for example. The powerful women’s groups there would ensure that they lost their seats.

Any politician who, like Zille, has an entire cabinet of men, would not live to see a second term if she managed to overcome the challenges that she would have confronted during her tenure. The fact that Zille’s cabinet didn’t advance women, coupled with her party’s decision to vote against the Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill, which was adopted in the National Assembly last month, would have been a point of contention. The Bill calls for a 50 percent representation of women in all spheres, which probably explains why the DA would not adopt it. How many dreams of a US political office have been dashed by the discovery that a candidate had a marital affair?

In South Africa, we don’t seem to bring these issues into our voting decisions.


* Khoabane is an author, writer and columnist.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Sunday Independent