14 December 2007

South Africa: Gender Parity Loses Out to Party Politics

Johannesburg — WHATEVER it was that pushed President Thabo Mbeki to pursue gender parity in the African National Congress (ANC) and the government has arguably done the most for women in the state and the party.

Under Mbeki's stewardship, the ANC's female quota increased to 30%. The party is expected to increase this 50% at its upcoming elective conference.

The president has appointed no fewer than 12 women cabinet ministers and four female premiers.

There has also been an increase in the number of female mayors across the country. Moreover, Mbeki has said on record that he would not mind being succeeded by a woman.

Meanwhile in the private sector, women business leaders such as Gloria Serobe, Wendy Luhabe and Danisa Baloyi have moved into prominent and powerful executive positions.

Experts say there is also a real and legitimate struggle -- both inside the ANC and in society -- to ensure that women and gender issues inform not only discourse but policy and action.

It is men who pontificate on the downtrodden status of women, knowing that women form the majority of the electorate.

At its worst, the politics of representation becomes nothing more than cynical appropriation.

Mbeki's critics have slammed his appropriation of the gender question as a cynical attempt to build a power base and to advance narrow class interests. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) says that Mbeki cares little for the plight of unemployed women, female workers and HIV-positive women.

The president's denialism around HIV-AIDS, which presents a largely female face in SA, gives currency to the argument. Mbeki's shock defeat in the party's presidential nomination of the ANC Women's League (ANCWL) gives rise to the question of whether Mbeki's gender tactics have paid off.

Judging by the reaction of the main beneficiaries during his presidency -- largely female cabinet ministers and businesswomen -- the ANCWL's position ahead of the party conference in Limpopo came as a huge blow.

The league had been expected not only to back Mbeki, but also to push for greater gender parity on the ANC's top brass. However, what the league's decision has revealed is that the women are themselves divided and would rather vote for men when it comes to the party's presidency.

While the women's league drama points to the weaknesses in Mbeki's gender offensive, his rival Jacob Zuma has so far done very little to quell allegations that he is socially conservative and not gender sensitive.

Mbeki's top six list is equally divided between men and women, whereas Zuma only has one woman in his top six.

Zuma's rape trial severely dented his reputation despite his being found not guilty. Given that the gender question has become a major faultline in the party, Zuma too realises the need for greater representation.

His supporters may push for a vote for a woman in the top six from the conference floor .

This ambivalence indicates that the gender question in the ANC is once again being sacrificed at the altar of power politics and patriarchy.

The poisoned atmosphere in the ANC, and the fact that the push for equity has happened through the prism of the party's presidential succession race, will decide whether the push for 50-50 representation will succeed in Polokwane.

The principle that a woman should lead the party and the country has long been accepted, but democratic legitimacy demands that one have a recognised support base. Female leaders are not exempt from this political reality.

Mbeki's lobbyists are hoping to reverse Zuma's early lead and ally the ANCWL behind the president. He already has the backing of league president Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula.

It is rumoured that the league's delegation to the elective conference may be changed.

The conference vote will show whether Mbeki's appropriation of the gender question has paid off.

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