Johannesburg — Many of us have become resigned to the ANC Women's League's deafening silence on important gender issues. What is harder to stomach is when the League actively comes out in support of sexism - raising the question of whether this once-proud organisation has any integrity left at all.
It should be obvious to anyone that the ANC Women's League is in a pretty bizarre position. It is tasked with fighting the good fight for women's rights while its top boss, a man previously investigated for rape, continues to make a series of deeply problematic gender gaffes.
High-level involvement in the ANC Women's League must be a bit like working for the Nuclear Disarmament Campaign while knowing that your CEO is busy enriching plutonium in his basement.
The schizophrenia of its position has been exposed in all its stark absurdity, however, by this week's events. Last Sunday, you may recall, President Jacob Zuma appeared on Dali Tambo's talk show People of the South, resurrected after 10 years in the latest illustration of the SABC's commitment to fresh, novel programming.
The episode focused on Zuma's family life, particularly his relationship with his daughters. Zuma expressed his happiness at his daughter Duduzile's marriage and then said, "I was also happy because I wouldn't want to stay with daughters who are not getting married, because that in itself is a problem in society. I know that people today think being single is nice. It's actually not right. That's a distortion. You've got to have kids. Kids are important to a woman because they actually give an extra training to a woman, to be a mother."
In the wake of the show, amid uproar from many women (and men) who found these views disturbing, the DA laid a complaint with the Commission for Gender Equality, which has subsequently confirmed it will be investigating the president's comments. But, lo and behold, out trotted the ANC Women's League to defend their patriarch.
Women's League spokeswoman Troy Martens told the Mail & Guardian that the comments were taken "grossly" out of context. "If you look at the statements made by the president in the context of the interview it seems clear to me that he is talking about his aspirations for his own daughters," Martens said.
This seems a staggeringly disingenuous interpretation of Zuma's utterances. Even if we allow for the fact that English is not the president's first language, it is surely understood that the minute a statement makes reference to "society", and "people today", the context shifts from the personal to the general. I find it impossible to believe that Martens, who previously worked as a successful journalist, is so crushingly incompetent at textual analysis that this is her genuine conviction as to Zuma's meaning. Besides, the statements are completely consistent with what we know of Zuma's patriarchal values.
When I raised this issue on Twitter, I received a number of responses from men demanding to know why Zuma's opinion on these matters was sexist. "Have to agree. Womans legue (sic) is correct. How is this sexist. I mean how de f*** you want men to produce babies?" read one fairly typical offering. (I would certainly not advise that particular man to produce babies.)
The reasons why Zuma's statement is sexist, since they apparently need spelling out, are as follows:
- Women who do not get married are not "a problem in society". Whether married or not, South African women often end up supporting families anyway: a Stats SA report from September last year found that nearly 44% of households in South Africa are female-headed. An example of a real problem in society is the extremely high levels of domestic violence and spousal abuse in this country, which also provide a compelling reason for why a woman might choose to leave a marriage.
- To say that being single is "not right" is to apply a bizarrely moralistic judgment to a situation which has absolutely nothing to do with right and wrong. It also implies that women who are single are in some way bad, or immoral. Aside from the women who choose to be single - which is a legitimate choice because, guess what, women actually have the right to make these decisions for themselves - there are many women who would love to oblige our president and marry, but haven't found the right partner. In those cases Zuma might recommend their father selling them off to a neighbour, but some pesky modern women take issue with that kind of thing. (It's probably all the alcohol they drink rotting their minds.)
- You do not have to have kids. This suggestion is offensive and distressing to women who cannot bear children, for one thing. In a resource-strained environment it can often be a supremely moral choice not to have kids. In Zuma's worldview, a woman's primary purpose may be as child-bearer, but recent research has shown that women can become adept at a number of other tasks, such as reading, writing, supporting communities and running major multinational corporations.
- The statement that "kids are important to a woman because they actually give an extra training to a woman, to be a mother" is so astonishingly patronising that it's hard to know where to begin. But here's a start: What about fathers? Men are, it seems, entirely missing from Zuma's schema of child-rearing. The statement also suggests that those women who miss out on this "training" are in some way incomplete, or less qualified at life or less disciplined. But women can surely achieve "training" in alternative ways. Call me crazy, but formal education is one that springs to mind.
Yet the ANC Women's League sees absolutely nothing to quibble with in Zuma's views. "What did you expect?" a friend asked, when I expressed my disappointment with the organisation. Taking a look at the list of press statements it has published in the last while, I saw what he meant.
While it has remained utterly silent on issues like the imminent closure of vital women's resource NGOs in the Western Cape, for instance, the ANCWL found time to publish four separate outraged statements on the matter of The Spear and their "deep pain and betrayal at the undignified portrayal of the President".
Yet on Women's Day, while noting that "women are a force to be reckoned with", it warned "this is not the time to sit back, fold our arms and pat ourselves on the back for a job well done" (and indeed, anyone who can pull that off should consider a circus career). Celebrations would be premature, the League noted, because "patriarchy still plagues this society threatening to undermine the huge gains we have made as women".
Except when it comes to Daddy Zuma, it seems.