Today, South Africa’s ruling party, the ANC, will choose its next leader, and by dint of its majority rule, the next president of the country. The choice is between Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, an accomplished female politician and former chairperson of the African Union, and Cyril Ramaphosa, a polished businessman and former political stalwart who made millions when South African markets opened to the world after apartheid.
Most countries would be thrilled to have a woman reach so far up the political ladder as to be one of two contenders in a presidential race, and many in South Africa are. But many more fear that a vote for Dlamini-Zuma is a vote to continue the corrupt and patriarchal practices of her ex-husband and current president, Jacob Zuma, who selected her as his successor.
So it’s particularly remarkable that the Women’s League, which only a few years ago said South Africa was not ready for a woman president,threw its might behind Dlamini-Zuma, For many, it showed that that endorsing a female candidate has less to do with shattering the glass ceiling than reinforcing the status quo.
The ANC Women’s League has become “the gatekeepers of patriarchy,” political analyst and gender activist Nomboniso Gasa told local radio station 702. It has “chosen to reduce itself to a small and insignificant appendage, unless the [ANC] gives its approval or asks them to do something,” Gasa said. “Its preoccupation as evidently, is to protect President Zuma, protect President Zuma, protect President Zuma. And it doesn’t matter the cost to the country, and the cost to the women.”
The evolution of the Women’s League is just one example of how upside down life can be in South Africa, which has one of the continent’s most progressive constitutions that protects women’s rights, but where police routinely ignore cases of violence against women.
Amanda Gouws, a professor of political science at Stellenbosch University, says this is symptomatic of what’s happened to women’s branches of other liberation movements in Africa. These “party auxiliaries,” as Gouws calls them, “get caught up in this whole understanding of nationalism as part of nation building. Nationalism positions women in a specific way: as mothers and as the reproducers of the nation. This is where the ANC Women’s League has moved to—to supporting the men in the party.”
As a result, even though women’s equality is demanded by South Africa’s constitution, and the ANC has pledged to have 50% female representation, South African politics has become quite hostile to feminist perspectives, despite embracing them in 1994. “They’ve changed completely from an organization that wanted equality for women to an organization that says, ‘Protect the corrupt president.’ I think at this point, the ANC Women’s League is part of the problem,” Gouws says.
It’s a symptom of South Africa’s political climate that separating Dlamini-Zuma from her ex-husband is almost impossible, even though they divorced in 1998. The couple were married for 26 years, and have four children together, but Dlamini-Zuma is a very capable politician and administrator and limiting her abilities to the title of “Zuma’s ex” is unfair and sexist.
A medical doctor, Dlamini-Zuma played a significant role advising on gender equality during South Africa’s negotiations to end apartheid. She then served as health minister, minister of foreign affairs, and minister of home affairs before she was elected the first woman to chair the African Union in 2012. Like former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, she has been criticized for lacking the charisma of her opponent.
The Women’s League has praised Dlamini-Zuma’s “humility, integrity, and selflessness,” throughout her career in politics. “She has distinguished leadership skills required to advance fundamental changes of the structure, systems, institutions and patterns of ownership, management and control of the economy in favor of all South Africans, especially the poor, the majority of whom are African and youth and women,” they write.
And yet, she’s been referred to as a “get-out-of-jail free card” for Zuma.
“The kinds of things that Clinton’s husband did, and what Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s ex-husband has done … the extent and the nature of those acts that has put a cloud over her campaign,” says Sarakinsky. “That’s unfortunate, because she knew it would happen and she hasn’t done enough in the run-up to [the ANC] conference to separate herself from that.”
Sarakinsky takes comfort in the fact that the ANC has “a number of incredibly capable contenders” for leadership. “We’re very lucky as a country to have that caliber of female candidates.”
For Gasa, the future lies with young women who are rising up to take the place of older movements. “New leaders are coming up,” she told 702. “And [they] are saying, ‘We no longer feel that we are beholden to your narrative. We will take that narrative, we will take the courage you once had, and make of it what we will in this present moment.’ And I think the Women’s League is having a difficult time to keep in touch with that.”