ANC Leadership Race: As Sirleaf bows out in Liberia, could Dlamini Zuma be a true champion of women in the south?


    Before signing off her last speech before the
    African Union as its commission’s chairperson in January,
    Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma called Liberian president Ellen Johnson
    Sirleaf to the podium to hand over a token of

    In her speech Dlamini-Zuma was talking about
    imagining and creating “the Africa we want to live in, so that
    we can bequeath a united and better Africa to future

    Once Sirleaf was at the podium, Dlamini Zuma
    expressed a “heartfelt gratitude” to the Economic Community of
    West African States (Ecowas), which had under Sirleaf’s
    leadership a few months before forced Yahya Jammeh out of power
    in The Gambia after he lost elections. They “defended the
    values and principles of our union”, Dlamini-Zuma

    She further told Sirleaf, Africa’s first elected
    female president:

    You are a pioneer and inspiration to all men and

    There is something to say for how refreshing it is
    to have a woman president, even if it is for the mere sake of
    it. Sirleaf was voted into power in 2005 by the female vote
    after 14 years of civil war in the country. Liberia has since
    been at peace.

    A friend who worked in the country has told of the
    special treatment female guests of the president used to
    receive. Going around schools in the country, the same friend
    asked a little boy what wanted to be one day. He said although
    being president is a woman’s job, he’d like to be president too
    one day. Sweet anecdote, but when it comes to Sirleaf’s actual
    record of bettering women’s lives, it’s a mixed

    Academic Robtel Neajai Pailey and civil society
    leader Korto Reeves Williams
    note in The

    that Sirleaf has built and renovated hundreds
    of markets for Liberia’s “market women” – female informal

    After coming from a war in which 70% of women were
    sexually abused, the country has implemented the most
    comprehensive anti-rape law on the continent.

    However, only 2% of reported cases
    have resulted in conviction

    Female genital mutilation has also not been
    criminalised in Liberia, despite women’s rights activists
    demanding it.

    Sirleaf’s successor is also unlikely to be a woman.
    On a list of about 20 presidential candidates, there is only
    one woman, humanitarian and former model MacDella
    Cooper, and she isn’t considered a serious

    Despite Sirleaf’s vowing to campaign for female
    candidates, only 16% of those running for the presidential and
    legislative elections are women.

    Sirleaf also failed to support a proposed law
    sponsored by the Liberian women’s legislative caucus in 2010
    mandating that women should occupy 30% of political party
    leadership. Only four of her appointed 21 cabinet officials are

    Still, Quartz Africa noted that even though numbers
    are still very low,
    more women than ever
    are putting their hands up to
    participate in Liberian politics due to Sirleaf’s

    In 2011 Sirleaf was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize
    for her efforts to further women’s rights.

    How about closer to home? Dlamini Zuma already has
    a track record in government, but it’s been mixed. While as
    health minister in the 1990s she placed a lot of emphasis on
    primary healthcare, especially for mothers and children, her

    siding with sex pest Norman Mashabane
    in 2006, despite a
    court finding him guilty, wasn’t the kind of thing you’d expect
    from someone who calls herself a gender activist.

    With her at the helm, the African Union ran a
    campaign against child marriages and got the buy-in of male
    presidents, despite it being a very sensitive topic culturally
    and despite the chauvinism on the continent – a feather in
    Dlamini Zuma’s gender cap.

    At the same time, however, the suppression of gay
    rights in many African countries continued unabated even with a
    woman at the helm of the AU Commission.

    Should Dlamini-Zuma be elected president of the ANC
    it will be against the gender odds. Despite the party having
    very progressive rules dictating that half of its leadership
    should be women, this has never filtered through to the most
    contested positions – that of president, secretary-general, and
    chairpersons and secretaries at provincial and regional

    Women are usually slotted into the lesser contested
    deputy positions.

    Women in the party also don’t do well in highly
    contested situations. The video clips of chairs flying at the
    Eastern Cape provincial conference last weekend, and the images
    of injured people emerging, perhaps serve as a good
    illustration of just how hostile the atmosphere can be. Gender
    equality doesn’t thrive in violence. The long nights that often
    characterise party contestation are also not friendly to women
    who are often the care-givers in their families. If it wants
    real gender equality, the ANC should address its infighting too
    (and attitudes have hardened to such an extent that this is
    unlikely to happen soon).

    Anecdotal evidence also suggests that there still
    is a highly patriarchal culture within the ANC, with many men
    being averse to having a woman president. Should Dlamini-Zuma
    actually go on to smash that glass ceiling within the party, is
    it actually an achievement that could be duplicated soon? It
    seems unlikely – although in a decade or so the ANC might be
    out of power anyway, and its presidency would no longer be a
    big prize.

    Also, the fact that Dlamini Zuma is going against
    ANC traditions – that the deputy president of the party should
    preferably become the president – might breed resentment in the
    party, so that when her term as president is up some within the
    party would cry that they don’t want another woman leader –
    just as some north African states did when she stepped out
    after her first term in the AU.

    The gender credentials of the campaigners Dlamini
    Zuma has surrounded herself with are also questionable. Social
    Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini earlier this year almost
    collapsed the social grants system because of
    maladministration, and has been unapologetic about it. Those
    that benefit from this system are mostly female and they are
    all poor.

    It’s not clear how having a woman in this ministry
    – the president of the ANC Women’s League no less – has
    benefited other, and mostly vulnerable, women. If Dlamini Zuma
    is willing to overlook such weaknesses in her campaigners, how
    would she address this when in government?

    By campaigning on a gender ticket, Dlamini Zuma
    raises legitimate expectations. Like Sirleaf, she should
    expect, in the end, to be judged by these standards too.

    Photo: (left) Nobel Peace Prize winner Liberian
    President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (L) during the award ceremony
    in Oslo, December 10, 2011. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger; (right)
    Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma at the final day of the ANC policy
    conference, 5 July 2017 (Ihsaan Haffejee)