In little more than a week South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), will elect new leaders – a choice likely to decide who becomes the country’s next president.
After provincial nominations earlier this week, ANC deputy president Jacob Zuma – acquitted in a controversial rape trial last year – is well ahead of his rival, President Thabo Mbeki. Zuma also won the support of the ANC Women’s League (ANCWL) – a decision that has staggered most gender activists.
Despite a September commitment by the ANCWL to see a woman in the presidency, in addition to seeking 50 percent representation of women in the ANC’s six top posts, the league proposed only two women, backing Zuma and current secretary-general Kgalema Motlanthe for party president and deputy.
“It just shows you how fragile the gains we have made really are,” said gender activist Kubi Rama, CEO of Gender and Media Southern Africa (GEMSA), who co-chaired a march on 5 December in South Africa’s capital, Pretoria, partly in response to the ANCWL decision.
With the slogan “50-50: No Compromise”, the marchers demanded a renewed commitment to gender parity in government – a goal that the ANC only committed to at its June policy conference after a 10-year battle.
“The ANC Women’s League have failed us,” said Nkosazana Sobantu, an ANC member who had travelled for hours by bus from the south of the country to attend the march. “Women are still fighting for their rights. Yes, there are women in high positions in government, but they are not enough.”
For many women it was not just that the league had thrown its weight behind male candidates for two of the most important positions in the country, but that they chose to back Zuma, who stood trial for the rape of an HIV-positive activist.
Zuma’s comments on safe sex and women’s sexuality during the trial outraged gender activists. Outside the courthouse his supporters burnt images of the woman who had filed the complaint, highlighting the depth of the divisions generated by the highly politicised case.
At the time, the ANCWL issued a pointed statement that said: “We are saddened by the fact that this incident [the rape charge] implicates a leader that people have put confidence and trust in, and who has had the responsibility of leading the Moral Regeneration Movement.”
But political analyst Aubrey Mtshiqi, of the Centre for Policy Studies, a South African think-tank, warned against judging the ANCWL too harshly.
“Conflicting tensions and divisions within the ANC have always been mirrored within the ANCWL,” he said.
“Because of how poisoned the climate has become with the succession battle [in the ANC] since 2005, it’s not surprising to me that many women within the ANCWL have become embedded with the dominating male political interests.”
Mtshigi also said there might be more to the recent outcry over Zuma’s and Mothlante’s nominations than gender debates: “I think there are two camps: those that genuinely care about the debate, and those who are using the gender argument as a proxy for opposition to Zuma support.”
The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) – the country’s largest labour body, which staunchly supports Zuma – shares Mtshiqi’s suspicions. “Our concern is about the results of a legitimate caucus being exploited and manipulated by factional elements within the ANC,” said COSATU spokesman Patrick Craven.
“We think the process of choosing candidates should be respected … and this doesn’t in anyway conflict with our firm commitment to stand for women’s rights.”
Mbeki’s presidency has succeeded in alienating the left, which argues his cautious fiscal policies have benefited the wealthy at the expense of restructuring the economy to better deliver to the poor, while a lack of consultation and a centralised style of leadership have characterised his 10 years at the helm.
“I don’t think that we are blaming the ANC Women’s League, but we are expressing shock,” South African ambassador to Cuba and Women’s League member Thenjiwe Mtintso, told IRIN.
“The ANC is a microcosm of what happens in society,” she said. “Not a long time ago in the ANC, those of us who talked women’s emancipation were told that we were diverting a very important and critical struggle, the national liberation struggle, but we didn’t stop,” she said.
“It’s true, we are a reflection of the ANC; the sad thing is that we should not have been,” Mtintso said. “We should have been far above, as ANC women.”