South Africa is stuck in a space where women politicians are the target for unfair gender-based criticism and humiliation.
This was the subject of a discussion at Wiser on Thursday called“The trouble of being a female in politics” with a panel composed of Rebecca Davis from the Daily Maverick, Eusebius McKaiser from Power FM and journalist and Wiser fellow Khadija Patel.
Davis wrote an article for Daily Maverick last week on the special problems for women in politics. The article, which caused wide debate, addressed the way the South African media and society as a whole dealt with the merger between the Democratic Alliance (DA) and Agang and their respective female leaders, Helen Zille and Mamphela Ramphele.
The press conference was marked with a kiss between Zille and Ramphele, demonstrating their long friendship. But the panelists pointed out that the kiss soon became a meme, and was compared to acts of lesbianism and sexual provocation.
The merger soon failed but Davis noted that criticism of Zille and Ramphele made hay of the two leaders being women.
“Let’s face it, the DA-Agang merger was disastrous, but the fact that they were women should have been irrelevant.”
“This suggests that there is an illegitimacy to women owning the public space in South Africa,” said Davis.
Both the DA and Agang have also been criticized for being too “top heavy” with female leadership.
However, Davis said a political party with an all-male leadership is never recognized for its “weirdness” or criticized for being “too masculine”.
McKaiser believes that South African politics does not have a problem with a lack of female representation. He argues some of the best performing politicians are female, a fact that is often overlooked. McKaiser uses African Union chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as an example of a woman succeeding in politics. But McKaiser adds that she has yet to make a public mistake and therefore has been spared gendered criticism.
Patel said she was personally pained by the gendered discourse used on women. “It is already hard for a woman to be in politics without these remarks hoisted on you.”
An example of this would be the press referring to Ramphele as “gogo”, a term which helped describe her as an old and confused woman, when she is actually younger than President Jacob Zuma. The fact that he is old is seen as a political advantage and an indicator of accumulated wisdom instead of senility, Patel said.