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Issue Date:  January 11, 2008

Trying time for women in South Africa's ruling party

Cape Town, South Africa
Inter Press Service

The past weeks have been tumultuous for women in South Africa’s ruling African National Congress.

On one hand, they end the year with a key gain: The party approved a mandate that 50 percent of posts in its decision-making structures be held by women -- albeit with an exception made for the top six positions in the 86-member National Executive Committee, which includes just two women: Baleka Mbete, chairwoman, and Thandi Modise, deputy secretary-general. Previously, representation of women was set at a third of posts.

On the other hand, they find themselves serving under a party president and leading candidate to become head of the country after next year’s election, who has attracted the wrath of activists for his comments on AIDS and women.

Moreover, he won the party presidency with the support of the African National Congress’ Women’s League.

Jacob Zuma won leadership of the ANC in December in a bruising battle that ousted head of state Thabo Mbeki from the senior ranks of the party. Zuma won despite corruption allegations linking him to a multimillion dollar arms deal -- allegations that led to his dismissal as South Africa’s deputy president in 2005. A few days after his election, the new party president was indeed charged with corruption, money laundering, racketeering and fraud.

Over the years, the women’s league has found steady resistance to gender equality within the congress party. While the party was formed in 1912, women were admitted as members only in 1943. The league was set up in 1948.

In supporting Zuma, the league endorsed a man who was tried for the alleged rape of an HIV-positive AIDS activist who was also a family friend. He was acquitted, but during the trial his testimony that he had taken a shower to reduce his risk of contracting HIV as a result of the unprotected sex, caused additional uproar. In other statements, Zuma implied that women wear certain types of clothing as an invitation to sex.

The league’s endorsing Zuma came as a shock to some.

“Their vote has shown a weakness of the movement in reading the situation and protecting the gains made over decades,” said Mohau Pheko, an independent political analyst and leading gender activist.

Lisa Vetten, a researcher at the Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre in South Africa’s commercial hub, Johannesburg, predicts that gender issues will slip down the Congress’ agenda under Zuma. Mbuyiselo Botha, general secretary of the South African Men’s Forum, said the choice of Zuma shows the enduring power of patriarchy.

“Women in this country still think that men are ordained by God to lead them,” Botha said. “What message did these women send to young girls looking for role models? Or to those young women who have aspirations of becoming leaders in this country?”

Mbeki had indicated that he would like to be succeeded by a woman, and appointed a woman -- former minerals and energy minister Phumzile Mlambo-Ngucka -- to be South Africa’s first female deputy president.

However, as political commentator Karima Brown noted, this support for gender equality failed to yield a much-needed “political dividend” for the president. The opposite held true, rather, with Zuma accusing the Mbeki camp of using the gender issue for leverage in the succession race, rather than for true women’s empowerment.

National Catholic Reporter, January 11, 2008

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