Will the ANCWL back Jacob Zuma at Mangaung?

by The Editor

FEATURE: In 2007 and despite much public promising that it would seek to have a woman in the ANC presidency, the ANC woman’s league hypocritically capitulated and supported Jacob Zuma for president. So, what will it do this time round, at Mangaung? What follows is a retrospective, setting out what happened in 2007 and how, repeatedly, the ANCWL would come out on the wrong side of any debate that had at its heart the interests of women.

Will the ANCWL back Jacob Zuma at Mangaung?

By: Gareth van Onselen

30 May 2012


The ANC Women’s League must have been clapping with clenched teeth when the ANC rolled out its centenary celebrations earlier this year. For the first 31 years of its existence women were forbidden from joining the movement. Perhaps they only clapped two thirds of the time. Reading its statement on the celebrations you’d never have guessed this – a suitably inane piece of propaganda that didn’t even mention the fact – but that, in many respects, is the ANCWL for you. It is, for all intents and purposes, a nicety. Something the ANC can allude to in order that it might suggest how much it cares about women (or, at least, how much it has cared for 69 of the last 100 years). When push comes to shove, however, the league, like every other body in the ANC, is required to put aside its vested interests and tow the party line. And few organisations willing ingratiate themselves better than the ANCWL.

The defining recent example of this kind of deference (the league will no doubt argue its behaviour a sign of respect) was its December 2007 decision to endorse Jacob Zuma for ANC president, ahead of Polokwane – a decision which put pay to much of its pre-elective hype about the need for a woman in the presidency. It is ironic indeed that the league – very often the first to load its politically correct shot gun when someone is dragged before the gender wall – has not in 61 years managed to produce a female president. 61 years. 100 if its own delusional rhetoric is to be believed. Nothing. The DA did it in less than 10.

So, the big question is this: who will the ANCWL throw its weight behind at Mangaung? Will it grow a backbone and nominate a woman, or will it capitulate and obfuscate like it did in 2007? Watch this space.

In the meantime, it worth revisiting its 2007 decision in a bit more detail, just to get a better understanding of the way in which the ANCWL practices its own special brand of obsequiousness.

2007: The year of living hypocritically

As early as February 2007 the ANCWL was adamant it would remain “non-aligned”. So it started from first principles with a cop-out. Speaking at a press conference ANCWL president Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said whomever the league supported would be determined by its principles: “good principles, selflessness, cadreship and years of service to the movement” would be among its determining criteria. She said the league had “no anxiety” about the issue.

No one was really buying that line though. Rarely had the ANC been so publicly divided before, every facet of the organisation under intense external and internal pressure. It might have claimed no anxiety but increased power it certainly had. It was allowed to elect its own candidates and now enjoyed the status of a province, giving it far more weight than its usual 50 delegates (in truth it would have only 68 of the 4075 voting delegates but women have always constituted more than 50% of the ANC’s voting delegates, so its influence should not be underestimated). So, like it or lump it, the league’s endorsement would carry significant weight and influence. And everyone knew it.

As time passed the league occupied itself with, among other things, coming out in support of Norman Mashabane, the former ambassador and sex pest, found guilty of sexual harassment by the department of foreign affairs. Instead of condemning his March 2007 deployment to the Limpopo legislature, they effectively blamed women themselves for his predicament: “We call on women not to abuse their democratic privileges and make statements implicating others…” Principled stuff.

Clear as mud

But the pressure to declare its support for a presidential candidate continued and the league continued to side step the issue. In late March it would again obfuscate, ANCWL spokesperson Charlotte Lobe saying: “…we will discuss the team that will lead the ANC, but not one person”.

By April the league was beginning to suggest something a bit more concrete, intimating that a woman president would be preferable. ANCWL president Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said that the league was “…obliged to lead society in pronouncing its principled positions on the vulnerability of women, particularly on the issues of rape and abuse”. Many saw that as a veiled reference to Jacob Zuma, who was found not guilty of rape the year before but in testifying said a range of things that suggested his attitude towards women was hardly ‘principled’. Something the league had been openly critical of at the time.

In the background there were repeatedly mutterings foreign affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma would be the league’s preferred candidate. Although, even here, because she was likewise seen as firmly in Thabo Mbeki’s camp; for many members of the league it was argued this would be nothing more than an implicit vote for him anyway.

Mbeki himself was playing it cool. Telling the ANCWL to “forget there is a national conference in December” and focus rather on gender issues. He had himself mooted the idea of a female president some months earlier – an idea which many in the league took as a suggestion he had Dlamini-Zuma firmly in mind. So even that proved divisive.

Position 1: A woman in the presidency

With time things became clearer. In April the league’s National General Council took a resolution that it would fight for women to occupy 50% of all leadership positions in the ANC. Explaining the decision to the media, Mapisa-Nqakula said “We have not taken a position as the NGC that we want a woman president or deputy president, but we are saying certainly that the office of the presidency… has to have a woman.” So, one or the other, basically. At least it was now advocating its express purpose as an organisation.

Reveling in its new found influence the league took the opportunity to make some demands. For one, the establishment of a ‘ministry for woman’. One wonders what kind of negotiating went on behind the scenes with regards to that particular request. The fact that we now have a department for women (albeit not solely dedicated to them) suggests Zuma certainly obliged.

Other names for a woman presidential candidate were thrown about. Among them, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and former league president Winnie Madikizela-Mandela (it appears, if you have a double-barreled surname, your chances of succeeding in the ANCWL increase tenfold). And all the different machinations about who they were fronting for were endlessly discussed in the media. Another great irony. Every woman candidate was either for Zuma or Mbeki, but none for women themselves. Patronising, or telling? You decide.

More time passed. More support for people with dubious track records on gender issues. Among them, the league used one meeting to call for ailing health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang to be retained in her position. The very same person who had deliberately and in defiance of the constitutional court itself done everything she could to deny pregnant mothers access to anti-retroviral drugs.

Skip forward a few months to June and little had changed: still no decisive position from the league on anything. Writing for Business Day, Aubrey Matshiqi, opined that the reason the next president of the ANC would not be a woman was that the ANCWL was “embedded” with factional male political interests. It would nominate a man he said. It was inevitable. Or he’d eat his shoes.

By September the league’s inability to articulate a clear position led to it being described in one national newspaper as little more than “clueless”. Internally, just as was happening throughout the party, political infighting at provincial level had rendered its ability to make a decision nigh on impossible.

In the meantime, other bodies in the orgnaisation, most notably the ANC youth league, had set their cards on the table. And it was Zuma all the way. Its slate was: Zuma [president]; Motlanthe [deputy president]; Mantashe [secretary-general]; Dlamini-Zuma [chairwoman]; Baleka-Mbete [deputy secretary general] and Phosa [treasurer-general]. Given the ANCWL’s earlier resolution, however, that could not possibly be a slate it agreed with. As it has said, either the president or the deputy president would have to be a woman.

By October, with time running out, speculation was rife Dlamini-Zuma would be the ANCWL’s candidate. A source within the league told Business Day she represented the “safe choice”, allowing the league to stay out as far as possible of the Mbeki/Zuma feud. “It is not a compromise candidate, it is the safe choice”, the source said. Someone from the league will have to explain to me the difference between those two concepts.

Again, in November, the newspapers reported Dlamini-Zuma was a shoe-in. Indeed, that the league had set up a “special committee” to lobby for her. Mapisa-Nqakula told the Sunday Argus it would be a “very sad day” if the ANC emerged from Polokwane with an all-male presidency.

In other news, the league took time out to refuse to comment on allegations that the deputy chairperson of the league – Mavivi Mayakayaka-Manzini – had been abused by her husband, Manala Manazini. “We regard this as a private matter and are not doing anything about it”, said ANCWL spokesperson Charlotte Lobe.

Everything came to a head on 11 November when 70 ANCWL branch delegates in the Northern Cape threw chairs at each other and hurled punches over the Mbeki/Zuma leadership battle. A source told the Cape Argus: “As the process unfolded there was an exchange of words (between Mbeki and Zuma supporters). The main person was physically fighting everyone. She was fighting with the Zuma group. They were throwing chairs. It was bad.” So much for “no anxiety”.

The incident elicited from the ANC’s Electoral Commission a warning: play by the rules or else. The warning was rebuffed. The rebuffing caused more infighting. Things were beginning to fall apart at pace.

In a desperate bid to try and introduce some new, uncontroversial dynamic into the debate, on 25 November it was reported some members in the league had approached Winnie Madikizela-Mandela to stand. She, however, was having nothing to do with it.

Position 2: An all-male presidency

The next day, the ANCWL would nominate Jacob Zuma as president, by a narrow vote of 29 to 25.

Not just Jacob Zuma as president, but Kgalema Motlanthe as deputy. Its slate mirrored almost exactly the ANCYL’s.

The decision was panned by the media, gender activists and even some members of the ANC itself. The Cape Argus called it a “disservice to woman”, the Citizen said it constituted “political expediency”, gender activists Professor Shelia Meintjies and Mpumi Mathabela said it displayed a “lack of political will” and represented a “huge step backwards” for the women’s movement respectively. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said she was “shocked and disappointed” at the decision.

And rightly so. So much for resolutions. So much for principle. So much for advancing the interests of women. So much for a female president or deputy president. All nonsense. The tide was turning and the ANCWL did what it needed to do to make sure it was on the right ship.

But for all the shock and horror, its decision makes perfect sense: the ANCWL spent the whole of 2007 coming out on the side of men and taking positions which were not in the interests of women. Be it their support for Mashabane or Manto, their support for Zuma or the careful way they would only chose to speak out on those matters that might not stir the political waters, their position always was, to rephrase a saying, men first, women after.

So, let’s see what happens this time round. Jacob Zuma has effectively mobilized every element of the alliance in response to ‘The Spear’ and the ANCWL has dutifully fallen into line. It has got from the president a separate ministry dedicated to women’s interests (albeit one which appears no more functional than Limpopo) and so, is it ready to once again sacrifice principle in the face of its male political counterparts and put their interests first?

Time will tell.

As an aisde, it is interesting to note that, if you visit the ANCWL’s website, it has either failed to upload or expunged almost all its statements from 2006 and 2007 – only two statements from the entire period exist. Perhaps it would rather forget. Good choice in my view.

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