Kagure Mugo
Kagure Mugo

Cheese, crackers and taking women in politics seriously

In light of the rumours of trouble in the Agang camp and the elections racing towards us, one would understand Mamphela Ramphele’s need to find a bedfellow in the depths of political winter. It is a time-honoured political move. The ANC has its sheets full while the smaller parties bundle together.

But sometimes one does not like how people conduct themselves in the sack and you kick them out of bed. Alliances come and go. The problem with the failure of this particular alliance was that the repercussions spread far beyond the DA-Agang camps and into the realms of women in politics in general. Women now look even more “wishy-washy” in politics, which is especially damaging because we did not have the most concrete reputation to begin with.

The whole debacle had men laughing. I know this because I witnessed it. While wandering the halls of Parliament I was privy to a conversation between two members that went something like this:

“Ah, this DA-Agang thing. What is this? One minute kissy-kissy and the next … ”

“These women. They think this is a beauty salon? This is politics.”

“No boss, that Mamphela was sent by the ANC to destroy the DA. You don’t remember that she had babies by ANC people. She works for them.”

The conversation continues down the velvet carpet (and the carpeting in Parliament is exquisite) and with a chuckle the most powerful women in politics are reduced to blithering teenage girls rather than possible contenders for the highest office in the land.

Recently, in light of the pending elections, an SABC1 programme asked young people on the street if South Africa was ready for a woman president. Although some said it was time to explore other options, a few said “women were not ready for that level of responsibility”. They we were simply “too emotional”. When asked about the rise of single-parent households run by women who provided for entire families, the general consensus was that women should be caregivers not leaders. They should stick to playing a supporting role to those who actually do “run things”.

To look at the average parliamentary portfolio committee is to see the prevalence of this idea. The committees can be separated into two categories “cuddly and cute” and “the stuff that matters”. The cuddly and cute category boasts such “lightweights” as the department of social development, department of everything vulnerable under the sun (women, children and persons with disabilities), arts and culture and human settlements. These are often full of women (and the men who did not manage to throw their weight around in the ANC).

On the other side of the coin, those men (and women who have the requisite political skill and clout) are allowed where the “big boys play”. These include portfolio committees such as finance, international relations and trade and industry. The things that “run” a country and make it so the “softer” parts can function. Admittedly the portfolio committee on police is run by a woman, but men still make up the majority of the members. And people actually turn up to those meetings, unlike some of the other “cuddlier committees”.

I have been to a meeting where a research council presented on “intimate partner murders” and most of the MPs did not turn up. I take my hat off to the one who at least turned up, realised there was no food and left again. At least she tried. So, although the South African Parliament has one of the highest ratios of female-to-male MPs in the world, they are relegated to the supporting roles, where women are, apparently, supposed to be. The men (especially within the ruling party) are allowed into the committees that meet in grand venues, have the gourmet catering and always make quorum. The “less important” committees are filled with women and tend to be held in significantly less grandiose venues, do not have their minister turn up (despite this being a key part of oversight) and have crackers and cheese and missing MPs.

Unfortunately it has always been the case that in order for us to prove that we can do something as good as a man we must do it twice as well. And when we mess it up, we stuff it up royally. The DA-Agang saga could have produced something truly powerful but ended up taking us back 15 years. These are steps women in this country cannot afford to take, especially politically. Though I commend the SABC show 90 Plein Street for showing us the strength of a female president, reality tends to have far more impact.

What those two women did not only affected their political aspirations, but all SA women, possibly for generations to come. Now we have to fight that much harder, a fight that’s already difficult enough.

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