Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who is campaigning to become president of the ANC and the country, deserves to be elected leader because, her supporters argue, she’s a woman.
Women, according to her campaigners, have always been ready to lead. So far, this is the main reason her campaigners have advanced for her to ascend to the highest office in the land.
Her gender has been elevated to a campaign slogan. Because neither the country nor the ANC has had a woman president – which is a shame – the gender proposition is tantalisingly sufficient.
Presented as a “gender-based” candidate, Dlamini-Zuma is confined to her gender, unable and seemingly unwilling to be transcendental. In churches, banquets and other places, her main campaign slogan is simple and emphatic: “Women must lead.” It’s almost as if it’s a retort to some mysterious ultra-chauvinist who is opposed to women leaders.
Her campaign is unwittingly doing injustice to the struggle for gender equality and women leadership. It is preventing the articulation of a vision beyond her gender. Doesn’t she have more to offer? Granted, some of her campaigners occasionally refer to her political CV. But that’s not what South Africans want at this stage. They want a refreshing vision for their country.
She can learn from the tragic failure of Hillary Clinton in the United States. Clinton campaigned more about herself and what her rise to the White House would do to empower young girls. It was a noble campaign. But being on the cusp of becoming the first female president of the world’s largest economy sidetracked and constrained her from articulating a national vision.
Dlamini-Zuma can also learn from former US President Barack Obama. While some of his supporters were waxing lyrical about the possibility of a black president in the White House, Obama and his campaigners did not focus on his identity. Instead, they concentrated on delivering a message of hope, a promise to rescue the sliding American economy and to improve the living standards of the poor and the middle classes.
That Obama was black and younger was self-evident. His identity was a subject of political conversations. It is self-evident that Dlamini-Zuma is a woman and people will inevitably talk about that. Having said that, can we please get a sense of her vision for the country?
We know that iron-fisted British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the consensus-seeking German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the steely Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf approached leadership differently. Yet, none of them campaigned on a gender ticket. What will a Dlamini-Zuma presidency bring?
South Africa is different. So, Dlamini-Zuma’s campaign strategists may very well reject international comparisons and continue to focus on the slogan: “Women must lead”, and hope everyone will recite it blindly without knowing what she would do to reform the ANC and rid the country of terrible governance practices.
And there is Cyril Ramaphosa, whose campaign is not as aggressive as Dlamini-Zuma’s. If he is hungry for the top job, Ramaphosa is brilliant at concealing his hunger pangs. Or, will he openly scream in the next few months?
His supporters believe that as deputy president he must be elected president in line with the ANC tradition that dictates that the president is succeeded by his deputy. This was a rallying cry among those who campaigned for Jacob Zuma to take over from President Thabo Mbeki.
Having profiteered from this campaign tactic, President Zuma and his backers have since discarded it. Clearly, politics is a game of convenience.
Those who oppose Ramaphosa’s presidential bid are seen by his campaigners as hellbent on destroying ANC traditions in order to parachute a proxy in the form of Dlamini-Zuma or other candidates.
While Dlamini-Zuma is trapped in identity politics, Ramaphosa is constrained by the hope of automatic elevation to the highest office. Both are limited by the archaic practices of the ANC which bar candidates from campaigning and articulating their vision for the party and the country.
Sadly, the two candidates cannot speak for themselves. Nobody knows what they will stand for. Inferences can be drawn by looking at other factors. For example, Dlamini-Zuma’s campaign team consists of people like Bathabile Dlamini who have campaigned for Jacob Zuma and are currently his staunchest defenders.
Her campaign team could be a signal of where the country might be headed if she wins. By relying on Jacob Zuma backers, Dlamini-Zuma’s plan, if she has one, to rid the ANC and the country of the rot will be severely restricted. Unless she dumps them once she’s safely ensconced in power.
Without such a strategy to get rid of some of the corrupt elements that campaign for her, she will run a hobbled presidency that seeks to ensure the continuity of governance practices that are flourishing under Zuma.
For his part, Ramaphosa is in a tight corner of being a deputy to Zuma. The future of the country lies not in sustaining Zuma’s legacy to which Ramaphosa, in a way, is contributing, but in formulating a new path. Circumstances demand new thinking to unleash the country’s immense potential.
Dlamini-Zuma and Ramaphosa are not telling members of their party or the country what they have in store. Absent a vision that could spark a national conversation about the future of the ANC and country, we are treated to the dirty politics of slates, dynasties, tribalism, regionalism and faction fights.
– Mpumelelo Mkhabela is a fellow at the Centre for the Study of Governance Innovation (GovInn) at the University of Pretoria.
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