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The Leadership Question and the Gender Agenda – Charlotte Lobe 

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OPINION| Charlotte Lobe (I write because as Chinua Achebe asserts in his 1958 novel: Things Fall Apart, “until the lion learns to write, every story in the jungle will glorify the hunter” – 01 October 2022

  1. Leadership versus dealership

Let me start my intervention with a disclaimer, lest my intentions are misconstrued. Firstly, I am not available for any leadership position but that doesn’t mean I am not having an interest in the caliber of people who are likely to be elected. Secondly, I am a member of the Fezile Dabi Branch, Mangaung in good standing. Thirdly, I will continue to support elected or selected (interim structures) leadership, that is the least I can do to contribute to the renewal process. So, my intervention is not a personal manifesto of some sort. Now that we have that out of the way, let me say without any fear of self-contradiction, I believe 2022 is an opportune time for women in the ANC to unite and boldly assert like the women generation of 1913 who marched against passes: “We are done asking, we now demand”.

However, this is unlikely to happen if the circulating top six posters is anything to go by. The inclusion and election of women to strategic and key leadership position of our organizational structures is no longer a matter that women should beg for, it is a necessity and must happen. In 2022, as ANC women, united in our diversity, we need to stop asking, in 1913 already our forebears had stopped asking. We also need to stop demanding, frankly speaking, demanding is so 1913. We can’t demand in 1913 and 2022, we now need to make it happen. We need to walk the talk! We need to ensure women representation from the highest office to the last additional member. Any discussion on the leadership question that does not include or affirm women should be rejected, period! The ANC needs to step up on its gender agenda.

It is my view that if the leadership question is turned into dealership, the struggle for women’s emancipation will remain a pipe dream. Something both amusing and interesting with the word leader and dealer. If you slightly rearrange the alphabets in the word “leader” by swapping “l” and “d”, you have ‘Dealer’. In other words, the word dealer is an anagram of the word leader vice versa. A dealer is, “a person or firm engaged in commercial purchase and sale; trader: a car dealer, one who is engaged in buying and selling.” It is after reading that definition of a dealer that I had my ‘aha’ moment and realized that actually our discussions on leadership are now full-blown dealership using branches and subsequent branch delegates as currency. My discomfort with this is that it has unintended consequences that can easily derail us from achieving gender parity and reinforcing “kakistocracy”. Dealership discussions lower the leadership bar, it becomes a free for all due to this currency.

In the context of dealership discussions, leadership is a commodity. Dealers are not interested in any endeavor if it doesn’t end up reinforcing their deal. They will sell the struggle of women emancipation and principle of gender equality to secure themselves or their commodity a position in leadership. They will sell you a hollow promise of 50% women representation in additional members so that the status quo is retained elsewhere. Dealers will sell you fear to buy themselves security. As an example, dealers will be quick to use “unity” to counter women representation as though the inclusion of women from highest office will divide the organization. This notion should be rejected. They will sell you fake dreams to buy themselves what they aspire or desire. They will sell people to buy “obedient slaves.” Dealers will sell favors to buy allegiance. Do you get it now?

In the context of these deals, patriarchy then selects who should lead and who should not. The situation is further compounded by the reality that among women who could lead, not everyone wants to, for many reasons including fears of their lived experiences as erstwhile leaders, lifestyle, and life choices. But even so, too many women, who are capable and willing to do what it takes, opt out as well. This makes me sad, but I totally get it. I was once one of those women!

What saddens me even more is the realization that the word “women emancipation” has been removed from our lexicon and replaced by gender equality and women’s empowerment. This implies women are now emancipated from the claws of triple oppression. In our policy articulation, we have also moved away from the characterization of the gender question as triple oppression where women are discriminated based on their race, class, and gender. The new policy articulation undermines the overall impact of these intersecting issues on Women. We need to be intentional about the emancipation of women from all forms of oppression and discrimination including how they are viewed in the organization. For example, there is a subtle discrimination against women occupying certain positions in the organization or being trusted to lead at certain levels. Meaningful participation of women in decision-making bodies has become a new battleground because of the following:

gress (ANC) has wished its Former President Jacob Zuma a speedy recovery after he underwent a surgical procedure on Saturday, 14 August 2021.
NKANDLA, SOUTH AFRICA – JULY 01: A group of Jacob Zuma supporters walking to the Zuma homestead on July 01, 2021 in Nkandla, South Africa. This comes after the former president was found guilty of contempt of court by the Constitutional Court of South Africa. Zuma has been sentenced to 15 months imprisonment and has been given five days to present himself to the Nkandla Police Station or the Johannesburg Central Police Station. (Photo by Darren Stewart/Gallo Images via Getty Images)
  1. The Glass Ceiling

It was first coined by Marilyn Loden during a 1978 speech and later on used by feminists as they unpacked the manifestation of patriarchy and its ills in limiting the potential of women in the world of work. Metaphorically, the Glass Ceiling is the invisible line or barrier against progression beyond a particular level or position. In this context, there is one superior group that has a birth right to occupy certain positions whilst the inferior group is blocked and made to feel privileged to even reach a particular level if progression. So instead of having equal chances of succeeding, the superior group tends to have a higher success rate.

A glass ceiling is a metaphor used to represent an invisible barrier that prevents a given demographic from rising beyond a certain level in a hierarchy. The metaphor was first used by feminists in reference to barriers in the careers of high-achieving women. Glass ceiling implies that women’s progression in organizations is limited to certain levels or positions such as deputizing men or occupying more administrative and supportive roles. In the context of the ANC, it implies that women are unlikely to progress to strategic positions such as Chairperson, Secretary or at the national level President, Secretary General or even Deputy President. They are judged solely based on their gender and not on their abilities and capacities to be productive and to excel as leaders. Glass ceiling cannot be seen, but it is felt and keeps women from reaching their full potential, no matter their credentials or capabilities.

  1. Glass Cliff Phenomenon

The term was coined by researchers at the University of Exeter, United Kingdom who published research on the 100 companies included in the Financial Times Stock Exchange (FTSE) 100 Index. It refers to a situation wherein women are promoted to higher positions during times of crisis or duress, or during a recession when the chance of failure is more likely. Let us go back to 2005 when Comrade Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka was appointed as the Deputy President of the country. She was elected at a time of a huge crisis facing the movement when its Deputy President Comrade Jacob Zuma had to step down amidst allegations of rape and corruption. The risk was that those who sympathized with the then Deputy President was going to hate “her” for accepting the appointment and not “he” who had a prerogative to appoint. Similarly, when Comrade Thabo Mbeki was removed as the President of country, Comrade Baleka Mbethe was appointed as Deputy President as a transitional measure until elections. In both cases the crisis they stepped in to assist not as original choice.

Various researchers have found that promoting women during times of crisis often comes with negative implications. In some cases, those positions become the end of their career or the failure that was in any case inevitable is then associated with women’s ability to lead. Let us take Theresa May of the UK as an example. She came into power as the Prime Minister following the UK’s referendum to exit the EU in what is known known as Brexit. Teresa May’s rise to power coincided with a flurry of male politicians standing down from (or away from) significant leadership roles in the face of uncertainty brought about by Brexit this included politicians such as David Cameron, Nigel Farage, and Boris Johnson.

Various scholars of the glass cliff phenomenon have also concluded that the appointment of Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell, and Icelandic Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir also have glass cliff element. At the corporate level Mary Barra was appointed CEO of General Motors (the first woman to lead a global automobile company) only weeks before it announced the recall of 1.6 million cars due to electrical faults allegedly linked to 13 deaths. Other widely discussed examples include Marissa Mayer, appointed CEO of a declining Yahoo; Julia Pierson, short-lived Director of the US secret service; and Anne Mulcahy, appointed Xerox CEO when the company was close to bankruptcy and as their accountancy practices were under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Going back to the ANC, at an administrative level, Comrade Febe Potgieter-Gqubule was appointed as General Manager at the ANC HQ a few years ago when the movement was going through serious challenges of paying its employees, a matter that can place anyone in a difficulty not because of their ability to manage but the circumstances beyond her control. The circumstances within which women lead in the context of the glass cliff set them up for failure. Failure is thus equivalent to standing on the edge of a cliff. If they fail, they fall off.

  1. What needs to be done?

The ANC needs to advance substantive representation and meaningful participation of women in all their diversity in leadership and decision-making structures. This should include representation and meaningful participation of those who are trans, intersex, and non-binary. It can be argued that the ANC has been doing all these things in the past, the “so what question” then arises. The following is a proposed 10-Point Plan towards Vision 2032:

a) Adopt a new campaign: Gender is Our Agenda (Through this campaign ensure that the gender agenda is everyone’s business. Everyone be held accountable for promoting gender equality in their environment)

b) Elect women in strategic positions in the top six (national) and top five (province, regions, and branch).

c) Transform the Boardroom and Beyond (Be an instrument through which glass ceilings can be broken): The ANC should continue to support women to break glass ceilings not only in political participation but also in the private sector and academia.

d) Promote and expand gender responsive, gender transformative and intersectional approaches to decision-making and leadership, which acknowledge, analyze, and challenge existing power relations and advance inclusive, gender transformative and policies and programmes.

e) Promote women’s economic and financial inclusion: Create a conducive environment for women’s participation in enterprise and trade.

f) Support and strengthen capacity of the ANC Women’s League and DWYDP in building a strong progressive women’s movement and networks nationally, regionally, and internationally.

g) Through the ANCWL engage in partnerships with civil society organizations and feminist/gender activists and movements even those who espouse opinions that are not comfortable or similar to ours.

h) Strengthen exchange programmes between the ANC Women’s League and other women’s/feminist organisations as well as women’s professional associations with a view of learning best practices from like-minded organizations

i) Promote mentorship opportunities and professional training for women and create multiple platforms for skills transfer. In the past period countries such as Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, Singapore have provided training targeting women leaders. In our quest for renewal, we may consider creating opportunities such as these for our women leaders, in the ANC, in government, in the civil society, in the private sector and elsewhere in society.

j) Encourage and support intersectional activism, knowledge sharing and inter-generational dialogues.

Ke ya leboha!



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