"If women ruled the world, there would be no war, there would be a bunch of countries not talking to each other." So says a "Funny Humour Joke Poster proudly made in the U.S.A [United States of America", one of several dozen countries that has never had a woman leader.
In July 1960, Sri Lanka's Sirimavo Bandaranaike, became the first female Prime Minister. With twenty-two out of 196 (11 percent) female heads of state, women remain the rare exception in high public office.
Former executive director of UN Women and President of Chile, Michele Bachelet, once said, "For me, a better democracy is a democracy where women do not only have the right to vote and to elect, but to be elected."
The issue has come to the fore in South Africa, with the likelihood that African Union Commission chair, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, is about to launch her long-awaited campaign for the presidency of the African National Congress (ANC). The position is due to be contested at its national elective conference in December 2017.
Dlamini-Zuma said on 17 August 2015 at an ANC Women's League (ANCWL) Conference address that she would "never refuse any responsibility" given to her by party branches. "In the ruling party you never refuse a responsibility. I have never refused any responsibility that the ANC asked me to do."
Strong and verbal women are painted as hard and aggressive, over-concerned with social issues such as women's rights and education, whereas men in the same situation are strong and effective leaders. Worse yet is the perception of a token, someone who has filled the position to diversify the boardroom or high public office. These labels must be dismissed to be able to see politicians for what they can achieve, rather than who they are.
According to Sikhonzile Ndlovu, the media programme manager at Gender Links, the presidential position requires someone who is gender aware and responsive to achieve results and change, and someone that the electorate trusts, the question then, have female politicians in South Africa managed to reach that standard. ‘The media refers to Dlamini-Zuma and other ANC female veterans as ‘The President's Women', while joking about the President's polygamist lifestyle; when people look at that, they are bound not to take them seriously', says Ndlovu. The credibility of politicians depends on their policies as well as their personal lives.
Naomi Mnyamana, a young political commentator, believes that while South Africa is often put on a pedestal in the greater narrative of the African continent, "patriarchy is the societal norm, women are typecast as caregivers, child-bearers." In the political sphere, this is a barrier for women candidates in public office. The political game itself is still very much a ‘boys club’, and society needs to make greater strides in empowering women in all spheres, beginning at ensuring that girls have access to education.
With two heads of state, President Samba-Panza of the Central African Republic, and President Sirleaf of Liberia, the first black female president to ever be elected, and Africa's first elected female head of state, Africa is making great strides. Under Zuma's presidency the ANC has been seen using pro-women rhetoric - with the president himself, advocating for a woman president. Motives that govern the sentiment remain public debate.
In June 2015, the Mauritian Parliament voted Ameenah Gurib-Fakim as the country's new president following the resignation of her predecessor, Kailash Purryag. Though her title is a ceremonial one, she becomes the first woman in the island nation to hold that office.
Currently, only Zambia has a female vice president, Inonge Winga. Namibia has a woman Prime Minister, Saara Kuugongelwa and Deputy Prime Minister, Netumbo Ndaitwah.
Rumours have surfaced that President Jacob Zuma's first mention of a female president during the 2014 elections was a strategic build-up for 2019, clearly putting his support in his ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Various observers have speculated that this could be because he does not want to risk the chance of losing his Nkandla homestead, fortune, or current lifestyle.
Nonetheless, it's odd that the mention of a female president has arisen, since the women who could really bring change have taken a step back from politics. It seems premeditated for Zuma to have waited for capable women to step back, and for the ANC to bring forward their own candidates.
ANCWL treasurer general, Hlengiwe Mkhize, said in an interview on News24 in August 2015: "I think everybody is ready for a woman leader to be honest."
"We are fortunate to have a number of highly educated, strong and experienced women within our political sphere, there's certainly a strong generation of future female leaders being groomed', says Mnyamana. This could very well be the change South Africa might need to get out of the proverbial rut that it seems to be in.
The real issue here isn't whether a female politician is ready to take on the problems in South Africa, and the possibility for this woman to drive the country to its success, but whether the state and its people are willing to let her do that.
- Claudia Varjabedian is a Political Communications student at the University of Cape Town. This article is part of the Gender Links New Services.
Photo Courtesy: Lynda Gratton.