Girls behaving badly or a serious case of womb envy?

rampheleIt is a little celebrated achievement, but according to the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap 2012 Report, South Africa is in the top ten countries in the world for women’s political participation . At seventh place, that puts us higher than any of our BRICS counterparts on this score (yes!!!). And even though one female minister doth not equality make, it is impressive that five out of the nine provincial premiers are women, and that South African women have (successfully) headed some of the country’s most powerful institutions. They have also made their mark internationally, with iconic figures such as Navi Pillay, the UN Human Rights Commissioner (famous for making rape a war crime in international law), and Dr. Nkosazana Zuma at the head of the African Union flying our nation’s flag.

The rapidly changing the balance of forces between men and women in politics is surely one of  the radically different features of the second millennium where South Africa has blazed a trail. Women’s presence in top positions is almost a mundane event in almost every sphere, carrying with them some hope of a better politics and better leadership. But it is true, even a devout feminist like myself will admit, that female leaders are not always the paragons we would like them to be. And in South Africa, where there is an open and lively media, we are not expected to treat our women leaders’ missteps and delinquency any differently from their male counterparts. But we do … not just differently, but actually worse.

Recently our (female) National Police Commissioner, having had a rather bad run in the press due to a series of internationally reported incidents of police brutality (including the August 16 Marikana massacre) complained that her predecessors had never been attacked in the media in the manner she had been, and asked if the criticisms of her were in fact part of “veiled gender debate.” Of course, being police commissioner under these circumstances meant that her comments were met with scorn and derision for playing “the gender card”. I suppose, under the circumstances, jumping to her defence was not a number one priority for the feminist movement.

But thanks to the Daily Maverick’s weekly iMaverick (iM) magazine (“the intelligent magazine for intelligent people”) since last week, I am now fully with Phiyega on her remarks. IMaverick has in the course of this short year, featured three covers of women leaders who have either fallen afoul of public opinion and/or been the centre of big news. Thanks to almost abusive captions, and the rapidity with which they followed each other, the cover pages illustrate beyond doubt (to me) an absolute unbalanced treatment of women leaders regardless of their misdeeds, never mind achievements.

IMaverick’s most recent cover is a close up of Riah Phiyega dramatically entitled “Disgrace” on its issue of 22 March after her testimony at the Marikana Commission of Enquiry. Prior to that on 8 March, dedicated to International Women’s Day, the magazine targeted the Minister of Women and Children with Disabilities Lulu Xingwana with the enjoinder “Leave Lulu” after she caused offence with impolitic comments about Afrikaner culture and its attitude to women and children (in fairness she also made comments about African culture, but no-one cared much about that). Just two weeks before, on 22 February 2013, household name Mamphele Ramphele, just after launching her new political party Agang, was awarded for her efforts with a sardonic “Disappointment.”

First of all I was startled by such a spate of headline coverage of women leaders in a magazine that has featured less than ten prominent women in its last one hundred issues. Have our male leaders been doing so well? But then, why such blanket hostility? Was my discomfort due to my Malawian distaste for uncivil language? My feminist defensiveness of women leaders? Maybe this was just the way iMaverick expressed its annoyance with our less than perfect public figureheads.


So I went through all iMaverick covers of this magazine from November 2011 (handily displayed across two pages of my iPad), and I confirmed absolutely that these three covers were exceptional in their nature. Not only because women feature so little on its covers, but because while many covers have been cheeky, derisive, or indignant, but this extremity of language in the legend is rare. And the past year, iMaverick have published one hundred editions with covering every political figure has been on the cover, often for some form of objectionable deed or another, but none has quite matched these three covers in the vehemence of the language used.

Yes, its difficult to have sympathy for Phiyega when one considers the horror that was Marikana. But consider this. Like Phiyega, Cyril Ramaphosa was plastered on iMaverick’s front page because of the unsavoury role ascribed to him in the same tragic event. As founder secretary general of the National Union of Mineworkers, his support for a harsh clampdown by police against striking mineworkers (revealed in emails where he labelled the strikers ‘criminals’) should surely have earned him strongly worded cover of the highest order for this double betrayal? Something like “Sellout” comes to mind? But no, for his sins, the magazine asked ponderously “Whatever Happened To The Hero?” I guess being a multi-billionaire earns one the right to light touch disapproval by the press.

So is there an unspoken media rule? You can get away with a couple of tads more bitchiness when the subject of your ire is on the lower half of the one-to-ten scale of the rich and powerful (as would be the case with black women)? After all, when your subjects are high up, but not quite high up enough, they are the perfect platform show your publication’s intrepid independence and righteous editorial refusal to be shackled by the constraints of political correctness. It’s not like they are real victims right? And fortunately, we know full well that criticism of these sub-elites are less likely to earn you a call from your advertisers, or assemble an angry mob blocking entry to your offices in the morning as you hurry in with your double shot latte.

But, hang on, some women in the storm of a scandal do enjoy a little ubuntu from the media. Helen Zille, the leader of the opposition, earned her place on the cover of iMaverick after she caused a twitter storm for calling people moving from the Eastern Cape to the Western Cape “refugees.” The furore was exacerbated by her refusal to back down on what was generally agreed to be a major faux pas on her part. If we use the standard applied to Minister Xingwana for unfortunate utterances, shouldn’t Helen Zille have been told “Shut it Helen!”  For her foot-in-mouth sins, she got an indulgent “@Helenzille: A Year Of Tweeting Feverishly.” So at least Ms Zille shares the fortune of male counterparts of being on the right side of the iMaverick’s calculation of how far we push the boundaries in our treatment of high-profile figures.xingwana

South Africa is a country that has a healthy disrespect for its leaders—even women. That’s a good thing. But surely, in a society where black females face pervasive racism, sexism and violence from the youngest age, the media could counter this covering our black women leaders positively where they deserve it? But the media won’t do that, unless you are Thuli Madonsela (using iMaverick as a yardstick). On the other hand, might the use of excessively negative language towards women leaders contribute to our misogynistic climate? As a nation South Africa should be showing its pride in the absolutely outstanding achievement of being in the top ten in bringing so many women in leadership positions in such a short time in our democracy. Or do our media trivialise this achievement because … well, because it’s the ANC wot did it?

No one is saying we should treat our black women leaders with kid gloves, just because they are black women. Nor should our media ever pander to the conservative line that “we must respect our elders/those in authority” because we know that doesn’t take us anywhere. But discrimination, dear friends, is discrimination—we must not let people hide behind freedom of expression or freedom of opinion or i-maverick-ness to whitewash it.

Black women leaders really should play the gender card more often. I shall now line up to be the first to defend them.