By Christi van der Westhuizen
In a context of heightened political contestation, party campaigns in the run-up to South Africa’s fourth democratic election on 22 April 2009 election featured attempts to mobilise identities with discourses of intolerance.
This happened primarily on the basis of ethnicity, political affiliation, gender and sexuality. The intersection of ethnicity/gender/sexuality was neatly encapsulated in the “100% Zulu boy” t-shirt, referring to ANC president Jacob Zuma, that cropped up at the time of his trial on charges of rape.
Discourses are here understood as political messages aimed at constructing identities which will mobilise subjects. In election time, the messages are about mobilising enough votes to retain or gain power. There are always a number of contending discourses at any given time. The ANC has become electorally hegemonic because a significant number of South Africans are willing to assume or attach themselves to the identities which its particular discourse offers.
The incumbents in the ruling party have played up “identity talk” noticeably. This was done, first, to oust the grouping of former President Thabo Mbeki from the top echelons of the party and, second, to entrench its support further on 22 April 2009.
The identity talk has been characterised by intolerance, reflecting and perhaps even capitalising on the rising antagonism towards the “other” in South African society. Echoing the intolerance inside the household, as played out in high levels of domestic gender violence*, the last few years have seen an escalation in the lashing out at difference in the public sphere.
A third of the victims of the xenophobic/ ethnic attacks in 2008 were South Africans.** Reports indicated that historically maligned ethnic groups such as Shangaans were targeted.*** Therefore ethnicity seems a factor that was overlooked in most analyses. Of relevance here is that some of the attackers’ actions were aided with words “on loan” from Zuma, who had used the rape trial to emphasise his Zuluness. According to reports, some sang his signature song “Awuleth Umshini Wami” (“Bring my machine gun”).
Just before the xenophobic/ ethnic attacks, ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema declared he’d “kill for Zuma”. Later in 2008, when Mbeki was ousted and the breakaway party Congress of the People formed, words like “snakes” and “cockroaches” were used to stigmatise the new enemies.
Interwoven in this discourse of intolerance have been gender and sexuality, with Zuma self-consciously personifying a specific sexuality and gender identity. The rape trial served as platform for him to project a patriarchal ideology. Flaunting his polygamy, he celebrated his acquittal on the rape charge by marrying another woman.
One of his first public statements after his acquittal was to declare that in his young days he would not allow a gay man to “stand in front of me”, meaning he would beat him. This homophobia was expressed at the time of the targeted killings of black lesbians.
Gender and sexuality have been more pertinent factors in this election than before. Zuma and Malema called for the banishment of young pregnant women; Malema declared how rape survivors “should” behave, with reference to Zuma’s accuser; and ANC executive member Tokyo Sexwale slated older women who support Cope as “witches”.
These utterances present a shift in the ruling party’s discourse which has previously emphasised non-sexism. The only comparable comment was on the campaign trail in 2004 when Mbeki “jokingly” suggested to men to slap their sisters, should they vote for the African Christian Democratic Party.
The anti-women discourse forms part of and feeds on a backlash against the perceived advances made by South African women in the wake of the adoption of the 1996 Constitution which entrenches women’s human rights. We seem to be witnessing an attempt to reassert control over women’s sexuality by stigmatising certain categories of women while denying the effects of patriarchal norms and the role of men in, for example, teenage pregnancy.
This battle contrasts with the liberal/state feminism practised by their predecessor. In this way they set themselves apart from the Mbeki-ites.
There is a perceived loss of male power due to the ground won by the discourse on women’s human rights. Anecdotes suggest that the increase in violence against women in the domestic realm is proportional to women’s growing public agency. (For example, a Western Cape participant telling a breakaway group at a South African Women in Dialogue (SAWID) conference in 2005 of a husband saying to his wife, “don’t think now that the deputy president is a woman that you will be calling the shots in the house”.)
The discourse is powerfully redirecting many South Africans’ legitimate feelings of disempowerment away from the true reasons for their condition (continuing poverty and deepening inequality) to the blaming of marginal or vulnerable “others” that need to be disciplined. It feeds into some men’s sense of emasculation as they are unable to fulfil their perceived role as “providers” in a context of 39% unemployment (expanded definition).
The dogged insistence that Zuma lead the ANC, despite facing charges of fraud, money laundering, racketeering and tax evasion, has strongly depended on the portrayal of Zuma as victim. Identity has been effectively wielded in the creation of him as “poor persecuted man of the people”.
This is the crafting of a victimised masculinity, an identity explicitly gendered by the rape trial where he projected himself as an embattled “real man”, “100% Zulu boy”, defending his “right” to fulfil his sexual duties as his “cultural tradition” demanded of him. Among others he referred to the alleged victim’s genitals as “her father’s kraal”. His response is a militarised masculinity, as symbolised by his signature song.
Some (middle-class) South Africans may ask what Zuma’s principles could be, besides populism. But for many it is clear what he stands for. He symbolises the ordinary man – not person! – caught in the clash between tradition and modernity (the latter being neoclassical capitalism and constitutional democracy).
Zuma represents all those struggling to adapt - all those for whom modernity, South Africa-style, does not have space. The excluded rural and urban poor can identify with him. All those, men and women, upset by the shifts in old power relations, particularly gendered ones, can identify with him.
Why women? For example, a study conducted by Dr. Elaine Salo shows how older women’s power on the Cape Flats is propped up by male gangsters. Their currency? Young women’s sexuality. Similarly, there is the traditionalist patriarchy which ensures that mother-in-laws have an absolute say over new brides in rural Xhosa homesteads. In both cases, the child support grant gives young women some reprieve. This would explain the oft-repeated complaint from especially older women about this grant.
Taking these changes in power relations into account, it makes sense why there were men and women chanting “burn the bitch” outside the court, referring to Zuma’s accuser. Zuma and Malema’s comments about pregnant teenagers boil down to a cynical tapping of this discontent.
Indeed, one could argue that Zuma’s rise is at least partly the culmination of the anti-woman backlash which has been raging privately (domestic and sexual violence) and publicly (violence and increased commodification of women’s bodies).
This resurgent patriarchal power is bad news for all South Africans as it marks a renewed intolerance towards difference. The Zuma-ites are manufacturing a new in-group, a new South Africanness, which may break with Mbeki’s racialised exclusion of whites and disloyal blacks but only include “minorities” if they are cut from the same traditionalist patriarchal cloth as their figurehead. This was demonstrated in Zuma’s election outreach to conservative male-dominated faith bodies and the (male) remnants of the National Party and its surrogates.
Lastly, the state feminists will not save South Africa. After 1994, Mbeki pushed a state feminism that divided the women’s movement by bureaucratising activism in the “gender machinery”, an apt phrase. As cogs in a machine - gender commission, gender focal points, office on the status of women, parliamentary committee - activists were neutralised in return for a steady income and an SUV (one former employee of the office on the status of women in the presidency even said being a gender “activist” does not exclude driving an SUV).
Mbeki’s executive also featured a high percentage of women. In the same period, violence against women soared, feminised poverty and HIV-infection became more acute, transactional sex with under-aged girls became a social problem, etc. This happened without much protestation or action from these structures. The only time when the female members of the executive deemed an issue fit to make a public statement about, it was in defence of Mbeki against accusations that he was a “womaniser” (ironically).
The post-Polokwane incumbents have lined up another sop to extinguish any resistance to the rising misogyny in the public discourse – a women’s ministry and department, with a whole bureaucracy to mop up and thereby silence women who cannot, along with pregnant teens, be sent to rural boarding houses.
Christi van der Westhuizen is an author, journalist and political analyst living in Cape Town.
* In some areas in the country as many as 50% of women are subjected to domestic violence, according to Hallie Ludsin and Lisa Vetten, 2005. Spiral of Entrapment. Abused Women in Conflict with the Law. Johannesburg: Jacana. pp. 19-20.
** Adriaan Basson, Mail & Guardian, 12 July 2008.
*** Thembelihle Tshabalala and Monako Dibetle, Mail & Guardian, 22 May 2008.
- Bryan Rostron, Low blows betray a reactionary streak in the ANC, in: The Weekender, 18 April 2009
- Melissa Steyn, Lessons from Rwanda in the destructive language of hate, in: Business Day, 11 March 2009
- Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre, How do political parties address the problem of violence against women? A review of party manifestos, April 2009
- Azad Essa, Zumaphobia vs Zumamania: The schism continues, in: Mail & Guardian, 14 April 2009