Activism: The ANCWL is out of its league

Thuletho Zwane
First published in the Mail & Guardian

It was satire at its best. The skit on Late Night News with Loyiso Gola,’s weekly satirical show showed fictional ANC Women’s League members at a meeting in preparation for a lekgotla. Top of the agenda was food, dress code and how to be a good traditional woman.

“Surely we need to discuss the issue of patriarchy in our society and gender-based violence, and put forward a woman candidate for president?” said a young black woman at the meeting.

She was reprimanded.

“Young woman, you should address the president as Mam’ Angie, and aren’t you in charge of making the pap? Don’t forget your green blouse tomorrow. Eish, these children of today have no manners,” said one of the older league members.

I was reminded of this skit during an interview with Tasneem Essop (23), a political science master’s student at the University of Witwatersrand. She is a member of the ANC Youth League and was secretary general of the Wits student representative council in 2012 and 2013.

The interview, in the middle of what is now known as Women’s Month, is about whether she and other young women would enter mainstream politics after graduating from university.

“I have never considered myself a politician but an activist,” says Essop. “I don’t want to end up in the mainstream. I feel that mainstream politics and activism should be separated.”

As a student activist she has been concerned with issues relating to access to quality education, transformation in higher education institutions and gender equality.

Essop, who grew up in Johannes-burg, says she joined the youth league when she was 17 because of the structural inequalities she witnessed as a young person.

She believed at the time that it would be easier to implement social change as a member of the youth league, which she considers more radical than the ANC and its women’s league. Essop taps her left hand on the table. She asks if she can smoke. She holds her cigarette and waves the smoke away from my face.

Essop’s voice gets louder as she talks about the number of black students who are forced to drop out because of financial exclusion. The problem with this country is that structurally nothing has changed, she says.

“The same people who could not access educational institutions before 1994 are the same people who can’t access them today. Those who fight and somehow manage to get funding are again excluded by the same institutions.

“People with just two years left in their degrees were excluded [in 2015]. What is to become of them? I should be able to access higher education – anything beyond that is a violation,” says Essop, standing up and pacing up and down.

She starts to talk about young women in politics. There are structural and symbolic difficulties, challenges and blockages when it comes to women being active in politics.

Politics professor Daryl Glaser believes the ANC Women’s League holds little appeal for young people. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

Essop says women politicians are expected to be mothers and play certain roles at work and in their communities. She says that gender is a major problem in politics. “In a patriarchal world to be born a woman is wrong; it is secondary. And the ANC Women’s League is not helping the cause,” she says.

Wits associate professor of politics Daryl Glaser says some radical young people see the ANC Women’s League as part of the greater ANC establishment. He says the league is not seen as fighting for radical change and, as a result, its popularity among progressive young women is on

the decline. “Some young people who believe in gender equality may be discouraged. Under Zuma [and his administration] there’s a perception that the ANC has become more traditional and patriarchal. Gender politics have been marginalised,” Glaser said.

His sentiments are echoed by Wits politics professor Shireen Hassim, who last year wrote in the Mail & Guardian that the women’s league began playing an active – and, some may argue, a gatekeeping – role inside the state during the early years of democracy, ensuring that reliable ANC women were appointed to parliamentary committees, government departments and parastatals.

Hassim said that appointments in the ANC were driven by considerations of party loyalty and political mobility rather than by a track record in gender activism.

“Yet even in the earliest years of democracy, there were signs that the women’s league would be challenged by other women’s groups on the extent to which they represented the interests of all women,” she wrote.

“The space of opposition and new thinking about gender inequalities shifted to nongovernmental organisations, especially those dealing with rising levels of violence against women and with homophobia.”

For Essop, who is loyal to the ANC, the issue of the women’s league is a politically tricky subject.

But, she points out, the women’s league has raised some important issues pertaining to protecting sex workers and addressing the discrimination, persecution and violence experienced by the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community.

Back in the satirical world, the Late Night News skit ended with the defeated young woman sitting down and shaking her head wearily while she listened to her comrades talk about their beautiful, but fresh out of the 1970s, green blouses with black trim.

Good satire is often close to reality. For the ANC Women’s League to get young activists like Essop to graduate into their ranks, it needs to be relevant to their lives in every sense of the word.

“I have never worn a blouse in my life,” Essop laughs, shaking her head.

Emboldened women’s league has presidential designs

Can the ANC Women’s League play the role of queenmaker by deciding on party president Jacob Zuma’s successor at its elective conference in 2017?

Like the ANC Youth League, which effectively pushed for the election of Zuma in Polokwane in 2007, the women’s league could play a crucial role in influencing the leadership direction of the ANC in 2017.

The league’s newly elected president and social development minister, Bathabile Dlamini, has made it clear the league will support a woman to lead the ANC. This is a complete departure from the line taken by her predecessor, Angie Motshekga, who in 2012 said women were not ready to lead the party.

Traditionally, the ANC deputy president, currently Cyril Ramaphosa, is the frontrunner for the ANC’s top position. But the debate about a woman president gained momentum before and after the women’s league’s national conference, and the league now wants a woman president. And it wants one soon.

The newly revived league, under Dlamini, appears emboldened. They’re eyeing the ANC’s national general council in October this year as a proxy for the leadership battle in 2017.

In an interview with the Mail & Guardian last year, Dlamini said she would like Zuma’s former wife and the African Union Commission chairperson, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, or the National Assembly speaker, Baleka Mbete, to replace Zuma. He himself said in May last year that South Africa was ready for a woman president.

If the women’s league is to succeed, it will have to go beyond its own structures and convince ANC branches to rally behind it. But given the ANC’s tradition to elect the deputy president, the league might just opt to support a woman for deputy president.

Two ANC leaders warned that a leadership battle could tear the league and ANC structures apart. 

“These [Dlamini- Zuma and Mbete] are not the only two that are being pushed for president. But now that they have said, yes, we want a woman president … who are they going to choose then?” a national executive committee member of the ANC asked. 

But the real power broker is not the women’s league. It is the “premier league”, the ANC’s provincial leaders – and they punted Dlamini to head the women’s league in the hope of getting the league on their side when succession is discussed.

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