When rumours first began circulating that Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma would be running for the presidency of the ANC, I was euphoric. She is exceedingly intelligent, skilled, and she has a proven track record from her previous national deployments. A black woman president of the oldest liberation movement in Africa. The first woman president of South Africa – it was the stuff feminist dreams are made of.
Then it emerged who her political backers are. The dubious premiers' league, the patriarchy's gatekeeping Women's League under the "leadership" of Bathabile Dlamini, and the then Teflon... UBaba Jacob Zuma.
I was disappointed. These were not the finest characters in a history-making women's empowerment story.
Reflecting on it now, Dlamini-Zuma was not entirely strategically wrong (though morally questionable) in her choice of alliance within the ANC. In making her decision to align herself with these characters, she probably concluded that it was the only way she could win.
She was smart enough to realise that as a woman she had a close-to-zero chance of winning the ANC presidency, due to its toxic patriarchal culture within a deeply misogynistic South Africa. She was and is no fool.
Like most professional women, I suspect she believed that if she aligned herself to the powerful big boys, she actually stood a chance. She also probably told herself that once she had "made it", she would be better positioned to make a real difference in women's lives.
She was correct. Indeed, she came close to winning, as we know. A feat that may never have happened for her otherwise.
However, like all women, Dlamini-Zuma has learned that men will support you if there is something to be gained – they did not support her because they necessarily wanted her as an individual to be our first Madame President.
She was merely a tool, an object, a means to an end, for their own personal ambitions and needs. She was their ladder, and they climbed her. Due to her good, though imperfect, track-record, they in all probability chose to use her because she was, in the beginning, a palatable leader and an individual for the masses.
Now Dlamini-Zuma's association with these strongmen has probably irreversibly tarnished her once good reputation. But had she won, she would forever have been known as "Zuma's-ex-elected-to-keep-him-out-of-jail".
Similarly, it was Baleka Mbete's association with and protection of Zuma that ultimately rendered her a useless candidate for him and the premiers' league to advance, as was initially the plan.
Lindiwe Sisulu, on the other hand, tried to go it alone and run a clean campaign. She tried her best to distance herself from Zuma's camp and apologised for her own complicity in the current state of the ANC and South Africa.
Even so, her failure to go against Zuma until it was expedient was never forgotten or forgiven. She was as shrewd as Dlamini-Zuma, but in a different way.
While Sisulu did try to argue that indeed the ANC now needs a woman president, she did not make it her central campaign message. She knew that this narrative would convince neither the ANC nor South Africans to vote for her. Everyone in the ANC and South Africans at large knew that the Dlamini-Zuma camps' "the ANC is ready for a woman president" slogan was disingenuous at best.
More likely, a women's empowerment and/or feminist campaign narrative would have further diminished Sisulu's chances of winning.
It is highly doubtful that any of Dlamini-Zuma's votes at the ANC national conference were cast through a desire to have a woman president.
Now we can argue that Dlamini-Zuma's loss was a consequence of her dirtied credibility from resting on the support and powers of Zuma and friends. But those same individuals, Magashule and Mabuza, won positions despite their real lack of credibility and despite their poor track records – especially in comparison to Dlamini-Zuma. She lost for several reasons – here I focus on the gendered causes.
Sisulu, also as a woman and running on her own platform, didn't stand a chance. In the final moments, she too was forced to handcuff herself to a man (Cyril Ramaphosa), as a last-ditch effort to at least become deputy president. She too lost the game.
In essence, the ANC had two brilliant and competent women running for the presidency. They ran markedly dissimilar campaigns with distinct strategies. Both lost to the patriarchy. Playing with or against the boys were different strategies that yielded the same results.
Dlamini-Zuma was co-opted and Sisulu manoeuvred within a patriarchal politics and party. Neither approach shielded them from their status as women. For South Africa's women, this historical moment must be viewed as a master class in how patriarchy functions.
Lastly, a central axiom of black, queer, decolonial, etc. feminists has been that while gender representation matters, this must be married to substantive representation. What is needed is no longer a steady transformation of gender inequality, but a radical taking apart of the components that constitute patriarchy.
Otherwise, even a most qualified woman president remains an impossibility.