15/03/2017 21:41 SAST | Updated 16/03/2017 08:36 SAST

Bathabile Dlamini Is Failing Women -- With Consequences For Dlamini-Zuma

There is a strong campaign going for a woman president, but her gender alone won't set her apart.


There were two groups of women outside the Constitutional Court on Wednesday: one dressed in green, black and gold African National Congress (ANC) colours and the other in orange Black Sash T-shirts. They all wanted one thing: that social grants still be paid come April 1.

Ordinary protesters on either side couldn't really expand on anything beyond that. When pressed, a young ANC woman from Klerksdorp who gets two child grants said she was at the Constitutional Court because people were attacking Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini. If it were, however, Dlamini's fault that the grants aren't paid, then she'd reconsider her loyalties.

But she said her experience of women and men in local government leadership positions was that both were equally unhelpful when it came to dealing with problems in the community, like unemployment. "Look at the councillors, men and women, they are all the same to us," she said.

On the other side, sitting with a large group over lunchtime eating their KFC Streetwise Twos with soft drinks, three pensioner women in bright orange T-shirts said the "meeting" inside the court building building was about grants, but they couldn't quite say exactly what it was and why — although there was some talk about Dlamini messing with their grant cards. They didn't like that, so yes, they were protesting that.

Even in Parliament, it's mainly women who are preoccupied with the grants issue. On Tuesday, the issue was debated in the National Assembly at the request of the Inkatha Freedom Party's Liesl van der Merwe. Dlamini organised a strong contingent of ANC Women's League supporters to heckle opposition members of Parliament (MPs) and cheer her from the public gallery.

Most speakers were women. This was no accident, as most parties have assigned women MPs to deal with social development issues. The ANC MPs who spoke in Dlamini's defence were female, including social development portfolio committee chairperson Zoleka Capa. Those who leapt to her defence from the floor were women too.

The sad thing is that the reason why the social development battle is so gendered, is because poverty is gendered. Women are the poorest in society, the most vulnerable — and the primary caregivers. They are the majority of grant dependents because of the ways our patriarchy have failed them.

Enter former African Union Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, South Africa's first serious candidate for woman president. Could she overturn this male-dominated system? She fits the bill as someone who's been pushing an agenda for women all her working life, and she's assertively impolite enough to keep pushing.

There is, however, one big problem, and that is that the front woman in Dlamini-Zuma's campaign, Dlamini herself, is facing a serious test for neglecting her duty. On Wednesday, busses with ANC Women's League supporters ferried between the Constitutional Court and OR Tambo International Airport to support their respective heroes.

Sadly, Dlamini isn't an example of a woman who is using her power effectively to help make other women better. Instead, her atrocious handling of the social grants issue means there is a danger that those who need it — including many women — will have to go without welfare next month.

Dlamini-Zuma, on the other hand, has a clean recent governance record (come on, the Sarafina II scandal is buried under two decades of history, not so?). It's hard to measure how much of her lip service to women in the AU has translated into better lives.

As presidential hopeful, however, she's been acting boldly. She's taken lessons from the men in her steps to the top and she's using these. For one, she built a strong gender lobby (with female diplomats, government leaders and those in the Pan-Africanist Women's Organisation) in the continent to support her — a network she will need to draw on when in the highest office.

But while she hobnobs with elites, she could do well to remember that Africa, even with the largest proportion of women in government, is still one of the toughest places to live if you're a woman. Dlamini-Zuma would have to turn the gender ticket into some real action — and to do that she might just want to ditch some of her current backers.