14/08/2017 03:58 SAST | Updated 14/08/2017 06:16 SAST

The Political Commentary Around Lindiwe Sisulu Has Been Mostly Sexist

When we criticise Lindiwe Sisulu, let's make sure it's fair, proportionate and rooted in reality.

Tebogo Letsie/ Foto24/ Gallo Images/ Getty Images
Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe Sisulu at the opening of the ANC Keiskammahoek branch in King William's Town on April 21 2017.

It's entirely reasonable to criticise Lindiwe Sisulu. She's running for president of the African National Congress, after all. If elected, Sisulu is likely to be president of South Africa and will be representing its citizens. Therefore, we should interrogate her positions, policy suggestions and vision for the country.

But a significant amount of anti-Sisulu criticism is loaded with sexism. It's not just the obvious examples, like critiquing her clothing, micro-analysing her gestures and mannerisms, sexualising her or targeting her with sexist and misogynist slurs.

Much of the sexism directed at Sisulu flies under the radar. On the surface, it looks like legitimate political commentary. But when you understand some of the ways sexism commonly plays out, it's glaringly obvious.

Here are six examples:

1. Higher standards, double standards and expecting perfection

A large amount of bitterness is aimed at Sisulu for actions that are commonplace in South African politics. The most obvious example: remaining in a government while accusations of corruption are prevalent.

Yes, corruption in the South African government is a huge problem. However, she has not once been tainted by it. In fact, she has spoken out quite vehemently against it. So why is Sisulu getting raked over the coals for it?

Why are we not speaking about the successes of her department, under her leadership? Why are we not speaking about her plans to address apartheid spatial planning through integrated human settlements? Why are we not speaking about the launch of the human settlements bank, which could radically change the trajectory of property ownership in South Africa?

If good leaders like Sisulu were to vacate senior positions within government, who would advance initiatives such as these on behalf of the people?

If you object to Sisulu's policy positions and her record, by all means say so. But why the acrimony? If you haven't aimed this degree of hostility, mistrust and contempt at other ANC presidential candidates and government officials, why are you aiming it at Sisulu?

Lindiwe Sisulu has established her own career, shaped her own policy positions and built her own positive reputation in politics.

2. Claiming that she is riding on the coat-tails of her family legacy

Sisulu is not Albertina or Walter Sisulu. She has her own political record. She, like many others, was part of the struggle against apartheid. She has been in the executive since 1996 and has many achievements inside and outside politics.

In her 23 years in government, Sisulu has established her own career, shaped her own policy positions and built her own positive reputation in politics, even among political opponents, for her prodigious knowledge, policy expertise, work ethic, tenacity and ability to work with others.

Sisulu has her own record. Yet many of her critics cite her family's struggle credentials as the only legitimate reason she stands a chance in the ANC presidential election. In critiques of political families, she's been cited as an example of politicians "running on her family's name".

3. Ignoring her accomplishments, positions and record

"Sisulu is complicit in ANC corruption!" Actually, Sisulu's stance has been clear. She has called for investigations into the Gupta emails and has said quite emphatically that those found guilty should be disciplined.

"Sisulu is anti radical economic transformation!" Oh, really? One of the central features of her role as the ANC's head of the social transformation sub-committee has been to push for radical economic transformation to be radical social-economic transformation, as a position that looks at the collective impact and an advancement of transformation in all spheres of people's lives. This position acknowledges the overlap between transformation agendas, as it is often noted that the one re-enforces the other.

It's distressing to see how little resemblance there is between Sisulu's actual record and the pictures commonly painted of her.

4. Saying she's not passionate enough

Sisulu is often criticised for not being passionate enough, especially by supporters of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa, many of whom take their passion as a sign of authenticity and willingness to fight the system. But when it comes to expressing emotion, women in politics can't win.

If they're too calm and controlled, they're seen as cold and uncaring; if they're too intense, they're seen as over-emotional, out of control and angry. At best, they have to walk an extremely fine tightrope between being "too emotional" and "not emotional enough". At worst, there is literally no degree of emotional expression that will be acceptable.

Extensive research demonstrates that "women face distinct social penalties for doing the very things that lead to success". While the qualities expected of a good leader (be forceful, confident and, at times, angry) are similar to those we expect of a good man, they are the opposite of what we expect of a good woman (be gentle, self-deprecating and emotional, but not angry).

Women in politics are damned if they do and dammed if they don't.

5. Saying women only support her because she's a woman

Many women have made detailed arguments for why they're supporting Sisulu, citing her policy positions and vision for South Africa and the ANC, only to be told they're just voting for her "because she's a woman". When women express any excitement over the nomination of a woman for president, or any pride about this enormous achievement, it's often interpreted the same way: "You're just voting for her because she's a woman."

This directly uses Sisulu's gender as an excuse to ignore her accomplishments, skills, record, goals and all the reasons people have for backing her. And it's not just sexist against Sisulu, it is sexist against the thousands of women who support her.

Sisulu is one of the most closely scrutinised people in South African politics. Reducing female support for her to the assumption that women who support her are unaware of her record, both positive and negative, is absurd, and it's sexist.

None of this is to say that Sisulu shouldn't be criticised. But let's remember the unconscious sexism that underlies so much criticism of women in the workplace and in the public eye.

When we criticise Lindiwe Sisulu, let's make sure it's fair, proportionate and based in reality.