WOMENS POLITICAL PARTICIPATION: A Virtual Conversation

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For LWA CONFERENCE 20 March 2021

As I contemplate the words “The Future Belongs To Women” I am reminded of a time back in 2007 when I had been asked to speak to women at a meeting in Polokwane about going to Parliament. I had started my talk with these words: women who are truly free, do not pose a threat to men. They are trustworthy, generous, kind, have moral, commercial and religious integrity and they are competent. Such women manage their homes and businesses with ability, they speak with wisdom and not out of malice, they are intelligent, care for the needy, and are esteemed – all this I got straight out of Proverbs 31 in the Bible.

STORY…
I had arrived at the small airport in Polokwane late on the night before the meeting. There was no-one to meet me and the cell phone network was down (apparently this happened often). I waited, hoping someone would come for me and eventually asked if I could get a taxi.

I was directed to a small shopping complex next to the airport. It was mostly closed up and rather dark. When I found the taxi kiosk, the man on the front desk asked me to follow him through the back door where the taxi would be waiting. I felt a check in my gut but followed him nevertheless. When I got to the car the door opened and the man said I could get in. In the half light I could see there were two men in the front seats and a women lounging in the back. My heart was pounding, my head was trying to have a conversation with myself that I clearly didn’t have time for and my legs just took off with my body and head in tow. It was now pretty dark and I remember hoping I was heading in the direction of the airport – and that no-one was following. I could see the head lines “Woman MP missing”… and “body found in abandoned building”. Questions like “what was she doing there at that hour of the night?” “Why was she on her own?” “Why did she accept a lift with strangers?” flashed across the screen of my mind.

I found the airport building just as it was closing up. Breathless and a bit shaken I was out of options and when a kind young gentleman working there offered to give me a lift to my hotel, I accepted gratefully, conscious of the many risks we all take constantly and often without much thought. In that moment my mind was working overtime but I clearly had better odds with just one other person in the car than three.

I’m happy to say that this kind and generous young man delivered me safely to my hotel. This was the kind of situation that arose often in my work life, as budgets for MPs were tight and the pressure of party work which relied on volunteers was significant. The next morning my lift picked me up, my cell phone connection was back, and the night before was forgotten—I was ready to focus on the meeting.

PITCH UP…
If we are going to make an impact in any way, I remember saying, we must first and foremost, pitch up! This was true then and it is true today, If we are ‘there’ (wherever there needs to be), God can use us. Get there, preferably prepared, but if necessary, unprepared and expectant! Alive is also preferable…

BEING DEFENSIVE…
One of the things on my mind then that remains a high priority for me when I think of women making an impact, is the issue of being defensive. Our own ‘hang-ups’, I said at the time, tend to make us difficult to work with… difficult for men and for other women. One of many things I had to deal with when I first got to Parliament was my own tendency to be defensive. I was too quick to take offence and too quick to react.

Interestingly, it was the ANC Ministers, both male and female, that helped me with this. I was very aware of how they let themselves down when they were defensive and how easily the opposition could press their buttons because of it. Over time, I had watched many of these same Ministers purposing not to be defensive and to answer graciously and generously. This elevated them in my eyes, and made an impact in my life. I have found it is entirely possible to respect people with whom I disagree and to separate the issue from the person.

For the sake of future generations of South Africans, I believe we need to put down our defences and stop being touchy, sarcastic and quick to retaliate. We need to rise above petty politics and aim to become statesmen and women.

Changing track just a little, I told my audience, (some of whom had aspirations to go to Parliament, some who felt too old to have aspirations, and others who just hoped to leave the meeting inspired) that the week before when I met with Cardinal Napier, he had thanked me for the work I was doing and added: “You (meaning me as a women), can get away with saying what we men cannot.” This rang true for me.

ERA OF PRIVILEGE…
Women, I believe, have a huge responsibility in this era of privilege. How we use or abuse our privileged status will have an impact for better or worse on future generations. I recalled the saying that “the abused can so easily become the abuser.” How we treat people, including men, will impact on how our daughters and granddaughters, not to mention our sons and grandsons, will be treated in future. The words, ‘what goes around comes around’, and ‘we reap what we sow’ come to mind.

We have all been on the receiving end of condescending, patronising and dismissive attitudes and we all know it is not just men who often lack understanding and wisdom with regard to women: our ability, giftedness and potential to excel in many roles other than childbearing, child rearing and home making. What we also know, however, is that we can be a better example, even for ourselves if we try.

ETHICS…
As I was speaking about being a member of Parliament, not surprisingly, the subject of ethics came to mind and the words: “Everything is permissible but not everything is beneficial” from I Corinthians 10:23-24. I was thinking about the simple act of giving and receiving gifts and pointed out that as a public representative, one has to consider carefully just what is acceptable and what is unaccept- able in the circumstances, and always declare what has been received. This is not a rule to penalise MP’s but to protect them from being used by unscrupulous people and from any allegations of corruption and bribery. Being in a political party full of Pastors and Preachers, at that time I was aware that receiving financial gifts was something they would not automatically see as potentially problematic.

REPUTATION…
MP’s are under a lot of scrutiny and “how we spend our money, how we dress, our health, behaviour, words— can all be potentially newsworthy and made to look questionable if people are given half the chance. I learned to consider how something would look, if it were to become media headlines?

I did in fact eventually make major headline news and thankfully it was for something I can be proud of – a Private Members Bill which was passed by both Houses of Parliament and signed into law by the President of SA. This Labour Laws Amendment Bill empowers fathers to be present in their children’s lives to a greater degree and is meant to encourage greater participation and responsibility as men bond with their new babies. It is also meant to empower women as men learn to share in child birth, child care and other domestic responsibilities. While children should be the greatest beneficiaries of this legislation providing hope for future generations, I believe it will also help engender greater respect and care across gender lines.

Nevertheless, there were those who still took shots at me, and tried to cast aspersions to create headlines for themselves.

WHO GETS THE CREDIT…
Something I have always felt strongly about is that, for me to be my own person, I must take responsibility for what I say and do, and resist the temptation to blame others. I see it something like this: just as God is not impressed by the words, “the woman made me do it” (Genesis 3:12), He is not likely to be impressed with “the man made me do it,” either! Or for that matter, “the Party made me do it”. This takes courage and is easier said than done, of course.

At the same time it has been just as beneficial for me to heed the words accredited to Harry S Truman that “it is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” This gem is what I credit with having got me through my years in politics before I got into Parliament.

HUMILITY…
There is a difference between being famous and being great – fame does not necessarily require humility but greatness, even a degree of greatness does. So depending on what you are going for, humility could be key. I am thinking here about the fact that I sadly benefited little from the DA’s input in Parliament because their arrogant approach simply shut my ears. On the other hand, speakers who valued humility had a greater chance of getting and holding my attention.

Arrogance, of course, should not be confused with confidence as there is something compelling about a person who has a self-confidence that is balanced with the knowledge that they are human and fallible and can be wrong. I have found, interestingly, that behind people with self-confidence there is often a pattern of discipline and a strong work ethic, coupled with a positive attitude.

GENEROSITY…
Being generous, another quality I see in those who make an impact is for me, not just about giving materially but giving people the benefit of the doubt, second chances, and so much more. Being gracious and kind in situations where you could more easily be the opposite. When I see or hear people being what I call ‘small minded’, Petty or bigoted for example, I am sorely tested in the realm of being gracious. Like the times I have referred to opposition members as ‘cry babies’ who need to learn to take what they so easily dish out. And I will just throw this in here for good measure… while it is imperative that the majority respect the job of opposition to hold them accountable, in my view opposition should also respect the job of the majority to actually govern.

Something small but powerful that I noticed over the years was that when a female MP would propose something in a committee, some Committee Chairs would make a point of amplifying their contribution by reiterating, for example, “as the Honourable Dudley said… .” Some years later (2016), I noticed an interesting anecdote, reported by Juliet Eilperin in the Washington Post. When President Obama took office, two-thirds of his top aides were men. Women complained of having to elbow their way into important meetings, and when they got in, their voices were often drowned out. So female staffers adopted a meeting strategy they called amplification: When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognise the contribution, and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own. For me this is also an example of the kind of generosity I am talking about.

For most women in the workplace, this phenomenon is all too familiar—a woman offers an idea in a meeting, but nobody notices or acknowledges it until a man later says the same thing. This is not just our imagination either, as decades of research backs it up.

PARLIAMENT…
Members of Parliament make laws, they discuss and debate government policy and other political and social issues, they consult with the people and do what they can to represent their views in Parliament, they help people in their constituencies, interrogate and approve the budgets of departments, check that public money is not wasted and make sure that the work that government promises to do is being done—they do this and so much more.

There is no Parliament without Members of Parliament, just as there is no Rugby match without Rugby players. And being human, MPs, not unlike rugby players, behave in ways that require rules and a referee. The Speaker of the House is the principal office bearer of the National Assembly and the referee who is there to protect the rights of all members who are the representatives of the people of South Africa.

Dr Frene Ginwala was the first democratic Speaker of Parliament from 1994 to 2004. She was highly respected by opposition parties who saw her as able to execute her duties fairly, without fear or favour.

Hon Baleka Mbete, who was Parliament’s Deputy Speaker during the Second Parliament, was viewed as somewhat more partisan in her approach. When she became the second Speaker of Parliament in 2004, she had matured but was never able to convince the opposition that she was there for them. A big reason for this was the political office she held within her own party structures.

In the last twenty years, the percentage of women in parliaments around the world nearly doubled, and women are increasingly taking on positions of power in civil society, political parties, local councils, parliament, the executive, the judiciary and as heads of state. This increased participation of women in politics has however, provoked more than a little resistance. In years gone by, I would have been unlikely to describe the many aggressive, sexist, condescending and patronising remarks aimed my way as violence, but they were certainly clear attempts to intimidate me as a woman.

SEXUAL HARRASSMENT…
At one time, fairly early in my time at Parliament, crude and suggestive comments were aimed at me by an MP in the National Assembly. This MP (a majority party back-bencher) had become relentless and I felt I had no option but to report him to the Speaker. I accused him of sexual harassment, although I was sure that the crude sexual suggestions had little to do with sex and far more to do with trying to silence me on a particular issue.

Baleka Mbete, who was the Speaker of the National Assembly at the time, took the matter seriously, and immediately called a disciplinary hearing. This was in stark contrast to the response I had from the Chief Whip of my own party. The response of the multi party disciplinary committee members was interesting too. The female MPs of opposition parties were suspicious of my motives and interrogated me fairly harshly. Admittedly, I suspect, I may have responded in a similar fashion. The senior male MPs in the majority party, on the other hand, had zero tolerance for the behaviour of their colleague.

I was asked if I would accept a public apology in the National Assembly, and I agreed. I was not keen to see this foolish young man’s career destroyed and as a mother of three boys, I was inclined to want to let him off the hook with a warning. When the apology was delivered it was accompanied by an attempt to justify his behaviour. However, he was pulled up and told by the Speaker to deliver an unqualified apology, which he did. The comments and all harassment stopped and I noticed he did not return to Parliament after the next election.

I believe the swift response by the Speaker and the awareness within the majority party were instrumental in sending a clear message to others that gender-based intimidation would not be tolerated.

GENDER EQUITY
An increase in the participation of women in lawmaking and other professional occupations, and the way we conduct and express ourselves, has helped change the way women are perceived. Men have, for so long, held these respected professional positions and now women have the opportunity to gain that respect as well. While men as a group are not better than women, women as a group are not better than men either – it is not a competition. The fact that we have no future unless it is a #sharedfuture is never more true than in this matter.

Both males and females have blind spots, and while it makes sense to balance the collective strengths and weaknesses of men and women, every woman and every man is uniquely individual and they bring their own something special to the table which has little to do with being male or female. We have much in common as females but we are also unique and designed for many very different purposes. Generalisations are, therefore, not always useful. Having been each other’s adversaries and champions in our often male-dominated environments, our minds need renewing as much as anyone else’s.

As a Christian by choice, and a feminist by virtue of having lived my 68 years of life in a world with systems and traditions designed to sustain a male dominated world, I have learned to appreciate the sacrifices and achievements of those who stood up for women on many fronts. I am however aware of the remaining strongholds in much of our thinking that still disempower us as women. As empowered as I have been by virtue of the fact that I was born white in a colonised part of Africa, it has taken courage to confront gender equity issues on the home front and in the work-place. It has also required wisdom to know when and how to do it.

BEING INTENTIONAL…
In recognising our value and giving ourselves and each other permission to be ourselves, we will be empowered and will empower each other. Being ourselves however, does not in my mind mean being less intentional about it. People communicate, not only through words but through actions, through facial and bodily expressions, hygiene, life style choices and the way we dress. By all means we should be free to convey whatever message we want to in the way we communicate but conveying unintended messages is disempowering and each of us has some control over what people see and hear. In this way we have some influence over how people are likely to respond to us.

When I graduated from wearing sandals to wearing stilettos in Parliament I realised how subconsciously people viewed it as a sign of respect (respect for myself and others) and I got respect tenfold in return. I also realised how my thoughtlessness with regard to my appearance had conveyed a disrespect for the institution of Parliament and my efforts increased my own respect for this remarkable institution and People’s Parliament.

PRICELESS
In closing I am reminded of something the Pope said a while ago on empowering young women, that I thought brought much needed balance and perspective to this important topic. He said what it should not lead to is, “…a type of emancipation that, in order to occupy the space stolen by the masculine, abandons the feminine with its priceless elements.”

I wholeheartedly agree that girls, must be allowed to be girls and women must be free to be women as unique and individual as we all are! Authenticity, or simply being who we were created to be, I believe is the number one key to success and how we will be empowered to make the specific impact only we can make.

I hope I have provoked you enough to inspire a conversation that renews our energy and drive on route to finding our ‘real selves’ and our God-given purpose. Now I am looking forward to our conversation and any questions you would like to ask.

THROUGH MY EYES
Many of these concepts and thoughts are reflected in my book, “Through My Eyes: Life Politics Religion which is available in book stores in South Africa.

‘Through My Eyes: Life, Politics Religion, is the story of a veteran politician and a girl, who takes you on a journey from small town life in Bulawayo, a Southern African colonial city to serving as a Member of the South African Parliament for twenty years, reinventing herself along the way to be fit for purpose.

This is a conversation about how life and politics relate to ones beliefs and vice versa but it is also a call to people everywhere to CHOOSE HOPE AND REJECT FEAR… ‘

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