Gender equality at risk
The Big Read: In the first year of the Jacob Zuma presidency, many people focused on service delivery. Though this is crucial, we should not neglect areas of public life that are being redefined and altered in a way that might assail the Constitution.
While noting government indecisiveness, especially at the top, we must recognise that much is still happening below and above the surface that might have far-reaching effects and require attention beyond this period. One way of addressing this is to examine the present application of the liberation tradition of alliance building.
In the struggle against apartheid, millions of people were united and stood as or with the oppressed. The basic unifying component was promotion of human dignity and standing with the downtrodden. This included political organisations, community organisations and some churches and communities of faiths.
The Zuma administration continues old relationships, such as the tripartite alliance, and reconfigures others. The alliance with chiefs has been strengthened, counterposing unelected chiefs to democratically elected local government. This is not to say that there is no place for chiefs, in so far as some or many might be supported by their communities and link with cultural practices that do not conflict with the constitution.
However, in the administration of justice, it is intended to allocate powers beyond any possessed by chiefs under apartheid.
There are also totally new alliances, as with the National Interfaith Leadership Council, (NILC), led by Ray McCauley, of Rhema, which has apparently displaced that with longtime liberation ally the SA Council of Churches (SACC).
What do these changes mean for the ANC? What are the ties that bind these emerging relationships? The NILC mission statement speaks about service provision. Can this be the same as work by SACC regional offices in communities, on HIV/Aids, poverty and related concerns?
The choice of alliances cannot be coincidental. Both the chiefs and the NILC are committed to eradicating the "sin" or "unnatural", "un-African" practice of homosexuality, reversing gender equality and potentially undermining human liberties, including gender equality.
Resolutions of the Polokwane conference and the January 8 ANC anniversary statements do not mention protection of freedom of sexual orientation - at a time of attacks on gays and lesbians, including "curative rape" and large-scale murder of African lesbians.
The ANC has not expressed any concern. These sexual identities are constitutionally protected. What does it mean when they are not protected on the ground?
Are silence and failure to protect not complicit in erasing important liberties enshrined in the Constitution? Might this synchronise with personal inclinations, exemplified by Zuma's reminiscences of childhood gay bashing?
The president apologised, with some qualifications, about being quoted "out of context". But what does he understand as the relevant context? Clearly, it is not that experienced by non-heterosexual individuals who, when victimised, cannot rely on support systems. They encounter a user-unfriendly environment, including many doctors who "out" victims of attacks and put their lives in greater danger.
Earlier this year, it was revealed that Jon Qwelane, a self-proclaimed homophobe who publicly equated homosexuality with bestiality, was to become high commissioner in Uganda, where the death penalty has been advocated against homosexuality.
The international relations ministry said, however, that no appointment had been made. But, meanwhile, Qwelane was smuggled into Uganda, signifying solidarity with Ugandan homophobes.
Foreign policy, scholars say, expresses domestic policy. The ministry assures us that there is no intention to advance South Africa's constitutional principles on gender equality and sexualities in multilateral forums. It takes domestic reality, the government and ANC passivity on gender abuse and homophobia into international relations.
Domestic violence is said to have reached epidemic proportions. A former intelligence head, Manala Manzini publicly asserted his "right" to beat his wife, Mavivi Myakayaka-Manzini, for failure to conform to notions of a domesticated wife.
This is encouraged by an atmosphere of glorification of a warrior tradition. Private and public patriarchal practices and statements are clear in their affirming of militaristic masculinities, encouragement of the use of lethal force and treating deaths of innocent bystanders as "inevitable" in the "war" on crime. Zuma's political rise has been tied to the imagery of violent masculinities.
Outside his rape trial, he sang a song - Bring me my machine gun - suffused with phallic imagery. His election campaign saw his self-representation as a hyper-masculine warrior. The presidency was to be in the hands of a "real man".
A climate of violent suppression of freedom of political expression was created prior to the elections, and is seen today in the condoning of political violence against the Western Cape DA-controlled government.
In combating this trend at the top, it is important that those who believe in gender equality and sexuality rights accept the reality that these are not part of the consciousness of ordinary people or of the membership of the ANC and its allies.
The freedom to choose is, as distinguished Indian scholar Nivedita Menon says, part of "outing heteronormativity"; that is, questioning the notion of heterosexual as "natural". Those who believe that patriarchal domination and heterosexual relations are part of the order of nature, need to be engaged with and know that there is a great deal in African, Asian, European and other histories testifying to a range of different sexualities coexisting with heterosexuality.
Interaction is needed to explain that attacks on gender equality and sexuality rights are part of a broader undermining of constitutionalism.
We need to bury many of our differences, and patiently build on commonalities and move towards a broader consensual, democratic and emancipatory project.
- Raymond Suttner is a former ANC underground cadre, political prisoner and leader in the UDF, ANC and SACP. Currently a professor at Unisa, he is preparing a book on the Zuma period and beyond