Dlamini-Zuma will have her work cut out if she hopes to emulate Merkel

26 September 2017 - 07:04

As Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma settles into her new role as a member of parliament, a stepping-stone on her quest to be South Africa's first woman president, in Germany Angela Merkel is negotiating the formula of a new coalition government that will give her a fourth consecutive term as chancellor.

The outcome of Sunday's parliamentary election saw Merkel's Christian Democratic Union emerge victorious with 33% of the vote, but dropping support by 8.7 percentage points compared with the last election in 2013.

This is the worst performance of her party since 1949, a direct result of the rise of the hard right Alternative for Germany, a rabidly racist and xenophobic party that campaigned against Merkel's approach to the refugee crisis and European unity.

Had history turned out differently, Hillary Clinton would have been elected US president last November and assumed the position of leader of the free world.

But Clinton's political baggage, Russian interference in the US election and the Trump phenomenon were all contributing factors in ensuring that she did not.

Some Americans simply did not want a woman president.

Clinton campaigned on distinctly pro women issues such as equal pay, affordable childcare and the protection of reproductive rights.

Merkel, however, has never been the poster child for women's rights and gender equality. If anything, she tries not to be seen as "pro women".

During the election campaign, she was taken to task for being dispassionate about issues affecting women.

At the closing campaign rally of Germany's second-largest party, the Social Democrats' leader Martin Schulz pointed out disparities in pay for women, saying it could no longer be accepted.

He said while Germany had a woman head of state, Merkel was not concerned about such issues.

But this and other "social justice" issues, such as better care for the elderly, student debt and cheaper housing, did not resonate with the German electorate.

The Social Democratic Party dropped 5.2 percentage points, prompting its decision not to participate in the grand coalition government again but to rebuild its base as the main opposition party.

Merkel helped her party win the majority of the vote by offering stability and continuity in a time of global uncertainty, countering the chaos inspired by Donald Trump's presidency, Vladimir Putin's power games and Brexit.

Some years ago, Merkel was nicknamed "Mutti" (Mommy) by her political rivals, which then caught on in the German press. But she has never styled herself as an embracing, mother figure in politics.

She is known for being measured and having a contemplative decision-making style, with a steady hand, particularly in times of difficulty.

What counts in Merkel's favour is that she does not capitulate to patriarchy, in her country or globally. Whether it is Putin or Trump she is dealing with, Merkel is unflappable and impervious to their condescending ways.

Unlike Clinton, Merkel was able to push back against the right-wing onslaught during the election campaign. But her fourth term is likely to be messy as she tries to cope with the palpable shift to the right in German politics.

The Alternative for Germany, which has been referred to as the "Ghost of Nazi Germany", secured 12.6% of the vote. It could have about 90 representatives in a parliament of about 600 members - the seat allocation will be determined by the final vote numbers.

This will mainstream the right-wing agenda and no doubt see further polarisation in Germany's politics.

Merkel's first priority is to negotiate a functional coalition with smaller parties to form a government, or an election rerun might be necessary.

But she must also keep her eye on the ball globally as tension escalates between the US and North Korea. International security, world trade and climate change remain key concerns for her country and the rest of Europe.

In this context, the ANC has to choose a new leader who must contend with big shifts and increasing complexity in global affairs, not just domestically.

Dlamini-Zuma hopes to make history as South Africa's first woman president but what she stands for remains unclear, even on gender issues.

While Dlamini-Zuma is being carried along on her campaign without committing to much, as was the case for her African Union position, the honeymoon will be over if she has to deal with South Africa's multiple crises as well as global challenges.

The experience of Clinton and Merkel shows there are no special indulgences for women leaders and even the most formidable struggle to stay ahead.