Sexism in South Africa
William M. Gumede:
Recently, former South African Deputy President Jacob Zuma was tried for raping a thirty-one year old HIV-positive "family friend." He was acquitted in May. At his trial, he told the jury that the way the accuser sat and dressed told him she was looking for sex. Her knee-length skirt, he said, proved his innocence.
Throughout the rape trial, Zuma's supporters -- both men and women -- abused the rape victim further, going so far as to burn effigies of her outside the courthouse. Few came to her side. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party (SACP), both allies of Zuma's and the ruling-African National Congress, maintained a sphinx-like silence on the rape case. Cosatu has a large female membership, but there are few women within its local, provincial, and national leadership structure. Cosatu, and the ruling ANC's leadership, failed spectacularly to use the Zuma rape trial to help change sexist attitudes. Their silence was deafening.
Sexism also helps to spread HIV/AIDS in South Africa:
This gender inequality is at the heart of the AIDS pandemic sweeping the country. Because many women having little power in relationships, they are impaired in their ability to exercise control over their sexual lives and the household economy. In the public sphere, leading women are often viewed as adjuncts to their partners rather than individual politicians in their own right. For example, current South African Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is struggling to get rid of the impression that her husband, Bulelani Ngcuka, the former Director of National Prosecution, is the real figure behind the throne. Her merits as an astute politician in her own right often appear only in footnotes.
Now, the battle over who should succeed President Thabo Mbeki as leader of the ruling ANC will tell us a lot about the role of women in South Africa. Mbeki favors a female candidate in part to counteract patriarchal attitudes. But some ANC supporters are suspicious of the idea of a woman president. To them I say: the social costs of sexism are too great to ignore: women face violence and AIDS spreads as the rainbow nation's social fabric crumbles. It's strong and smart to promote women's rights in law and in deed.
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