This past weekend, the Eastern Cape provincial command team of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) announced that it had resolved that Nokuthula Mlokoti and Zikhona Njoli, who had contested the positions of deputy chairperson and deputy secretary respectively at the Provincial People’s Assembly earlier in the month, would assume those roles. The women had lost the election, resulting in the top five leadership of the province being comprised of men only. The election of the all-male leadership was heavily criticised by EFF president Julius Malema, who argued that it did not reflect the values of the party and the higher civilisation that it seeks to fashion. Following his intervention, it was decided by the provincial leadership that the elected men would step down and cede their positions to the women who contested them.
The profundity of Malema’s actions dawned on me when the African National Congress (ANC) released the ballot of contenders for the top six positions for the upcoming 55th National Conference scheduled for December. Only two women, Nomvula Mokonyane and Febe Potgieter-Gqubule, have made it on to the ballot. Sadly, they are contesting each other for the position of deputy secretary general. Women who were contesting other positions did not meet the threshold to contest. These include Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Lindiwe Sisulu, who were contesting for president; Mmamoloko Kubayi and Thandi Modise, who were contesting for deputy president and Gwen Ramokgopa, who was contesting for the treasurer general position. This means only two out of seven women who were contesting or had been nominated, met the threshold.
The tragedy about this is two-fold. Firstly, the ANC is the oldest national liberation movement in Africa and yet, despite its history of claiming to champion women’s struggles, it has never elected a woman president. The closest it ever came was in 2017 when Dlamini-Zuma lost to current president, Cyril Ramaphosa, by a small margin. Secondly, women make up a greater percentage of the ANC’s membership. And yet, consistently, they do not nominate and elect one another. This was evidenced in the recent regional and provincial conferences too, where fewer women were elected and the majority of those who were elected are deputising men. Mokonyane and Potgieter-Gqubule are also nominated for deputy positions.
The pattern of women deputising men in leadership positions is not unique to the ANC. Despite its very progressive stance in compelling men to cede their positions to women, the EFF has a history of patriarchy that can be gleaned in the exodus of radical black women. These include but are not limited to Mandisa Mashego (former Gauteng provincial chairperson), Magdelene Moonsamy (former treasurer general) and Simamkele Dlakavu, who was a member of the EFF Student Command at Wits University. Dlakavu, whose masters dissertation titled “Asijiki: Black women in the Economic Freedom Fighters, owning space, building a movement reflects on the place of women in the EFF”, has gone on to publish compelling critique of the organisation’s gender politics, arguing that the EFF is giving pedagogical authority to men who are failing to speak to the forms of gender oppression experienced by black people.
In terms of gender representation in the national assembly, the EFF is second to the ANC, with 44% of its Members of Parliament being women. Still, the EFF’s top six, elected at its 2019 National People’s Assembly, comprises of three women: Poppy Moiloa (deputy secretary general); Veronica Mente (national chairperson) and Omphile Maotwe (treasurer general). Being an organisation that is describes itself as Sankarist, the EFF should reasonably take such a stance.
Thomas Sankara, the former leader of Burkina Faso, was unparalleled among post-colonial African leaders in his commitment to the emancipation of women. Many liberation movements on the continent, both African nationalist and Marxist, were focused primarily on the resolution of the national and class questions. Sankara, on the other hand, understood the intersectionality of race, class and gender. He saw women’s emancipation as not only an ethical necessity but as intrinsic to the success of Burkina Faso’s revolution. As such, his government was intentional in its implementation of policies geared towards women’s development and empowerment. Sankara inherited a Burkina Faso with extremely high levels of illiteracy. Women, in particular, were denied access to basic education and by extension, participation in the highly segmented and gendered labour market.
In his first year in office, Sankara established the Ministry of Family Development and the Women’s Union of Burkina as a means of providing Burkinabe women with a framework and instruments for challenging heteronormative patriarchy legislatively and institutionally. He compelled the Ministry of Education to prioritise enrolling young girls in school, arguing that illiteracy was the greatest impediment to the freedom of women. In addition to this, he restricted polygamy and dowries and prohibited forced marriage and female genital mutilation. He granted new rights to women, including introducing inheritance for widows and orphans. During his presidency, he appointed women to government positions and amended the country’s constitution, making it mandatory for presidents to have at least five women ministers in Cabinet at all times.
The EFF cannot be Sankarist if it fails to be intentional in dealing with gender inequities within the organisation and in society at large. Some might argue that by forcing men to cede their positions to women, the EFF acted undemocratically and undermined the agency of delegates who votes for the men. However, agency is not exercised in a vacuum, but within defined structural constructs that are rooted in heteronormative patriarchy. These constructs, grounded in power relations, cannot be negotiated out of existence. Power concedes nothing without struggle and intention to dismantle it. The actions of the EFF demonstrate radical intention to rewrite the narrative of male domination. This does not change the embeddedness of patriarchy, but it does give impetus to the argument by Sankara that the revolution and women’s liberation go together and that this liberation is a basic necessity for the revolution to triumph.
It is a lesson that the ANC is yet to internalise.
Malaika is a researcher at the Institute for Pan African Thought and Conversation, University of Johannesburg