WOMEN’S DAY: 25 YEARS LATER, SOUTH AFRICA HAS HAD ONLY ONE FEMALE PRESIDENT

Aug - 19
2019

WOMEN’S DAY: 25 YEARS LATER, SOUTH AFRICA HAS HAD ONLY ONE FEMALE PRESIDENT

On Friday the 9th of August, many of
those who are domiciled in South Africa woke up to a somewhat ‘restful’ day since the day is observed annually as the National Women’s Day holiday.
What is more peculiar about this year’s
festivities is that they occur 25 years
after the 1994 acquisition of freedom
and declaration of democracy. Perhaps
a brief look at history will aid in
contextualising and highlighting the significance of South Africa’s National Women’s Day.

Historical Context

According to South African History Online (SAHO), an approximated range of 10 000 to 20 000 women delegates from all parts of the country arrived at the Union Buildings in Pretoria on the 9th of August in 1956, to protest against the amendments to the Urban Areas Act, which assigned racial groups to different residential sections in urban areas. This legislation was to exclude non-Whites from living in the most
developed areas like Cape Town which was restricted to Whites.

Various scholars across history and politics acknowledge this as clear evidence of the role that women played against the oppressive apartheid regime whilst others, remark that it was the biggest demonstration yet held. Aware of the wave of democracy which
had swept through Africa by the last quarter of the 20th century, it is fair to be cognisant of the fact that many African nations have their historical narratives shaped significantly by colonisation and in the South African context, the state machinery of segregation and oppression which is widely known as apartheid.

Now; not to delve much on the past, South Africa has been lauded as one of the most progressive democracies on the continent being ranked by the Economist (2018), as the 4th most democratic country in the Sub-Saharan region, just below Mauritius, Cape Verde and Botswana. To my surprise, as I was rifling through historical content, I came to learn that the nation has had a female president, in 2008 (to be specific); named Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri. In my euphoria, however, I also learnt that she was only president
for 14 hours between Thabo Mbeki’s resignation and Kgalema Motlanthe’s appointment. In case you need a
summed reread, a female president for 14 hours! Another article substantiates that Dr. Matsepe-Casaburri
assumed the presidential role when the president and his deputy were out of the country (author’s sentiments reserved!).

In the African Context

This is not an issue of novelty in the African context despite having a onsiderable shift in Malawi under the
presidency of Joyce Banda and the only case of an elected female President, Ellen Sirleaf Johnson in Sierra Leone. Even though Joyce Banda’s term as head of state was much longer than those in the following cases while inarguably shorter than terms of most male heads of state, this position was available after Bingu waMutharika’s death in office. You guessed it right, former President Mutharika subscribed to the tradition of African leadership which is male dominated.

Moving towards the Western and Central parts of Africa, Catherine Samba-Panza was the President of the Central African Republic in 2014. I forgot to mention, interim president. It would be remiss of me to forget Rose Francine Ragombe who was the ‘bridge’ President of Gabon during the transfer of power from Omar Bongo to succeeding President Ali Bongo Ondimba. She served as a short-term acting president.
In Mauritius, after the resignation of Sir Anerood Jugnauth due to internal political strife in 2012, Monique Ohsan Bellepeau served as President from March 2012 to July 2012, awaiting the inauguration of another male president. Three years later, Kailash Purryag resigned, and she was again the acting President for 3 months in 2015.

Moving to the East Africa region, the story of Sylvie Kiningi is one that epitomises strength and determination against all odds. She was the first female Prime Minister of Burundi who rose to power during the (1993) civil war. Her excellency, then President Sylvie Kiningi created a temporary
government which held the nation together amid socio-political pandemonium (insert Womandla, a Zulu neologism coined from women and power). To date, she is the only woman to ever hold the presidential
position in Burundi, yet, her tenure in the acting presidency position barely lasted for a single year.

Perhaps it is in the horn of Africa where we might find hope. 25 October 2018, several news pundits reported extensively on the appointment of Sahle -Work Zewde as the official head of state and President of Ethiopia- home of the African Union headquarters. Undoubtedly, this is a feat worthy of not just acknowledgement but, celebration because it is only in Ethiopia where we find a female head of state years
after democratisation. Summits are held on the 4th industrial revolution amongst other trendy topics in
contemporary affairs yet, in a globalising and industrialising environment the inclusiveness of our
democracies remains questionable. In as much as we celebrate Sahle-Work Zewde’s presidency: admittedly,
the position carries significant weight, it is largely a ceremonial one. The executive power in Ethiopia is
wielded and exercised by the Prime Minister, a non-female prime minister. I do not advocate for a quota
system.

In my opinion, it undermines the capabilities of women and allows them to be appointed merely
because they are female. What I advocate for instead, is the realisation that there is a correlation between a
fair society and a strong economy. The enhancement of women’s capabilities evinced across the continent and throughout this article is a desideratum for development and national progress.

Article by: Cynthia Chigwenya

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