Could SA's next president be female?
The debate hasn't really started yet but it's only a matter of time. President Jacob Zuma is serving his last term in South Africa's top job, and the African National Conference (ANC) will need to start discussing who will replace him. If past experience is anything to go by, succession debates begin as soon as the afterglow of national elections fades. This time around there will be a new factor to consider: the possibility of South Africa's first woman president. The ANC Woman's League (ANCWL) clearly lacks ambition and confidence to push this debate in the ANC. That push might, however, come from a different quarter.
At the moment, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa looks like a sure thing to succeed President Jacob Zuma as South Africa's Number One. He slid smoothly into the position of deputy president after being out of active politics for 18 years, and seems to be settling into his office in the Union Buildings without any difficulty.
Ramaphosa returned to active politics after being convinced by ANC leaders in KwaZulu-Natal to join the Zuma slate ahead of the party's Mangaung conference in 2012. KwaZulu-Natal is the largest, most influential province in the ANC, and for Ramaphosa, their backing meant a one-way ticket to the top of the pile at the next conference. Of course this was the deal back then: help us retain Zuma as president now and we'll back you to succeed him.
So far, there is nothing to suggest that deal is off. However, there are minor rumblings coming from KwaZulu-Natal indicating that other options might be considered. And if KwaZulu-Natal is undecided, Ramaphosa had better not start counting his chickens.
There are two possible candidates KwaZulu-Natal might back if they bail out of the deal with Ramaphosa: ANC treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize or African Union (AU) Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Both come from KwaZulu-Natal, have strong support bases in the province and have formidable national profiles. They certainly will go down better with the ANC's allies, Cosatu and the South African Communist Party, than Ramaphosa. The powerful business-political network in KwaZulu-Natal will undoubtedly be more comfortable with Mkhize or Dlamini-Zuma in the top job as they believe this will keep them in the pound seats.
Ramaphosa remains a wild card. Although he is speaking from the Zuma script now, nobody knows what his agenda will be should he become president. Will he be more business-friendly, or try to win over the unions? Will he leave the current networks in power or create new ones? Will he try to clean up government, or go with the flow? Will he keep the political elite Zuma has appointed or do a purge in government? There are too many unknowns and Ramaphosa keeps his cards close to his chest.
Zuma is likely to play a role in endorsing his successor, as he still remains popular in the ANC. There is nothing to indicate so far that he is uncomfortable with Ramaphosa, but a lot may change between now and the next ANC elective conference in 2017. Zuma had an equally genial relationship with Kgalema Motlanthe until some people in the ANC decided that the latter would make a better president.
There is always a possibility that Zuma could contest the ANC presidency in 2017. The ANC constitution does not cap the number of presidential terms, so theoretically Zuma could try to stay on as head of the party. But since this strategy went horribly wrong for Thabo Mbeki in 2007, Zuma could learn from his predecessor's mistakes and make way for a new leader. (The ANC constitution does not prescribe that whomever is the party president should be the state president but this has become convention.)
So far Zuma has not shown his hand in terms of preferential successors but he did make an interesting comment just ahead of the May elections. Asked during a breakfast briefing with editors whether the party was ready for a female president, Zuma said: "Absolutely. I think the country in general is ready. I think if there was a suitable female candidate in the ANC for presidency, the ANC will enthusiastically vote for her. The ANC will again give leadership on the matter, maybe sooner than you think."
In order for a candidate, any candidate, to stand a chance of being elected at an ANC conference, they need a strong constituency behind them. There needs to be a group of people who do the heavy lifting - lobbying in ANC structures, working out behind-the-scenes deals and negotiating trade-offs.
The most obvious constituency to lobby for a woman president is the ANCWL. There are two major problems standing in the way of the league being a "queen-maker". The first is that the ANCWL is not much of a powerbroker in the ANC. The have reduced their role to being interchangeably cheerleaders or professional mourners, and do not carry in weight in gender debates in society.
The second problem is that the women's league does not appear to be entirely convinced that they have people in their ranks that could be commander-in-chief of South Africa.
In October 2102, the ANCWL provincial secretary in Mpumalanga Clara Ndlovu caused an uproar when she said: "We want to have a female president in the near future. We are just not prepared for it now. We do not have capable leaders."
Last year ANCWL president Angie Motshekga said the league would be "fighting a losing battle" if it tried to push for a female president. "You don't just wake up and make a pronouncement to say I am going to be a deputy president. It's a process. It's got its own life and is not a fly-by-night. We will do it in a respectful… and not in an opportunistic way," she said.
"We know the ANC, we understand the ANC, we understand the ANC processes, and no one wants to go into a futile battle. There are traditions, there are processes, and those processes have a long, long life," Motshekga said.
As a result of the ANCWL's lack of influence and conviction that women should serve in the highest positions in government, the number of women premiers reduced in this term, compared to the fourth administration. ANC leadership structures are also still largely male dominated.
The ANCWL has also failed to show any real activism and leadership around Women's Month and National Women's Day. As a result, these have largely become a commercially driven farce, patronising women and having no real impact on serious issues such as workplace empowerment and sexual violence.
Last week Social Development Minister and ANCWL national executive committee (NEC) member Bathabile Dlamini put the woman president issue back on the agenda. In an interview with the Mail & Guardian, she said the ANCWL should discuss at its national conference in October a resolution to support a woman candidate to take over as president of the ANC in 2017, and of the country in 2019.
"We have a lot of women leaders in South Africa. We think it is about time to have a woman president," Dlamini said. "I would support Baleka (Mbete) or Nkosazana to be president of the country any day," she added. "You have many capable leaders within the ANC ... you have women premiers and ministers. We have many women who have excelled in their work."
On Tuesday the ANCWL seemed to be backpedalling again on the issue. A statement released after a national executive meeting (NEC) meeting made no mention of the ANCWL's intention to push for a woman president. "While far-reaching victories have been recorded in the advancement of the women's agenda over the last 20 years, the NEC has noted the setback suffered with the appointment of only one female premier out of a possible eight ANC premiers. The NEC has committed itself to redouble its efforts to ensure that women, who are defined by the ANC's strategy and tactics as the bedrock of the construction of a caring nation, naturally emerge as leaders within regional and provincial structures of the ANC," the statement said.
Regional and provincial structures. Not national.
So could the ANC and the country still have a woman president, even though the ANCWL is not bold enough to lobby for it? A possibility if someone as powerful as the incumbent endorses her. A bigger possibility if the big provinces, KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape or Gauteng, stand behind her.
Dlamini-Zuma has kept herself in the running, though not overtly so. Her name was on the ANC election list even though she is the AU Commission chairperson, meaning that once she returns from Addis Ababa, she could return to Parliament. She has universal support in the ANC and a strong image on the continent, first as former foreign affairs minister and now in her role in the AU.
Mbete, the Speaker of Parliament, remains the senior-most woman in the ANC as national chairperson, and previously served as deputy president. Senior Cabinet members such as Naledi Pandor and Lindiwe Sisulu could also be in play.
If there are constituencies in the ANC that have reservations about Ramaphosa, their best option would be to back a woman candidate. It would look like an empowering move rather than sabotage of his political career. They could argue that the ANC should take a lead role to encourage more women political leadership on the continent by electing a woman as its leader.
It is certainly the time to be having the discussion. Hillary Clinton will be stirring debate in the United States and internationally once she openly declares her intention to run for the presidency in 2016. If she becomes the most powerful person on the planet in two years, it will certainly shake up power relations across the world. There are already strong women heads of state, such as Angela Merkel in Germany and Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, holding their own in their countries and in the international community. If Clinton gets elected, however, it will be the ultimate breaking of the glass ceiling.
South Africa needs to still consider the issue seriously and the debate needs to evolve within in ANC structures. What better time is there to start the conversation than during a whole month supposedly dedicated to the empowerment of women?
This column first appeared on Daily Maverick.