HAJI MOHAMED DAWJEE: Cabinet’s women must be proud and defiant
For the first time in our country’s history, 50% of our ministers are women, one of them the never-say-die Patricia De Lille, leader of the newborn Good Party, who has been appointed Minster of Public Works and Infrastructure.
By selecting a gender-balanced Cabinet, Ramaphosa follows in the footsteps of Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, whose decision was praised last by a Washington Post editorial and described as an “astonishing turnaround” for the country. Ahmed’s first six months in power saw several political prisoners released, the emergence of a broader democratic space and a termination of a military stalemate with Eritrea. These, among other constructive changes, saw the country avert an imminent financial crisis symptomatic of a country vibrating with an economic wobble. Not dissimilar from our country that’s wildly oscillating on its fiscal axis and has been for a while. Will Ramaphosa’s Cabinet selection be the first of many successes to follow? It’s too soon to tell, and so far, we only have the women to work with, and women do work.
South Africa’s gender-equal Cabinet also comes four years after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s . Soon after his announcement, the country soared from 20th to fifth place in the world rankings according to percentage of women in ministerial positions. At the time, reporters asked Trudeau why gender parity was so important to him and he offered a simple but poignant answer: “because it’s 2015,” he said. Four years later and we too find ourselves exhaling “it’s about time”. We should be a country committed to equality, diversity and inclusion.
“There are years that ask questions and years that answer,” Zora Neale Hurston wrote in her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. The novel is the African-America writer’s most popular work and it follows the live of Janie Crawford, a silent and voiceless seed who blooms into a powerful woman who starts to steer the course of her own destiny. The teenage girl asks questions, and the woman answers. Such is the chapter we find ourselves in the life cycle of our own democracy. The adolescent years asked for women and the young adult years have finally answered.
Up until this week’s announcement, the South African Cabinet has always reflected many a man’s dream come true, in many ways synonymous with Hurston’s opening passaging of the book, which describes the life of men as such: “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight…”. But she makes a pointed statement in gender difference when she states, “women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly”. And thus, the fundamental difference between genders is made clear and in our own story - we can read this as the fundamental change.
Research has shown that women in government are prone to working in more collaborative and bipartisan ways. They employ a greater sense of democracy in their leadership style, whereas men are more autocratic. Research also shows that women are more effective at building coalitions and reaching a consensus.
This all stems from female leaders being more likely to hold left-wing attitudes when it comes to civil rights, social equality and egalitarianism. Side note: The research also, or rather should, stipulate that not all women leaders are created equal, for more, see Helen Zille. It might be a pre-emptive assumption, but based on this research, we as South Africans who now have a gender-equal Cabinet, can hope to look forward to an advance in women’s rights in areas of pay equity, violence against women, safety, security and health and family policies - all areas that need necessary improvement and more attention. By levelling the playing field in the Cabinet, we ultimately seek to level the playing field in society.
But let’s not get too big for our boots just yet, as any man will happily tell a woman. The narrative remains sticky and its theme echoes Hurston’s. We still find ourselves in a time where women “need” men. It’s unfortunate but true that in order for women to get those positions, we needed a man like Ramaphosa to recognise and reconcile. Why are we still here? Well, because “There are years that ask questions, and years that answer”.
Hurston’s statement about women is proud and defiant, much like I hope to see of the women in Cabinet for this term and hopefully many terms after. Men never have to reach for their dreams, but women are in charge of their wills. They chase and conquer in the direction of victory.
So shall it be written. So shall it hopefully be done.
Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist, disruptor of the peace and the author of 'Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa'. Follow her on Twitter.