Influencing Factors: Engrained Attitudes and Norms

A variety of factors have made it difficult for women to progress and to leverage the opportunities that have been created as a result of the gender equality and women’s empowerment initiatives that the government has established since 1994. The degree to which such factors influence or hinder a woman’s ability to advance depends on her race, socioeconomic status, level of education, and where she lives. Many of those factors are closely intertwined with each other and deeply rooted in South African culture. That, in turn, makes it difficult to minimize their influence on women’s lives. Some of the key factors are outlined below.

Attitudes of Male Government Leaders

Leaders are expected to behave in ways that reflect the laws, policies, and culture of a particular organization, government, or country. Their individual behavior, informally as well as formally, signals to others what is and is not acceptable and sets an example for others to follow. Many South Africans worry that President Zuma’s behavior and public comments related to women have given South African men permission to behave in ways that are counter to the principles of gender parity set forth in the constitution and established in the country’s laws and policies.

Richard Lapper of the Financial Times began his review of a biography of South Africa’s then president-to-be Jacob Zuma thus: “a corrupt careerist, a veteran womanizer and a puppet of the left whose trademark song is ‘Bring Me My Machine Gun,’ the leader of South Africa’s governing ANC and very likely the country’s next president, has earned a most unfortunate reputation.”75 Was that reputation well earned? The answer depends on to whom you speak. But without a doubt, Zuma has engaged in some highly questionable behavior.

For instance, Zuma went on trial in 2006 for the alleged rape of a 31-year-old family friend who was HIV positive. Zuma’s remarks during the trial were appalling, given the record of rape and incidence of HIV/AIDS in the country. The trial provided a glimpse into the often- conflicting attitudes that South Africans have toward women, sex, and power, as well as the role of patriarchal norms and practices in South African society.

During his trial, Zuma stated that the way in which he had sexual intercourse with the defendant was in accordance with Zulu cultural norms. He testified that the accuser had given him signs, such as wearing a knee-length skirt and going without underwear beneath her kanga (wrap), which in Zulu custom signifies sexual arousal. Based on that, he claimed, the sex was consensual. He admitted during the trial that he had not used a condom but had taken a shower afterwards. He did all that knowing she was HIV positive. Zuma was then president of the South African National AIDS Commission.76

The courtroom proceedings, particularly the defense attorney’s line of questioning and reasoning, spoke volumes about the attitudes toward women and dispelled any illusions about the ease of following through on constitutional commitments to gender equality and the empowerment of women. As it was known that the accuser had been raped several times as a child, the defense attorney suggested during the trial that she should have developed the skills and ability necessary to resist rape—that she could have defended herself had she really wanted to.77 Outside the courtroom crowds burned photographs of the accuser, and crowds shouted, “Burn the bitch, burn her” and “How much did they pay you, bitch? ”78

Surprisingly, women were in this crowd, as well as men. And throughout the trial, Zuma’s wives sat in silence.79 Women supporters of Zuma believed that since he was a chief, the woman had no right to bring disgrace on him, even though he may have raped her. It was her responsibility to remain silent. She had broken a norm; she had accused a Zulu man, and a national leader, of rape.80

In the end, Zuma was acquitted. The woman, whose home was broken into and ransacked several times during the trial, now lives in exile as a result of threats on her life. Meanwhile, Zuma is president of South Africa.81

Zuma is a Zulu, and the practice of polygamy is part of Zulu traditional practice.82 In January 2010, he married his fourth wife at his homestead in KwaZulu Natal. It was actually his fifth marriage, as one wife committed suicide in 2000 due to alleged trauma in the relationship. Zuma is also divorced from Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Then, in 2012, Zuma married Gloria Bongi Ngema, making her his fifth wife. Zuma has paid ilobolo (dowry) to her family, and she brought umbondo (wedding gifts) to the Zuma family, which is the last traditional event before the wedding.

The fact is that, while the government supports women’s rights within all types of marriage, it also recognizes customary marriage under the 1998 Recognition of Customary Marriage Act83 and legally accepts polygamous marriages performed under Customary Law. 84 Thus, the public’s response to Zuma’s marriages has been mixed; some people defend the practice, while others believe it has no place in a modern society. The controversy over it embodies the continuing struggle between South Africa’s progressive concept of nation building, as articulated in it’s constitution, and the pull of traditional practices, as demonstrated in 2008 when Parliament approved the establishment of a ministry of traditional affairs.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, just a month after taking his third wife, journalists asked President Zuma if his belief in traditional practices, including polygamy, had divided South Africans. He responded by saying:

There are many people who say that symbolically it is a great step backward

for the leader of South Africa to be embracing a practice that they say is

inherently unfair to women. That’s my culture. It does not take anything

from me, from my political beliefs, including the belief in the equality of 85


Another Zuma exploit became public when he admitted in February 2010 that he was the father of a baby girl born out of wedlock that previous October—his 20th child. He released a statement saying he remains committed to the government campaigns to eradicate HIV and AIDS, and he blasted the news media for revealing the names of his new daughter and the mother.86 Yet Zuma’s personal behavior undermines his own comments and the government’s campaign against unprotected sex and multiple partners.

Zuma’s rape trial was particularly upsetting for women. Many were appalled by the statements that he made about women, the line of questioning permitted in the courtroom, and the antics outside it. Women felt as if they lost something during the trial. In the words of Jenni Case, associate professor of engineering and former director of undergraduate studies at the University of Cape Town (UCT):

It was a hard year for so many of us. There is a sense of loss-a loss of faith in ANC. I resigned from it. I had joined the ANC in recent years and had been supporting it. The statements on women are what pushed me totally over the edge. It was the Zuma things that flipped me.87

A question in many people’s minds is whether the president has any respect for women at all and what message he is sending to men across the country. Indeed, women are detecting a “new sexism”88 emerging in South Africa. It is creeping into discussions, the news media, and other organizations.89 It stands in contradiction to all the legislative requirements, employment-equity targets, and other gender-specific initiatives— including a constitution based on nonsexism. How can these initiatives coexist, let along succeed, with a president whose public comments and private life run so counter to gender equality?90

The South African group Gender Links91 called on President Zuma, in wake of his comments on gender-related issues before and during the campaign, to demonstrate his commitment to the “principles of gender equality enshrined in the Constitution”92 by encouraging an open discussion about women’s rights and whether polygamy has a place in a country where gender equality is a “cornerstone of its democracy.” The organization found Zuma’s conduct and remarks highly “worrisome” and characterize him as a polygamist. Although the practice is not outlawed, Gender Links describes it as “self evidently patriarchal, unfair, and in all likelihood unconstitutional.”93

It is an understatement to say women are concerned about Zuma’s presidency. His public comments about women, his acquittal on rape charges, his comments about HIV/AIDS, the marriage to his fourth and fifth wife and the disclosure of his fathering his 20th child with a mistress —they all run counter to the country’s movement toward responsible sexual practices, gender equality, and the empowerment of women. Zuma’s remarks and behavior convey the message that men can do as they please when it comes to women. They suggest that, in their personal behavior, people need not adhere to national laws and policies. As Nadine Petersen, professor of education at the University of Johannesburg, asks:

What kind of message does this send out to black youth? It’s okay to have

the gendered attitudes? It doesn’t matter what the constitution says?94

Another example of questionable attitudes and actions toward women involves Julius Malema, until 2013 the ANC Youth League president and today the commander in chief of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), who publicly supported Zuma’s sexist practices. Malema is an important person in South Africa, as the Youth League is a powerful organization that has considerable influence within and outside the ANC. Nelson Mandela was once its president, a position that many people believe Malema will hold in the future, as well. But Malema’s remarks regarding Zuma’s rape case have been the source of contention. He suggested that the woman who accused President Zuma of rape must have had a “nice time” because she stayed for breakfast and asked for money for a taxi.95

The Sonke Gender Justice NGO filed a hate speech complaint against Malema over his claims that Zuma’s rape accuser enjoyed herself with Zuma. In addition, the Equality Court found Malema guilty and ordered him to make a public apology within two weeks of the decision in March 2010, as well as to pay R50,000 within a month to a shelter for abused women. He made a public apology 15 months after the verdict yet continues to refuse to pay the shelter.96

Malema also accused Helen Zille, the leader of the DA and a former antiapartheid activist as being a racist and “colonist.” When she announced the appointments to her cabinet in the Western Cape province after the DA election victory in April 2009, Malema posted the following on his Facebook account: “this bitch must get a life—it’s an all-male cabinet, maybe she wants to do more porn movies!!!” 97 He has also been quoted as saying the Youth League was “prepared to take up arms and kill for Zuma.”98 Those remarks caused such a strong public reaction that the ANC took the unprecedented step of beginning disciplinary procedures against him.

Other high-ranking government officials have shown their colors with regard to their attitudes toward women. Manala Manzini, a respected ANC government leader, was South Africa’s National Intelligence Agency director-general until the end of August last year. In 2007, he left his wife Myakayaka-Manzini, chief director at the Department of

International Relations and former deputy president of the ANC Women’s League. Although he was still legally married to Myakayaka, Manzini was planning at that time to marry another woman. Myakayaka accused her husband of domestic violence and abuse. It wasn’t until Myakayaka expressed her shock and outrage at Manzini’s future plans to marry that Manzini confessed to the abuse. He defended his behavior by saying, “She refused to cook or iron my clothes. She was so powerful in her work position and refused to cook.”99

This high-profile story of domestic abuse and patriarchal attitudes about women’s roles is yet another example of the continuing disconnect between what government leaders say about gender equality and women’s empowerment and their actual attitudes and behavior. Elaine Salo, former associate professor of political science and international relations and of women and gender studies at the University of Delaware, shared her thoughts about the incident:

This woman was beaten up by her husband, who was Intelligence Chief in the past government, because he thought she was too arrogant to want to cook for him or iron his clothes. Now bloody hell, she’s a professional. What did you think? You know, you go, ‘Huh, what planet are you from? Why can’t you do it yourself? Don’t you have hands at the end of your arms? ’ She was beaten up, beaten up. And now, he’s gone into another relationship, using the cultural notion of polygamy to justify this relationship.100

The degree to which patriarchal attitudes and behaviors—like those of Zuma, Malema, and Manzini—influence a woman’s life varies across South Africa. There are women who are in a family or an environment where they are treated as equals, and then there are women who are still in the older, traditional cultural environment.101

Orly Stern, a former human rights lawyer from the Sonke Gender Justice Network and now an independent consultant, comes from an upper-middle-class family in Cape Town. She describes life for a woman like her as “absolutely perfect.” She has never felt disadvantaged and notes that women are highly valued in her family. Yet she realizes from her experience working at Sonke Gender Network that women in other parts of the population would tell a very different story. 102 She has worked on gender practices throughout the nation and knows a significant portion of women live in patriarchal environments where domestic abuse is prevalent. Those women have little to no control in relationships or their families.103

According to Stern:

The man heads the household. He makes decisions from economic issues to running the family to sexual positions and safe sex—which is a very big issue in South Africa with the HIV pandemic. So it’s seen as the man is the head, and the woman is supposed to be obedient and listen to her man, and if she doesn’t, this hurts the man.” 104

Thus, women in patriarchal families and communities do not have control over their own bodies. And as the UCT’s Jenni Case notes, attitudes about rape are disturbing:

A woman who says she’s being raped will be seen as the offender. And the men will be seen as doing what men should do. I mean, we don’t have a way of thinking about sex in this country. I don’t see an easy change. Its kind of one woman’s life at a time right now.”105

The reality is that women aren’t empowered to speak out against these attitudes and offenses. According to Nadine Petersen at the University of Johannesburg:

Women do not have the authority—particularly black, African women—to negotiate safe sex. It’s just not possible. It’s under the banner of culture. Every single year in my English class, the African male students will tell me, “That’s my culture.” How do you change attitudes around that? I have no clue. I can’t do it in one little course in a semester.106

Men’s sense of entitlement in the sexual arena means that they give little thought to safe sex or not having multiple partners—which makes women extremely vulnerable.107

Given the prevalence ofpatriarchal attitudes and behavior in the country, the creation ofa Ministry ofTraditional Affairs in March 2008 is a particular cause for concern. While some people argue that the ministry was created to monitor and evaluate the implementation of Customary Law and hence push it toward modernity, little to nothing has been communicated publicly as to the role, function, or purpose of the ministry.108

It is particularly worrisome because in the rural areas where Customary Law applies more than anywhere else in South Africa, access to the judicial system is extremely uneven already, and people are concerned it will be pushed completely to the side in favor of archaic tribal customs. For example, there is evidence that traditional practices of virginity testing and abduction for forced marriage are still taking place throughout the



Today, South Africa relies on the rule of law to give substantive meaning to citizenship, but if the Ministry of Traditional Affairs allows for even more latitude than is already given to chiefs, then women in the rural areas will have little to no recourse.110 The fear that the ministry may be pushing laws backwards is legitimate—especially given Zuma’s comments about traditional laws and practices, coupled with a general sense that conservatism is creeping back into the public discourse.111

Ultimately, when it comes to women’s progress in South Africa, some of the most fundamental questions become: Will women’s efforts to uplift themselves always result in a rash of accusations and derogatory comments? Are men willing to accommodate the possibility of their female partners and bosses holding power over them? And if people who are making policy are themselves guilty of gendered attitudes, how likely are they to ensure that policies to support women are implemented?

Many women are nervous about what the answers to those questions may be.

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