The story goes that during her presidential campaign Liberian’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s supporters shouted out, “Ma Ellen! Ma Ellen!’ wherever she went. Others would often be heard shouting, “She’s our man!”
The 64-year-old mother of four made history by being elected the first female president in Africa. She was inaugurated as President of Liberia on 16 January 2006 while dignitaries, including former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, former South African President Thabo Mbeki, former United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former US First Lady Laura Bush looked on. Standing under the Liberian flag, with her hand on a bible, she swore to “faithfully, conscientiously and impartially discharge the duties and functions of the office of the President of the Republic of Liberia to the best of her abilities”.
“The administration must endeavour to give Liberian women prominence in all affairs of our country. We will empower Liberian women in all areas of our national life… We will enforce without fear of failure, laws against rape recently passed by the national transitional legislature. We will encourage all families to educate all children, particularly the girl child,” she said in her speech.
It made headlines all over the world, and everyone had an opinion about what the momentous occasion meant for women and the African continent. Following the inauguration, Rice said, “It’s exciting for the country because if you think back to three years ago or so in Liberia – when the front pages of papers were covered with pictures of young kids holding AK47s – Charles Taylor was rampaging the country, and there were armed gangs everywhere. I think it would have been hard to imagine that they would have free and fair elections this fall and now (to inaugurate) this woman as president.”
Sirleaf had, in this singular moment, changed the story of not only Liberia but all women on the continent because suddenly patriarchy seemed defeatable in Africa. It became a reality instead of a far-off concept discussed at conference after conference. A mindset change had finally reached Africa. Looking back, her presidency made us believe in the dream, but she also created a legacy of having led an African government which doesn’t tolerate corruption and auspicious spending by political leaders.
Fast forward to 2016 and talk that Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is tipped to be the next candidate for the ANC presidency and South Africa. This at a time, when in the US, Hillary Clinton just made history as the first female elected as the Democrat candidate for President. Glaring similarities between our countries abound, particularly with race relations, and the powerful Black Lives Matter campaign reaching boiling point. Both have challenges that run so deep they will only be resolved by decisive and insightful leadership. Patriarchy and sexism are even more pronounced in Africa. Worldwide the dominant view is that men are natural-born leaders, not only in politics but in society as a whole. Deep-seated patriarchy stacks against women from rural homes to those in leafy suburbs and the glistening hallways of large corporates.
When Jill Marcus was appointed governor of the South African reserve bank she excelled in a male-dominated field. She didn’t overtly push the issue of gender equality though. Marcus, like Clinton and the head of the France-based International Monetary Fund (IMF) Christine Lagarde, could be perceived as ‘asexual’ or ‘androgynous’. Meanwhile, leaders like former Shanduka Group CEO Phuti Mahanyele and Mamphela Ramphele are distinctly feminine. In her book Across Boundaries: the Journey of a South African Woman Leader, Ramphele notes, “The spectre of the honorary male looms large for women in my position … How does one function in roles which were previously the preserve of men? There are a variety of responses. Some women have chosen to operate as though they were men. Their focus is to fit in and show their male colleagues they have what it takes to succeed… as with Margaret Thatcher, to beat men at their own games, including making and winning wars. They see their success as proof that they are able to transcend the stereotypical female inadequacies. At one time some of these women went as far as wearing pin-striped dark suits, just like their male counterparts. Some of them became more aggressive and thoroughly unpleasant in wielding power than their male colleagues.” Others, she adds, understand the trailblazer roles they hold and survive in an alienating environment through the help of mentors. Those who are the opposite “manage to negotiate a role which draws on the best in their femininity, whilst not shying away from the strengths which they derive from the masculine aspects in their personality. Such women bring the integrative strengths of the female personality to boost their capacity to tackle multiple roles simultaneously – an essential ingredient of success in executive positions.”
The United Nations says the percentage of women in global governments has doubled in the last twenty years but this only translates into 22 percent of women in parliament today. In her groundbreaking book, Lean In, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg wonders, “what it would be like to go through life without being labelled by my gender. I don’t wake up thinking, what am I going to do as Facebook’s female COO, but that’s often how I’m referred to by others. When people talk about a female pilot, a female engineer, or a female race driver, the word female implies a bit of surprise.” Sandberg also delves into the political space – of 197 heads of states, only 22 are women. While in 2015, 41 percent of South Africa’s cabinet ministers were women, a woman running the country still seems just out of reach.
On the one hand, some laud Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma for her exceptional role in turning Home Affairs around during her time as its minister; while on the other, some say she failed in leading the African Union. A recent article by French journal Le monde Afrique, titled, How did Mrs. Zuma mess up the AU?, asserted that under her, the organisation had no vision and that its decline was accelerated. A Nigerian publication even penned a piece titled, Good riddance Dr. Dlamini Zuma, saying she failed Africa because the Ebola outbreak and the return of Muhammadu Buhari happened under her watch. But, another giant problem that dogs female leaders is the fact that they’re judged based on their gender and, to compound issues, their success or failure becomes a reflection on the entire gender. So if Zuma’s alleged failure is indeed valid, it raises the question whether it could set the rest of the female population back many years. Yet another drawback when it comes to gender and leadership.
But what society has failed to understand is that leadership in its very nature lends itself perfectly to the female of the species. Great leaders understand the larger vision of the organisation and they can ignite the belief in the greatness that will be achieved when everyone plays their part. Women – having lived in a male-dominated world all their lives – can exhibit the positive characteristics of male leaders but are also able to demonstrate intuition and talk to the hearts and minds of people. They’re carers, listeners and can articulate the overall feel of what needs to be achieved instead of just the logistics of the process. American motivational speaker Jim Rohn must have been referring to the ideal female leader when he said, “The challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude; be kind, but not weak; be bold, but not bully; be thoughtful, but not lazy; be humble, but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant; have humour, but without folly.”
The crux of the issue though has never really been whether women are able to lead. The real question, unfortunately, is whether society (both men and women) is ready to be led by a woman. More than being ready, we as women need to understand and know we are truly capable of leading. In Lean In, Sandberg also poignantly argues (and was roasted by some for stating it) that women are victims of patriarchy and sexism but are also unfortunately complicit in their own discrimination. She says that there is the external age-old system of patriarchy which is a barrier but also that women have internalised the belief that we’re less capable than men. Both these factors, she says, often stops women from ‘leaning in’ and taking their seat at the leadership table. Some disagree with her views, others agree, but the intense debate she elicited points to the fact that there is still much to be thrashed out on the issue of women and leadership.
But when it comes to the issue of whether SA’s ready for a female president, the answer is a resounding yes! Whether it’s Dlamini-Zuma or the Madame Speaker of parliament Baleka Mbete, as is also rumoured – if the woman candidate is ready and capable, then we’re ready to shout “She’s our man!” from every single corner of the country.