Reports that Julius Malema, the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), called Minister of Small Business Development, Lindiwe Zulu, “a straatmeid” following a verbal exchange that came close to a physical altercation between Zulu and EFF Member of Parliament, Godrich Gardee, is a crude reminder of the sexist double-standards faced by female guerillas in the aftermath of war where they are expected to conform to dominant ideas of feminine respectability.
I must be clear that I do not wish to endorse threats of violence by politicians towards members of the opposition. Zulu has explained and apologized for her actions. And of course, as Richard Pithouse recently noted, the scenes seen in parliament on Thursday, 13 November, where riot police were summoned in to restore order in the legislative assembly, were reflective of the ways in which the ruling party responds to unarmed and democratic opposition with repression outside of the elite public sphere. However, Malema’s sexist comments towards Zulu cannot go unchallenged. Zulu is a trained soldier of the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), therefore her confidence that she could face Gardee in a physical altercation should not come as a surprise. If understood in relation to ANC MP Charles Nqakula’s outburst in parliament this past September during an exchange with the EFF’s Floyd Shivambu, where Nqakula reminded the EFF Chief Whip that as a former MK member, he was prepared to kill, then her anger and violent threats can be properly contextualised.
The different ways in which Malema and the EFF reacted to Nqakula is illustrative of this sexist double standard. At no point did Malema or Shivambu object to the physical threats by calling Nqakula a “straatmeid” in spite of Malema’s assertion that “when you behave like a straatmeid you are a straatmeid whether you are male or a female”. The same can be said of the opposition’s reaction to Kebby Maphatsoe, the Deputy Minister of Defence who is also a former MK member, who accused the Public Protector Thuli Madonsela of being a spy working for the US Central Intelligence Agency. Maphatsoe was not subjected to sexist tropes that reduced his ridiculous accusations to uncontrollable masculinity. Instead, Malema made a point of making a mockery of how Maphatsoe lost his right arm in exile.
There is nothing new about the erasure of the history of women’s participation in armed struggles and the silence about how that history affects the ways in which they participate in public discourse in the aftermath. Feminists have long pointed out how men gain in terms of social status as soldiers during war time and afterwards as their military record affords them political respectability in post-war times. Tanya Lyons points out in her book Guns and guerilla girls: women in the Zimbabwe liberation struggle that female guerrillas face the pressure to “silence their own voices and history”. Women distance themselves from this past because female guerillas are described in the extremes – either as “too manly”, wild deviants of the “straatmeid” caliber or are accused of having been prostitutes who were simply camp followers during the war. This language has material and symbolic costs. These labels are used to discredit women in order to exclude them from benefitting from government packages catering for military veterans. They also have symbolic costs in terms of how women’s participation in the armed struggle is written in history and how it appears in the public’s every day imagination.
Even Thandi Modise in the article Thandi Modise, a woman in war, by Robyn Curnow, has commented about the precarious status that female guerillas find themselves inhabiting when the war is over. Here she comments about how, within the ANC, men and women MKs are treated differently:
“[When they look at us] women who went to jail, for some reason, they think we must have chosen to fight and to go to jail because we are stupid! It is something that really concerns me in the ANC that people are known to be MK, women who have been to jail, somehow, it’s almost that something happened to our brains and we cannot be trusted with responsibilities. That is my impression. It doesn’t matter how good we can be. When it comes to men, it’s heroism. When it comes to women, it’s almost like you should be ashamed. Why otherwise do we not accept that women played a part in the [armed] struggle?’”
Not even in a moment of rage has Malema called President Jacob Zuma a “thing” as he called Zulu. Of all the labels that Malema and the EFF have called Zuma, none of those labels have sort to discredit Zuma as a man, even though Zuma offers far more material for his critics to work with. Instead, Zulu’s moment of anger at what seemed to her to be an attack on the legacy that she and her comrades were willing to lay down their lives for is interpreted as the action of a woman whose behavior is untamed by Malema’s domestic sensibilities, sensibilities that are deeply patriarchal. Zulu is exposed as a subject with no history which she can use, responsibly or not, as political currency in this dispensation.
Main Pic: Lindiwe Zulu by Oupa Nkosi