Nomzamo Portia Ntombela11 March 2024 | 11:38

NOMZAMO NTOMBELA: Naledi Chirwa's apology a disturbing reminder of patriarchy in politics

One would have hoped for institutional and cultural change towards women after 30 years of democracy, especially in political parties. But it seems as Naledi Chirwa’s letter reveals women must be forever apologetic, writes Nomzamo Ntombela.

NOMZAMO NTOMBELA: Naledi Chirwa's apology a disturbing reminder of patriarchy in politics

EFF MP Naledi Chirwa. Picture: Facebook/EFF Gauteng

On 4 March 2024, a member of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), Naledi Chirwa, released a public statement to ‘fellow fighters’ within her organisation to apologise for her absence in Parliament, due to having had to take care of her unwell newborn child. 

In the statement posted on her social media accounts, Chirwa makes mention of the insurmountable measures she had gone to, more especially as a new (young) mother in her postpartum period. All this effort to avoid being seen as not ‘performing well enough’ in her office as a member of the National Legislature. 

Coincidentally, this statement came just a few days before the commemoration of International Women’s Day on 8 March - an important day where we should not only create awareness about gender discrimination, but also reflect on how we can achieve a gender-equal world.

Reading her statement of apology, and seeing the numerous responses and the debates that followed across social media and news outlets, I found myself reflecting on the place of women in the broader political environment and political culture of South Africa. I realised that this is not a new occurrence or phenomenon within South African politics and the workplace. 

Women often have to apologise for having family responsibilities, as Naledi is doing, with no pause or due consideration from her political party or her colleagues in Parliament to say wait, how can we support this newborn mother? 

Writing on sisterhood, Bell Hooks argues that for it to truly flourish, one must be able to allow themselves to be vulnerable, be willing to hear one another’s stories, and most importantly, take action. 

South Africans need to reflect deeply on political culture and environment and as a critical call to action to not only Naledi, the EFF and other political parties, but the entire women’s movement in general, and the nationalist women movement in particular. 

For decades within South Africa, women have struggled within and outside political parties for women’s emancipation, and for the recognition of our myriad of struggles within political spaces. 

Along this journey, we have had victories within political parties themselves, and within local community women’s organising. 

Cherryl Walker, in her seminal text Women and Resistance in South Africa, chronicled some of the earlier forms of women’s organising and detailed important and unapologetic place of women in advancing nationalist ideology, human rights, and women’s emancipation across various societal spheres.

Susan Geiger, writing on the Tanganyikan Nationalist Union, noted that it was women’s organising that made nationalism credible and legible and arguably successful amongst the people. 

Within South Africa’s history of fighting for liberation, this intricate and intellectual work of making nationalist movement politics legible, whilst confronted with systematic sexism, also fell upon the backs of women within the uMkhonto weSizwe and African People’s Liberation Army women’s units. 

Quite recently, Siphokazi Magadla wrote about facets of women’s nationalist organising in her book Guerillas and Combative Mother: Women and the Armed Struggle in South Africa. Within it, she chronicles the challenges and victories that women faced as they navigated their womanhood and fierce commitment to the realisation of a liberated South Africa. 

In South African politics today, it is women such as Chirwa, whose persistent and intellectual efforts continue to make various political parties, civil society organisations and private companies ‘legible’. Women can deploy this skill of legibility because of their intricate and non-reductive understandings of the intersectionalities of struggles for the everyday person. 

Of course, one would have hoped for institutional and cultural change towards women after 30 years of democracy, especially in political parties. But it seems as Chirwa’s letter reveals, women must be forever apologetic and be forced to choose between the barrel of the struggle or care work. 

Similarly, it has been the organising efforts for women’s equality that a woman should not have to give any reason, let alone an apology, for prioritising the care of herself and children in lieu of organisational commitments, more especially in the year we should be celebrating 30 years of democracy.  

The intention of this article is not to criticise Naledi or the EFF, her political home, but rather to show that nationalist political formations which claim radical politics such as the EFF and others are still structurally inherently patriarchal. 

Anyone who does not deduce this from the onset has failed to grasp what is at the heart of nationalist organising and organisational politics - that for women to fully participate within it, they are expected to abandon their womanhood and become ‘superheroes’ – being silent or strategic about raising women’s and queer issues so that men see them as their equals and as serious about liberation.

This is absurd and cannot be normalised, however, it continues to occur across the board in political and organisational structures as a reality of a visceral structural violence that women navigate daily. 

Patriarchy, within political structures and civil organisations, uses feminist and emancipatory rhetoric to galvanise support for voting and make their profit margins. 

As women, we must pause to apologise to Naledi, that she has been made to justify her choices as a woman and mother to the world as if she were wrong. 

Naledi was not wrong to prioritise her child, and she must earnestly know that she has not failed anyone. 

In fact, it is her organisation and the broader culture in Parliament which has failed her. The organisation failed to see and recognise her in her entirety as she transitions through the new phases of her life. Her movement has failed to hold space and celebrate her whilst for years she has done the groundwork, to the point of putting her body on the line.

In the past few years, we have also seen how women holding senior and leadership positions in the civil service have suffered under abusive political principals. In universities, women holding leadership positions have been under constant pressure from patriarchal gatekeepers to be apologetic for their decisions.

Of course, some might say it is not us who must apologise, but is in collective sisterhood (and allyship) that we recognise that she and other women continue to be wronged, both publicly and privately, in defence of ‘proper channels’ for reporting. Thus, in wanting to hold space with/for Naledi, it is important that we acknowledge and name what has happened as wrong and outrightly sexist. 

The clarion call to all women is that we strengthen the women’s movement within this country.

As Hooks said: “Sisterhood could [and will] not be powerful as long as women were [are] competitively at war with one another”.

This is a women’s movement that must dissuade all reductive reasoning that the issues raised by this open letter by Chirwa are solely an EFF organisational matter. It is a women’s matter. 

In fact, it is at this moment that women and allies should be rallying alongside each other, across political lines riddled with their own internal contradictions, to demand that these political party and organisational policies that claim to be for women’s emancipation and equality don’t have us defending ‘proper channels’ that relegate us to suppressing our rightful choices to engage in forms of womanhood. 

Nomzamo Portia Ntombela is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Stellenbosch, and the secretary-general of the South African Sociological Association.