BALEKA MBETE: A WOMAN LOOKING TO LEAD

With a political career with the ANC spanning over forty years, National Assembly Speaker, Baleka Mbete has occupied various roles, the current one as the party’s first female National Chairperson, and has been a key player with a far-reaching track record for a role as a public figure in South Africa’s political arena

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Mbete serves as a Member of Parliament and is a member of the Constitutional Assembly, and previously served as the Deputy President of South Africa, between 2008 and 2009. We take a closer look at one of the leading ladies at the helm of the National Assembly who defines independent strength and determination

Unwavering foundations

Born on the 24 September 1949 in Claremont, Durban, she spent her pre-school years with her grandmother in the Northern Transvaal but completed her primary schooling in Durban. In 1958, her family moved to Fort Hare University where her father had been appointed a librarian, and he subsequently lost his position when the government imposed a series of severe measures to restrict all political activities on campus.

Shortly thereafter, Mbete was sent to boarding school and matriculated from the Inanda Seminary School in 1967. Having completed her studies at Lovedale Teacher Training College in Alice, she went on to teach in Durban where she soon became active in black consciousness-affiliated organisations. Through these, she established contact with the African National

Congress’ underground structures.

Mbete went on to teach in Durban. She went into exile on 10 April 1976 and left for Swaziland with the assistance of the ANC underground. The following year, she left for Tanzania where she became the first secretary of the regional women’s section of the ANC, which was established as a result of a growing number of women going into exile.

In 1978, she married National Poet Laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile and in 1981, left Tanzania to join him in Kenya where he taught at the University of Nairobi. Following the attempted coup in Kenya, Baleka fled to Botswana where she resumed her work with the ANC structures. She became the head of the writers and music units of the Medu Gaborone Arts Ensemble until the disruption of their activities by the South African Defence Force raid in 1985.

She then left for Zimbabwe where she joined women’s committees but soon left to work for the ANC’s women’s section in Lusaka until the relaunch of the ANC Women’s League in 1990. In June 1990, Baleka returned to South Africa and at the first national conference of the ANC Women’s League, she was elected Secretary-General. She was divorced from Kgositsile in the early nineties and recently married Bloemfontein businessman Nape Khomo, on her 67th birthday. The traditional ceremony was held in Mqanduli, Eastern Cape. She currently serves the ANC’s national executive committee and is a member of the Congress of South African Writers (COSAW).

Mbete was the recipient of the 2016 Martin Luther King Legacy Award for International Service in Washington DC, in the United States. The award recognises individuals who have demonstrated distinguished leadership and have made contributions that have had a positive impact on the global community.

A woman in politics

“My passion for politics is due to what lies at the centre of it—the people. It is about what is happening in communities, about determining and examining the main issues in different sectors in society that need to be addressed and how best we, as the people that get to come to Parliament, get to represent communities or society,” says Baleka. Having worked for the ANC from a young age, she says that it is a continuous challenging journey due, in part, to being a female in a primarily male-dominated sector. “Being a female in politics is not easy. While the landscape has changed in terms of being more inclusive to women, there is still a lot of work to be done within the sector. Politics is never for the faint-hearted, but there seems to be a particularly gendered aspect to the treatment of female politicians. Male confidence and ambition in the public sphere are both appropriate and praiseworthy, while its female equivalent is often less tolerated. Despite the success of a handful of women at the top, female South African politicians still have a long way to go to be treated truly equally,” she says.

She continues by explaining that democracy that excludes half the population from leadership positions will ultimately fail, and minimising the divide is an essential part of creating the responsive, responsible and trustworthy leadership required. Additionally, closing the gender divide in the sector of political leadership will accelerate progress on narrowing the social and economic gap.

The call for gender equality and her advocating for women’s rights are issues close to Mbete’s heart. Previously, the Secretary-General of the ANC Women’s League, she was also the Chair of the women’s caucus in Parliament. She was considered a militant member of the Women’s League when it returned from exile and she insisted that women should be mobilised to fight for their rights. Mbete has also spoken out emphatically on the abuse of women and children, stating Parliament needed to prioritise legislation that will tackle femicide and gender-based violence.

Celebrating those before us

Mbete is passionate about empowering women and celebrating the history and those who have paved the way for the next generation.

“All glory must be given to the women of older generations. I say that because they had a lot more difficulties to face, and much thicker walls to break down in order for the generations of today to be able to go further than they did. I remember sitting with Ray Alexander—Ray Simons by the time she passed on—and she told me of the experiences of a woman in earlier decades whom she met when she arrived here as a teenager and threw herself into political movements, in particular, the labour movement. In fact, Ray started FAWU, one of the trade unions that still survive to this day—and the stories she told me, I don’t know how I would have dealt with them, but it was an experience and it went with its time,” says Mbete.

“Yes, we too arrived in an environment where it was not very smooth sailing. We had to fight our own battles and break our own walls that were facing us at that time. For instance, even when we were involved in the Constitutional Talks, we had to fight, nobody welcomed us or brought it to us on a silver platter. We had to fight for our right to be there.

“We were saying that women have been mentors for so long, why would they not be able to be leaders? And thank God for leaders like Oliver Tambo because, from the 1940s, he had always been one of those male leaders who were actually part of the struggle. You could easily call him one of the great women’s emancipation activists. Oliver Tambo chaired what we called the ‘Emancipation Commission of the ANC’ when we first came back from exile and he championed the gender equality struggles.

“The Women’s League was existing and it had its own, different rules, and he was consistently there to make us look harder at what’s going on in society, to make us look at why and how we had to change, and how it is the African National Congress itself, as a leader in society and in the struggle, that had to be exemplary in showing we were prepared to do those things that didn’t come easily to us but had to be done.

“Women’s rights are part of human rights and that’s something we learnt we had to fight for at the negotiation table at the World Trade Centre because there were traditional leaders, male comrades, who were prepared to sacrifice that which we felt very strongly about. In the interim constitution at that time, dealing with what was called fundamental rights at that point, there was a clause where the men had agreed that in certain areas—areas where there would be traditional leadership—the issue of fundamental rights could be postponed. We had to put up the biggest fight of that moment to say what? Delay our rights? Postpone our rights?” explains Mbete.

She says, “at times we forget, and we pretend as though it was always smooth sailing, but it was not. Women had to fight every inch of the way and so when we are here, we should look back very seriously at those moments and appreciate them. Today’s generations must look at their issues and must know that nothing that is now taken for granted came easy. Freedom was not free.”

“I look at some young women and I can only admire them for what they’re doing and saying and the courage they have. For instance, at universities, I’ve seen some bright, brilliant, beautiful young girls like Nompendulo Mkatshwa, who was president of the SRC at Wits. I truly admire younger women who are continuing the fight for their rights, and I know that one day they will look back and they will talk about these moments in the same way that I’m talking about the moments that my generation have gone through. Every generation has its issues and it must focus its energies on moving forward to solve them, but it’s wise to remember that there are lessons to be found in the past,” she adds.

A time for female leadership

Earlier this year, Mbete confirmed she would be available to stand for the ANC’s top job and, ultimately, preside over the country when the party chooses President Jacob Zuma’s successor at its national elective conference in December.

Mbete states she has overcome various challenges throughout her life, which has prepared her for any tough task. The National Assembly Speaker concedes she will begin her campaign on the back foot, as other contenders have been actively campaigning for some time already. She says it will be up to her supporters to do the legwork of injecting life into her aspirations. Mbete will look to win over the branches on the grounds of seniority, party unity and women’s issues.

“Unity, for me, is of high importance—unity not only in the ANC but in the country as a whole,” she says.

“We have witnessed horrific and barbaric, violent assaults on women and children in recent times, with little recourse. I am willing to die fighting this cancerous societal ill until the bitter end. It is my desire to see all women, young and old, living in a society that allows them to be whoever they choose to be. I long to see women define themselves on their own terms, as opposed to living according to the dictates of society and patriarchy,” she states.

Mbete has also shown an interest in the right to a quality education for everyone, by emphasising that leaders of civil society must lead in the process of the decolonisation of the mind and that universities must develop African tools of analysis, as the politics of language planning in post-apartheid South Africa are an urgent matter in the ongoing discourse of education.

The current frontrunners for the top job are Deputy President, Cyril Ramaphosa and former African Union Commission Chairperson, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Since female candidates are now showing that they are up to the challenge, Mbete will not only compete against Dlamini-Zuma but also against Human Settlements Minister, Lindiwe Sisulu.

Asked about whether the ANC had given sufficient space for female leaders to emerge, Mbete has said previously: “I do not think that we can wait for the perfect conditions for women to lead. Women participate; they play roles under very difficult circumstances. They have shown how brave they are. People say women hold the knife at the sharp end, but all they get are compliment. They are not given leadership positions. I think that society has been very dishonest in this regard because you will find that men—even those less competent than many of the women who have played leadership roles—are made leaders. I think we need to just say to ourselves: ‘It is time. Let us allow for women to lead. Let us not be talking about conditions not yet being right.’ When will they be right?”

A family-orientated poet

Mbete is a mother and grandmother, she enjoys taking time to relax with her family and cites finding a balance between family and politics as one of her personal challenges.“Politics take you away from family life because you have to give so much of yourself to the whole of society, and you only have so much in terms of energy and human capabilities. So it cuts from that which could invest in your family and, instead, adds more to what you put into what you do for the broader society. So, that’s the one regrettable thing about politics,” she says. As for interests, one of her greatest, and lesser known, is for arts and culture. “It may not be the most well-known thing about me but I’ve always been somewhat involved in that kind of work. In fact, if I had another life, it would the key role I come back to life to play,” Mbete says. Amongst Mbete’s many accolades, she also published an anthology of poems, ‘Essential Things’, and has been quoted as saying, “the best compliment you can give me... is to tell me that I am a poet.”

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