ANC: The Past and The Present of a Patriarchal Organization


By: Chumani Maxwele

The African National Congress (ANC) is faced by an inescapable historical reality, that is, the past refuses to be the past and thus it is the present. Put differently, the ANC is (as it was in 1912) a deeply patriarchal organization. Now that I have said it, it is my responsibility to prove this conspicuously and conveniently avoided historical reality that still characterizes the profile of this glorious movement in the third decade of the 21st century.

It is no secret that ever since its formation, the ANC has never had a woman President as its leader. As a matter of fact, ANC male leaders deliberately refused to accept women as official members of the organization. It was only at the ANC’s 1943 Congress, some thirty years after its establishment, that women were accepted as members; many of whom had been involved in passive resistance campaigns from as early as 1918 under the banner of Bantu Women’s League.

It was Comrade Frene Ginwala in 1990 who penned a paper entitled ‘Women and the African National Congress: 1912-1943’. In the paper, Ginwala argues that ‘for the first 30 years of its existence the exclusion of women from full membership in the constitution of the SANNC/ANC’ was an accepted practice by the ANC leaders. Ginwala, an outstanding member of the ANC herself, was at great pains to explain the patriarchal nature and character of the ANC and went on to say, ‘the exclusion of women was not surprising nor exceptional for the time. The societies from which the White settlers originated and indigenous societies they encountered in South Africa were male dominated and patriarchal.’ Suffice it to say that this prognosis of patriarchy in the ANC as observed by Comrade Frene Ginwala still persists and can be discerned, albeit in a more sophisticated form, in the life and work of the ANC almost more than a century and decade later after its founding. There is no rational substance behind this practice, except egos. Male leaders who want to lead the ANC today are mere obstructionist and chauvinist as they don’t see themselves led by women, irrespective of their political seniority. They stand for no difference ideologically.

During the 2021 January 8th Statement of the ANC, Comrade President Ramaphosa evoked the name of the indefatigable African leader Mam’ Charlotte Manya-Maxeke, noting that ‘at a time when women were regarded only as “auxiliary members” of the ANC, Mam’ Maxeke’s example in challenging gender norms saw the ANC in 1943 opening up full membership to women and elected Lilian Ngoyi as the first female NEC member’.

It is worth pointing out that contrary to the President’s views, the ANC did not just “open up full membership” because it saw it necessary to do so but was rather forced to “open up” through the fearless activism of women such as Mam’ Maxeke, Mrs Nuku, Mrs. Josie Mpama, Mrs. Mina Soga, Mrs. M. Kondile, Mrs. L. P. Nikiwe and Mrs. M. Bobojana; all of whom were influential founding members of the “women’s section of the ANC”.

It is the very same fearless activism of Mam’ Maxeke and others that the ANC needs today in order to purge itself of its disagreeable patriarchal tendencies, and, by doing so, (re)commit itself to the long overdue historical task of electing a woman President of the ANC; and by implication the first woman President of the Republic of South Africa.

It would be a most welcome political outcome should the leadership of today’s ANC (especially the top six) absolve themselves from the despicable legacy of unchecked patriarchy in the movement by actively working towards the election of women ANC leaders to the position of ANC Presidency when President Ramaphosa leaves his office. However, would President Ramaphosa be willing to shape the political history of the ANC by actively campaigning for a woman President of the ANC and thus the first woman President of South Africa as a reciprocal gesture to a woman who sustained the momentum of his campaign towards Nasrec (Lindiwe Sisulu)? The President certainly has an enviable and unique opportunity to tip the proverbial scales and gift us with an unprecedented political legacy of being the first South African President to pass the baton unto, and be succeeded by, a woman President when his time in office comes to an end. This too would be a great honour to the legacy of Mam’ Charlotte Maxeke who died in 1939, four years before the ANC officially accepted women as members of the ANC with voting rights in 1943. Ramaphosa would duly brake the backbone of patriarchy and certainly history will be on his side if he is a true democrat and believes in women leadership. He doesn’t have to anoint Sisulu, but just open up for a woman candidate.

There are a lot of women leaders in the ANC today who are ready and capable of leading the ANC and the Republic of South Africa. These women leaders of the ANC include but are not limited to Comrade Lindiwe Sisulu and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, among many others. These women leaders have led at national level both within the ANC and in the State; but alas! the ANC in its patriarchal wisdom saw it necessary not to elect a women President in the 109 years of its existence. There is no better way to rationally explain this grave desecration than to characterize the ANC as an obstinately patriarchal organization in a deeply patriarchal society.

The ANC leadership can’t leave the election of a woman President to the so-called “democratic processes” of ANC delegates in an ANC conference so that they can elect a woman President of the ANC as delegates. We know all too well that ANC delegates are too patriarchal in their attitudes which are mostly informed by our patriarchal societal values that see men, as opposed to women, as natural leaders of the ANC and thus of South Africa at large. If needs be, the ANC must make a political compromise or deliberate effort by electing a woman President who will be elected amongst women themselves. This will help resolve the patriarchal injustices of the past that were perpetuated by the male leaders of the ANC both in the past and in the present.

If Pixley ka Isaka Seme, the founding member of the ANC, was considered “an architect of our people”, what then was Princess Phikisile, the eldest daughter of Dinuzulu ka Cetshweyo, who was also the wife to Pixley ka Isaka Seme? Equally, if Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, O.R. Tambo, Robert Sobukwe were regarded as leaders of our people, does the same eulogization and unquestioned reverence apply to one Charlotte Maxeke, Winnie Mandela, Lindiwe Sisulu and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as leaders of our people too? If the answer is yes, why then did the ANC in its patriarchal wisdom see it necessary never to elect a woman President after more than a hundred years in existence? It is a contradiction to celebrate Charlote Maxeke, Albertina Sisulu and Winnie Mandela while brutally obstructing their daughters for leadership position who are far politically senior and dependable than their male counter parts. Otherwise why are you celebrating these stalwarts if you are part of the patriarchal problem?

In her critical review of a movie called “Winnie”, Sisonke Msimang sees Winnie as a fighter whom, like Maxeke, fought against patriarchy both in the ANC and in society throughout her life. Msimang goes on to say, “the film calls out patriarchy and reminds us that our mothers have been fighting this war for a long time alone”. Patriarchy is indeed a war that needs to be fought by all those who care about the “new world order”. Msimang views Winnie as a hero whose work has been deliberately undermined and erased by the patriarchal tendencies in the ANC and thus she argues that “there is little doubt Winnie Mandela was the subject of gendered double standards”. It is for this reason that I argue that ANC will have to make yet another political compromise/effort if it is to live up to its own values and future aspirations of being a leader of society. As Msimang says ‘it is impossible not to recognize Winnie as the forbearer to this generation’s impatience with authority’, be it within the ANC or in society at large. Therefore, like in the case of Mam’ Charlotte Maxeke, ‘Black and White men who tried and failed to erase Winnie Mandela’ will fail to erase Lindiwe Sisulu and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma from the political urgency and historical appointment to lead the ANC in its inevitable new future.

The contemporary political attacks on Comrade Lindiwe Sisulu and other ANC women leaders encapsulated in epithets such as “blue blood royalty” because she is a daughter of an ANC stalwart are nothing but symptomatic of the patriarchal tendencies within the ANC and in the broader South African public sphere. People must talk about their own parents, not other people’s parents. These political attacks levelled against Comrade Sisulu were not levelled against, for example, Comrade President Mbeki; notwithstanding that he himself was a son of an ANC stalwart. This explains the patriarchal nature of our society and that of our organization. Instead, Comrade Thabo Mbeki was seen as a natural leader of the ANC and yet Comrade Lindiwe Sisulu is not seen as a natural leader of the ANC because of her womanhood!

Will the men dominating the top six be willing to support the election of a women President in the ANC and thus defer their own presidential toxic ambitions in correcting the injustices of the past against women leaders in the ANC? To answer this question one would have to do ‘an examination of the fragility of patriarchal men’ in the ANC who always claim the need for a ‘democratic process’ in electing an ANC President which is basically a code for refusing women ANC leaders their rightful place in the Presidency of the ANC.

In a deeply patriarchal society like South Africa it is rather not surprising that the mainstream national periodicals and other media agencies routinely issue sustained attacks on Cde Lindiwe Sisulu lately. Cde Lindiwe Sisulu has joined a long historical and political fight that was fought by Charlotte Maxeke, Ellen Khuzwayo and Freder Mathews in the ANC. This sustained political attack on Cde Lindiwe Sisulu has got owners.

If the profile of the current status quo is anything to go by, it seems to me that ANC women leaders will have to wait for their male Comrades to “allow” them as women leaders of the ANC in order to become President. Let us not forget that ANC women leaders historically had to wait for their male Comrades to “allow” them to join the ANC as full members with voting rights. Regrettably, it seems that now, more than a century and a decade later, ANC women leaders will have to write the ‘historic petition’ in order to petition their male Comrades to be so kind and comradely as to “allow” them to become eligible to be elected in the Presidency of the ANC. Otherwise, what else can ANC women leaders such as Lindiwe Sisulu and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma do in order to be eligible for the ANC Presidential position?

Cde Ramaphosa, as a democrat and as a transformationalist leader has a rather unique political opportunity and duty to leave us (as part of his political legacy) with a woman president of the ANC and thus of South Africa. Otherwise, for how long shall the ANC women leaders wait before they can be deemed as politically eligible to be ANC President notwithstanding the century and a decade of waiting that has already taken place in this country?

Charlotte Maxeke was elected the first President of the National Council of African Women (NCAW) in early 1900s and NCAW was a precursor to African National Congress Women’s Section. Cde Lindiwe Sisulu is the most visible political symbol of oppression against women in the ANC both pre and post 1994, like Maxeke, Winnie Mandela, and other women Cde Sisulu will not be erased from her political role in the ANC and notwithstanding her political seniority to all the male top six leaders in the ANC she is still not eligible for ANC Presidency, why?


*Mr. Chumani Maxwele – Head of Political Education at Gabby Shariro Branch, ANC Dulla Ormer Region