Taking Charge: How African Women Are Making Major Gains

By Bartholomäus Grill

Photo Gallery: The Decade of the African Woman Photos
REUTERS

Women in Africa are making great strides in politics and business, and are considered more reliable partners for international aid projects than their male counterparts. Welcome to what the African Union calls the "African Women's Decade."

The skirt? Much too short! And those loud colors! Two older women at a table in the back of the room begin to whisper to each other. A stout woman is standing at the front of the room. She is wearing a tomato-red dress and a knit bolero jacket in cobalt blue.

The woman places her hands on her hips and smiles at the crowd. Then she begins speaking. She attacks the president, rattles off the latest corruption scandals and sharply criticizes the new Protection of Information bill that curbs press freedoms. "We must be alert, so that South Africa doesn't become a police state," she says.

The audience -- primarily older and white -- seems bowled over by this clever and eloquent young black South African woman.

Wherever she speaks in public, the nation takes notice. Her name is Lindiwe Mazibuko, and, at 33, she is the opposition leader in South Africa's National Assembly. She is the first black woman to hold that office in the history of country's overwhelmingly male-dominated parliament.

Mazibuko is liberal, pragmatic and courageous, and embodies a new type of female African politician. She is a role model for all African women who desire a voice in shaping the future of their continent.

Speaking to the People

"Africa has millions of young, talented women," says Mazibuko, as she walks to the nearby parliament building in Cape Town. "But most of them don't want to go into politics, because they are marginalized there." Men -- old, power-hungry "big men," as she calls them -- dominate the political sphere in Africa to a far greater extent than in Europe.

"Many African presidents are older than 70, while the average age in Africa is about 19," says Mazibuko. "These men know nothing about the realities of life for young men and women."

The opposition leader has taken over the office space of the former white prime minister. Room 208 has mahogany paneling, massive leather armchairs, a fireplace, an English table clock and a view of the original neoclassical wing of the National Assembly complex. "This office was not meant for women," says Mazibuko. "I had to give it my female touch." She is referring to the white orchids she has placed into the two urinals in the men's room.

The alpha males in her own party, the Democratic Alliance, grumbled when Mazibuko was chosen to be the party's parliamentary leader in a crucial vote in October 2011. Things couldn't go well, they thought, because she was young, black, inexperienced and, most of all, a woman.

Verbal Abuse

Lawmakers with the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), derided her as a "coconut" -- brown on the outside and white on the inside -- who had sold her soul to a party dominated by whites. She was berated as a "house Negro" in social networks.

President Jacob Zuma dismissively referred to her as a "ntombazana," a derogatory term in the Zulu language which means "young girl." And because Mazibuko speaks English without an accent, she was even accused of not being a real African.

"Those are the usual sexist and racist insults coming from men who perceive a threat to their dominant position," says Mazibuko. "But it isn't something that can shock a feminist."

She comes from the black middle class, attended good private schools, studied music, French and politics in Cape Town and England, and then returned home and quickly embarked on a career within her party. Today even her political rivals admire Mazibuko, so much so that elderly male politicians with the ANC sometimes send her flowers.

She has prevailed, and she has even greater ambitions. She says she wants to be president because, "Africa is in the midst of an economic boom. If this development is to be stable, we need new ideas and a younger elite. And, of course, we need far more women in positions of leadership."

The Democratic Alliance is a case in point. A trio of women already shapes the party's agenda today. The party's leader is Helen Zille, the combative premier of South Africa's Western Cape province. And then there are Patricia de Lille, the mayor of Cape Town, and opposition leader Mazibuko. One of the women is white, one is of mixed race and one is black -- three strong women who are putting the fear of God into the autocratic contingent of male politicians in the ANC.

Challenging the Status Quo

Bastions of power that were firmly in male hands until not too long ago are toppling all across Africa. Female South African politician Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma heads the African Union Commission. Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the first female president in the continent's post-colonial history. In Kenya, a female foreign minister and female defense minister were sworn in for the first time since independence. Some 64 percent of the members of Rwanda's lower house of parliament are women, which gives the body the distinction of having the highest percentage of female parliamentarians in the world.

When two African women were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2011, women celebrated across Africa. Liberian President Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee, a civil rights and peace activist, accepted the honor on behalf of all African women who brave the adverse conditions in their part of the world, including poverty, disease, the overexploitation of natural resources, lawlessness and violence, and the chaotic forces of war.

In April 2012, Joyce Banda, a former market woman, was sworn in as Malawi's president. Her most important objective is to fight poverty, which is especially prevalent among women and children. Her first official acts showed that she means business: Banda sold her predecessor's jet and the luxury limousines used by senior government officials.

Female Entrepreneurs

Africa's women are on the move. They are establishing law firms, Internet companies and fashion labels. They are managing banks, securing seats on corporate boards and running their own farms.

In Tanzania, Masai women are fighting back against land grabbing and the forced displacement of their nomadic ethnic group. In Mali, Muslim mothers are rejecting the barbaric rituals of female circumcision that mutilate their daughters. In South Africa, tens of thousands of female activists are involved in an anti-rape campaign. All of these women are taking advantage of the faster communication offered by cellphones, text messaging and social networks.

More and more women are no longer willing to be treated like house slaves and unpaid workers. And more and more are rebelling against their husbands -- the abusers, rapists, drinkers and good-for-nothings who exploit their families instead of providing for them.

Mao said that women hold up half the sky. In Africa, they hold up at least three-quarters of it. The Washington-based International Center for Research on Women estimates that women in sub-Saharan Africa produce about 80 of all food products, and yet they own only 1 percent of arable land.

In chronic crisis and war zones, like eastern Congo, it is primarily women who fight for peace and, with their reconciliation programs, attempt to heal the wounds of conflict. International aid organizations prefer to employ women, because they are more reliable and less susceptible to corruption. Women-run projects are generally more sustainable. Microloans are more effective when entrusted to women, with a repayment rate of 95 to 98 percent. Development experts agree that the continent would be in far worse shape if it weren't for women.

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