Deconstructing the role of the African First Lady in post-conflict reconstruction: the peculiar case of South African First Ladyship

by Siphokazi Magadla, Dimpho Motsamai and Melanie Roberts

The term First Lady and the institution of First ladyship is a precarious role due to its “extra-constitutional” nature. Given that the role of the spouse of the president is not mentioned in the Constitution; and the position is neither elected nor appointed, it is technically not an office. However, many of the first ladies in the modern era have enjoyed office space, a budget, and staff of considerable size. Robert Watson in “Toward the Study of the First Lady: The State of Scholarship” argues that the office of the first lady can therefore be regarded as an office without portfolio, statutory legitimacy, electoral mandate, or clearly defined roles and responsibilities, making it unaccountable to the public and difficult to study. Traditional first ladies have functioned as their husband’s trusted confidante, key supporter, and couselor in time of national crisis as well the nation’s primary hostess. Others have transgressed this traditional role by actively taking part in the election campaign of their husbands, editing their speeches, lobbying for their legislation, championing particular causes and travelling internationally as part of the presidential envoys.

Feminists argue that Eleanor Roosevelt’s departure from the traditional role of first ladies in post-depression America illustrates the transformation of women’s role in conditions of national instability. While the role of African women in peace, security and development are rooted in post-colonial struggles, their dominance in peace and security has been exacerbated by the post-colonial intra-state conflicts. It is the excessive nature of violence against women that has led to calls for a greater role of women in peace making, peacekeeping and peace building; also putting to the spotlight debate about the contribution of First Ladies in Africa. However the role of the First Lady as an unelected actor thrust into public life by virtue of her relationship with the elected president, has contributed to the ambiguous role of the First Lady as a political player in domestic, regional and international spheres. Is it possible for the first lady to play different roles in African politics as well as being able to positively influence societal social cohesion and moral rejuvenation in her country and beyond? Therefore, a key question is how can these women utilise their strategic proximity to the highest office in African states, to contribute meaningfully to advancing peace and security?

Since South Africa’s democratic transition in 1994, there have been several first ladies who have played various roles in the country’s politics. The list of these women include: Marike De Klerk, Graca Machel, Zanele Mbeki and more recently, President Zuma’s 3 wives (Sizakele Khumalo, Nompumelelo Ntuli and Tobeka Madiba). South African first ladies have traditionally played an important role in the transitional period and in the processes leading up to the consolidation of the country’s democracy. Marike de Klerk was the leader of the National Party’s women’s league during president de Klerk’s presidency. In 1993 she was awarded the ‘Women for Peace award’ in Geneva for her role in promoting the well being and development of rural women. During this period, de Klerk had expressed pride in her husband’s role in bringing an end to Apartheid. Graca Machel, the widow of Mozambican president Samora Machel, and currently the wife of South African liberation icon, Nelson Mandela, is a renowned humanitarian who notably produced the landmark UN Report on Impact of Armed Conflict on Children. Machel is best known for her work and contributions in Mozambique during the 70s, when she was the Minister of Education and Culture. She continues to lead various humanitarian focused projects- particularly those relating to refugees and children. Zanele Mbeki established an independent reputation beyond her role as the wife of former president Thabo Mbeki. She is the founder of South African Women in Dialogue (SAWID) that was formed at the backdrop of the Inter-Congolese Dialogue in Sun City, Johannesburg, in 2003 paving way for peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This brought together Congolese women from different party lines, exclusively to encourage the inclusion of women in Congolese negotiation party teams; to ensure that gender is identified as a principle, goal and outcome of the peace settlement; and that peace agreements promote and are aligned with, international policy instruments and legal conventions. Mbeki also established the ‘Women’s Development Bank’ which advocates for social and economic development in poor communities.

South Africa finds itself in a peculiar situation as for the first time the country has three First Ladies. This is occurring at a critical period for South Africa when the country serves on the UN Security Council for the second time, from January 2011. The advocacy of woman, peace and security issues during this period is and should be an obvious priority for the First Ladies. The current First Ladies have largely remained out of the public space, with the exception of the recent formation of the Nompumelelo MaNtuli-Zuma Foundation and the Tobeka Madiba-Zuma Foundation. The MaNtuli-Zuma Foundation has more recently provided assistance to women whose houses were destroyed by fire, in Weza Village, Willowvale, Eastern Cape. The Madiba-Zuma Foundation focuses on health with First Lady Madiba-Zuma currently charring the Forum of African First Ladies Against Breast and Cervical Cancer. The First Ladies growing public role raises the question of how the three women coordinate their projects. Should South Africans expect the founding of the Makhumalo-Zuma Foundation? What does this mean for the budget of the Office of the First Lady? Moreover, how can the First Ladies compliment the work already done by their predecessors, in the realm of post-conflict reconstruction? Certainly, the slow yet decisive emergence of the MaNtuli-Zuma and Madiba-Zuma foundations is indicative of the power held by the First Ladyship even in the context of a polygamous presidency.

Evidence from the rest of the continent demonstrates the growing importance of the First Lady as a political player. The pragmatic founding of such institutions as the Organization of African First ladies against HIV/AIDS established in 2002, (in close collaboration with UNAIDS and the International AIDS Trust) work in reinforcing policies and programs against HIV/AIDS, advocacy, resource mobilization and development of partnerships at national, regional and international levels. This resulted in the declaration of the African First ladies Against HIV/AIDS on the occasion of the AU Summit, Kampala, Uganda, 25-27 July 2010. The alliance of 22 first ladies, known as ‘African Synergy Against AIDS and Suffering,’ was formed in 2002. Collaborations to date include the opening of maternal health clinics, HIV treatment centres, orphan care programs and vocational training schools in Guinea, Niger, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Mali and Cameroon; as well as numerous other initiatives and advocacy efforts throughout all 22 member countries. Indeed, the launch of the African Women’s Decade 2010-2020 by the African Union underscores the extent to which a gender conception of security and development is being adopted internationally and on the continent. The precedent already set by former South African first ladies in the realm of peace and security highlights the instrumental role the South African First Lady can play in engendering peace and security in the continent.

Siphokazi Magadla

Siphokazi Magadla is a Lecturer and PhD student with the Department for Political and International Studies at Rhodes University, South Africa. She is a Fulbright scholar holding a Master’s degree in International Affairs from Ohio University, USA. She was previously named one of the Mail and Guardian’s Top 200 Young South Africans.

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