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Women leaders are specific targets

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Picture: KZN Provincial Government – KwaZulu-Natal Premier Nomusa Dube-Ncube delivered her maiden State of the Province Address at the Oval Cricket Stadium, in Pietermaritzburg, on Friday February 24, 2023. On February 11, a service delivery protest was held by a group called Umsinsi Wokuzimilela, which stormed the private residence of Dube-Ncube as part of its “door-to-door” campaign in Hillcrest and demanded to see the Premier, who has served for only seven months thus far.

By Noluthando Phungula

Nomusa Dube-Ncube was sworn in as the KwaZulu-Natal premier on August 10 last year, during a special sitting of the KwaZulu-Natal Legislature in Mooi River. She is the ninth premier of the KZN and the first woman premier to lead the province.

On February 11, a service delivery protest was held by a group called Umsinsi Wokuzimilela, which stormed the private residence of Dube-Ncube as part of its “door-to-door” campaign in Hillcrest and demanded to see her. I argue that this action can be viewed as an act of violence against women in politics.

This form of violence occurs within the political sphere and specifically targets women. International actors typically define violence against women in politics as (1) aggressive acts toward woman political actors, faced largely or only by women; (2) because they are women, often using gendered means of attack; (3) in order to deter their participation, as a way to preserve traditional gender roles and undermine democratic institutions.

The incident of intimidation took place outside Dube-Ncube’s home while her family, including children, were inside. In January 2021, Dube-Ncube lost her husband after a short illness. This is a common narrative in many South African homes, which are often headed by women, and makes such women susceptible to acts of violence as the presence of a male figure often determines the social and security status of women in their communities.

Often such women are targeted and stigmatised by their partners, family members, communities, political rivals, and even the media. This proves particularly true in the local government sphere, where councillors live in the same areas as those they are leading.

This means that perpetrators have easy access to their victims, and this has been the case with the premier, who was visited by protesters in her private residence. It is worth noting that the premier has been in the job less than seven months, yet her predecessor, premier Sihle Zikalala, had been in office for more than three years with no such antics being witnessed.

The argument I make here is that the province has been for years faced with service delivery complaints, yet when we have a woman premier taking up office, there is the audacity to invade her private home.

Politically active women have for decades had to deal with the scourge of violence, often in the form of aggression, coercion, threats and intimidation. However, the concept of violence against women in politics is relatively recent, becoming a topic of discussion in the past 15 years in different contexts around the world.

The premier is conversant with violence against women in politics in the province. In 2016, when Dube-Ncube served as MEC of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta), the KwaZulu-Natal province became notorious for political killings and violence, particularly in the local government sphere.

In a South African Local Government Association study, the province stood out as the province where councillors are particularly under siege. Women in politics have not been left out of the violence, in fact, the province has seen increased acts of violence directed towards women.

The killing and intimidation of councillors show that women politicians are frequently targeted as they are perceived to be easy targets. South Africa has seen an increase in the number of women participating in politics and taking leadership roles in the political space.

While the country has done well in putting in place policies and quotas that have successfully called for the representation of women in political spaces, it would seem it has been less successful in curbing the politically motivated violence directed at women in politics.

The premier has served previously as the MEC for Cogta in KZN, suggesting she is conversant with the many challenges faced by women politicians in communities. During her tenure as Cogta MEC, during the period from April 2016 to July 2017, more than 10 women fell victim to violence and assassination in the province as a result of their involvement in politics.

In her commentary, Dube-Ncube would condemn such acts of violence against both men and women, but to date, the province has failed to recognise violence against women in politics as a real phenomenon in South Africa and call for consolidated efforts from all stakeholders to fight the scourge of violence against women in politics.

South Africa is experiencing a rise in reports of political violence directed at women. Despite the growing statistics, little research has been conducted on violence directed at women politicians, and particularly within the local government sector where the phenomenon is rife.

Dube-Ncube, as the political head of the province and after having fallen victim herself to such intimidation, is best placed to champion and lead conversations on violence against women in politics. As we consider the future of women in South African politics, it is critical that we seek appropriate responses from the government and other role-players.

Political leadership at all levels of government needs to publicly denounce violence against women in politics as a form of GBV and put in place programmes to educate and develop strategies to report and combat it.

Finally, the country needs to legislate effectively and have regulations in place to protect women against political violence.

Dr Noluthando Phungula is from the Institute for Pan African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg.