Aside

Macron’s Victory: 3 Lessons for the Young African

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Photo Credit: Reuters

“More and more are coming from the third world, taking advantage of our benefits. It’s a choice of civilization. I will be the president of those French who want to continue living in France as the French do.”

— Ms. Le Pen, at the rally in Marseille

Madame Joscelyne

I first came across the name “Le Pen” a decade and a half ago when I was an Advanced Level French student at Arundel School. My life then was one of complicated simplicity, one of pink, arched walls and well manicured lawns. Flap jacks and Sun Jam were a somehow a tea time treat. A typical day was punctuated by bells that chimed at 45-minute intervals and regimented by rules that mostly made little sense but were designed to teach us how to submit to authority – not unique training for the young African girl and the threshold of ‘adulthood’ – I use that term generously.

The woman who taught us French, Madame Joscelyne, was an icon of the institution – herself an old girl. To call her a teacher is to minimise her contribution to our view of the world. She didn’t teach. She influenced. She typified the school’s delicious contradictions well – an obsession with the rules and an equal obsession with rebelling against them. I loved this about her. Her trademark look was a sophisticated, foxy, silver bob – strands all perfectly in place) and khaki chinos – relaxed but uptight. She often regaled us with tales of how she used to play strip tennis as a boarder – bad. But she insisted on discipline, hard work and made us watch France 5  – good. She’d tell us that we would never marry the loves of our lives and that they’d somehow always get away – uncertain. Whenever she walked into the classroom, the scent of what I guess must have been Ermenegildo Zegna fell over the room like an unexpected shower of cold rain on an October afternoon – intoxicating and beautiful.

I chose to speak about “Le Racisme” in my final French oral exam. This was pursuant to a French class led by Madame Joscelyne where we explored the rise of the Front National in France and with it, the phenomenon that was Jean-Marie Le Pen. We talked about Le Pen’s desire to restrict immigration to France, his euroscepticism and his emphasis on traditional culture and values. We also looked at unrest on the part of the “banlieue” youths, mostly immigrants from Africa, who saw the French state as the enemy. We learnt that France has all kinds of suburbs, but the word for them, banlieues, had become pejorative, meaning slums dominated by immigrants. We tore the issue and its complexities apart and ruminated on possible solutions.

The school had a way of making us believe we were or could be the next leaders of the free world. Mrs Lutalo brought the French revolution to life and Killer Miller opened us up to a world of critiquing revisionist world history. Mrs Gould taught us to write English using the pens of our souls.

It was the best of times and it was the best of times.

The 2017 French Election

Fast forward to 2017. A lot has changed but nothing has changed.

In various parts of the world, including the United States and the United Kingdom, there has been a rise in far right politics characterised by nationalism, an anti-immigration sentiment and an attempt to halt the perceived “left wing” globalization project.

France, paradoxically, was not to be spared.

The 2017 French presidential election was held on 23 April and 7 May 2017. As no candidate won a majority in the first round on 23 April, a run-off was held between the top two candidates, Emmanuel Macron of En Marche! and Marine Le Pen of the Front National. Marion Anne Perrine “Marine” Le Pen is a French politician and lawyer. In addition to being the former president of the Front National, she is the youngest daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen. Marine Le Pen expelled her father from the party on the 20th of August 2015 after new controversial statements and found him marginalized in the French political landscape.

Macron won the 2017 French election by a decisive margin on 7 May 2017.

As the world is changing before our eyes and as young Africa, are we striving towards an ideal that is in crisis? Is it time to stop and take stock without any external prompting? Are we stuck between the rock of colonialism and the hard place of autocratic, corrupt, aged, post-colonial leadership? What are we to do?

What lessons can the young African who is curious about where Africa fits on the global stage draw from all this?

Lesson number 1: Youth is good – but it’s not enough to be young

One of the features of Macron’s presidential bid that has fascinated many is his youth. At 39, he will become the youngest President in French history and the youngest French head of state since Napoleon. From an African standpoint, this is a phenomenon to behold. As observed by David E Kiwuwa, an Associate Professor of International Studies at Princeton University, there is something unmistakably common in Africa: the continent’s ageing and long-serving presidents. Africa’s five longest presidencies stretch between 29 and 37 years, adding to a cumulative 169 years. Their longevity in office is matched by their old age, ranging from 71 to 93 years, and a combined 390 years.

Hastings Banda, Malawi’s self-proclaimed president for life, was in his late 90s when he was ousted from office in 1994. Gabon’s Omar Bongo had been president for a record 41 years in 2011 when he died in office at the age of 73. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe is 93, making him the oldest leader in the world. As at 2015, Africa’s five longest presidencies were cumulatively 169 years. The average age of the 10 oldest presidents is 78.5, compared to 52 in the most developed countries.

Sitting next to these statistics are figures that show a clear youth bulge in Africa. According to a 2015 CNN report, 85% percent of Angolans were not born when Dos Santos came into power in 1979. 83% of Zimbabweans were born after Mugabe first came into power as prime minister in 1980, while 79% percent of Ugandans were born after Museveni took over power in 1986. On average, only between 15% to 21% of their citizens were alive when these presidents took the reins.

It is no surprise therefore, that most young people feel disconnected from their leaders who mostly hail from an era long past. The ageing face of African governance has led to spirited calls for the young to take over – somehow. This is valid. And hard to contest. However, being young alone is not enough to go the distance as the example of Macron shows. A former civil servant and investment banker, he studied philosophy at Paris Nanterre University, completed a Master’s of Public Affairs at Sciences Po, and graduated from the Ecole Nationale d’Administration in 2004. He worked as an Inspector of Finances in the Inspectorate General of Finances and then became an investment banker at Rothschild & Cie Banque. He joined active politics at 29 as a member of the Socialist Party. Macron was appointed as deputy secretary-general under Hollande’s first government in 2012. He was appointed Minister of Economy, Industry and Digital Affairs in 2014.

It is evident that Macron is not an ordinary 39 year old. If the young of Africa are to lead, we must be qualified to do so. We must join formal politics. We must acquire public service experience. We must learn that it’s important to start small – to be a councillor or Minister before we can aspire to be the President. We must study public affairs and attain a firm knowledge of the states that succeed and establish why they succeed. We must study philosophy so that when confronted with the hard questions on where Africa stands in a post-colonial world, we have a firm ideology that ensures we do not return to slavery – economic or political in the global arena. We must remember at all times that the ageing leaders we have currently were once young – we must not be a replication of young leadership that has no clear trajectory or plan for progress. We must learn from the mistakes of generations ahead of us, consolidate their gains and move decisively forward.

Youth is good but it is not enough to be young.

Lesson number 2: We cannot run away from Africa forever

A young African woman once said of her African country: dreams die here. The experience of the young person in Africa makes it easy to draw that conclusion. Unemployment, failing economies, hunger, broken public health systems, underdevelopment, disease, political violence, corruption, war, rigged elections and the absence of freedom, fairness and opportunity make the outside world an attractive prospect. African states are often in a position to give the young African just enough to enter and possibly succeed in the first world – a good command of English or French, sound secondary education and a dream for a better life. Leaving Africa to seek ‘greener pastures’ has become the African young person’s coping mechanism to deal with the lack of opportunity back home. But we must be honest with ourselves here: one man’s dream for a better life is another man’s immigration problem.

Immigration has become a strong election theme, the world over. Unrest and armed conflict in the Middle East have contributed to this but so has rising African emigration. We celebrate that Macron won the 2017 election but we must remember that the far right garnered approximately 35% of the vote. We cannot forget that Jean-Marie Le Pen’s goal was to build a vehicle for far-right politics in the post-Nazi era. Zack Beauchamp observes that the essential theory underpinning Le Pen was that while language about white racial superiority had been discredited, fear of difference in general had not. He capitalized on fears about immigration, which had been growing at an unprecedented rate after the war, particularly immigration from nonwhite, primarily Muslim countries like Algeria. In 1984, Le Pen famously warned that “Tomorrow the immigrants will move in with you, eat your soup, and they will sleep with your wife, your daughter, or your son.” Marine Le Pen in the 2017 Presidential debate for her part said “Just watch the interlopers from the world come and install themselves in our home. They want to transform France into a giant squat. But it’s up to the owner to decide who can come in. So, our first act will be to restore France’s frontiers.”

We may not agree with the rise of the far right agenda. However, we must not refuse to engage with it. Plainly put and this is difficult to swallow – the space or opportunity for young people to move abroad is becoming smaller and smaller. It may not be said outrightly – for to do so may be viewed as politically incorrect and possibly racist – but the reality is that a rising number of those who are nationals in the states in which we seek better lives feel we are unduly constraining their resources. The question that they surely ask is – why can’t these people fix their own countries instead of flooding ours? The answers are complex – ranging as they do from the warped legacy of colonialism to the impossible task of removing despotic leaders. We must choose to engage with the complexity and not run away from it.

For now, Macron has stalled the anti-immigration agenda to a degree. However, as the next generation that will govern African and hopefully take it into the future, we must budget for the day that we are openly told we are not welcome in countries that are not ours.

At some point, Africa’s young must stop giving excuses and accept that running away from the intricate problems is like chasing our shadows. The problems will follow us wherever we go – in one form or shape or the other. The African diaspora has an important role to play in rebuilding Africa. But we must always remember that Africa can only be built from the inside out and not from the outside in.

We cannot run away from Africa forever.

Lesson number 3: We must now think continent not just country

It is often said that we can go further together than alone. An interesting feature of Africa is how poorly integrated we are as a continent. There is a large intersection between our respective histories,  issues and problems as individual states but not enough unity of purpose on trade policy, conflict resolution, cultural exchange and general movement towards a rewarding and inspirational African project. This is not to say an African Union does not exist. It does. As the successor to the Organisation of African Unity, which was created in 1963 to eliminate the last vestiges of colonialism in Africa, the African Union came into existence in July 2002 at the Durban heads of state summit with the more focused goal of propelling African states towards peace and prosperity as the basis for achieving the ultimate goal of political and economic integration of its member states. The AU was modelled on the European Union with structures that included an Assembly of heads of state/government, an Executive in which countries were represented by their foreign ministers and the AU Commission which is the administrative branch made up of 10 commissioners and headed by a President.

However, the organization remains a white elephant and has not managed to quench the young African’s dream for progress on the continent – economically, politically, socially and culturally.

The example of Macron shows us that it is the responsibility of the young to reform the African Union project and to correct its weaknesses and ensure it works for everyone.

Macron discussed his plans for Europe at a private dinner party in March at the home of a French TV celebrity, attended by Belgium’s 41-year-old Prime Minister Charles Michel and Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Xavier Bettel, 44. “It was a moment for sharing our commitments on Europe,” Michel told Reuters of the dinner, which was kept secret until word leaked out in April. “In the coming months, we’re going to have to relaunch the European project … and for that we will need partners.”

By the same token, young Africans need to relaunch the African Union project. We need to see more and cheaper inter-Africa flights. We need to bridge the divide between Anglophone and Francophone Africa. We need to tear down our borders and ease migration. We need to optimize our trade model and be genuine about creating economies that work for more than just the political class. We must reconsider our relationship with international financial institutions. We must be wary of nouveau economic colonisers who may be glue in the short term but will turn out to be quicksand in the future. We need to build an African justice mechanism that is genuine about fighting impunity, crimes against humanity and war crimes on the continent. We need to ensure that our leaders hold each other to account – openly and honestly: the African way of silence has not served us well. We need to build the political will that will form the legs upon which all the high sounding declarations and treaties, conventions and protocols can finally stand and yield results. We need to move towards an economic culture of trade not aid – in the dire instances where aid is required, it must not be stolen and corruptly dealt with by the political class. We must stop ignoring and start confronting armed conflict on the continent starting with the DRC and South Sudan. We must invest in infrastructure and build for ourselves the lives we desperately seek when we travel abroad.

When young people move to seek political leadership of their nations, the African project must be high on the list of manifesto priorities.

The next generation of African leaders must think continent, not just country

Anything is possible

And so anything is possible.

As Africans, all too often we deny ourselves the luxury of dreaming. Macron, set up a political party one year ago. His wife was his teacher when he was a teenager and she’s 24 years his senior. Africa must be ready to defy convention and forge its own path if it is to succeed.

It may just be time for the young to to rebel against the authority of the old – clinging fast to African tradition and its lessons but also freeing ourselves from it where it no longer serves us.

Africa’s future is bright and it is young.

 

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Forget quotas — a change in attitude is the ticket to the top for women judges in Zimbabwe

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In what is viewed by most citizens of Zimbabwe as a historic step, public interviews for the selection of Supreme Court judges were held in Harare yesterday. Of the ten candidates, four were women. Two of the women candidates failed to differentiate between a court action and a court application, an elementary aspect of Civil Procedure in Zimbabwean law, much like the distinction between debiting and crediting in Accounting. Their responses to the effect that the question was “too technical” and that they would “read up on it when elevated” were the cause of much hilarity for the gallery, which was mostly composed of lawyers, law students and journalists.

Yet, for any woman lawyer sat in the room, the reaction was more intricate – a melange of surprise, anger, embarrassment and shame.

It is accepted that the fight for gender equality in the legal profession in Zimbabwe – and throughout the world – is ongoing and vicious. This is not assisted by the fact that, until 1982, women in Zimbabwe were considered perpetual minors who lacked legal and contractual capacity. It is not surprising therefore that. at independence in 1980, there were no female judges in the High Court or the Supreme Court of Zimbabwe. The Supreme Court building was set up to house three male Justices only and had no facilities for female justices. There has never been a female Chief Justice or Deputy Chief Justice in Zimbabwe, nor has there ever been a female silk. To date, no woman has ever been appointed to the post of Attorney-General. Zimbabwe has never appointed a female Minister of Justice.

The injustice of this state of affairs is self-evident. There has to be a problem with a system that permits only male lawyers to be promoted to the top legal posts in this jurisdiction. At the same time, being a woman – in and of itself – does not not equip one with a sound legal mind. Confidence, intellectual and analytical ability, strong written and oratory skills, charm and integrity do.

Against this backdrop, the issue concerning how to achieve female representation in the judiciary in Zimbabwe without compromising on quality remains a vexed question. (This is obviously not to suggest that the women currently on the bench in Zimbabwe are of inferior quality – the record of several women jurists in Zimbabwe speaks for itself.) The Zimbabwean solution to ensure female judicial representation has been to implement a quota system. In terms of section 184 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe, “appointments to the judiciary must reflect broadly the diversity and gender composition of Zimbabwe.” The intention of the legislature in enacting this provision is clear: quotas are the quickest way to ensure women are elevated to the bench. Quotas can remove some of the structural barriers that prevent women from being appointed as judges, so the argument goes.

Yet, quite unwittingly, installing a quota system for judicial appointments is akin to affixing a band-aid to a fractured wound: various underlying problems remain.

Most importantly, an unfair impression is created that the women who have been elevated to judicial posts are there merely because they are women. Quotas in general are offensive and create the impression that, unless a special dispensation is created for women, we cannot succeed. Women who are elevated to the bench are thus perceived to be substandard, incompetent, elevated only due to an accident of biology. Additionally, women elevated through quotas are seen as “token”, may generally be less respected and will have less influence. Quotas also set women against each other, competing for a certain number of “women’s seats”, which might destroy co-operation and unity. Equally, it can be argued with great force that quotas distort the idea of representation because they create the false impression that only women can protect the rights and interests of women. The quota system also implies that women are to confine themselves to branches of law where there the issue of gender is relevant such as family law and the law of inheritance, to the exclusion of other branches of law such as the law of banking and negotiable instruments, tax law, insurance law and the law of insolvency. With so much emphasis on gender quotas in the new constitution and the current government, women are still, in some cases, only ‘getting’ something because of their gender. Unfortunately, even to this day, if a woman gets elevated to the bench, it would still be questioned whether she was actually the best candidate.

There is only one answer: one must be, first and foremost, a judge, with all the poise, competence and disposition that comes with the role – not merely a woman holding judicial office. Those who push for quotas for women don’t understand that the jurisprudential x-factor and internalized principles are what make outstanding judges, male or female. Our attitude and approach in this regard has to change. The capabilities of junior women lawyers must be nurtured from an early stage. Having more and more judges, who so happen to be women, will not transform the legal landscape.

One cannot ride affirmative action, identity politics or third-wave feminism to reach the legal hall of fame.

There, I said it.

13 facts you did not know about Maya Angelou

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Today, the world  received with shock news of the untimely death of Maya Angelou. Many people identify with her because she was able to externalize and vocalize her trauma through her writing and poetry. Upon hearing of her passing, online publications and social media sites were awash with her numerous inspirational thoughts and musings. All one needed to identify with her was the instinctive need for some form of expression as a release in the face of adversity; all one needed was to be human.

Below are twenty facts about her life that paint a useful backdrop to her writings and provide context for the wisdom she so generously shared with the world.

1. Her birth name is Marguerite Annie Johnson. “Maya” is a nickname her older brother, Bailey Jr. gave to her when they were both sent to live with their paternal grandmother, Anne Henderson.

2. In her pre-teen years, her grandmother would whip Angelou for using the term ‘by the way’ in conversation, a blasphemy to her grandmother as ‘Jesus was the only way’.

3. When she was 7, Angelou was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. The rapist was found guilty and sentenced to one year in prison. The rapist served only one day of that sentence. However, the day after his release, the rapist was found dead after being kicked to death. Angelou contended that her voice had killed him.

4.  At age 17, Angelou became pregnant and gave birth just weeks after successfully graduating.

5. Angelou turned to prostitution at age 18 for a short period to support her family.

6. Angelou married her first husband, Anastosios Angelopoulos, in 1949. Drawing from her husband’s name, she adopted the surname ‘Angelou’ as a stage name. Angelou retained his name despite the termination of the marriage  in 1952.

7. Following the end of her first, Angelou fell in love with Vusumzi Make, a South African civil rights activist.

8. The assassination of Malcom X on her birthday in 1968 provided the catalyst for her first book, ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’.

9. Angelou married Paul du Feu in 1971 and the marriage ended in 1980.

10. Her screenplay ‘Georgia Georgia’ (which she also scored) was the first filmed script written by a Black woman and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

11. In 1973 she received  Tony nomination for her Broadway acting debut in ‘Look Away’ and her work in 1977’s landmark TV series ‘Roots’ led to an Emmy nomination.

12. On 20th January 1993 she wrote and delivered the inaugural poem for President Clinton; ‘On The Pulse Of The Morning’. This poem won a Grammy and has since been translated into over 40 languages.

13. At the time of her death, she held over 30 honorary doctorates.

In closing, a thought by Maya Angelou herself:

“I’ve learned that no matter what happens, or how bad it seems today, life does go on, and it will be better tomorrow. I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way he/she handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights. I’ve learned that regardless of your relationship with your parents, you’ll miss them when they’re gone from your life. I’ve learned that making a “living” is not the same thing as making a “life.” I’ve learned that life sometimes gives you a second chance. I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw something back. I’ve learned that whenever I decide something with an open heart, I usually make the right decision. I’ve learned that even when I have pains, I don’t have to be one. I’ve learned that every day you should reach out and touch someone. People love a warm hug, or just a friendly pat on the back. I’ve learned that I still have a lot to learn. I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” 

~Rest in Peace, Marguerite Annie Johnson~

Of success and stigma: The dilemma of the African alpha female

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Thirty years ago, the notion of an African alpha female might have been unfathomable. Africa had generally done very little to overcome the traditional view of a woman’s role in society. In many African states, women were regarded as chattels to be inherited. They were given no formal education as their primary purpose in life was to be given out in marriage. Women, despite their age were considered to be forever under the control of either their husband or male relatives. Women and girls could not inherit or own property nor could they participate fully in public life or any decision-making within their immediate community. They had no right over the children they bore and were commonly the victims of domestic violence.

Today, with varying degrees of success, African countries have overcome the notion that a woman is a perpetual minor, with no capacity to make any decisions of her own. A number of superficial attempts have been made to project an image of gender equality through, for instance, forced quotas for female representation in Parliament, an appearance of access to education and the promulgation of anti-domestic violence legislation. More African women have made it to Oxbridge and Ivy League universities. More women are becoming law, medicine, architecture, engineering and accounting professionals. More women are employed in all sectors of the economy. We even have the odd African female president. Notwithstanding these apparent gains, huge remnants of Africa’s discriminatory past continue to haunt the modern African woman, worse so if she is an alpha female.

To illustrate the point, I take the example of the modern, black, Zimbabwean alpha female. She is well-educated, financially secure and intelligent. The usual charge of a gold-digger waiting to be rescued by an upwardly mobile man simply does not apply to her. She is more than able to fund her taste for the finer things in life. Due to her fierce work ethic ingrained in her from a very early age, she is fairly accomplished. Rising steadily through the ranks of her career ladder, she has all the hallmarks of a success story waiting to happen. She is the kick-ass female who gets things done.

However, she, at twenty-seven, is unmarried. [Insert loud gasps, looks of disdain and feelings of societal pity here.]

One of the biggest dilemmas that confronts her is that her parents will not let her move out of home. Apparently, for a woman to live alone is ‘taboo’ and emblematic of loose morals – “hazina hunhu”, so they say. The real explanation for the reluctance of Zimbabweans to allow a right-thinking, financially independent, adult woman to move out of home lies in the hangover from traditional African culture highlighted above: according to the precepts of African tradition, an African woman is a perpetual minor. Throughout her life, she is required to fall under the guardianship of her father until she is married. Upon marriage, her husband takes up the role of guardian. Curiously, African culture does not appear to accommodate that middle-of-the-road situation where a woman is no longer dependent on her father for her livelihood but has not found an appropriate suitor (should she be minded to do so). Society frowns upon her for being alone.

The difficulties surrounding such an approach are myriad. At twenty-seven, an African woman has the maturity of a mother who can run an entire household. Focusing on one’s career often means subordinating the need to get married for a time – either to find the right kind of African man (the type which is self-assured but won’t feel threatened by female success) or to ensure all career objectives are met by the appointed time the alpha female has set for herself. Constantly and from a young age, the African girl is told – by her parents, mentors and society – how boys are bad and that she should focus instead on school. Even upon completing high school, she is told that having a boyfriend is somewhat shameful. Yet upon reaching twenty-five, there is an inexplicable, unspoken 180 degree shift in attitude. She has to get married – and NOW. Today, if possible but by the end of this year will also do. [Insert  all manner of expletives here.]

To the African alpha female, such a proposition is contradictory and patently nonsensical: her career has taken off, she wants to travel and see the world, world domination has become her focus in life and she realizes that there is more to life than becoming little more than a domestic appendage to a man’s life. Her bucket list now includes getting a book published, giving a speech to over 10,000 people, parasailing, swimming under a waterfall, learning to play a musical instrument and touring Prague and Paris.

And all society can do is ask  – why are you not married? [Snore.]

Her dilemma does not end there.

Feminism is a dirty word in Africa: it conjures up notions of women who disrespect the patriarchy. You know, the type of woman who will report her husband to the police for domestic violence instead of apologizing for what ‘she did’ to prompt the abuse and undertaking to be more submissive in the future. [Sigh] As a general principle, the traditional African male prefers to be treated as a demi-god, does not like to be questioned and views a woman as part of his accumulated wealth – after all, he paid a healthy quantum of lobola (bride price) for this acquisition. For reasons that are self-evident, this mindset is illogical and unacceptable to the African alpha female. She is not a domestic servant, though she may love to cook and clean on her own terms. She knows better than to take instructions on how to live her life. She chooses not to act without first interrogating the merits of such action. In short, she is looking for a partner who edifies and complements her not a master to dominate her. She has no hang ups about a man taking the lead but he must be competent to do so. Unfortunately for the African alpha female, the man described here is an endangered species in Africa.

Too old to be unmarried but not old enough to move out of home, she faces the grand dilemma – should she give in to the pressure to get married or should she suffer the stigma of remaining the sad, unattached woman for whom African society has no respect?

Sadly, many African women do give in to the pressure to get married – all at the wrong time and for the wrong reasons – on everyone else’s terms but their own. They sacrifice their dreams and ambitions to appease society. Outmoded African attitudes towards women condition the alpha female out of the African professional woman, steering her instead to a strictly nurturing role rather than world domination.

Surely the time has come however to accept that marriage, in and of itself, is not an achievement or the route every woman must be forced to take? A woman deserves respect in her own right – and this should never depend on whether or not lobola (itself a sexist practice) has been paid for her.

“If you don’t design your own life plan, chances are you’ll fall into someone else’s. And guess what they might have planned for you? Not much.” Jim Rohn

On being a woman advocate in Harare: deep voices, romantic passes – and ugly shoes

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Here’s a piece I recently wrote for the Advocate magazine published by the General Council of the Bar of South Africa.

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Eleanor M. Fox, Walter J. Derenberg Professor of Trade Regulation at New York University, once said that women, people of colour and others historically denied a place on the upward track of the traditional hierarchies in the practice of law, have today, more than ever, the chance to succeed on merit. In January 2012, after a year of practice in the Prosecution Division of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, and another year pursuing a Master of Laws degree at the University of Cambridge, I decided to become an advocate at the Harare Bar. Inspired by several women silks I had encountered as a Pegasus Scholar at The Honourable Society of the Inner Temple in London, including Eleanor Grey QC and Alison Foster QC, I believed the courtroom was where my career was destined.

Particularly, I looked forward to litigating in Zimbabwe.

The last time I had done so continuously was in 2009, when, as an attorney, I defended commercial farmers who faced criminal prosecution for remaining on their farms.  Economically and politically, the situation in Zimbabwe had improved.  The renewed stability in the economy once again made the practice of law a worthwhile endeavour.

Against this background, I offer these musings upon being a woman at the Harare Bar.

At the outset, it must be highlighted that, whether one is a man or a woman, being an advocate is a tough job.  The expectations are high, the deadlines, brutal, the issues, complex and the hours, long. The additional domestic demands placed on women in African societies make being an advocate an unlikely option for the archetypal Zimbabwean woman lawyer.  The absence of any women advocates at the set I joined, Advocates’ Chambers, ought to have been the first sign that the system was not designed for the “non-male advocate.”

I wish I could have described the non-male advocate as “the lady advocate.”  However, doing so would conjure up the idea held by many female lawyers throughout the world that to be called a lady lawyer is patronising and has sexist undertones due to the association of the expected “ladylike” behaviour.

On that score, it became very clear to me in my early days at chambers that there was little room for “ladylike” behaviour in any classical sense. Amid sexual banter and crude jokes, I soon became “one of the boys.”  I joined in the laughter at teatime and often myself sounded like a construction worker. I was torn between, on the one hand, wanting to avoid being judged too weak or too fragile to last in the system and, on the other, abandoning my femininity. Therefore, as I strove to make my gender a non-issue in my interaction with fellow members of the Bar, paradoxically perhaps, I also became more bent upon asserting my femininity.  Purposely, I wore only skirt suits. My hair and nails were always a big deal.  My room in chambers was full of flowers and pretty scents.  One member of chambers remarked that my room was “girly.”  Soon, it became accepted that the non-male advocate was part of the fabric of the institution.

Yet, the newspapers often still refer to me as “he” when reporting upon cases I have argued.

When I take their calls, attorneys tend to mistake me for “Advocate Mahere’s secretary,” expecting as they do to hear another man on the other end of the line.

Generally, women judges tend to receive me differently from how they would receive a male counterpart.  It is, I find, a mix of veiled hostility and surprise – the irony! Equally, a silk I appeared against once remarked how he “has a problem with girls” in a conversation I have since put down to strategic pre-court sparring designed to take my eye off the ball. Some have opined that I get briefed because I am “a pretty face.”  This is made worse by the many romantic and even sexual advances and passes made by instructing practitioners and clients alike.

Sigh.

Suffice it to state that it may be easier for a fish to ride a bicycle than it is to achieve an appropriate balance between being firm and, at the same time, being polite in response to these obstacles without coming across as “angry.”

This applies particularly to the courtroom setting.  Experience has taught me that anger helps a man command a courtroom.  Obviously, a non-male advocate achieves the opposite effect.  While the former comes off as assertive, the latter is often remembered as emotionally erratic. An incrementally more intense hearing can do the woman advocate no favours unless she masters the art of controlling the pitch of her voice.  She may do well to ensure that her voice achieves the lower register, something the male advocate usually does not need to strive for. But the double bind is that, to fit the stereotypical image of an advocate means being argumentative and aggressive.  If a woman chooses to reject this image and to adopt a less combative form of engagement, she runs the risk of being labelled too feminine, leading litigants to doubt her fibre as a lawyer.

It is almost as though the non-male advocate cannot win: damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t.

Moreover, while my male colleagues are assumed to be serious and to be embarking upon a lifelong career, I am often asked when I will quit or take a break to start a family.  There is, therefore, a constant need to reflect that I am a committed and competent professional and to convince each judge and opponent that I mean business and that I am in the profession to stay.

Top-quality, hard work will usually achieve this – as will working longer and harder on tough briefs.

From the foregoing, it is probably little wonder that there is yet to be a female silk at the Bar in Zimbabwe. While about 50% of all law graduates are female, the attrition rate amongst women lawyers is extremely high.  The unfortunate further result is that few join the Bar. There has to be something wrong with the system if I am the only non-male advocate practising in Harare.  I look forward to the day when this statistic will change.

This will be a long time coming, however, because the sad truth is that the safest way to success as an advocate is the emulation of males, even to the extent of learning to speak lower and louder, wearing one’s hair short and donning a dark, conservative suit, with ugly shoes.

Margaret Thatcher: The Irony of Feminism

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Margaret Thatcher’s legacy is the subject of huge contention – this was not unexpected. Her tenure as Prime Minister of Great Britain polarised public opinion in equal measure. Some believe she resuscitated post-World War II Britain from its position as ‘the sick man of Europe’, bringing prosperity to it through her support of the free market ideology and neo-liberal policies. Her political philosophy and economic policies emphasised deregulation (particularly of the financial sector), flexible labour markets, the privatisation of state-owned companies and reducing the power and influence of trade unions. Others believe that she improperly advocated individualism at the expense of society’s needs as a whole, with obvious detriment to the poor. If one is left-wing and prefers a welfare-type, ‘free-milk for all children’ state, one will obviously exhibit disdain for the free-market ideology Margaret Thatcher so resolutely stood for. This debate is not new. In fact, it represents the perpetual Capitalism vs Communism debate – to which there is yet to be any proper conclusion. Thatcher’s contribution to the debate is self-evident, documented and does not beg repetition here.

What the world perhaps did not expect was to hear hate of the Iron Lady emanating from proponents of feminism. By feminism’s very definition, it seeks to promote political, economic and social equality between men and women. Margaret Thatcher proved this notion to be a viable one: She read chemistry at Somerville College, Oxford in the 1940s (then a huge achievement for a woman of her background) before becoming a barrister. She was elected Member of Parliament for Finchley in 1959. Edward Heath appointed her Secretary of State for Education and Science in his 1970 Government. In 1975 Thatcher defeated Heath in the Conservative Party leadership election to become Leader of the Opposition. She became the first woman to lead a major political party in the United Kingdom. She became Prime Minister after winning the 1979 General Election. Margaret Thatcher was the longest-serving British Prime Minister of the 20th century and is the only woman to have held the office. Her dramatic rise to power showed that women could   penetrate the glass ceiling and that they were as competent as their male counterparts.Feminists ought to have been Thatcher’s loudest cheerleader; and Thatcher ought to have been an icon for feminism.

Ironically, (pun unintended) this was not to be so.

Feminism’s main indictment against Thatcher rests on the allegation that, having achieved power, she did precious little to improve the lot of women either in politics or outside of it during her eleven years in Downing Street. Sophy Ridge notes that as prime minister Thatcher froze child benefit, criticised working mothers and only promoted one woman, Baroness Young, to her cabinet. When Thatcher banned free school milk for children in primary schools over the age of 7, earning her the nickname “Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher,” she was the living opposite of a nurturing mother. Ridge quotes former Labour minister Patricia Hewitt, saying it is a “tragedy” that having broken through the “glass ceiling” in politics to become prime minister Thatcher then “did so much to undermine the position of women in society”. A trawl through the Thatcher autobiography sees no mention of any women at all apart from Young, her secretary, her daughter, Indira Gandhi and the wives or daughters of other statesmen. Edwina Currie, Virginia Bottomley, Gillian Shephard and Angela Rumbold are conspicuous by their absence. Her official biographer, Charles Moore, wrote in 2011 that she “benefited from the emancipation of women without showing the slightest interest in it.” It is further argued that Thatcher had such command over her Conservative Party that if she had chosen to do so she could have advanced large numbers of qualified women into public and political posts. She chose not to do so – this has been described as a missed opportunity.

This pointed criticism of Thatcher was arguably deserved by her. She once sniffed, “I owe nothing to women’s lib.” At another point she remarked, “The feminists hate me, don’t they? And I don’t blame them. For I hate feminism. It is poison.” One of the fundamental ideas of feminism is that most societies are full of male chauvinism and anti-women attitudes, views that demean and limit the power of women. And adherents to this belief contend that the only force that can overcome those attitudes is feminism. And here comes a woman who dismisses their arguments as “poison.”

It is abundantly clear, albeit incongruous, that the relationship between Margaret Thatcher and feminism is characterised by mutual disdain. This is unfortunate because the idea of Margaret Thatcher as a feminist is a perfectly good one on paper. It is a dilemma which is easy to resolve – and in typical Thatcher style, there is no middle ground! Given a choice between feminism and Thatcher’s approach, one must certainly pick the latter.

The reasons for this ought to be immediately clear:

Women must not be made to get ahead simply because they are women. The discourse needs to go further than that. Edwina Currie made the point when she stated that “I think [a feminist-type approach] led to Labour in particular wanting to make it easier for women to come up the system and they created all women shortlists and rubbish like that, and the net result of that was many women arrived in parliament but actually weren’t very good at doing the job.” Nothing can be gained from that. In fact, it is an affront to the capabilities of women to require quotas in order for them to succeed. This is the ‘poison’ to which Thatcher quite rightly refers. Thatcher’s way is to take individuals on their merits, not as they are associated in groups. One must not feel compelled to reverence simply because someone was the First Lady or the Only Lady.

Feminism may say what it likes of her but the mere fact that she was there — handbagging Michael Heseltine one moment, bringing down the Iron Curtain the next — was enough to imbue us all with the not-so-subliminal message that women really could do anything. Meryl Steep similarly pointed out that “[t]o have given women and girls around the world reason to supplant fantasies of being princesses with a different dream — the real-life option of leading their nation — was groundbreaking and admirable.” Thatcher made it possible for an entire generation to grow up assuming it was normal to have a woman as prime minister. And when asked what it was like to be a woman PM. “I have no idea, dear,” she would sneer, “as I have never experienced the alternative.” “I didn’t get here by being a strident female,” she once intoned. “I don’t like strident females.”

Feminists simply complain bitterly that it’s somebody else’s fault that they haven’t got to the top. Margaret Thatcher just figured out how to do it and took the opportunity to stick her neck out and get the job done. Women, no matter their political philosophy, must applaud her for so doing. To do otherwise would validate the theory that when a woman succeeds in breaking the glass ceiling, instead of congratulating her, other women are quick to pick up the broken glass and cut her with it. Women must aim to be the best they can be, competent in the jobs they perform and resolute in their quest to succeed.

It is ironic for feminism to oppose this.

Rest in Peace, Margaret Hilda Thatcher

Is feminism a disease?

Feminists are often depicted as angry, hairy battle axes – the usual bra-burning mantra. Yet the relevance of feminism in the 21st century cannot be overstated. Feminism is about equality. At its core, feminism is a movement based on the belief that all people – no matter their gender, race, religion, sexual orientation are equal, and deserve to live their lives free from discrimination. One does not have to be one of my favourite authors, Julie Zeilinger, to understand this. I am surprised to find, therefore, that many people, African (read Zimbabwean) men in particular, perceive it to be a disease. How could people oppose a movement that simply wants to ensure women retain their self-respect and are free from abuse?

What made me think this?

A faux post-apocalypse now pervades Harare after the ‘excitement’ surrounding the beating up of Tinopona Katsande by her boyfriend somewhat died down. Initially, it was alleged that he did it because she had refused to assist him with housework. It later emerged that he was ‘punishing’ her for behaving as though she was not taken on a night out earlier that weekend. There is no basis upon which we can prefer one version of events over the other – but that is not the focus of this rant.

I digress further – one might be forgiven for taking the view that unless one is a pretty socialite in Harare, no attention will be paid to the ordinary woman’s experience with domestic violence. The recent example of Ms Katsande was an acute, if useful, reminder of the manner in which women are often treated by their husbands and partners in Zimbabwe. Photos of her swollen face and desecrated weave went viral on the internet. No doubt, the perpetrator of the violence ensured that her usual caramel skin was left black and blue. Indeed, this episode was sad, unfortunate, unforgivable – one can’t run out of negative terms to describe what happened to her. What I grapple with, however, is that Ms Katsande’s experience was mild and unusual in the Zimbabwean context. For example, on the 29th of September, at around 3am, a 33-year-old Harare man allegedly fatally assaulted his wife with a knobkerrie over suspicions of infidelity. Sebastian Satero of plot number 16 Danbury Farm in Marlborough accused his wife, Rennie Jakarasi of having an extra marital affair and a misunderstanding arose. She sustained severe injuries and died on the spot. In a bid to cover up the offence, Satero removed Jakarasi’s blood stained clothes and burnt them together with the knobkerrie. He then fled leaving Jakarasi’s body lying on the ground.

Not many people paid attention to the plight of this woman. It may be the case that Zimbabwean society has come to accept that ill-treatment of women by their male counterparts is acceptable, in the same way that “small houses” (read mistress/illicit second wife – take your pick) have become the norm, in fact, a nigh necessity for the typical Zimbabwean man.

Even on a global level, women make up 70 percent of the world’s 1.3 billion poor and own only one percent of all land in developing countries. One out of every three women worldwide has been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime. An estimated 50 million girls “missing” in India due to female feticide and infanticide (a practice in which parents abort their female fetus or kill their female infant based on the sole fact that she is female in a culture that prefers males). And that’s just scratching the surface.

So the question then becomes, do we still need to fight for women’s rights? Or is feminism a dirty word whose significance belongs to a different era?

As observed by writers like Zeilinger, the impression that the need for feminism was buried right alongside Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony – the accepted creators of the original ‘girlmance’ – and that Gloria Steinem and her counterparts resolved any lingering issues in the ’70s, is simply not true. The examples of domestic violence alluded to above are clear evidence that sexism is alive and well, even if it may take a different form from issues like being denied voting rights, the absence of contractual capacity on the part of women and the existence of marital power.

I end where I perhaps should have begun – what is feminism?

“I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.” ~ Rebecca West

Does the colour pink imprison women? The case of Arundel School

Arundel School was a giant pink bubble in which young girls were taught to be “prim and proper”. Deportment – a term most teenagers go through high school not knowing how to spell, let alone use – was the mark of a true Arundel girl. It symbolised a manner of personal conduct synonymous with Austenesque behaviour: ladylike, well-groomed and intelligent. Pupils were enjoined to cultivate a fierce work ethic and obey a long list of rules – “to prepare one for the real world”, it was suggested. Some of the rules made perfect sense: ‘wear your hat outdoors or else you will potentially expose yourself to too much sun which may lead to skin cancer’. Other rules – ‘thou shall not wear thine jersey in the car park because it doesn’t look good‘, not so much (bearing in mind that the school colours were a jarring and clumsy combination of dark brown and turquoise). Talking too much or too loud was frowned upon. To top it all off, all the school walls were painted pink.

It is no wonder, therefore, that the school was half-affectionately known as the “Pink Prison”- double entendre? Yes.

The use of pink as distinctive of girls can be dated back at least to 1868, in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women when Laurie used a pink and a blue ribbon to distinguish girl and boy twins respectively. To date, many things pink are associated with women – girls’ toys, girls’ clothes, girls’ bathrooms, girls’ gyms, the list goes on. However, pink as a feminine color is a relatively modern phenomenon. Before the 20th century, it was a male color. It may change again. But right now, pink is female and has a weird effect. According to a study published in the Harvard Business Review, pink triggers a defensive response in most women, particularly when used to convey messages to women about causes which affect them such as breast cancer. And to be fair, nothing makes pink a feminine color except what society has been engineered to think. Jude Stewart calls pink “the most politicized color of our age.” Today, “when we think pink, we think Disney Princess, Barbie and Fifi the poodle.” Pink is pretty. And it is nice. Pink is the term I ascribe to the “good Arundel girl” – obedient, unquestioning, neat, tidy and hardworking. She feeds the stereotype that being sweet, delicate and soft spoken is the ‘ladylike’ thing to do. Pink is safe. Pink won’t rock the boat. Pink is nice.

Yet, it is in being so “nice” that most women imprison themselves. If we teach girls to be pink and propagate this Austenesque behaviour – and stop it at that – are we not teaching girls in a variety of ways that being nice, avoiding conflict, not upsetting others and not challenging the status quo are all part of being a likeable, desirable, successful girl – and one day woman?

The world is changing and the danger is that such young women will enter the real world and discover that, unless one has an inquiring mind, that constantly questions and challenges the status quo, and in addition, vocalizes one’s opinions (with tact and discretion), one cannot get ahead – be it at home, at work or in society at large. Research has found that women – including those who work in senior positions for some of the world’s leading firms – are held back from reaching the very highest levels at work because of the difficulties they find in striking the right tone of language during high pressure meetings, for example. Often this is due to the fact that women are raised to believe that to argue or assert one’s self is not proper.

It is beyond question that Arundel School has produced some of the finest female scholars in Zimbabwe over the last five to six decades – alumni of this fine institution are no strangers to Oxbridge and Ivy League universities and many have fared exceptionally well in various professional disciplines, music, sport and art. Many have become wonderful mothers.

However, we need to move away from the classical approach to bringing up young women. In order to succeed in the boardroom, Parliament or wherever a woman feels called to be, she must be able to speak out against the status quo when the situation calls for her to do so. She must not be held back by the belief that it is not proper to do so. Julie Steinberg writing for the Wall Street Journal contends that, despite their talent, education and hard work, many women simply aren’t chosen for roles that lead to greater success later. Women often don’t have the “intangible skills” needed to gain the attention of higher-ups at the company, says Elena Rand Kaspi, a former consultant to law firm White & Case.

In sum, we need to add a bit more of an edge to the Arundel virtues of grace and knowledge, perhaps fine tune them to the demands of the 21st century.

“Forget conventionalisms; forget what the world thinks of you stepping out of your place; think your best thoughts, speak your best words, work your best works, looking to your own conscience for approval.”

~Susan B. Anthony~

Act like a lady, think.

It all started with Steve Harvey’s best-selling non-fiction book released in 2009 entitled “Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man: What Men Really Think About Love, Relationships, Intimacy and Commitment.” Three years later, a feature film based on the book, titled Think Like A Man, was released by Sony Pictures. It is unsurprising that any reference to having to ‘act like a lady’ has since been removed. All you need to do now is – think like a man. Stripped to its essence, this new thinking suggests that a woman needs to get into the mind of a man with whom she is romantically associated in order to pre-empt his thoughts and conduct herself in such a way as not to antagonise him too much. This is the only way to keep him, the thinking continues.

What’s wrong with thinking like a lady? Can a lady not think? Why act like a lady if you have to act like a man? Why not act like a man if you’re going to think like one? Why should being a lady constitute an act?

How is it that such a concept is even mildly acceptable in the 21st century? Whatever happened to a woman being allowed to be the person she wants to be, to express herself as she feels appropriate and to be loved for who she truly is? Why must she fit into a mould that’s cast by men in order to gain acceptance?

At the World Economic Forum in Davos this year, Sheryl Sandberg, one of the most powerful women in business and the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, spoke of an “ambition gap” in how girls are being raised in contrast to boys. ForbesWoman recently wrote a piece based on Sandberg’s ideas and highlighted the main causes of the ambition gap between men and women as being, inter alia, that boys are taught from an early age to be strong and smart while little girls are taught to be pretty princesses. The dainty little princess grows up and is now confronted with the view that she needs to step outside herself and start thinking like a man. Why? Because if she doesn’t, men won’t be interested in her.

Plus ca change, yes?

This is compounded by shocking statistics on the way society is constantly programmed to conform to the idea have to work their existence around the idea of male superiority:

Only 16% of protagonists in film are female. Only 7% of film directors and 10% of writers are female. Between 1937 and 2005 there were only 13 female protagonists in animated movies. The female characters in G rated movies are just as likely to wear revealing clothing as in R rated movies. Gloria Steinem opines that more than 70% of women on TV are in their 20s and 30s. She observes that a male dominant system values women as child bearers so it limits their value to the time that they are sexually and reproductively active and they become much less valuable after that. Geena Davis observes that all of Hollywood is run on one assumption: that women will watch stories about men, but men won’t watch stories about women; it is a horrible indictment of our society of we assume that one half of our population is just not interested in the other half.

The most shocking expression of the absurdity currently finds itself in the expression: act like a lady, think like a man. Or, per the movie, forget about even acting like a lady – just think like  a man. The whole concept of having to ‘think like a man’ is counter-revolutionary and this prototype of how women should behave is nonsense upon stilts. If a woman needs mind games and power-play to sustain her relationship, then she shouldn’t even be there. Never are men heard to say, ‘act like a man, think like a lady’. Acting like a lady but having to  think like a man perpetuates the attitude that women exist to pander to the whims of men as opposed to the idea that men and women are partners who enter into relationships for the mutual benefit of each other.
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Thought has no sex. Either one thinks or one does not.

Self-respect: Every woman should have it

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My personal definition of self-respect is knowing when to walk away from a situation that has ceased to make you happy – it may be a job, a friendship or a relationship. Knowing when to leave because your well-being depends on it is the key to remaining inspired by life and choosing happiness.

Like a butterfly which flies from its cocoon, we must grow and move on from the situations that prevent us from exuding our true beauty and achieving that for which we have been destined.

Every woman – young or old, married or single, religious or not – must have this quality.

I would not send a poor girl into the world, ignorant of the snares that beset her path; nor would I watch and guard her, till, deprived of self-respect and self-reliance, she lost the power or the will to watch and guard herself ~ Anne Bronte