How to Stand out as a Woman MP; a Few Lessons from Winnie Madikizela-Mandela

Posted by on 16th April 2018

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“When the public opinion decides it wants to hate a woman, it’s always much, much worse than when they decide to hate a man,” remarked Canadian diplomat Gary Bedell on a BBC interview while talking about his friendship with Winnie Mandela.

That statement couldn’t be truer in Kenya than it is anywhere else in the world. Especially if the said woman is in politics. To paint a quick picture; this is a country where majority male politicians mentioned in scandals where Kenyans have lost billions of money are given podiums in church and celebrated even by newspaper columnists as ‘shrewd business men’ or dismissed by critics as ‘someone building a war-chest’ for the next elections or any other word that can be ignored casually.

Yet a woman with similar allegations of public theft can’t dare appear on a women’s magazine. Never mind the matter was not competently concluded by a male dominated Parliamentary Committee. It’s like we’re saying: “How dare she, a woman, steal money that only male politicians are entitled to steal?”

Don’t get it twisted, this blog doesn’t in anyway advocate for sanitization of people who steal money in the name of being women. However, we need to go ballistic when the media attempts to sanitize known, notorious thieves who steal our public funds with impunity regardless of gender.

The Canadian diplomat was right in the end and it’s the reason most women who were elected to Parliament had to work twice as hard as their male counterparts. It’s therefore befitting that the Kenyan women MPs take time and study the late political icon, Winnie Mandela’s political life. Here are a few tips.

Now that we’ve established that Kenya, like South Africa and indeed the rest of the world is a man’s world, as a woman MP you must make cognizant of this fact and develop a thick skin. For starters, refuse to be drawn into controversial debates. Winnie Mandela made the fight for the people in Soweto bigger and the media eventually had to gravitate more to her political work than personal.

Those MPs being linked to the conman who had a ‘special relationship’ with them would do well to learn from this and realize commenting on this is pointless and only serves to undermine your position. Let the law take its course. Focus on your promises to your constituents. Repeat the stuff you’re doing for your people at every opportunity and hope that that’s what people will dwell on.

Secondly, understand that though Kenyan politics is deeply patriarchal, it does not mean you become a man. Attempting to be a man in mannerism, talk and character will only serve to spoil your brand and make it difficult to reconcile who you are with what you’re about. S. Africa’s mother of the nation fought fiercely against apartheid without attempting to be Mandela. Her voice, her convictions and her constituency remained clear to death.

Another important thing tied to gender is the need to take your position as the care givers of this country to your advantage. Nearly every family in Kenya owe it to the wife, mother or sister for much of its success in the simplest of things that make their daily lives bearable and functional. Avoid therefore the temptation to appear too fixated on what women lobby groups and sections of the civil society tell you is ‘sexy’ for women to champion.

Winnie Mandela was clear about the economic emancipation of black S. Africans and refused to be drawn in useless debates of specific pro-women only issues and it’s the reason she earned the title mother of the nation and not mother of women.

Having said that, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with drafting laws targeting critical issues about women, especially discriminatory practices. A beginning point on this matter should be the two-thirds gender rule. If you’re not making enough noise about this, then as an MP you have no moral authority to lecture anybody on women issues. Whether in NASA or Jubilee if the will is there, as a woman MP you can make enough problems for those in authority to live up to the spirit and letter of the constitution.

Another very important trait of the late Madikizela that our women MPs could borrow is that beyond her obvious drive she was knowledgeable and mingled and lived among her people in Soweto. Women MPs often appear aloof and distracted except for a few. You must change this. Inform yourself about your constituents’ needs; interact with the poor in your constituency, hold town hall meetings often to gauge the type of people you’re representing.

Additionally, utilize the media. Too many political talk shows are male dominated and the reasons sometimes is not the media but women MPs who refuse these offers because they conflict with their personal family lives. As a political leader, you must reconcile with the fact that you’re married to two groups of people, your nuclear family and the people who elected you. If you fail in your communication to either, you will suffer, therefore one must learn to balance home and political affairs.

Lastly, but not least, Winnie Madikizela was never afraid to speak truth to power. Not her ex-husband Mandela or the popular party ANC kept her from speaking her truth and telling off party leaders that were no longer truthful to their course. This quality is more important now that both Jubilee and NASA MPs appear to be rubberstamps for the party leadership. Our women MPs should like Winnie speak against party control and allow for healthy debate to thrive even if it means expulsion from the party, because in the end, just like Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s light shone bright, yours too will shine when we remember you chose to stand on the right side of history.