HomeLeadership & InnovationIs South Africa ready for a female head of state?

Is South Africa ready for a female head of state?

By Carol Butcher – 

South Africa’s 2019 general elections are around the corner, and there is a lot of discussion and debate around President Jacob Zuma’s successor. Pressure is mounting in some quarters, specifically the ANC’s Women’s League, for a female successor, but is South Africa, ready for a female president?

Female heads of state are nothing new – countries in Europe, Asia and South America, have all had female heads of state. During the 20th century, there were collectively, 46 female heads of state, globally.

Britain currently boasts a female Prime Minister, Theresa May, Germany has a female Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the United States, the world’s most powerful nation, came within a whisker of having Hilary Clinton as President.

However, when we turn to Africa, there are scant pickings. The continent has only had two female heads of state. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia is the first female head of state in Africa; she is also currently the only female head of state in Africa. Dr Joyce Banda, served as President of Malawi for a two-year period. She has, however, made herself available to run for office in 2019.

Only an additional six women have served as head of state in an acting capacity – Matsepe Casaburri served as acting president for a period of fourteen hours in the period between Thabo Mbeki’s resignation and Kgalema Motlanthe taking office; Carmen Pereira served as acting head of Guinea-Bissau for a period of two days; Sylvie Kingi was the head of state of Burundi for a period of just under four months; Rose Francine Rogombe served as  interim president of Gabon for just over four months; and Catherine Samba-Panza was acting head of the Central African Republic for just over two years.

One is immediately struck by two things – with the exception of Catherine Samba-Panza, all of the acting heads of state held these positions for very short periods – in the big picture, fleeting moments; one is also struck by the fact that these women are all highly educated. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has a Masters of Public Administration from Harvard’s J.F Kennedy School of Government, Banda is studying for a Masters degree (her doctorate is an honorary doctorate), Casaburri had a PhD in Sociology from Rutgers University, Kingi, is an Economics graduate from the University of Burundi, and both Rogombe and Samba-Panza are lawyers by profession.

Unfortunately, male heads of state in Africa are not necessarily well educated; ten current Presidents in Africa either have no formal education, have dropped out of secondary school, or have completed a secondary school education.

Striking too, is the fact that both Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Joyce Banda are on Forbes’ list of the world’s most powerful women; Sirleaf was ranked 83rd in 2016, and Banda 40th in 2014; Banda was also ranked the most powerful women in Africa. Interestingly enough only two women in Africa made Forbes’ 2016 list, Folorunsho Alakija from the energy sector in Nigeria (ranked 66th) and Sirleaf, ranked 78th.

Africa clearly has strong, world-class, women leaders, however, women leaders in the political arena are in short-supply. So much more needs to be done to develop a strong, well-educated cadre of leaders in Africa both in government and business.

Is South Africa ready for a female President? I would like to say yes, but judging from conversations that I have had with a range of people, many seem to think not. Is Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a strong contender for the position? Time will tell. Did Dlamini-Zuma impress in her role as AU Commission Chairwoman? I have not heard any accolades.

Perhaps the questions that we need to ask are: “Was the AU ready for a female chairperson, and did male heads of member states in Africa, support her fully?”

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Carol has nineteen years’ experience as a professional writer, editor and case study writer. Her writing experience includes a stint as the resident Case Study Writer at the Wits Business School.


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