This Generation of African Women Leaders

Dan Moshenberg has written guest posts for AIAC before and we’ve HT’d him a few times. But this posts marks the first of his weekly posts here on gender politics.  He’ll keep the focus on Africa. Like today when he discusses Michelle Obama’s South Africa trip. Dan, who has lived in South Africa (I’ve known him for about 16 years), blogs at Women In and Beyond the Global (go check it out);and is director of Women’s Studies at George Washington University in Washington D.C.So watch out for it on Wednesdays–Sean Jacobs

Dan Moshenberg

What’s a young African woman leader, today, and who decides? Michelle Obama travelled to South Africa to talk to the Young African Women Leaders Forum, a forum organized and funded by “the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Embassy in South Africa, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the White House.” The Forum has three objectives: expression of “aspirations and values”; becoming “better partners in building a more just, democratic and prosperous future”; and, my favorite, “to help empower young African women”.

Because, as we know, the empowerment and emancipation of young African women  begins at the intersection of the U.S. Department of State, USAID, and the White House, where African women learn to express themselves and become better partners. Amandla! Awethu?

Irrespective, or not, of the funding circumstances, and setting aside the whole photo-op politics of the event, Michelle Obama gave a decent talk. Rousing, informative, engaging, and politically sharp. The United States First Lady mentioned a number of women, including Graca Machel, Baleika Mbete, Robyn Kriel, Grace Nanyonga, Gqibelo Dandala. She lingered over the memory and significance of Albertina Ma Sisulu’s life and lifework. In short, it was a talk directed at women, at young African women.

However, if you were to read the reports of Ms. Obama’s speech, and of the Young African Women Leaders Forum, in the New York Times, you’d find … nothing.  Pretty much the same for the Washington Post.

ABC News covered the event, sort of. They did mention Gqibelo Dandala … as a prop:

She pronounced all of their names with perfect local diction. The audience laughed and clapped when Mrs. Obama mentioned a woman named Gqibelo Dandala and used the click sound in the Xhosa language from which the name derived.

Is that all Gqibelo Dandala is? A prop? What did she actually do to be invited to the Forum? In 2007. Gqibelo Dandala founded the Future of the African Daughter project, FOTAD, which works with girls, 12 – 19, from rural areas and townships. Ms. Obama talks about Dandala’s work, but all that’s reported is that that African woman sure has a funny name, and that `articulate’ African American woman did a helluva job pronouncing it.  And the crowd went wild.

The videos are no better.  For example, Britain’s Channel 4 News chose a two-minute part of the speech that focused largely on HIV-AIDS, and then ended with, “You can be the generation to ensure that women are no longer second-class citizens, that girls take their rightful places in our schools. You can be the generation that stands up and says that violence against women in any form, in any place including the home –- especially the home –- that isn’t just a women’s rights violation. It’s a human rights violation. And it has no place in any society. You see, that is the history that your generation can make”.

But how can this generation of young African women be that generation? In Michelle Obama’s speech, the charge somewhat makes sense. It has a context and a history. In the constructions of the US-based media, there’s no context, there’s no historical justification. There’s only good will and good intention.

The Forum has brought together 76 young women from across the African continent. Every one of them has a name. So do their mothers, sisters, aunts, daughters. Every one of them has done something. But don’t bother to look for their names in The New York Times or The Washington Post. They’re not there.

Further Reading

No more caricatures

Engaging seriously with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s life could help us understand how South Africa got where it is and where it’s going.