‘The Media Should Stop Portraying Black Women Leaders As Brutes’

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I’m going to tell you something that I’ve never told anyone before. I will not kill my sister. I will not kill my sister. I will not kill my sister. Like a sloth. I can do that. Cops, another community I’m not part of. I’m really more an apartment person.

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Yolanda Dyantyi/May 24, 2018

A few weeks ago Gender Links SA held a webinar conference looking at the media coverage that unfolded after Winnie-Madikizela Mandela’s passing, focusing on Women In Politics. The conversation aimed to centre itself in a feminist perspective of the issues within media coverage of women leaders.

The webinar included members of the Gender Links alliance community from various parts of the SADC region: Namibia, Lesotho, Madagascar, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. From Johannesburg, South Africa, Nonhle Skosana and Nyiko Shikwambane were participants — as young women in the fields of journalism and political activism.

When the two women shared their views on media coverage of women, compared to men, in politics and or leadership structures, Nyiko Shikwambane, a master’s student in African literature, noted that the webinar in itself was quite hetero/cisgendered in the approach that was unfolding. She questioned the (in)visibility of nonbinary individuals and whether there were any people of the LGBTI+ community present.

This is an important point she raised, as gender equality and equality of all voices is implicit in the notion of a “pluralistic press”, meant to reflect the “widest possible range of opinion within the community” as espoused in the Windhoek Declaration of 1991. The widest range of opinion, which usually also stems from people’s lived experiences, needs to be reflective of that — and not the “popular” opinion which is often heterosexual, patriarchal and misogynistic.

Nonhle Skosana, a journalist and researcher, stated that some of the gender issues that we come across in mainstream media reporting stem from the learning environment. The Five Ws and H is a journalistic principle taught in media studies: Who was involved? What happened? When did it take place? Where did it take place? Why did that happen?, and How did it happen?

This principle is what guides “objective” reporting, but Skosana posited that to be “objective” as currently understood by media is nevertheless biased when reporting issues concerning women and young girls. She made us question what objectivity actually means, when content is produced through a male, heterosexual gaze.

Women are the very centre of the domestic life, and we ought to politicise that space – because many women’s lives centre on it.

Is it objective to boil down all that Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was, to her relationship with Nelson Mandela? Is it objective when media demonises women in politics? Is it objective to erase the identities of women violated by men? Or the identities of women who do so much political work for the organisations they belong to and receive zero recognition?

Nyiko Shikwambane counter-argued a fact from research presented in 2013 by Professor Garcia Beaudoux of the University of Buenos Aires regarding media coverage of women in politics. Beaudoux found that the trends of reporting that hurt women politician’s careers include “focusing on women’s domestic life” and “attaching them to powerful men”.

Although she agreed with this position, Nyiko drew parallels to the times in which Winnie was most active in. She stated that Winnie was, in fact, a privileged woman, in comparison to the average black South African woman at the time — as not only was she educated and born into royalty, but her relation to Nelson Mandela also secured her political leverage to have a voice, despite media’s attempts at blackwashing and demonising her character.

Nyiko elaborated that Winnie was aware of her privilege, and she used it to her advantage through politicising her domestic life. She made her marriage a political stance when she referred to Nelson as “my husband” or “the father of my children” in public.

Through this point it was further highlighted that women are the very centre of domestic life, and we ought to politicise that space — because many women’s lives centre on it. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was a feminist, a leader, and a strategist who was extremely loyal to the liberation movement — she used her marital status to continue advocating for the rights of black people in the apartheid era, while knowing that she would not be able to advocate for herself to be president of a democratic South Africa.

All the work she was doing for the 27 years in which he was incarcerated and restrained from political activity, whether or not it was acknowledged, was preparing her ex-husband to come out of prison to a political arena that applauded his name.

Although the coverage of her life was more often than not painted with negativity, she used her platform and status to advance the issues of many black people and women across the country.

What Winnie did, was appropriate to her advantage a space she knew was not designed for her as a black woman, and continue the struggle for liberation that her husband and other men had been forced to abandon. The question is, would Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela have been as influential as she was, had she not had the contributing personal factors — including the Mandela affiliation?

Certainly not, especially in the times of her political activism career, as a black South African woman. She would have been another random black woman whose story and political contributions to the struggle go untold, as she would not have been regarded as important for mainstream media to cover.

Although the coverage of her life was more often than not painted with negativity, she used her platform and status to advance the issues of many black people and women across the country.

Media should draw from such lessons and what it means to be objectivewhen advocating against gender-based violence. Media can no longer get away with unjustifiably painting black women leaders as brutes incapable of being leaders in society.


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