SADC walks the gender talk

Thursday, August 22, 2013

By Chris Bathembu

More than 20 years after it reinvented itself, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) has ended its tradition of male-dominance by ushering in two females to lead the continental body.  

SAnews looks at the two candidates; Chairperson Joyce Banda, President of Malawi and executive secretary Stergomena Tax of Tanzania. We examine their leadership qualities and the political storms they will have to face as they steer the SADC ship over the next year and possibly eight years for Tax, who is allowed to serve two four-year terms.

Even SADC’s predecessor, the Southern African Development Co-ordination Conference (SADCC), never had both the positions of chairperson and executive secretary occupied by women at the same time. The regional body may have also been inspired by its counterpart, the African Union, which last year elected a former South African government minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma to head the AU Commission.

But observers agree that the recent summit of SADC leaders which saw Banda and Tax assuming the powerful positions will go a long way in promoting gender equality in the regional body. It will probably give meaning to the Protocol on Gender and Development signed and adopted by SADC leaders five years ago.

The protocol, among others, seeks to provide for the empowerment of women, to eliminate discrimination and to achieve gender equality and equity through the development and implementation of gender responsive legislation, policies, programmes and projects. The pair will no doubt strive to ensure the policy is implemented to the latter.

Dubbed the ‘new iron lady’ of African politics, Banda is the Malawian politician who has proven that it’s ok to be a ‘correct’ politician and be principle-centred while at the same time taking tough decisions for the benefit of one’s county and its people.

It’s only been just over a year, since she became Malawi’s first female president, after the death of Bingu Mutharika.

Since taking charge, Banda has evidently presided over a series of policy changes to improve Malawi’s collapsing economy and unlock donor funding, suspended under Mutharika who was perceived to be repressive.

Under Banda, Malawi, which is still plagued by endemic poverty, 49 years after independence from Britain, is showing fresh signs of political maturity, sense of hope and proud nationhood. Banks are comfortable and can handle cash, shops have enough food, police are doing their work, street lights are working and every citizen you bump into seems to love being Malawian.

A staunch supporter of culture and tradition, Banda is known for greeting her husband first before everyone else before delivering her speeches, breaking the standard protocol in the process. Many say it is her humility that sets her apart from the rest.

While little is known about the new executive secretary, those who have worked with Stergomena Tax, describe her as discreet but very intelligent politician who has wielded influence beyond her country’s borders.   She has been serving her country as Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of East African Cooperation.

Vice President of Seychelles Danny Faure had to this to say: “We are delighted that Dr. Tax becomes the first woman to occupy the post of Executive Secretary.  We are confident that under her leadership, SADC will continue to advance the development of our region in a dynamic and sustainable manner.”

President Jacob Zuma has described the appointments of the pair as proof that the empowerment of women was high on the SADC agenda.

“We seem to be moving very strongly towards giving the women the possibility of holding decision making kind of positions and therefore we are very happy”.     

While SADC finds itself is in better shape politically, having managed to neutralise the situation in Madagascar and dealt with the Zimbabwe question, the deteriorating humanitarian crisis in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo will be among the key issues the new chairperson and secretary will have to deal with.

The UN has voiced concern over the situation in the North Kivu area of eastern DRC where fighting continues to displace thousands of people amid on-going confrontation between Congolese Government forces and the armed group known as the M23 movement.

But Banda and Tax will also be seized with pushing for the implementation of effective policies which would ensure food security for countries within the region. There is also the issue of regional integration and the ambitious plan to phase in a single currency for the region. It’s a mammoth task.

This statement from Banda at the end of the summit in Malawi is telling: “You and I have no choice but to succeed. I, being the first female Chair, and you, being the first female Executive Director, shall be expected to demonstrate our total commitment and determination to continue with the work of our brothers and take SADC to the next level.”

She vowed to strive to put issues of poor people at heart during her tenure. “No discussion about the poor without the poor. No meetings about the poor without the poor.”

Only time will tell how the two will be judged - but one thing’s clear, it’s going to be a very long year for Banda and even longer four years for Tax. –

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