By Devan Moonsamy
Do we truly understand what racism and sexism are? Do we truly understand why it is offensive, and why it should end? The word offensive has been overused in the context of discrimination. It feels like it has a weak meaning.
What is this offence caused? We need to go deeper. Racism and sexism cause pain. That is something we seem to miss in all this mess of accusations and flaring tempers. Discrimination tells the target that they are not good enough simply because of certain physical features, but which do not fully define who they are in any case.
Certainly, our gender, race and colour do determine some things about us – and we should all be proud of the positive aspects of our heritage. However, it is extremely hurtful when these features are used as an excuse for ‘less than’ treatment.
Racism and sexism lead to anger. People want to get even, often more than even, because it is not the first time they have faced such treatment and the pain and frustration has built up inside them. It is thus a case sometimes of the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Racist or sexist remarks and acts of discrimination tell the victim that they are inferior and will never be anything other than what the racist or sexist defines them as. This is ‘offensive’, yes, but let’s forget about that word for now. Let’s focus on the fact rather that it causes immense pain, sometimes long-term or life-long distress which, while people may hide very well for a time, is no less a reality.
It damages a person’s and even an entire population’s sense of self-worth, and it oppresses them. It may force them to accept a lower position, which there is no valid reason for them to occupy, at least until they fight back and reclaim equality.
What has happened about the allegations of sexism at the African Union Commission?
Institutionalised or politically sanctioned racism and sexism are out. However, there is a subtle dimension of racism and sexism which currently exists and which we may take for granted. We can see it in the sexism problems in the AU Commission which became public last year. Women in the AU called male colleagues’ behaviour ‘professional apartheid against female employees’.
Let’s cut through some of the jargon there. In just one statement, one of the alleged misogynists at the AU said to his new superior, a woman, ‘I’m still in charge here.’ So that’s offensive of course. But so what? What does that mean?
It means that the only reason this woman – a professional who had already gone far by making it into a senior position at the AU Commission – made it was because men allowed her there. Not
because she earned it, not because she deserves it, or because she has important work to do. Only because men allowed it, and whatever she thinks she has to contribute, that’s not welcome.
The same is true of people of colour in many cases whereby whites continue to have a feeling of superiority or patronising view. It is as if they think, ‘We let you into the organisation because the government says we must, and we get benefits from B-BBEE compliance, but don’t think you are going to run the show’. This is even more so for black women striving to advance in their careers.
The AU Commissioner Smail Chergui was accused of abusing his power by preventing female candidates from progressing into senior positions. Officials from an AU HR department describe this situation as ‘poisonous’ and say in an internal memo that Chergui changed shortlists for job positions to suit a sexist agenda. The complaints made by the women were addressed to AU Chairperson Moussa Faki. Faki’s response hit the nail on the head: ‘… during my appointment, we’ve appointed more women than men into important positions and this was not because I was doing women a favour but because of their natural abilities and the important roles they perform in society. It was natural to appoint them. I’m committed to getting rid of gender discrimination and sanctions will be imposed on anybody or person we find discriminating against women.’
Faki thus identifies a major concern in the fight for women’s equality. Some women are made to feel that they are being done a ‘favour’ rather than having earned a position or right. It is thus critical for women to know and feel that they truly are wanted and needed in whatever position they hold. The same is true of people of colour and other marginalised groups.
Similar to the race discrimination problem in South African companies, will it be the case of, ‘Only when we are ready to let you in,’ for African women in politics, ‘And even then, you will only be as important as we let you be’? The AU conducted an investigation and made the report public late last year. Eighty-eight individuals came forward with information and to share their views on the various cases of concern. The following are some of the report’s key findings:
* Sexual harassment exists in the Commission. Interviewed AU staff almost unanimously confirmed this. Sexual harassment is largely perpetrated by supervisors over female employees. ‘According to interviewees, the young women are exploited for sex in exchange for jobs.’
* Individuals most vulnerable are female short-term staff, youth volunteers and interns.
* Cases go unreported because it would cause further harm to the victim.
* The absence of an official AU Sexual Exploitation and Abuse Policy compounds the problem. The AU report admits that without a dedicated, effective redress and protection mechanism for victims or whistle-blowers, women are left vulnerable in the AU.
* Both male and female superiors were reported to harass and bully subordinates.
The AU has proposed a number of means to remedy these problems, as detailed in their report. What is particularly noteworthy is that, despite serious accusations against Commissioner Chergui, he remains exactly where he was in the AU when the news broke almost a year ago. And, the investigation report does not mention him at all. Were all 37 women who signed the memo wrong about him?
More recent news in relation to Chergui has focussed on a peace deal within the Central African Republic this month, and peace talks with the DRC last month. Chergui has been critical to these developments, and perhaps his position and respect on the continent are keeping him where he is. What Chergui did or did not do seems to have been hushed up, and that certainly seems suspicious.
Is sexism a ‘necessary evil’ in Africa… for now?
Are men like Chergui ‘needed’ in political office, and thus tolerated despite sexism? The writer could find no official evidence or investigation by the AU about the claims against Chergui specifically. He is still an influential leader, and perhaps he needs to be male. Otherwise, will other (mostly male) African leaders take him seriously?
Achieving peace is certainly a critical goal in war-torn African nations like the DRC where human rights abuses have been a never-ending nightmare for over 20 years. If it takes a group of powerful men to stop the brutality and save the Congolese people, gender equality may have to wait until that is finally achieved.
It is certainly not ok that political offices have to be occupied by men in order to get the job done. However, we do not operate in a vacuum and we know sexism is still rife. To achieve peace deals and conduct serious negotiations with African leaders, does one still need to be male? Change is slow, especially where power is concentrated.
While racist and sexist people in power wait until they feel like sharing, we must continue to support those who are doing good work and striving for senior positions in which they can make a difference. We must also remember to support those victims of discrimination and point out that racism and sexism are not just ‘offensive’. They cause people immense personal pain and feelings of not being good enough. They lead to isolation and frustration. This is all completely avoidable if we only treat one another with respect as equal humans with equal rights.
It is hard to get everyone on board. We know that some people in power are only paying lip service to human rights and equality. Their real views and decisions have not changed.
Devan Moonsamy is the author of Racism, Classism, Sexism, And The Other ISMs That Divide Us, available from the ICHAF Training Institute.
The book tackles contemporary issues in the South African workplace, including a variety of diversity-related challenges and how these can be addressed. It is an excellent guide for managers to harnessing diversity for success.
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