Quote of the week

[Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro] possesses, however, few of his predecessor’s resources, lacking not just oil revenue but Chávez’s surplus of charisma, humour and political skill. Maduro, unable to end the crisis, has increasingly sided with the privileged classes against the masses; his security forces are regularly dispatched into barrios to repress militants under the guise of fighting crime. Having lost its majority in Congress, the government, fearing it can’t win at the polls the way Chávez did, cancelled gubernatorial elections that had been set for December last year (though they now appear to be on again). Maduro has convened an assembly to write a new constitution, supposedly with the objective of institutionalising the power of social movements, though it is unlikely to lessen the country’s polarisation.

Greg Grandin
London Review of Books
16 February 2010

Gareth is very, very cross…

The voice on the phone was a bit shrill and whiney. His name — so he informed me — was Gareth and he was phoning from the Democratic Alliance (DA) offices. Oh dear. He was very, very cross. How could I have written that his boss, Helen Zille, was a hypocrite for claiming the allegations of sexual infidelity and sexual harassment against Lennit Max was a private matter while she had insisted Jacob Zuma’s infidelities was a public matter?

Gareth (I assume it was Gareth van Onselen, the Democratic Alliance Executive Director of Communications, but I might be wrong so don’t quote me on that) was particularly perturbed that I had mentioned there were allegations of sexual harassment made against Max. “Your entire article hinges on that point and no-one has made such an allegation!” he seethed.

I pointed out that I had read about the allegations in the newspaper (in Die Burger, I later recalled), had made it clear in my post that these were no more than allegations (at this stage at least), and besides, the article clearly did not hinge on this point — as anyone with basic reading skills and a bit of integrity would have been able to determine without too much effort. Clearly where a party claims that it opposes marital infidelity and it is then alleged that one of its leaders cheated on his wife, it will be a public matter finish en klaar (as Jackie Selebi once said about his relationship with Glen Agliotti).

(Such matters are public because the right to freedom of expression, the right to vote, the right of access to information, read with the requirements for an open, accessible and accountable government, require this kind of openness from public representatives. They cannot hide behind claims of privacy because, thank goodness, we do not live in North Korea.)

Gareth was not convinced. “Show me the proof!” he shouted.

He also argued that Premier Zille had not suggested that marital infidelity was frowned upon by the DA when she said: “This does not imply, in any way, that I or the DA condone marital infidelity.” It could also mean exactly the opposite, Gareth said. In other words, it could just as well mean that the DA does condone marital infidelity. For spin doctors, up is sometimes down and down up, it seems. The rest of us know better.

At this point I became slightly rude and called Gareth a “party hack” and questioned his intelligence. His loyalty was obviously not in question.

Self-righteousness is seldom an attractive quality in people. When a big dose of hypocrisy is also stirred into that pot, it can be toxic. Many irritatingly self-righteous people are so busy being self-righteous, telling everyone else how they ought and ought not to behave, that they are seldom able to reflect on their own actions and to be self-critical. Encounters with the toxically self-righteous are therefore seldom edifying: one feels a bit soiled afterwards.

My encounter with Gareth gave me that soiled feeling.

This morning the Cape Times reported that Max had said he had only been linked to two prior sexual harassment cases, not four as was reported. In both instances, the cases were made after Max had taken disciplinary action against the complainants, Max claimed. He said his former media spokesperson, Julian Jansen, would have to prove, during a legal process, his allegations that Max had made sexual advances to two women in his department.

So, Max himself has now admitted that his former spokesperson had made allegations of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is usually defined as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that tends to create a hostile or offensive work environment”. In the workplace, when one’s boss makes sexual advances that are rebuffed, those advances are usually referred to as “sexual harassment” as they are unwelcome, can create a hostile environment and can lead to the victimisation of the women. (Hint: In a constitutional democracy based on human dignity, this is usually not seen as a good thing.)

In any case, the larger issue is still one of gender equality and gender politics. Did Max use his position (as boss or as legal representative of Belinda Petersen) to obtain or to try and obtain sexual favours from women? If he did, he is a sexist pig. If he did not, many other people seem to be lying through their teeth. It would be a conspiracy — sort of like the one against President Jacob Zuma. Either way, finding out what happened would be in the public interest and very important for voters who had to decide which party to vote for in the next election.

Personally, I would not vote for a party who considered possible sexism a private matter. (A party housing a few philanderers would not really get me upset though.)

Zille’s argument about this being a private matter can therefore not stand. One can only maintain that view if one thought that possible sexism, gender oppression and discrimination against woman were only relevant when it happened in the public sphere. Feminism 101 teaches us that this distinction between the public and the private sphere is an oppressive one as it is maintained to shield men from exposure and to privatise sexism and discrimination against woman.

Once again, the allegations might be wrong. Lennit Max might be a feminist of note. But allegations that he used his position to obtain sexual favours from not one, not two, but three women cannot be a private matter — ever —  as it goes to the heart of his integrity. He is an important leader of the official opposition and if the DA believes that his treatment of women is a private matter it is shockingly backward in its gender views.

The fact that Zille has announced that the DA government in the Western Cape was reviving its defunct sexual harassment policy tells its own story. Questions one could ask are: why were the policy dormant? Why revive it now if — as Gareth claims — there have been no allegations of sexual harassment against Max? The fact that Zille had appointed an all-male cabinet and had not — until the recent allegations — ensured that a sexual harassment policy was in place in the Western Cape place a serious question mark over the DA’s commitment to gender equality.

I know Gareth will disagree with me — in his inimitable self-righteous manner. C’est la vie.

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