ANCWL dilemma is a democratic one, writes IDO LEKOTA

Today's march by thousands of women who are protesting the ANC Women's League's decision to nominate Jacob Zuma for the party's president is akin to barking up the wrong tree.

Today's march by thousands of women who are protesting the ANC Women's League's decision to nominate Jacob Zuma for the party's president is akin to barking up the wrong tree.

The march follows the decision by the ANCWL to nominate Zuma as their preferred candidate for ANC president. Zuma beat Mbeki by 29 votes to 25.

The protesters argue that the decision undermines the women's fight for gender parity in the party.

By protesting against Zuma's nomination the marchers are dealing with the symptoms while ignoring the real cause of the political conundrum that an organisation such as the ANCWL - that supports the fight for gender parity - now finds itself embroiled in.

The marchers' reaction, and that of several high-profile ANC women, including Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and Education Minister Naledi Pandor, are symptomatic of the manner in which the ANC leadership has failed to handle the whole succession saga.

It is this failure that has led to the proclivities now playing themselves out within the ANC in the build-up to Polokwane.

A major failure on the part of the ANC leadership was ignoring the hunger for change shown by its members.

From the discussions within the party it was obvious that after more than 10 years with President Thabo Mbeki in power (this is taking into consideration his role as the de facto prime minister under Nelson Mandela) there was an understandable desire for change.

Instead of dealing with this groundswell desire for change, the ANC leadership buried its head in the sand - even denying there was a succession debate.

By nominating Zuma the ANCWL members have expressed their democratic right to do so. As ANC Youth League president Fikile Mbalula has said, the decision was "democracy in action".

While being democratic the decision was schizophrenic in the sense that it undermined the ANCWL's commitment to having a woman president.

As one ANCWL insider pointed out, the electoral commission offered the delegates at last week's conference an opportunity to nominate a woman from the floor.

"Instead they allowed the list to consist of two men and in that context they had no option but to nominate either of the two," she said.

"What happened there cannot be divorced from what had happened in the provinces because those women in attendance were members of the ANC provincial structures," she said.

Political analyst Steven Friedman believes that the public have the right to question the ANCWL for going against its principles of wanting a woman president.

"The ANCWL must explain to the people why when they had the opportunity they did not nominate a woman," he said.

But he acknowledged that the decision taken by the ANCWL must be seen in the context of people having adopted hardened positions when it comes to the contest between Zuma and Mbeki.

Essentially, what transpired at the ANCWL conference was a reflection of the polarisation within the ANC structures, which is a consequence of how the succession debate was mishandled.

In saying so one does not absolve Mbeki from the disdainful manner in which he treated the desire for change expressed by his party members.

The position posited is based on the understanding that the ANC has a culture of collective leadership.

It is this collective that should have impressed upon Mbeki and his supporters that they should not act against the desire for change.

The collective should have seen this desire as, for example, suspicion of entrenched power and respect for term limits that bodes well for democracy.

In this regard the collective could have impressed on Mbeki that accepting this desire for change is a display of good leadership.

Unfortunately, what happened was that the collective leadership failed to lead in the process allowing selfishness to reign supreme.

Today's march also raises several questions about the commitment of its participants to gender parity.

One of the questions raised is their conspicuous silence when it became obvious that the race for the ANC presidency was between two men.

If committed to gender parity why did they then not take to the streets and insist that a woman candidate be included in the list.

It is also interesting that some of the people who have criticised the ANCWL's decision are well-known Mbeki supporters.

Within the ANCWL these are the ones who have now turned around to say that they never said they wanted a woman president but a woman in the presidency?

So, for them a woman is good enough to be a deputy president but not the president.Why this disjointed commitment to gender parity?

Political analyst Sipho Seepe believes that those opposed to the decision taken by the ANCWL are also driven by self-serving motives.

"They are Mbeki supporters who are unhappy because he lost against Zuma.

"They claim to be committed to the liberation of women but where were they when Mbeki physically abused an elderly woman? [This is a reference to Mbeki's notorious pushing of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela]

"They accept democracy only when it serves their interests. This is the problem we face in our society where people redefine democracy to suit their needs," says Seepe.

Seepe raises important question that all those who are against the ANCWL decision to nominate Zuma should answer satisfactorily.

Failure to do so will give credence to claims by Mbalula that the march is part of a campaign by the anti-Zuma faction that is trying to ride on the back of the women's commitment to gender parity.

As for the ANCWL it must come out publicly and admit it is ravaged by the division created by the mishandling of the ANC leadership debate.