LISTENING to the interview of Cell C CEO Jose Dos Santos on Cliff Central was like listening to a mash-up of Heart of Darkness and Goodhousekeeping.
Dos Santos fluidly draws on many of the available tropes to malign women. Women are tolerant, he belabours. He invokes the paternalistic imaginations of “rural Africa”, when he notes he has “witnessed first-hand what African women go through” in Mozambique. Enter the self-congratulatory recreational colonial anthropologist. He is such a nice white guy, he beckons you to know, he has used his understanding of the plight of Mozambican women to facilitate a teachable moment about women and tolerance.
For Dos Santos, women can play several demarcated roles. He talks of the “young and lost” (but smart) “girls” dejected after not winning Miss SA, scooped up by the benevolent patriarch to realise dreams of working at Cell C, with its patchy reception and top-down misogyny. The Miss SA website says contestants must be aged 18-27, so the “girls” in question are adult women.
Attractive women, he notes, a little like David Attenborough, instill grooming standards in corporate culture, compelling men to shave frequently and dress nicely.
But for Dos Santos, women are not just tolerant managers, hapless (but smart!) girls or curators of elegant facial hair. They also have a “bitch switch”, presumably because women are not complex humans but binary imaginings of the patriarchy, bent on destroying one another in some perverse pornographic stylisation.
Of course, because it is the year of the offensive non-apology, Dos Santos issued an offensive non-apology. He notes: “I mentioned that in my experience, I have seen instances where women do not support each other to get to the top. This has purely been my observation and perhaps one of several reasons why women are underrepresented in leadership positions.”
This is simply disingenuous. His theory was not presented as “(his) experience” but as a characteristic of women; his precise words were: “you know women do have a bitch switch”.
Dos Santos epitomises the indefatigable bent of privilege to assert, with unparalleled confidence, its own experience as generalisable without taking any accountability for the destruction it causes. In attributing women’s underrepresentation as leaders to their pulling each other down, he is avoiding all accountability for his sexism in undermining women and, indeed, in fostering divisiveness.
White maleness asserts itself as the standard of reason, by which all actions are measured and from which all divergences are deviant. It generalises its own experience as the universal standard in radical departure from the rationalist inquiry it espouses.
Dos Santos is not an exception, but a vulgar mouthpiece of patriarchy. The culture and structure of patriarchy is designed to marginalise and exert violence on women. Dos Santos’s beliefs, and his comfort expressing them, exist within this culture and its intersections of oppression based on gender, race, class and sexuality.
It is one corporate manifestation of the same culture of patriarchy that allows men to feel entitled to women’s bodies, to rape and abuse women, transwomen and nonbinary people, to police women’s sexuality, dress and decisions, and to actively marginalise women while blaming them for the same marginalisation.
So, while Dos Santos is a crude manifestation, and his misogyny makes him unfit to lead a major telecommunications company, he is not an aberration. He is a reflection of a culture of patriarchy that permits untold violence against women, physically, economically and socially, every single day.
• Bluen is the project leader for international justice at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. She writes in her personal capacity