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It’s not about buying a woman…

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si angelina and brad

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NURTURING: What about women who refuse to get married but continue to nurture the relationship (like Angelina Jolie with her partner Brad Pitt), asks the writer. Picture: Reuters

T HE article by Busani Ngcaweni (“Men marry because they want to be cared for”, The Sunday Independent, May 6) is a bold illustration of the depth of drivel and sexism that can afflict someone.

It seems fair at this point to revert to my initial analysis, which was that young black professional men were failing to form and sustain soul-nourishing relationships and it was not necessarily about marriage as such. The reason I offered for this was that they’d abdicated this responsibility in pursuit of success and financial security.

As a basic point, Ngcaweni’s analysis of why men marry is a light and entertaining read. But the social analysis he provides is a dangerous and contentious one that reverses the gains made by the struggle against sexism in SA.

If we take discourse as an influential tool for shaping social relationships, it stands to reason that ideas put forward by people such as Ngcaweni could be considered perilous. This is because his analysis builds itself up from the negative and hugely discriminatory gendered constructions of what men do and how women should respond.

In his analysis, Ngcaweni awakens the beast of commodifying women and, in fact, commodifying the relationships men have with women, resulting in a consumerist view of relationships.

Let me address myself to a simple gender-slip Ngcaweni makes in his analysis.

He speaks of “the oversupply of housekeeping labour” as if it’s normal. Certainly, it is normative in as far as it is pervasive. But one has to be aware that this is a gender-, race- and class-blind statement.

The fact is that there is nothing normal about the “oversupply of housekeeping labour”. From a basic observation, it is black women of all ages who form this labour market stratum. They also happen to be among the most unsecured labour in the country, open, unfortunately, to many forms of abuse.

The situation in which many of our black women have to undertake the caring of other people, while leaving their own families in possible disarray, is not a fact to be celebrated as a reason that young black male professionals can stay unmarried. Owing to the history of this country, black women have been made eternal slaves, previously for white families, and now, as Ngcaweni puts it, for young black male and unmarried professionals.

It cannot be a proud moment for us to state this in black and white.

He makes it plain in his statements that men want women who can bring some form of “return on investment” for cultural practices such as lobolo and that even in the case where they don’t bring a woman into their lives, they’re perfectly capable of surviving, because technological advancements have enabled them to do so.

I imagine in this case that he is referring to refrigerators, washing machines and microwave ovens. Meaning, very basically, that “a sustainable, soul-nourishing relationship” between a man and a woman can be replaced with, for the man, a washing machine.

In earnest, this is a bastardisation of what should really take place in relationships between men and women, either within culturally bound circumstances such as paying lobolo for a prospective bride, or other social dimensions. In the case where a man decides to get married so that he doesn’t have to cut meat for other men, in Ngcaweni’s simple analysis, it’s also to protect “his abode from becoming a tavern”, it’s to replace the washing machine with a baby-making machine, which can feed and nurture the infants and their father. You have to laugh.

In Ngcaweni’s social analysis, women have the sole responsibility of nurturing families, building communities and prosperous and formidable societies. And yes, it is a role women have undertaken many times over, and continue to take on.

However, it is important to also begin a stronger discourse on the supportive and active role men undertake within this setting and beyond it. It can’t be that we speak about women as solely responsible for the “psychological comfort” of their partners and children.

Stripping men of their social responsibilities through this type of discourse further embeds the societal ills that we’re constantly complaining about, such as paternal abdication, high divorce rates, multiple and concurrent sexual partners – and the list goes on.

The primary problem contained in Ngcaweni’s analysis is that it implies that men decide to get married, at which point their partner must have fulfilled the requirements to be considered “worthy” of the investment of marriage.

He misses the point that women are inherently worthy. Because if we follow his line of thinking, the woman must have proven herself to be worthy, so she must have put something into the relationship and in Ngcaweni’s mind in return for marriage. I’m not sure that this is a valid analysis. What about women who refuse to get married but continue to nurture the relationship?

Another inherent supposition in Ngcaweni’s analysis is that marriage is the ultimate price a man pays and a woman reaps. It is the narrow description of marriage as one where the man says “I’ll give you marriage if you…”

This construction of marriage is consumerist or bargaining in its patterning and would invariably lead to the breakdown of such a marriage when one partner fails to keep their end of the bargain.

Ngcaweni gives a crude and commercialised version of marriage, one in which, in SA’s extreme poverty, potentially works against building a cohesive society.

Marriage is not about getting or buying a woman. For the man and the woman it is about having a witness to your life. In the movie Shall We Dance?, Susan Sarandon, playing the role of Beverly Clark, offers a powerful suggestion when she says: “In a marriage, you’re promising to care about everything… you’re saying: ‘Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go unwitnessed because I will be your witness.’”

This is not only about whether a distant relatives will get your estate because you didn’t marry and have children. I can’t speak for why men marry. I am not a man. I can certainly speak of what marriage between men and women should be. If men marry for the reasons Ngcaweni suggests, it’s no wonder we have a high divorce rate and broken families. It should be important to us, whether we marry or not, to build mutually nurturing relationships. I know I am doing that. That is the social class to which I proudly belong.

n Ngoma is a social commentator


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