Why language matters in the fight against GBV

Published Nov 20, 2023


Sakhumzi Mfecane

A few years ago, I gave a presentation at a South African Aids Conference in Durban on the topic of “Multiple Concurrent Partners” (MCP).

Research had uncovered MCP as a high-risk factor for HIV transmission.

MCP is defined – by the HIV experts – as having more than one sexual partner at the same time. After giving a 30-minute presentation, I fielded questions and comments from the audience and one of the most memorable contributions was from a middle-aged black activist and leader of a community-based organisation.

She said: “I hear you speak about this MCP or whatever! I think you are being evasive, Sir. What you are talking about is called ubufebe. We must tell people the truth; ubufebe is what is spreading the HIV disease in our communities. People must stop ubufebe.”

There was a mixture of loud applause and shocked faces. I myself was not happy with the use of the word ubufebe, a Nguni popular term for promiscuity, in a professional setting, because it is regarded as offensive and misogynistic.

Looking back, she saved my day. I was struggling to unpack the meaning of “multiple concurrent sexual partnerships” in layman’s terms.

My interlocutor cut through the academic garbage and named MCP for what it is: ubufebe, thus allowing frank talks about this topic.

I am reminded of this encounter in light of the persistent crisis of gender-based violence, such as the recent stabbing of a CPUT student (Cape Peninsula University of Technology) by her husband, a student at UWC.

I am concerned that the message about gender-based violence is lost in translation because we – gender scholars, educators, the media, grass-roots activists – use obscure English jargon as tools for educating the public. Consider concepts such as “femicide”, “patriarchy”, “hypermasculinity”, “toxic masculinity”, “hegemonic masculinity”.

What do these concepts mean in lay terms? Do they capture the severity of the situation confronting us? Do they make the killers and rapists feel ashamed of their actions? Do they trigger self-reflection? Do they evoke anger in our communities; do they spur communities into action? Language is an important factor for collective social action against our social ills, as languages embody society’s moral codes of conduct (indlela zokuziphatha). English terms inhibit frank talks because they are not relatable to ordinary people.

Research and activism for gender justice must be delinked from the imported Eurocentric concepts, paradigms and epistemologies so that we are able to speak frankly about issues confronting our communities.

We need to recover indigenous African languages, concepts and idioms as tools for research and grass-roots activism.

For example, the original Xhosa words for rapist and violent/unruly male are isidlwengu and indlavini respectively.

Today we are accustomed to the use of “Xhasarised” English words, like irapist and iperpetrator, which don’t carry much weight in terms of societal implications. The thought of being known in the community as isidlwengu – a word embodying immorality and cruelty (inkohlakalo) – discourages men from committing rape, as such the label strips them of social respect and manhood dignity (isidima sobudoda).

The media has an important role to play in this project of Africanising and vernacularising gender justice interventions.

The media etiquette prohibits the use of original African words for reporting certain “sensitive” topics and things such as our nether regions, because that is regarded as offensive and barbaric somehow.

I suggest that this language avoidance signifies “coloniality of being” because, in reality there is nothing offensive about naming things the African way.

Thus, there is an urgent need to liberate African scholars, activists, media practitioners and the general public from what Syed Hussein Alatas, a Malaysian sociologist, calls “intellectual imperialism”, which sees foreign “experts” setting the agendas for us, locals, while oblivious to our everyday realities.

We live in communities impacted by violence and we know the culprits; we speak their language.

Let’s collaborate with foreign experts in our fight for gender justice, but the agenda, naming, and tools for research, activism and social change must be ours.

Perhaps, then, we will be able to touch the lives of African men and convince them to change and become non-violent, loving, caring and good fathers.

Mfecane (Dontsa), an anthropology lecturer at UWC, writes in his personal capacity.

Cape Times

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