#FeesMustFall rallied black women

The writer says female students made their voices heard but it wasn't easy; male leaders of the #FeesMustFall campaign were angry. Picture: Paballo Thekiso

The writer says female students made their voices heard but it wasn't easy; male leaders of the #FeesMustFall campaign were angry. Picture: Paballo Thekiso

Published Nov 6, 2015


Female students all over the country felt there was no time to play around, writes Simamkele Dlakavu.

In her letter titled ”A Message to My Sistas” Assata Shakur, the African-American activist, directs a message to black women saying: “Sisters, black people will never be free unless black women participate in every aspect of our struggle, on every level of our struggle.”

She calls upon black women to mobilise around their struggles against racism, heteropatriachy and economic exclusion and says: “We don’t have no time to play around.” Shakur’s words echo the feelings of black women who were involved in the #FeesMustFall movement. They too felt they had “no time to play around”.

The moment when woman activists at Wits started seeing that the images of their struggle for the decommodification of education and the exploitation of black outsourced workers had the face of two black men - Vuyani Pambo and Mcebo Dlamini - they began to mobilise across political lines to challenge that image: an image of politics that excludes and silences woman leaders that has persisted for centuries.

If one analyses the images portrayed in the media and social media during the first few days of the #WitsFeesMustFall protests, you notice that these have men at their centre.

However, as the week progressed, we started seeing the images of Wits SRC leaders Nompendulo Mkhatshwa and Shaeera Kalla elevated in the media, as the women leading the movement. The narrative and faces of #WitsFeesMustFall started changing, and the whole country knew their names, saw their faces and heard the voices of these young women.

The media also started profiling them and other women leading the #FeesMustFall movements across the country. Even Minister of Transport Dipuo Peters publicly praised these young women. She is quoted as saying: “The interesting thing is that this revolution has revealed that the student representative councils in various universities are led by women and we are proud of them. Who still says women are not ready to lead? I dare you.”

All this was no coincidence. We are called on to actively challenge the systems of oppression that we face. The heightened images of these women was not by chance. It was a deliberate move, organised by black women in all political parties and from independent formations at universities.

These young women created a WhatsApp group called #MbokodoLeads that included black feminist academics (few as they are). That group supported and challenged Mkhatshwa and Kalla to take up their rightful places and lead us and not only from the sidelines because they were the incoming and outgoing Wits SRC presidents, after all.

A part of their activities was to create the hashtag #MbokodoLeads. They used it to populate images on social media of the women involved in protest action and planning at Wits. During the protests, they organised themselves and took up the mic and sang songs honouring woman leaders who fought for our liberation, but even the songs of liberation we sing glorify men while silencing the many women who fought to end apartheid.

They sang these and other songs from the frontline of #SolomonHouse, the building which students at Wits occupied. They created posters and banners affirming black women leading and participating in the #WitsFeesMustFall protests.

#MbokodoLeads then took on a life of its own. We started seeing more young woman activists in different institutions who were involved in #FeesMustFall using the hashtag #MbokodoLeads as a way to be seen and heard. Seeing images that came from the University of Cape Town, Stellenbosch University, the university currently known as Rhodes University and others was inspiring and affirming for all women fighting a struggle that oppresses us not only for our blackness and class, but for the multiple identities that define black womanhood including queer and trans women.

We saw articles and tweets coming from black woman activists from different universities. They were tweeting thoughts like: “Life is too short to play someone’s maid,” and that the success of #FeesMustFall “is no surprise. No good revolution happens without women”.

At Stellenbosch, Jodi Williams - a queer black woman leading their movement - was quoted in a Sunday newspaper saying: “In social justice movements, most of the time leadership positions are hijacked by men - we are turning the tables.

“Queer black women will lead. Most of the time in these movements, it is women doing the work - they do the operational running of movements and men get all the glory for it. They get put on a pedestal for it.”

In their attempt to enact their feminist politics beyond theory and to redefine the political landscape into being an intersectional one, these young women faced quite a backlash. Trying to get women’s faces and voices heard in a highly patriarchal environment was difficult and emotionally draining.

I remember coming to Wits when these women were singing and men not wanting to join them in song. I remember them saying: “What are they doing, they can’t even sing, we are losing the crowd.” We heard people from a men’s-only residence singing a song that said: “I smell p****.”

All these violent and patriarchal responses were soul-draining. You started seeing women, especially from the ANC within the group, feeling the thunder of patriarchy and saying that continuing with the #MbokodoLeads actions was being “divisive” and we should just focus on fighting for fees.

Although the group motivated for the continuation of us raising our voices, it must be recognised that breaking out of the patriarchal chains that we are all conditioned to, will not be easy. We’ve heard men in our ambit saying: ”We are here for fees, not this feminist nonsense.”

Young women across university campuses in South Africa are recognising that patriarchy won’t dismantle itself, that we have to actively work to dismantle it. That is why women participating in the #FeesMustFall movement had to engineer the #MbokodoLeads moment.

What #MbokodoLeads represented was a moment where black women were “tired of standing on the sidelines and witnessing a game in which they should be participating in”.

* Simamkele Dlakavu is an MA student in African Literature at Wits and works for Oxfam South Africa

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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