SA must transcend Big Man politics

Published Sep 10, 2015


Our political discourse cannot continue to solely have a male face, says Simamkele Dlakavu.

Johannesburg - It was one of those student protests, the kind of protests at our universities that have become a norm again in this country.

I don’t remember the exact issue of contestation that day, because they are so many. We might have been protesting against the financial exclusion of hundreds of students; or it might have been a protest against the dehumanising treatment of our outsourced mothers and fathers. Or it could have been another protest where we sought to be reflected in a curriculum that is still centered on colonial thinking.

We sang, in defiance, “uMandela uth’ ayihlome, uSobukwe uth’a yihlome…siyaya”

As we continued to sing and remember our fallen struggle heroes “Chris Hani, OR Tambo, Steve Biko...”, I waited and waited.

I waited for us to continue to sing the names of “uWinnie Madikizela, uLilian Ngoyi...”

While waiting in anticipation, we moved on to another song.

This song, that moment, was a reminder to me of how the politics of memory and our political discourse in post-apartheid South Africa, and in wider post-colonial Africa, wears a male face.

I felt the same sentiment this past weekend while watching the ANC Youth League’s national congress. As the top five elected leaders of the party raised their hands in celebration, with only one woman - Thandi Moraka - at the table, I thought to myself that “we are continuing the Big Men in politics syndrome”.

I acknowledge that liberation from white supremacy’s systematically violent ways, is an ongoing journey and we are still on that journey today. I believe that South Africans, today, are living in a historical moment that is challenging white supremacy. This historical moment is one that calls for Economic Freedom for black people, (The Department of Trade and Industry recently released statistics that indicate that only “3% of South Africa’s economy is black-owned”) and a project that calls for “decolonization” which is mainly driven by university students.

The problem with both these historical projects is that they are not centering gender in real and meaningful ways. They are falling into the same trap that Africa and other sites of anti-colonial struggles have fallen into, where women’s issues have been sidelined because we have “prioritized and gave voice to a specific Black experience of oppression,” as stated by Professor Pumla Gqola.

An example of this failure to centre gender issues has been reflected in my recent experience, at my university - Wits. I was a part of a group of Political Studies post-grad students who contributed to a memo that was sent to our department, and university management, calling for transformation. Due to pressure from students, three new courses were introduced, including one on post-colonialism centred on Frantz Fanon’s ideas on decolonization. In a fury of excitement and pride I signed up for the course. However, in this new course, there is no engagement with Fanon from a gender lens and no Black Feminist critics were included. A simple Google search would have directed both the male lecturers teaching the course to some Black Feminist literature on Fanon and post-colonial theory.

Sadly, there was no will to do so. As much as it has been fulfilling reading and reflecting on texts by Léopold Sédar Senghor and Aimé Césaire, it has been an exclusionary process, for me as a black woman.

This process for me has proved a point made by Feminist scholar Judith Fetterley, who wrote: “As readers and teachers and scholars, women are taught to think as men, to identify with a male point of view, and to accept as normal and legitimate a male system of values, one of those central principles of misogyny”.

Fetterley pointed out that “… the end of her freshman year, a woman student would have learned something about intellectual neutrality; she would be learning, in fact, how to think like a man”.

We do not take enough time and resources to (en)gendering academia in our political discourses in significant ways. The implications of this on women are not only material-in the socio-economic sense- but can also lead to “self-doubt” .

I witnessed the self doubt of young female political activists while facilitating a discussion on the Decolonilizing Wits project .

At that discussion I was joined by a female and male leader of one of the student political parties at Wits. What struck me was that during the Question and Answer session, the audience members of the party constantly made reference to the points that the male leader had made.

We heard “as Mandla* said” continuously from both male and female audience members. One female member of the party was making a point and she said “Mandla* puts it better than I do….” in which I responded by affirming to her that “no you are being clear”.

Privilege comes with arrogance; we have seen this all over the world and with white South Africans here at home. Black male privilege exists and it is equally arrogant.

It often seeks to delegitimize black women’s oppression or tokenizes “women empowerment” without really committing to ending patriarchy.

It’s this male privilege that makes “Black Conscious” men and political activists write that “Intersectionality is a cover up for White Supremacy and a fortress of house negros of all shades”.

Intersectionality, a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw (a black woman), denotes “the various ways in which race and gender interact to shape the multiple dimensions of Black women’s […] experiences.”

Crenshaw’s objective was to highlight how Black women’s experiences “are not subsumed within the traditional boundaries of race or gender discrimination…”.

Sadly, black women political activist such as Khanyisile Litchfield Tshabalala, whose talk I attended, agree with black men that in achieving “economic freedom, gender freedom will follow” and that gender “is a sub-struggle.” She believes that anything to do with feminism is “a white man’s theory,” thus ignoring Black Feminist and African Feminist theories

We cannot continue to promote the single reality/identity of the struggle for liberation. Black women, black queer women and black transwomen need to be prepared to have the tough conversations with their male comrades. We need to be prepared to be called “divisive” towards the movement. Because who can answer this call for true liberation but us black women? Who can fulfill this task but us? We need to be our own liberators, because ultimately by being liberated as black women, we will be liberating our entire society.

*Names have been changed.

** Simamkele Dlakavu is a story-teller and social activist. She holds a BA degree in International Relations and Political Studies and Honours in Political Studies from Wits University.

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

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