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Call to stop the vilification and undermining of black women leaders in academia

Published Jan 24, 2022

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UNISA’s Vice-Chancellor Prof Puleng LenkaBula is among the women leaders subjected to endless allegations and slander, much of it ventilated on media platforms.

27/07/2016 CEO of NIHSS Dr Sarah Mosoetsa during the launch of the Memory and History Exhibition at Unisa Library in Mckeleneuk. Picture: Phill Magakoe

Grace Khunou, Puleng Segalo and Edith Phaswana

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We write this piece as a trio of concerned black women feminist scholars who refuse to standby in the sight of gender injustice and profanity directed at women at our institutions of higher learning.

In their 2021 article, Segalo and Phaswana highlight the misogynistic violence faced by women executives. Sociological and political analysis aptly illustrates how black women are undermined in multiple avenues of social life including in their leadership roles within various social institutions.

These undermining actions take the form of systematic efforts that carve away at the persona of these women leaders through multiple methods that include defamation, insubordination, vilification, and ignoring/rejecting/questioning (progressive) programmes they put in place.

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One of the most common tactics used to diminish black women’s respectability within institutions is through the slavery, and colonial strategy that implicates them as liars who are self-serving.

The award-winning book, Black Academic Voices: the South African Experience, clearly articulates that some of the reasons Black women remain silent about their experiences of abuse and violence in the workplace are that they are never believed, their stories are often rendered as suspicious, and they are portrayed as liars.

Many choose not to be whistle-blowers even in contexts where they have witnessed crimes being committed as they are afraid of not being believed. Instead, those who choose to do so are likely to experience a much harsher pushback where the abuse intensifies, and institutional resources are used to further silence them. Such experiences lead to muted voices and perpetual injustice.

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In the South African public discourse, we observe these micro-aggressions manifesting through erasure of women's contributions and through the use of sexualising and defamatory commentary.

There is a plethora of evidence to illustrate the micro-aggressions experienced by black women executives which are costly in multiple ways: (1) they contribute to some of the burnouts women leaders experience; (2) they are also a factor for some of women’s early departure from these institutions as they seek to protect themselves ; and (3) they add to the various mental health challenges affecting women today.

This means that the fight for gender equality will not be easy as some of these black women are forced to leave their executive positions. This has resulted in situations where emerging women leaders feel discouraged and uninspired to become executives.

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Research on gender inequality highlights that side-lining women holds back economies from growing and prospering, and furthermore the macro-economic gains are reduced because of gender inequalities (OECD Development Centre, 2016).

In illustrating our argument we would like to zoom in on UNISA’s current Principal and Vice-Chancellor (VC), Professor Puleng Lenkabula who assumed her responsibilities in January 2021.

Since taking office she has been the subject of a plethora of public attacks. She has been at the receiving end of endless allegations and slander, much of it ventilated on media platforms. A similar phenomenon of this “attack-on-arrival” tactics has been observed with other women leaders such as Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng at UCT; Yoliswa Makhasi at the Department of Public Service And Administration; Sara Mosoetsa at the NIHSS and many others. This is possibly aggravated and enabled by the widening phenomenon of “brown bag journalism” in South Africa’s media.

It is not our suggestion that women leaders should not be held accountable where they have erred, however, it is this knee-jerk practice to vilify them prior to proper investigations that we detest. We do acknowledge that as leaders of public institutions, women leaders need to be subjected to public scrutiny whenever they are found wanting in their decisions and actions. However, what we have witnessed shows that this is not the case, time and again they are vilified without evidence.

Some of the internal letters and statements that ended up circulating in multiple social media platforms are a case in point. In some of these communiques, Prof LenkaBula is referred to as someone with ‘slay queen tendencies’; ‘a media darling’ and so on and so forth. Wikipedia defines the term slay queen as, "A young gold digger who is active on social media and pretends to afford a lavish partying lifestyle." According to Crizelda Kekana, the notion of the slay queen has parallels to the blesser/blessee phenomenon of the mid-1990’s. We therefore ask: Is this a productive way of defining the first woman (black woman) Vice Chancellor of the biggest university in the Southern Hemisphere? What are we saying to our daughters and all other emerging black women scholars about role modelling?

In her book Bare: the cradle of the Hockey Club, Jackie Phamotse chronicles her experiences of being a slay queen and upon a closer look, one realises that the slay queen phenomenon is linked to a particular femininity that might not align with what Prof Puleng LenkaBula embodies.

It is this misogynistic and gendered language that we as women scholars will not tolerate within the social and intellectual spaces where we exist with others. Unisa positions itself as an “African university shaping futures'' and we believe that it should live up to its own vision and mandate. What kind of African futures are we shaping if we continue to dehumanise, denigrate, defame, malign one another as colleagues? Have our colleagues forgotten that we are an educational institution entrusted in shaping the futures of students?

No wonder Unisa’s official twitter is marred with slurs and insults in comparison to other universities. Could it be that our students learn this profanity from those who are entrusted to lead, teach and educate them? This is a worrying pattern that is escalating day by day within our university.

This internal cry is clearly illustrated in how the attack on Prof LenkaBula lacks the political and intellectual care needed to build a university and a South Africa that values its people. We need to start engaging and refrain from insults if we are going to see the changes we are calling for. One of the fundamental teachings of the decolonial movement is to rehumanise one another – this means we must reflect deeply on how we contribute to the dehumanisation and oppression of others, especially black women.

We are not in any way defending Prof LenkaBula for her actions/inactions and we believe that as someone who self-identifies as an ethical leader she should be questioned whenever she has something to answer for. We are totally against the slurs, the insults , the slandering and the smear campaigns which have no place in an institution that should be progressive and educational.

Khunou, Segalo and Phaswana are all professors at Unisa and they write in their personal capacities.

Sunday Independent

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