Elaine Salo.
Elaine Salo.

Lessons in race and African feminism

By Elaine Salo. Time of article published Sep 8, 2013

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“I say!” murmured Horton. “I’ve never heard tell

Of a small speck of dust that is able to yell.

So you know what I think?…Why, I think that there must

Be someone on top of that small speck of dust!

Some sort of a creature of very small size, too small to be seen by an elephant’s eyes…

“…some poor little person who’s shaking with fear

That she’ll get hurt by the blacks! She has no thought to steer!

I’ll just have to educate her and set her straight…. Because, after all,

A person’s a person, no matter how small.”

- With apologies to Dr Seuss and Horton Hears a Who


The most striking aspect of the race furore that erupted about Dr Louise Mabille’s article, posted on the website Praag, was not so much the extent of her racism but the muted nature of the storm and the time it took for many of us to read and comprehend the original article she had posted on the right-wing Afrikaans website.

The time lag, and the limited extent of Mabille’s engagement with feminisms, are reminiscent of the small world of the Whos, which Horton the elephant becomes aware of only when he “heard a very small noise”.

The noises Mabille makes would have gone unnoticed, just like the Whos’, except we should be concerned that her woeful scholarly parochialism, paraded with such arrogant aplomb, is the work of an intellectual with a doctorate in political philosophy who claims to be a feminist.

More worrying is that she taught humanities students in a university setting until her recent resignation.

The intellectual paucity of her argument is surreal given the expectation that she would, like any reasonable scholar, keep abreast of developments in her field.

Mabille is not alone – the intellectual underdevelopment displayed here is so disappointingly commonplace and reflects exposure to a narrow genealogy of scholarly traditions.

In a paper entitled “The puzzling feminist betrayal”, Mabille argues that feminists should be grateful for the arrival of Western (read white) civilisation, European feminism and Christianity of the Calvinist variety.

Feminists should know, she continues, that women’s rights originated in European contexts where the gallantry of knights was commonplace, because these men respected women.

European Christian Calvinist intellectual traditions provide us with freedoms from the excesses of African polygamists, and African cultures where baby rape is normal, as well as freedom from misogynistic Muslims.

The Calvinist Afrikaner tradition even allowed women to own property!

She is left confused that contemporary feminists would throw their lot in with the left, the Third World, criminals and Muslims, when the Afrikaner, Calvinist and white traditions have provided women with so many freedoms.

The spuriousness of the argument presented in Mabille’s article and the paucity of intellectual sources informs the racism expressed here.

The scholarly sources sparsely cited here are marshalled in ramshackle logic that stacks up tropes of whiteness recursively without any effort to explain the relationship between them.

My concern is that Mabille presents a number of tropes for whiteness and for white fears that she knows will resonate profoundly with a sizeable homogeneous audience.

Mabille’s arguments resonate powerfully with the hoary old South African fears about the rooi gevaar (the communists), ongelowiges (unbelievers) and the swart gevaar (the black danger). It seems that like Horton and the Whos, Mabille lives in a parallel temporal universe unrelated to my own, despite our physical proximity, located as we were on the same floor, separated by three offices.

The feminist tradition I was introduced to drew on the works of European feminists such as Simone De Beauvoir, Emma Goldman, Alexandra Kollontai, Virginia Wolfe and contemporary North American Cynthia Enloe, Catherine McKinnon and Mary Daly. None of these women, however, engaged with race or the intersectional identities of women of colour.

African-American feminists such as Sojourner Truth, Audre Lorde, bell hooks and Elizabeth Spelman resonated more profoundly with my own experiences as they insisted upon the recognition of racism in shaping black femininities and black women’s struggles.

However, it was both personal experience in the anti-apartheid women’s struggle and through reading South African women such as Olive Schreiner, Charlotte Maxeke, Fatima Meer, Emma Mashinini, Jacky Cock, Isobel Hofmeyer, Jenny Schreiner, Phyllis Ntantala, Ellen Kuzwayo, Zoe Wicomb and more recently, Mmatshilo Motsei, that I knew I had come home.

I was enriched by the doyennes of a homegrown South African feminist tradition that takes account of women’s race, social statuses, geographies, sexualities and personal histories.

In the anti-apartheid women’s struggle I was inspired by the pragmatic maternal feminism of women such as Albertina Sisulu, the women in the Black Sash and the more radical activist feminist tradition of Elizabeth van der Westhuizen and Emma Mashinini in the educational sector and trade union tradition. I continue to draw inspiration from a veritable continent of African feminist thinkers living and writing on a continent that many South African scholars located exclusively within the Eurocentric tradition barely know of, or whom they often dismiss. They are poorer for imagining this intellectual tradition as being so shallow as to dismiss it or so primitive and backward that it had no history before the arrival of the Europeans.

The canon of African male intellectuals in the social sciences such as Franz Fanon, Amilcar Cabral, Samir Amin, Archie Mafeje, Ben Magubane, Paulin Hontoundji, Thandika Mkandiwire, Mahmoud Mamdani, Ebrima Sall, Adebayo Olukushi and Paul Zaleza would barely get a mention in many curricula, while African feminists would receive the merest whisper.

Those scholars who ignore these intellectual traditions from the continent are deserving of pity because they deny themselves the joy of discovering other humanistic traditions. The scary part is that they are let loose to teach young people.

The quality of the Mabille article presents an excellent case why humanities students must gain access to other intellectual traditions in South African universities. This can be accomplished only through the promotion of multilingualism, and curriculum transformation which emphasises the multi-sited diverse character of humanist traditions beyond an exclusive Eurocentric focus.

The ongoing debate that looms large is what type of humanities curriculum we want for our students so that they are able to understand the histories of diverse intellectual traditions, and become acquainted with the history of African intellectual thought in the humanities.

Our students need to be introduced to these diverse traditions if they are to resolve seemingly intractable problems such as unequal development and inequality; social conflict and weak states; environmental degradation; climate change; the material effects of hate speech; and so on.

They need to know about the contribution of civilisations in the south to human development and belief systems, the meanings of environment and ecology in society, the tolerance of difference and the importance of the social contract.

Louise Mabille's impoverished view on the world and on feminists is the sad consequence of our Humanities curricula's failure to diversify and introduce students to the wealth of intellectual traditions available beyond the European canon.

In the meantime, in the interest of public education on African feminist intellectual traditions, here is an introductory ABC on African feminisms beyond South Africa:


A is for Ama Ata Aidoo, Amina Mama, Ayesha Imam, Akosua Ampofu

B is for Bessie Head, Bolanle Awe, Bisi Fayemi

C is for Charmaine Pereira, Calyxthe Beyela, Cynthia Mugo, Chimananda Ngozi Adichie

D is for Dzodzi Tsikata, Doria Shafik

E is for Eleanor Sisulu, Embet Mulugeta

F is for Fatima Mernissi, Filomena Steady, Flora Makwa, Fenella Mukungara

G is for Gertrude Fester (based in Rwanda)

H is for Huda Sharawi, Hamza, Amal

I is for Isabel Casimiro, Ibitola Tolu Pierce

J is for Josephine Akhire, Jessica Horn, Jessie Kabwila Kapasula

K is for Khaxas, Elizabeth

L is for Liz Frank

M is for Molara Ogundipe, Margaret Munalula, Mariama Ba, Marjorie Mbilinyi

N is for Nawal el Sadaawi, Nabuwiyya Musa, Nobantu Ratsebotsa

O is for Obioma Nnaemeka, Onalenna Selolwane, Oyeronke Oyewumi

P is for Pat McFadden

R is for Rudo Gaidzanwa, Ruth Meena, Ruth Ochieng

S is for Sheila Bunwaree, Shailja Patel, Sylvia Tamale, Sara Longwe, Sandra Manuel

T is for Tsitsi Dangarembga, Therese Cruz e Silva, Takiywaa Manuh

U is for Unity Dow

V is for Veronica de Klerk

W is for Wangaari Mathaai, Winnie Binyanyima

Y is for Yvonne Vera, Yasmina Faull

Z is for Zenebeworke Tadesse, Zo Rriandriamaro, Zubeida Tumbo Masabo.


- Salo is the director of the Institute for Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Pretoria.

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