Monthly Archives: October 2007

South Africa’s gender lessons (2)

Now I turn to address two of the questions from the visiting colleagues I spoke about in my previous blog entry.

1. The first was about the nature of the challenges we face in gender generally, and then, as specifically linked to the public education system.

My response to this question is quite simple, really. Firstly, on the education system, much remains to be done. In schools, the South African Schools Act lays out progressive gender frameworks, but research is showing that even when teachers and principals are aware of these provisions, they often fall short. They do this often by resorting to more familiar patriarchal ways of living gender even as they know this disadvantages many of their students. Often staff at school argue that they are unable to be beacons of change that encourage performances of gender that differ radically from those in the communities around them. As far as I am concerned, this is just refusing to take responsibility and choosing instead to pass the buck. Schools do a whole lot of other things that surrounding communities don’t do, when it suits them. But this irresponsible buck-passing is the same reason that misogyny and homophobia goes unchecked in our schools.

A second challenge we face on the gender front has to do with how under-resourced the National Gender Machinery (NGM) is in SA. Much has been written and said on how this under-resourcing prevents the NGM from fulfilling its mandate as it best sees fit.

Thirdly, although this is beginning to change, somewhat, the discussion on sexuality continues to be largely stifled unless coupled with violence – so pleasure, choice, orientation, etc are muted to large extent.

Fourth – class, the burden of HIV and stitma, and access to infrastructure continues to hamper women’s life choices more significantly. Although the digital divide is gendered worldwide, as much research into women and ICTs shows, we continue to worry about what this gendering means in the SA contexts. Yes, there is progressive government legislation and policy on ICTs. And, yes, there are phenomenal organisations like Women’sNet and LinuxChix Africa that do feminist work in the ICT space. These deserve mention and recognition. But much needs to be done still.

Fifth, and turning to speak of the higher education sector more directly now, the challenges abound. At the level of faculty and staff, there have been shifts, although some of these are not sustained. Some universities are doing better than others in terms of promoting and supporting women’s leadership. Sadly, some are worse off now than they were a few years ago, so there is backlash foot soldiers are alive and well.

Sixth, while the Employment Equity Act was designed with penalties to dissuade universities from defaulting on the Equity Plans submitted to governments, some universities simply do not see their plan through and simply pay the millions in fines to government during the audit periods.

Seventh, student enrollments continue to be gendered in troubling ways – with divisions between faculties, and low retentions of women students from disciplines like Computer Science and other hard sciences, for example. (Again, global research shows us how hostile and masculinist ICT disciplines and professions are.) Medical school enrollments seem to be the only exceptions to this rule.

Women experience a range of gendered situations differently depending on other power differentials at play: race, class, sexual orientations, ability, religion, etc. Indeed, one of the heated gender debates in RSA currently is linked to whether affirmative action policies have so far advantaged white women, and invisibilised Black women that they need to be revised so that white women no longer qualify.

2. The second question was about how hopeful we are.

Gender transformative work is an ongoing project, but I am very aware of the vast changes we have seen in previous years. I was an adult when apartheid ended, and I had been explicitly identifying as a feminist (among other things) since high school. In many respects, I really feel like this is another country. Much work needs to be done still, but this really is not the same country. One of my closest friends, the feminist writer Gail Smith, often remarks on how well we have taken to the enormous changes at the small everyday actions and choices level in post-apartheid South Africa. This is true for me, as for her, as Black women who lived our childhoods under apartheid. So, when you have seen such enormous change in your lifetime, you really have faith in significant changes and can commit to being part of further change, if you wish.

There is amazing feminist energy in this country – far from the majority – but look at how much has been achieved innovatively by a small cluster of women who are impossible to silence. How can I not be hopeful that my feminist work will contribute to changing this country even more?

I am hopeful because I see such innovation often. Further, because I teach young adults, I can also often see immediate challenges and changes in thinking about gender. I have also seen how certain strategies within the academy can push through change, and at my past institution was able to witness through the fatigue how much our stubborness in less than a decade had change the gendering of hierarchy.

I am hopeful because even though there is annoying undermining of women leaders, such figures continue to be on the rise especially in the political arena.

I am also hopeful, finally, for the same reason I am often frightened: by the backlash. Backlash is exhausting, but it also helps make us more stubborn. Powerful systems do not fight back unless they are under threat. We must be doing a lot right.

Another one of my closest friends, the feminist activist and writer, Nomboniso Gasa, points out that we need to start thinking of power differently all the time as feminists. We need an ever-evolving understanding of how different forms of power work – destructively and affirmingly. Another reminder from her is the importance of affirming the self as an important part of doing feminist work wherever we are.

I am not the only hopeful one.


South Africa’s gender lessons (1)

I went to a meeting with various people who work in the gender transformation arena yesterday. The meeting was at the Commission on Gender Equality Constitution Hill offices. Invited to the meeting from the South African side were a few Commissioners, representatives from other offices in the National Gender Machinery, the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities, as well as various people from the feminist and women’s movement drawn from different sectors. The meeting was with a mixed group of women from academia and civil society in Canada, Australia, the USA and New Zealand. Their next meetings were with South Africans from NGOs and community based organisations (CBOs), MPs, community leaders, etc.

My brief input was about the state of gender in the new South Africa, and did not cover some aspects because I did not mean to be comprehensive, but also because other feminists and gender activists who had spoken before me had traced some of the historical developments. Mine, then was really to scan the landscape as many of us, South African feminists, see it. It was also for me to just throw about some ideas about gender patterns as I see them emerging in contemporary SA – one of my favourite topics and the subject of a manuscript I am finalising for the new academic press, S&S (but more on that much later. In other words, watch this blog-space).

I started by refering to the importance of centering gender in much SA discourse and outlined that the legal recognitions and policy framework which sought to do this were invaluable. I know that we often worry and complain about how much of this proto-feminist legislation does not translate into the the law as lived and experienced by most citizen on a daily basis. This is true without a doubt. At the same time, the fact that gender redress is made visible, state responsibility in all legislation shows how much headway has been made in the last thirteen years. It means that gender stays on the national agenda in ways that many feminists the world over are still battling to have recognised in their own countries. It means that our starting point is therefore radically different from those with the same feminist politics who are trying to get specific gender transformative legislation passed.

At the same time, the gap between legislation in SA and practice (lived reality) is no joke. We can all continue to narrow this gap in the various work we do as activists, lawyers, academics, policy makers, therapists, religious figures, teachers, etc. At the same time, it seems that the specific manifestations of the gap — as well as the specific challenges posed by the failure of legislation and policy to change how men and women live gender — are also sites of learning. In other words, we can see these challenges as instructive.

But what lessons can we learn, then? First, that we continue to feel the absence of a large and consistent feminist and/or woman’s movement in South Africa. At the same time, the feminist provisions we have in the founding documents on the new SA were possible in the absence of such a strong, largescale feminist movement. This is because of a few determined and stubborn feminists who worked really hard to ensure that political parties took gender seriously, that women were part of the negotiating team, that many feminist concerns stayed on the agenda and were reflected in the final documents with which South Africa would be negotiating the transition. Therefore, as wonderful as a millions strong feminist movement would be, much work and many successes are possible without it. This energises me and I am sure many others. It suggests that stubborn will changes the world. It also says a lot about feminist strategies that work. We are lucky many of these women continue to walk amongst us and, therefore, that this herstory is available to us.

I am also pleased to be in the midst of a vocal feminist presence in the South African public sphere as well as equipped with the National Gender Machinery.

I am energised by the visible and unapologetic presence of feminists inside and outside South Africa’s government and by the fact that we can see the benefits of some of the feminist work past and present in the following:

a) the ongoing public discourse on women’s empowerment in SA’s public sphere. I am a big critic of the more conservative manifestations of this, but also recognise that the fact that gender is something South Africans talk about publicly and explicitly shows that it is seen to matter. We’ve come a long way from more than a decade ago when this was NOT the case by any stretch of the imagination;
b) a powerful and vocal NGO sector that does amazing work on gender, from ICT and women, to gender based violence, to sexualities and sexual orientation, to reworking and re-imagining masculinities and femininities;
c) radical work on sexualities from organisations such as the Lesbian and Gay Equality Project over the last decade (an NGO which is being resuscitated as we speak after burn out and other complications),the Black lesbian NGO Forum for the Empowerment of Women and Sonke Gender Justice Network;
d) we’ve seen affirmation of the importance of coalition building. Coalitions are really hard work, as many political activists know. I remember how frustratingly exhausting some early Women’s National Coalition meetings were in the Western Cape, where I was then based since politically the women meeting to ensure gender was a central lens in how the new SA was built came from such diverse political ideologies and organisations. Yet, that coalition achieved phenomenal successes in the end – again because stubborn feminists change the world;
e) contestation has become a central part of what constitutes the SA public sphere and identity landscape. Feminists have had a huge part in this, as have activists on other fronts;
f) we have a clearer sense of how patriarchy is buttressed by allusions to religion, culture, education and so on. This needs ongoing contestations because all religions and cultures can work oppressively (e.g., patriarchally) and in liberating and life-affirming ways. They take on the politics of their users; and,
g) there is a shift in masculinities and femininities that is not unidirectional – sometimes this finds expression as a hardening of violent masculinities (in the school system, political arena, popular culture, courts) but we also see a more dynamic expression and imagination of masculinities and femininities (popular culture, creative arts, political arena).

There are more lessons – but you’ll have to read my book for some of these 🙂 or visit my website for an early glimpse in what I’ve already written on this topic. Yes, a little self-promotion goes a long way every once in a while.

critiquing (product) red

It’s been a while since I updated the blog and that has mainly to do with overcommitment with all manner of work events off-line. I am still recovering, so today I am posting two items — one a call for papers for papers critiquing the discourse produced by (Product)Red. What is that? Read on and find out.

Journal of Pan African Studies (JPAS),

Call for Papers – Journal of Pan African Studies (JPAS),
(Product)Red: (re)Branding Africa?

“Frictionless capitalism,” “conscience consumers,” “shop until it stops,” “punk rock capitalism,” and “Brand Bono,” are just a handful of catch phrases and popular culture terms being used to describe and explain the brainchild of U2’s front man, Bono and Kennedy clan’s Bobby Shriver – (Product)Red. While many of us may not be familiar with (Product)Red and what it has called its “Manifesto,” we have all been witness to the numerous adverts and billboards featuring Hollywood celebrities sporting RED t-shirts, or the massive media attention that this campaign has received. Producing the (Product)Red brand as one designed for “responsible” consumers appears to have required the simultaneous production of a discourse on Africa.

This edition of JPAS invites papers that critique, analyze, and offer insights into (Product)Red, specifically, the image(s) of Africa it (re)presents and seeks to (re)present, as well as the forms and kinds of knowledges it is creating and/or reviving. Contributions may examine (Product)Red commercials, its business model, website, participating campaigns (i.e. GAP, Apple, etc.), as well as Bono’s appearance on Oprah, Bono’s special editions of Vanity Fair and The Independent, and various artists/celebrities who contribute to the (Product)Red campaign. Of particular interest, is the campaign’s use of discourses on “African AIDS,” African poverty, corruption, or the feminization of poverty, for example, to create an image of Africa that “sells” to the “Western” consumer. In this light, papers exploring the relationship produced between “Africa”/“Africans” and (Product)Red consumers (two categories that are presumably mutually exclusive) is also of interest. More generally, this issue wishes to explore the aspects of knowledge about Africa that this campaign is creating or re/producing.

Those interested, can send papers to Danai Mupotsa at by 15 January 2008.