Monthly Archives: March 2010

Mugabe and Tsvangirai united in gaybashing? (1) an online community for Zimbabwean activists have responded to the reports in The Herald that Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai, President and Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, respectively, made anti-gay statements at a Women’s Day Rally with the theme Equal Rights, Equal Opportunities: Progress for All in Chitungwiza, near Harare. Below is Kubatana’s open letter to the MDC:


Open letter to the MDC

RE: Prime Minister Tsvangirai’s comments in The Herald, March 26, 2010

The Kubatana Trust of Zimbabwe is very concerned with what we have read in the article entitled “President, PM speak on gays” in The Herald of March 26, 2010.

The article quotes Tsvangirai in these two paragraphs:

PM Tsvangirai concurred saying: “President mataura nyaya yemagay rights, yevamwe varume vanofemera munzeve dzevamwe varume. [“President you talked about gay rights, of men who breathe in the ears of other men.”]

“Bodo, apowo handibvumirane nazvo. Unogodirei kutsvaga mumwe murume yet vakadzi make up 52 percent (of the population)? Varume titori vashoma,” [“No, I do not agree with that. Why would you look for a man when women make up 52% of the population? We men are actually fewer,”] he said.

It is even more worrying that these remarks were made as part of International Women’s Day celebrations in Chitungwiza, where the theme was “Equal Rights, Equal Opportunities: Progress for All.” The comments made by the Prime Minister speak more to “Equal Rights for Some” – not All.

Is The Herald article an accurate quotation of the remarks made by the Prime Minister’s in Chitungwiza?

If it is an accurate reflection of the Prime Minister’s response, and his personal views, what is the position of the MDC about homosexuality, gay rights and the protection of gay rights in the Constitution?

The Parliament of Uganda is currently debating the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, an extremely worrying and homophobic piece of legislation. This Bill draws strength from its assertion that homosexuality is “unafrican”. However, this assertion goes against the truth of history and culture, which finds instances of same-sex sexual relations between men and women across Africa, throughout time.

You can read the opinion of respected Ugandan human rights lawyer Sylvia Tamale, denouncing this bill, here:

• A Human Rights Impact Assessment of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill –
• Why anti-gay Bill should worry us –

Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe has been at the foreground of campaigning for gay rights, and have a wealth of literature available explaining the history of homosexuality in Africa. This history makes it clear that homosexuality is not a “Western import,” nor is it a response to demographic pressures in which one gender outnumbers the other.

The remarks attributed to the Prime Minister in The Herald suggest a simplistic, populist view of homosexuality. Is the Prime Minister seriously making an argument that because women out number men in Zimbabwe, men should not be in relationships with other men? If so, he is making an insulting, demeaning argument, which belittles the thousands of Zimbabwean men for whom homosexuality is their personal identity.

One’s sexuality is as integral a part of someone’s humanity as their race, gender, and religion. A Constitution that protects Zimbabweans against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is thus as essential as one that prevents discrimination on grounds such as race, gender, ethnicity, or religion.

When political leaders discriminate against one segment of the population in order to gain popularity with another, it encourages prejudice. This prejudice can easily fuel violence, hatred, and intolerance, which can divide the country. It is imperative that politicians use their public profile and status to promote tolerance, encourage diversity, and embrace all sectors of the population. To do otherwise is an egregious, offensive violation of the spirit of democracy, peace, human rights and ubuntu on which the Movement for Democratic Change is founded.

The Kubatana Trust of Zimbabwe


How incredibly ugly of Nadira Naipaul!

Now I am not in the habit of judging a woman’s character by attributes associated with the man she chooses to cavort with. But, in this particular instance, I am less than suprised at Nadira Naipaul’s nasty piece and the ugly can of worms that she has conveniently unleashed so long after the trip ended. Maybe her choice of Nobel Laureate husband does tell us something about her own character, after all.

This post is not about Nadira Naipaul’s husband, however, so much as it is about the alleged interview she had with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in which the latter is supposed to have said all manner of unsavory and apparently unfashionable things about Mandela and one or two directed at Archbishop Tutu as well.

For those people who have been living under a rock for the last few days, I am refering to Nadira Naipaul – married to the infamous but celebrated novelist, VS Naipaul (both talented and despicable, sort of like Ezra Pound, Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer, etc), and the piece she published as an interview with Winnie Madikizela Mandela.

In the much cited article/interview, Naipaul claims that Winnie Madikizela-Mandela said Mandela has sold out Black people, that his daughters find it hard to reach their father without going through much read tape, expressed resentment about Mandela’s acceptance of the Nobel Prize shared with FW de Klerk, the continuing inequity of post-apartheid South Africa, the farce that was the TRC in many respects, etc.

Several things are immediately irritating to me when I read this interview. First, it is reading The London Evening Standard at all. Second, the way in which this article is written, long before Winnie appears, but also the specific representations that Naipaul chooses for Winnie Mandela: the Winnie who is both a monster general queen figure and unsure woman who needs Naipaul’s husband’s approval. Naipaul’s own overblown sense of hers and her husband’s importance at being kept waiting – not in a pubic place but someone’s home to which it is not clear that they were really invited.

Third, so what if Winnie said all of these things? None of these things attributed to her – save for the one about her daughters’ access to their father – has not been said a million times over by many Black people in South Africa, including staunch comrades. Why does this mattr to Naipaul, the journalist? Why does Winnie saying them – and millions of Black South Africans agreeing with her – mean that this soils Mandela? Because this is not the Mandela of mainstream white South Africa and Britain? These views have existed for more than a decade simultaneously: the revolutionary Mandela next to the traitor Mandela next to the benign Mandela much beloved of white SA. The fact that this badly written Naipaul piece is an issue at all just serves to show how little general Black sentiment is aired in public South African culture, even though several prominent figures have expressed the same sentiments in the media more than once.

Fourth, Winnie Madikizela Mandela denies that there was ever an interview. What are we to make of this? The Naipauls were in her house, but there was no interview. So, if we believe there was no interview, we have several places to go.

Either Madikizela-Mandela said what was attributed to her as she sat with these two conservatives in her house, but did so in a conversation that was not an interview OR she said nothing of the sort and Naipaul’s ‘interview’ is fiction. It cannot be complete fiction, because journo Naipaul talked to somebody who probably said all of this. That person would not have been hard to find; it need not have been WMM. The sentiment is that widely held.

But what if WMM did in fact say all these things off the record? So what? Is she not allowed to express an opinion in her house without someone making an ugly spectacle of her, her life, her house and her comments for self-serving reasons nearly a year after the conversation could have taken place?

I felt sick to my stomach when I heard the Naipauls were in Johannesburg. I remember saying to a friend, ‘what horrible ugliness will come out of this visit’ even before that ridiculous story about their pretend hijacking. And more than nine months later, there is something of an answer in the non-story.

Maybe the Naipaul’s should go back to relegating South Africa to the marginal characters of novelist Naipaul’s books.

Rest in Peace, Fatima Meer

Born 12 August 1928, in Durban, the courageous, inspiring and energetic activist-academic-icon, Fatima Meer passed away on 12 March 2010. She has been a staunch feminist, having co-founded both the Durban Disticts Women’s League (1949) and The Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) anti-apartheid activist who was banned repeatedly in the 1950s, 1970s, detained without trial, and otherwise tormented by the apartheid state. Fatima Meer was also a prolific writer in various capacities – biography, academic research, history with various books.

I met her only a few times, in gatherings where I spoke to her as one among various other women. The last time was at a South African Women’s Press Inititative (SAWPI) workshop in the Western Cape many years ago. But her words, her work, her life have been as important for me as they have been for a generation of Southern Africans. I am sad, and short of words, somewhat. Thankfully, I can turn around and borrow a sistah’s words, instead. Below, the insanely gifted poet, Bernedette Muthien’s ‘necessary grief’:

since dying is a wedding with the divine
why am i not deaf to the sounds of grief
wrenched from the very hearts of those left behind
blind to their vacant salted eyes
souls wrinkled brittle in suffering & loss

we are the stained
floor rags
wrung dry
by life’s exigencies
like made-up wallflowers without dance partners
dried up wombs & hollow testicles
trees without fruit
not even worthy of harvests
whipping boys on treadmills without red emergency buttons
seldom bowled over
often fucked over
the ugly sister dimwit uncle
left behind
at divine weddings

is my sorrow sacred too?!!

take then the remnants of this carcass
and eat that too

as i rip the skin from my flesh
i remember
that some jews
still tear the clothes
from their own bodies
in simple grief

and thus i live

Artists are a gift to treasure

This is the original copy sent for my City Press column for Sunday, 07 March 2010. It is longer than the published version and is my formulation (not the edited, slightly altered version published on p__ of the paper, and available for perusal *here*)

I have a vested interest in the controversy over Minister Lulu Xingwana and the Innovative Women exhibition curated by Bongi Bengu last August. I have written on Zanele Muholi’s photographs before, and find Nandipha Mntambo’s work so thought-provoking that as I wrote the catalogue essay for the exhibition, I vowed to spend more time writing on her. I have also written on Bongi Bengu, the curator and an artist in the show. I have no intention of stopping.

These artists present us with a vision that does not allow us to sit comfortably with our prejudices. Even those of us who admire their work are provoked, challenged, amused, and forced to grow. The issues of conflict, death, erasure that they explore are not easy to digest. Their work also is about love, joy, discovery and breathtaking beauty. Creative artists, whether they use film, photographs, visual strategies, or writing, do not exist merely for our entertainment, although this is often the condescending view that artists exist for our distraction.

But when did South Africans forget that art is political? That the apartheid state persecuted, exiled and killed artists precisely because it recognised how powerful creative mediums are in shifting thinking? Muholi, Mntambo and the other Black women artists at Constitution Hill last August presented us with courageous invitations to look at the textures of gender in contemporary Southern Africa. Muholi and Mntambo are two of the most exciting and talented artists working today anywhere in the world. You don’t have to take my word for this. Google them and see what others, who know more about art than I do, have said as they bestowed prestigious awards to these women for their staggering talent.

One of the wisest women in recent history, the Afro-Caribbean poet, Audre Lorde once said “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive”. Black women are told every day in this country about which ways are appropriate for us to love, dress, speak, think and generally live our lives. Many times the self-appointed custodians of African culture pretend it is a static entity that they have exclusive copyright over. African women may be the majority group in this country, but, yes, the word culture is used against us every day by patriarchal men and women who know how effective it is as a tool. Nandipha Mntambo’s work shows some of the ways in which different societies use extensive symbolism – cows, hide, mythology – to do this complicated work of reminding women of our place. These are other people’s fantasies about women, not mine, not Mntambo’s as her visual language shows. Here, she agrees with Lorde and decides to move far beyond responding and resisting to create another vision of Black women’s imagination and lives.

Black lesbians are told every single day that they may not exist in South Africa. They are killed, raped, mocked, expelled and otherwise violated. We all know this because Black lesbians would not let us continue in our ignorance. At the same time, pictures of Black lesbians are very popular for pornographic reasons – for the gratification of men and straight women who refuse to see and live with real lesbians in the world. Zanele Muholi’s work is the answer to this ugly world of useful Black lesbians in fantasy. She asks us questions like “what do you see when you look at me?” and “what do you choose not to”? In her images, the loving Black women are there for themselves – visible, daring, complicated – and not for our gratification or distraction.

Muholi, Mntambo and the other artists in this exhibition are a gift we should treasure: genius, pained and beautiful. To call it pornography and immoral is an act of violent disregard for their talent, their imagination and their humanity.

SA in top 10 – global gender index

I was invited by the Director of the Institute for Women’s and Gender Studies, at the University of Pretoria, Dr Elaine Salo, to sit on a lunch hour panel to mark International Women’s Day today. The topic for deliberation is “South Africa’s progress in closing the gender gap”.

The Global Gender Index seeks to measure the disparity (or lack thereof) in opportunities and access to resources between men and women in any given country and across various countries. In 2008 South Africa ranked 22nd in the world, and in 2009 the World Economic Forum report has ranked the country 6th. South Africa and Lesotho are the only African countries that appear in the top 10. Rwanda is not surveyed at all, although I suspect it would rank notably too.

The Top 10 countries (in order) are: Iceland (0.828), Finland (0.825), Norway (0.823), Sweden (0.814), New Zealand (0.788), South Africa (0.770), Denmark (0.763), Ireland (0.760), Philippines (0.758), Lesotho (0.750). To explain the scale and score, 0 = inequality and 1 = equality.

On the face of it, various things are clear. First, contrary to popular opinion the status of women in relation to men, and the textures of gender relations are not primarily linked to levels of development. Feminists in the global South have been saying this for many years, of course, but now it seems as though we have the World Economic Forum backing us up. We live in interesting times, indeed. The Index, if we take its word, suggests that women and men in Lesotho are closer in terms of access to jobs, seniority in those jobs, remuneration, literacy levels, political empowerment, etc than men and women in the USA or France or Britain. Now isn’t that something? Maybe someone should tell that to the next funder that tries to tell women in Lesotho or the Philippines about better access.

Secondly, these countries have been able to do something that gender progressives in the whole world have been working hard to achieve for a long time. It is notable that the scores are quite high – ranging from 0.750 to 0.828, which means these countries are doing really well in the areas surveyed – they might have serious lessons for the rest of the world. For example, according to the Index, Lesotho has no gender gap in education and health.

Third, the Index says little about the actual state of the resources that men and women have similar access to. So, nobody is saying that the health or the school level education systems in South Africa are not in shambles.

Fourth, nobody scores a full 1, not even those Scandinavians who have almost completely eliminated patriarchy according to lore.

I am ambivalent about this report. It is encouraging to see the great progress we have made as a country – at least on paper and official head counts. We are very often quite despondents as feminists and otherwise identifying gender progressives in this country – so this is encouraging because of what is suggests about access. I don’t quite see how this progress has jumped to much over a year – from 22 in 2008 to 6 in 2009, and think that is a cumulative increase, rather than a real jump.

At the same time though, to say we score highly in terms of legislation that criminalises and punishes gender based violence is not the same as saying that legislation is effective. We know it is not SA Medical Research Council research findings continue to show the varied ways in which gender, health and inequity intersect in ways that are complicated, like, for example, that 1 in 9 women who are raped report rape at all, and that of those cases that actually reach the courts, only 5% lead to a successful conviction. How do we make sense of this in light of the high ranking in the Index?

This is just one area, but the same could be said about the violent masculinities that are celebrated and encouraged to take on an increasing visibility in the country today, the use of ‘culture’ discourses to violate and silence dissent, the shifting patterns of female sexual docility, the bizarre and sometimes disturbing rising power of the ‘traditional’ leadership/polygamy/enactment of men’s entitlement to women’s bodies, etc.

Perhaps, as some of us often suggest, the success are the reason for the backlash. Perhaps that is why we have so much to be taken aback by in the brazen actions and words of powerful men in this society.

I think statistics and surveys give us an indication of something otherwise obscured by other forms of research presentation. At the same time, I have been engaged in the research enterprise long enough to know that it is always necessary to retain a healthy level of scepticism when confronted by any research findings.