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Travel well to the ancestral realm, Madiba wethu

Brenda’s Black President, Winnie’s longtime husband, Zinzi’s daddy, beloved revolutionary of many of our childhoods, the first president of our country, I hope that you feel our love as you make this last leg of your journey to the ancestral realm. We honour your life, as we do the lives of your comrades. We remember what your name meant to us even as children in apartheid South Africa. We remember how thrilling it was as teenagers in high school see a photograph of you in the mid-1980s, when these were banned, defiantly published by a Durban newspaper whose name I don’t remember, we remember how different you were from the safe forgiveness icon that we are now force-fed. We remember the hope we felt when we saw these posters and stickers in the lead up to April 1994. We remember the Reconstruction and Development Plan promises that were not met. We acknowledge the contradictions, the disappointments, anger, the sadness, the unfairness of it all. We remember why we loved you so much.

Welcoming batterer Chris Brown condones GBV

Between the 15th and the 20th of December 2012, many South African music lovers will flock to see Chris Brown, the R&B star and the man who assaulted pop superstar Rihanna in 2009. Rihanna was also his girlfriend at the time. Unless you have been living under a rock for the last few years, you know a few vivid details about that assault. You may have seen pictures of Rihanna’s bruised face, read about blood in her mouth as he continued to beat, strangle and threaten her while driving. Both pictures and details of the charge sheet made their rounds through mainstream media outlets and went viral on social media. For a quick summary, you can read this. Or you can just google the whole ugly saga.

Since then, we have also been subjected to constant suggestions that Rihanna may have taken Chris Brown back as boyfriend/lover/friend after forgiving him. She has recently been on Oprah and there was widely circulated news that even her father feels warmth and sympathy for Brown. We have even been told of how Brown grew up in a violent home himself and, therefore, that his own violence is explained by this past. After all, violated children also sometimes turn into violent people, right?

This means that Brown’s South African fans are supporting him with full knowledge of his record. Indeed, many who are quite vocal about their support of the call to end gender based violence in South Africa will buy tickets to his concerts as part of the general partying that characterises the “festive season”. It will not matter that they have previously expressed concern that the international annual campaign of 16 Days of No Violence Against Women and Children should really be 365 days. South Africans are not renowned for a healthy sense of irony. Nor do we hold violent men accountable. We simply like to march against violence against women, but we are generally loathe to intervene and condemn it when it actually happens. We don’t really like to denounce men who beat and/or rape women. We do often judge and badmouth abused women. So much commentary has focused on what Rihanna and her family feel or do not feel. If I had a rand for every time I heard “but women are their worst enemies in such cases”, I would be a rich woman.

Feminists, gender activists and people opposed to violence elsewhere in the world have not found this such a complicated issue. In Guyana, several women’s rights activists made it very clear that Brown was not welcome in Georgetown to perform on the 26th of December 2012. The Code Red for Gender Justice website outlined that although there was disagreement over the Guyanese government’s decision to welcome Brown to Guyana in order to boost tourism to the Caribbean country, those critical of Brown’s tour and the Guyanese government’s insensitivity did not mince their words. It quoted Guyanese feminist columnist, Stella Ramsaroop saying that the “decision to bring Chris Brown to entertain Guyana is a slap in the face to every single victim of domestic violence in the country”. Sukree Boodram of the Caribbean American Domestic Violence Awareness (CADVA) said “as the grim situation on domestic violence has become a staple part of Guyana’s everyday life and landscape, I believe that having a known abuser perform, gives credit to him and sends an unspoken message that it is okay to beat up on your wife or girlfriend and still stay popular and famous”.

Vidyaratha Kisson wrote a much publicised letter in which he suggested what what he saw as more useful options to the Brown tour. His solution is similar to that proposed by Nicole Cole from the Guyanese Women and Gender Equality Commission here.

I am not convinced that there is a good way in which a woman beater can be supported. We simply cannot have it both ways: claim we want to end violence against women at the same time that we swoon over men who violate women. We should make Chris Brown unwelcome in South Africa if we are serious about ending the siege under which women live. I share Sukree Boodram’s stance, where she says “The fact that we are allowing a publicly known abuser to enter our country is blatant disregard and disrespect to our people and the cause we claim to want to eradicate. That cause is domestic violence. What kind of signal does this send? It says that ‘bringing wealth into Guyana’ is more important than the safety of the nation’s women. It says that talking out of both sides of your mouth concerning violence against women is justified so long as everyone can dance.” (emphasis added)

And, although there have been suggestions that Brown and his team did not cancel the Guyanese concert because of the outrage from women’s rights activists, there is no convincing alternative explanation. South African feminists would do well to emulate our Caribbean feminist counterparts in telling Chris Brown that he is not welcome here. If we succeed in keeping him from performing, or even cut his trip short, it does not matter who gets the credit.

No, the women’s movement is not dead

(originally published in City Press as a column, on 12 August 2012)

Whenever I am asked about whether the women’s movement is dead in South Africa, I usually respond with a confident “no”.

But this answer is not as straightforward as it initially seems.

The fact that the question gets asked, and how often it is asked, tells us something about an existing anxiety for the women’s movement.

Clearly, enough people worry about the state of the women’s movement enough to keep asking the question.

Questions reveal more than a mere desire for a resolution.

The South African women’s movement is dead or dying if we anticipate the large number of women taking to the streets as well as the visible formation of mass-based organisations.

This is a reasonable expectation since claiming public space is a strategy much loved by such movements, whether we are thinking about
members of the West African women’s movement ­stripping in public, the South African women’s marches that culminated in the 1956 anti-pass laws, or anti-gender-based violence marches across the world.

Yes, there are fewer actions of this kind in South Africa than there once were. And where they exist, they tend to be smaller on average than Cosatu marches, for example.

Nor are there attempts to come up with something of the character of the now-romanticised Women’s National Coalition SA.

When this argument is made, people forget why the women’s coalition worked and how hard it was to ensure that it achieved its successes, choosing to focus in their nostalgia on the power of women from ­different political homes.

There are many reasons why we do not see thousands of women taking to the streets on a regular basis.

Organising thousands of women to march in this way, and to do so regularly, continues to be a challenge in a context where the efficacy of such marches is under scrutiny.

Feminist poet Audre Lorde is often quoted as having cautioned against using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.

Marching against the state using tools that those now in power have intimate knowledge of can be as ironic as it is ineffective.

Many of the older forms of women’s movement organising were premised on a very clear relationship to the state, whether as an enemy or a
potential partner.

Such an orientation does not work in the current dispensation.

This is not to say that there are no women’s organisations that think of the state as the enemy, given the free reign of violent masculinities in the political leadership of the nation as well as the ongoing brutalisation of sexual violence survivors within the legal justice system.

At the same time, many in the women’s movement are part of the state, or invest in models of patient collaboration with the state.

Linked to this taming of subversive political language is the manner in which the successes of the current democracy have also been premised on directly weakening an autonomous women’s movement.

They have led to a more fractured women’s movement than we have ­ever seen before.

While there are various organisations and formations of women who organise for varied ends, they often do so separately, rather than in ­alliance.

There is no question that the Rural Women’s Movement or the One in Nine Campaign do important work.

Yet, many discussions of the South African women’s movement often become obsessive reflections on the ANC Women’s League or ­expectations from women within the larger governing party’s ranks.

While this may be well-intentioned, it also renders other spaces within the women’s movement less visible.

It ­also reveals a hankering after a ­certain historic model of women’s ­organising that has worked well to get us the legislative framework we boast.

However, I am not convinced that these are tools that can get us further than we are.

It is clear that we need a re-energised women’s movement.

Such revitalisation is only possible with the crafting of radically new kinds of tools to deal with women’s realities today.

We will have to take a significant leap of the imagination, including questioning many of the tools that are as dear to activists in the women’s movement as they are to other members of the left in South Africa.

The challenges are different. The enemy is more elusive, if indeed we think of what we fight as that which resides in a discernible enemy.

Wanting Wambui Otieno back

The news of Wambui Otieno came at the end of August 2011, as South Africans wrapped up Women’s Month, and a particularly horrid women’s month it had been too, with backlash and misogyny in public spaces like we had not seen in a long time.

I have loved Wambui Otieno, Mau Mau, feminist, unbowed woman ever since I have known about her. Although I never met her personally, I followed her life – backwards and forwards – first, as the African feminist universe buzzed when she lost the legal battle to bury her husband where she wanted, then reading a borrowed copy of her memoir, and afterwards “stalking” her online.

If it were not such a phallic metaphor, I would speak of Wambui as a tower, like a lighthouse of sorts, casting her light all around her at a dazzling world-changing pace, standing unbowed no matter the waves, weather, standing steadfast as volcanoes and earthquakes shook the world beneath her feet.

That might well be someone else’s Wambui Otieno. But I imagine she would have frowned at the limits of my imagination.

So, I think of her more like a galaxy of possibilities. As she lived her life through increasingly unpredictable, but powerful choices, Wambui changed not just the world, but who we are in it too. When she joined Mau Mau as a teenager, and in later writing about this in ways that challenge expectations, she drove home the importance of living our convictions. Although she could have settled into a life cushioned by class in colonial Kenya, she chose radical politics rather than complicity or “safer” forms of resistance.

After independence, her principles often brought her into a collision path with her former comrades. Wambui spoke her truth regardless of the consequences. She stared danger in the face and not only spoke truth to power, but retained her revolutionary subjectivity in action. Consistently.

She epitomised the personal is political and loved who she wanted to, shamelessly and irregardless. Bless her. Ethnicity, class, age are all boundaries used to police who we may love on this continent, repeatedly. They are often ways of reminding women what our place is. These tools are sjamboks (whips) used to remind our spirits when we dare transgress the narrow limits of who society says we are.

Wambui loved in independent Kenya as freely as she had scouted, spied, negotiated and carried arms for Mau Mau in colonial Kenya. She stood by her decisions and refused to be intimidated, no matter who stood against her. She survived her fiance’s betrayal and the imprisonment, attempted to sue her rapist as a way of holding him accountable in a world that said colonisers mattered and African women did not, loved her comrade and husband even though he was the “wrong” ethnicity, fought his family in the legal and public courts to bury him where the couple had decided, and married a man she loved even though he was from a lower class and more than four decades younger.

And in video clips, Wambui looks not only defiant, but joyful. She lived her life on her own terms. And she inspired many of us to do the same: to live our truth, be unapologetic, and defend our revolutionary selves irregardless.

I still need her to be alive in the world. I want her back. I am not ready to “get over it”.

And so it is that in the week since Wambui Otieno died, I have been struck by an overwhelming sense of grief. Although I have thought about her daily, revisited why she was so important to me as an African, feminist, Pan-Africanist, stubborn woman, etc, I have been paralysed and able to articulate my grief only in short, brief bursts.
Until now.

For someone who feels and thinks deeply through words, their reading and their writing, this is quite startling. I do not know what to make of myself when I am being like this.

For, while people often mourn and feel closer to their heroes than makes sense, I have always observed such stated loss at a figure admired from a distance with some skepticism. Although fascinated by the world’s responses to Michael Jackson or Princess Diana before him, or even more recently Amy Winehouse, etc, I took it to mean that the loss was part recognition of the genius and part marking of the passing as necessary ritual.

As I battled to make sense of it all, I realised I was looking at the “wrong” places for explanation. Perhaps, looking at the meanings and experiences of loss closer to Wambui’s politics would help me out. I had remarked that the death of Albertina Sisulu marked the end of an era, so too Fatima Meer, Albertina Sisulu’s comrade and life partner, Walter Sisulu before that. The death of beloved revolutionaries is a bizarre experience. Watching them remembered afterwards, in ways that do not quite seem enough, just reinforces this feeling.

Then it hit me in the pit of my stomach. News of Wambui Otieno’s death felt like hearing news of Chris Hani’s death. While I had someone to direct my anger at – a system, and a series of faces – when Hani was brutally murdered, a similar rage was unleashed at the universe when Wambui died. But, without a clear target, for she died in hospital.

I am angry at her loss. It is too soon, for I still needed her in the world, and I am not ready to “get over it”. But, it has helped me enormously to have a community that loved and mourned her with me. See Kenne Mwikya’s beautiful blog post here: http://kennemwikya.wordpress.com/2011/09/01/wambui-otieno-circling-and-scrutinising/#comment-273 as well as Keguro Macharia’s poignant and powerfully political reflection on Gukira (here: http://gukira.wordpress.com/2011/08/30/welcome-mourning/#comment-2458).

My links are acting up, so I have posted the full URLs above.

The messy business of COPE

How is it possible that a party that started with such fanfare and had such imagination can appear to be self-destructing before our very eyes? I am talking about the Congress of the People (COPE), of course.

Many will remember the excitement it created in promising the birth of an opposition that we could respect. There are millions in South Africa who will never vote for the Democratic Alliance (DA) in their lifetime because we remember too much, are too suspicious of the people in charge of that party and have no respect for many of the DA’s policies. It brought suprise, intrigue and really articulated some of the frustrations felt by previously loyal ANC voters.

Although people have much historic respect for the Independent Democrats (ID) leader, Patricia de Lille, we can’t quite figure out who the other people in that party are. So, it seems we’re not likely to have ID as a real, large opposition either.

Of course, if the Pan Africanists in the various parties that now exist were a little more organised, or AZAPO more visibly convincing, there might be hope there too.

But there has been no such hope. This is why COPE offered an interesting turn in recent SA politics. It was not just the fact that many of the founders came from the same liberation struggle background, it was also that this party offered something new to South African politics.

Even if your loyalty to the ANC was unshaken, you could not really dismiss COPE as insignificant. The ANC electoral campaign clearly took COPE seriously in the run up to the 2009 elections. The amount of energy and attention that the ANC paid to COPE showed, even if just metaphorically, that this was a formation that mattered. Think about how little attention the ANC pays to other small parties – even when these are more established. Now compare this to how much ink was dedicated to the ‘divorce papers’ by Lekota, the speculation on Shilowa, the violent utterings by various ANC leaders as they spoke about their previous comrades who has crossed over, the controversies about who else was organising/raising money for COPE, how hard the ANC fought to prevent COPE from having a name of any sort with leftist associations, etc.

But COPE seems hell bent on showing South Africans that the grand promise was all just an act. How else do you account for the repeated bizzare incidents in the public – from the delayed election presence (which they eventually fixed and spectacularly so), to the endless media mess on whether there should be a Congress or not? Bitter in-fighting does not inspire confidence.

Many people voted for COPE, and as with any other political party, the vast majority of these people are not card carrying members – and will never be. If COPE does not stop irritating and embarassing the people who voted for it in such numbers, they can pack up and go home. The best thing they can do now is to surprise their audiences, and pleasantly so, by staying clear of things that will lose them further confidence. They need to remain an alternative for future elections. This will not be the case if we see more priests (bishops)/uniformed men as compromise candidates, more machismo between the two top leaders, there is more talk of a split, or other boring events typical of mundane politricking.

Come on, people living in South Africa may have very high appetites for soapies and dramas, but we prefer these on our screens not in our political life. With their techno savvy, some of the big money behind them, and their media savvy, COPE really owe us something a lot more imaginative, whether we vote for them or not.

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.