Category Archives: Women's wit

The Traditional Courts Bill is a Bantustan Bill

(Originally published as “Respect our rights”, in City Press as a column, 6 May 2012)


The Traditional Courts Bill is meant to replace the Black Administration Act of 1927 with a law that is constitutional.

Instead, if passed, it will in effect strip between 17 million and 21 million people living in rural South Africa of many of the rights we enjoy in the rest of the country.

About 59% of these people are women, who, along with other members of their communities, will cease to be citizens and exist only as subjects.

As is stands, the bill creates a separate legal system for rural folk, geographically recreating the old Bantustans with no irony on the eve of the centenary of the 1913 Land Act.

Let me first dispense with the two main problems with the consultation process. The bill results from consultations between the state and traditional leader structures.

It patently ignores input by the Rural Women’s Movement based on consultation with hundreds of rural women pointing to the multitude of ways in which existing tribal hearings deliberately disenfranchise them.

Most rural folk were deliberately kept in the dark about the drafting process.

In the past few weeks, many rural communities expressed outrage when confronted with the bill for the first time.

Once again, the culturalist argument is being made for resisting this bill.

Those who oppose it are hostile to cultural African legal and dispute mechanisms, and we are reprimanded.
Yes, this bill partly recognises what is already operational in many of these spaces.

This includes royal patriarchs who explicitly endorse the kidnapping of girls into marriage – ukuthwala – as Chief Mandla Mandela does, to those who silently endorse it, such as Chief Mwelo Nonkonyana.

Many rural communities organise against repressive patriarchal practices, resisting forced unpaid labour, refusing to pay tribal levies, and in countless ways refusing to be docile subjects of chiefs who are given absolute power by this bill.

Legal researcher Dr Simiso Mnisi reminds us that ordinary rural Africans shape and reshape custom, culture and practice all the time. She calls this living custom.

Living custom enables culture and custom to continue to work in the interest of those who own it.

Academic Mamphela Ramphele has also challenged the false opposition often held up in conservative culturalist arguments between “foreign” legal systems at work in the rest of the country and “indigenous” legal systems that will be protected in the proposed bill.

She points out that our specific legal framework is home-grown.

We created our Constitution and legal framework. We did not import it from anywhere else. This is why it is the most progressive Constitution in the world and is globally recognised as such.

The creation of this document was achieved with the full knowledge of the brutality that laws can enable.

If there is any competition or doubt, it arises from various systems emerging from the same space that laws are meant to regulate.

The bill will bestow the final say on the chief presiding over a dispute.

It is a backlash against innovative applications and manifestations of culture by the majority of communities that are refusing to be held hostage.

Progressive chiefs do not need the bill in its current form to enshrine the chieftaincy of state-recognised royalty, elected leaders or other leaders who may contest the legitimacy of the ruling indunas and chiefs.

It takes power away from most rural folk and enshrines a feudal order that has no support.

I grew up in a part of the country that suddenly became a homeland at the end of one school year. Homelands benefit only those in power and their cronies.

In a democracy, all of us should have the same rights. Those who are rushing this homeland bill through require our complicity, our averted gaze.

But we can stop this bill from going through by ending the secrecy, publicly challenging it and holding our government accountable. We need to remember that the state works for all of us, not just the urban folk.


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: as well as Keguro Macharia’s poignant and powerfully political reflection on Gukira (here:

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

Eric Miyeni vs Lebo Mashile

As a rule, I try not to blog about issues that relate to my friends being maligned in the press. This is the only reason I have not blogged about the entire mess with Nomboniso Gasa and the CGE, which continues to enrage me in the injustice of it all, or Xoliswa Sithole and the backlash to her brilliant _Shouting Silent_ saga, or similar things that I may change my mind (re blogging about). But this week, while I was dealing with personal drama, a writer that I think matters – my difference with what he writes notwithstanding – went public with an issue that I think off-page disagreement can no longer serve. This week, Eric Miyeni, author of three books, popular personality, touted eye candy and recognised misogynist in many circles, went public with his hateful nonsense this week by writing an article in Sowetan that really needs more responses than the one Lebo Mashile felt pained to write, even though I am sure she has better things to do with her time. It is totally ridiculous that Mashile had to respond to this rubbish at all, and if Miyeni had the courage of his convictions, there is no shortage of stuff to take on in SA. I have a column on which I may take this up more coherently and calmly but since it is not with the newspaper in question – and papers can be sticky about responses – blogs offer a great opportunity for unedited copy for us writers.

Miyeni’s piece feigned some concern with Mashile’s health in various ways as a thin veil to attack her for deigning to be anything but a self-hating woman. He does not have any reason to think that Mashile has any health issues – or that the presumed existence of these merits waving her privacy. He declares that “under all those layers of fat that she now carries, Lebo Mashile is one of the most beautiful women I have ever met.” Miyeni’s is very thin veiled misogyny.

How dare Lebo Mashile be anything less than rake thin and deign to think we can take her seriously for being gob-smackingly beautiful physically, profound, talented and radical without starving and begging for favours in order to live on her work? How dare she not be a cokehead and rake-thin as a result so that we can feel better about “ourselves”? How dare she not secretly have bulimia or anorexia or be on endless diets so that she can look like the image propped up by skinny women who hate their bodies in order to stay on magazine covers? How dare she be radical, beautiful, “big”, popular, unapologetically feminist and an icon today when we all think we have the answers about South Africa being so conservative?

Yes, I also think that SA is more conservative than we’d all like to admit. And yet, Lebo Mashile’s ground breaking television show, L’atitude, and “formula” is copied over and over again in popular culture – tv and beyond – and pulled many more audiences across the board than many others. She won the coveted and prestigious NOMA prize for her brilliant poetry before she even realised how significant an award it is.

I am not saying Lebo Mashile is perfect. She is a human being – and therefore automatically imperfect. And because of her courage, she is a wonderful example and affirmation for smart girls and women in this country in a million ways. This is nothing to apologise for, no matter how much hatred – in the manner of Miyeni and similar – she receives.

Eric Miyeni’s vitriol against women who are not stick thin deserves attention and rebuttal. It deserves recognition for the hateful nonsense that it is. (Maybe those of us who think he is hateful should not spend anymore money on his books.)

First of all, Eric Miyeni seems to think that you need to be thin to be healthy. However, he is clearly disingenious in this claim. He may be an infuriatingly smart but lazy writer – talented but unwilling to polish his words before subjecting his writers to them, unlike Mashile who respects her audiences too much to torment them with sloppy copy – but he has worked in advertising/media/marketing long enough to know how unhealthy many skinny women and men are, and he is intelligent enough (even though he sometimes pretends not to be) to know that most ‘fat’ people in this country are much healthier than the skinniest people on our media pages.

The column that he anchored on Lebo Mashile is probably one of his shoddiest pieces of writing and a very cheap, hateful shot. Lebo Mashile is there simply to titilate. In other words, no matter how important and profound her work, on Miyeni’s column she is the exact opposite of what she is in her work (profound, provocatice, intelligent, attractive). When Miyeni had nothing interesting to write about, he chose to pen a column about a writer whose brilliance he has not met even though his writing career has been much longer, and a writer whose genius he may never live up to, hateful cheap shots notwithstanding.

That is what misogynist do all the time in this county, and maybe it is time we stopped taking them on off-page.

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.

on the perplexing business of prostitution (1)

Like pornography, prostitution invites opposition and support from uncanny bedfellows. Radical feminists and the religious right want to see its complete elimination. ‘Pro-sex’ liberal feminists, pimps and the pornography industry argue it needs some tweaking. This bizarre scenario partly accounts for the muted feminist responses in South Africa to prostitution. Very few things divide feminists globally more consistently than pornography and prostitution. In a context of solidifying misogyny, out of self preservation of a fragile feminist movement, it seems foolish to amplify those aspects on which feminists and other gender-progressives differ when there is so much else for us to do. Another reason for this muted response is the ambivalence many of us feel when confronted with prostitution. We feel as though we should have a very clear stance on something that is part of so many marginalised women in our society and the world.

It was with this deep sense of ambivalence that I attended a feminist workshop in Johannesburg earlier this week. As I write this, I have changed my mind several more times. One of the workshop’s speakers, Catharine MacKinnon, a radical feminist and law professor, has written and worked for the elimination of both pornography and prostitution for almost three decades. One the one hand, I share McKinnon’s and other radical feminists’ stance on pornography as violence. On the other, I have often used prostitution and ‘sex work’ interchangeably. I preferred the latter because it highlighted the work aspect often hidden when we speak about ‘prostitution’ as ‘sexual intercourse of a certain kind’.
For as long as prostitution is criminalised, those who work as prostitutes are open to various forms of exploitation and violence from state agencies, the police and clients. As workers, prostitutes should be entitled to healthcare cover and attention without stigma, protection under our labour legislation, to unionisation and affiliation to larger union federations for greater political might, if they so wish.

Decriminalisation would also mean that when clients and other members of society rape prostitutes, these women would have recourse to protection under the law like other citizens. Rendering work visible has opened formal domestic work, for example, to better legal protection.
Today, I am less comfortable in my previous stance which seems grossly inadequate for thinking about prostitution. At Monday’s workshop, MacKinnon reminded us that a significant number of adult prostitutes started out as prostituted children, and that sexual abuse is often a major precondition to entry on all continents. Unless you believe child labour and sexual abuse are justified, this puts the first spanner in the ‘sex work’ argument. Second, very few people get out of poverty through prostitution, and in South Africa the percentage of post traumatic stress disorder among prostituted people is 75%, higher than the 65% global average. Even more frighteningly, 80% of prostitutes interviewed in South African studies indicated that they’d like to leave prostitution but feel unable to. MacKinnon then turned and asked: “When exactly does she choose to enter into prostitution, then?”

I was not the only one who waivered in the face of this question. Given what we know about limited choice for unfree people, the dehumanisation of poverty, what does it mean that all over the world the majority of prostitutes are the most marginalised women? What happens when we think about prostitution as an institution that reinforces other inequities of race, sex and age alongside class? To say something is labour is not enough. Slavery is work too; it is also exploitation. The similarities are clear when we consider prostitution as ‘the purchase of a person for sex’ rather than ‘the purchase of sexual services’.

We are often invited to think about prostitution in relation to the looming FIFA World Cup. The coincidence of this moment with the longer legal review of prostitution legislation in South Africa offers us a rare chance to ensure that our country has the kind of legislation that contributes to full recognition of prostituted women. This may mean questioning our longstanding understandings of what is at stake and acting differently.

Zuma polygamy drama – anti-feminist myths addressed

Much has been said in the media and private conversations on the latest revelations of the South African president’s paternity of a child ‘out of wedlock’.

Myth 1: It is a private matter.
Jacob Zuma is not a private citizen, but the President of the country and his sex and love life have implications for the rest of us. He pledged loyalty to certain principles, and it is the duty and right of the citizens to question his office when he is seen to transgress or jeopardise these same principles.

Beyond the Constitution, principles and other legal issues, however, there is no rule that citizens and institutions of a democracy can only question (or generally speak on) some things and not others. Free speech is one of the bases (and basics) of democracy.

When citizens think the president speaks with forked tongue on gender equality, on HIV/AIDS (risk/prevalence), on consistency, etc., this is not a private matter. When citizens’ taxes pay for an increasingly expensive Presidential family, they have every right to speak their minds on the matter.

Myth 2: Zuma can either have multiple partners and be subjected to criticism OR choose one partner and escape public scrutiny.
This is binary logic – which never gets us anywhere. The point of the matter is not whether in a feminist republic we’d force Zuma to choose one wife or banish him. (We’d probably banish Zuma for many more reasons, least of which his preference for multiple partners. There’d be equitable multiple partner relationships in the Feminist Republic.) The heart of the matter is that Jacob Zuma is a public, elected official and an ADULT, which means that he can do pretty much what he likes – apart from commit a crime, be caught and be convicted in a court of law (all together) – but he has to take responsibility for his choices, deal with the consequences of his actions and be grown up about it. Non-feminists could be forgiven for expressing the sentiment behind the saying ‘just be a man about it’ although not for its formulation.

This feminist wishes the President would stop acting like a helpless child who has no decisions, no choice and no mind of his own. We don’t have to agree on what the best choices are, or on why they are made, but addressing the issues instead of creating never ending smokescreens (culture, privacy, unavailability) would merit more respect.

Myth 3: Zuma’s critics romanticise monogamy, his defenders romanticise polygamy.
Debates on single versus multiple partners are such old hat for most feminists that many of us are at a loss for words when forced to explain why anti-feminist rhetoric insists on equating feminist critique of Zuma with a feminist celebration of monogamy. Are you kidding me?

Feminists have been arguing that monogamous heterosexual families were very often at the heart of patriarchal exploitation of women’s sexual, emotional, economic, pyschological, reproductive and intellectual labour for centuries.

Feminists have also said (again over and over again – across history and continents) such homes/families/households are the battleground when white supremacist heteropatriarchies exert violence – hence the devaluation and legalised separation of African/Amerindian/Native American/Asian families in slavery, colonialism, apartheid, etc.

Feminists have insisted that most women experience rape and other forms of violence from their intimate male partners in officially/formally monogynous contexts (and this has been a basic feminist premise for at least 50 years). Feminists said institutionalised monogynous heterosex is about controlling women, containing women’s sexual desire, and policing women’s reproduction.

African feminists especially have said that most monogynous heterosexual relationships benefit the man (to put it mildly) at the expense of the woman in it, and that multiple partner relationships can be about much more than oppression.

Some feminists say the institution of marriage is inherently patriarchal, so the ‘out of wedlock’ thing is not an issue in and as of itself. It’s the larger context of disregard for the dangers that come with infinite sexual relationships in a time of age AIDS that is the problem.

Again, much creative, experimental, public essay, academic, op-ed writing and other knowledge exists on the interesting ways in which multiple-partner relationships can be affirming and interesting spaces for women. Yes, many feminists also disagree with some of the above, but it’s patriarchally inconvenient to deal with any of the above.

Myth 4: The issue is polygamy’s legality and validity, both of which are under attack.
All the people who are saying ‘it is my culture’ to practice monogamy mean it is their culture for a man to have many women as partners – polygyny. They are also saying that their culture is static and we should all respect it without question, even if and when it speaks for us too. But, as feminists we insist that if it is ours too, then we can question, change, lay claim to it, question how it is being misrepresented. Every single proponent of the ‘culture’ plus ‘ploygamy’ argument that I have read in the SA news, seen or personally debated on radio, television or new media platforms has refused the same courtesy to women with multiple partners, whether these partners be men, women, intersex and/or trans-people, or a combination. So, they’re saying ‘it is my culture to practice polygamy’ but what they mean is ‘it is my culture to enter into polygyny’. And there is nothing specifically African about polygamy – people all over the world choose it.

Myth 5: It’s ‘unfair’ to focus on Zuma and leave the women who are his partners alone in public criticism.
When one of these women is an elected public official, she will be subjected to as much scrutiny from those of us who think that public responsibility matters. But so far, the women that Jacob Zuma has relationships are not elected officials – save for Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who married and divorced Zuma. These other women are private citizens of interest and are therefore not obliged to act

Myth 6: Feminists ignore that women choose to enter into polygynous relationships.
See comments under “Myth 3”. There is nothing automatically feminist about either monogamous or polygamous relationships. Women will choose relationships with differing degrees of choice given that we live in a patriarchal and therefore unequal world. Not all women are feminist. No oppressive system has ever succeeded without the complicity and active support of members of those classes/groups it seeks to oppress. This is part of why the personal is political.

Myth 7: An apology deserves automatic acknowledgment and forgiveness, which is really the only way to deal with offered apologies in life.
Would that not just be fantastic? Then we call all go home to that great lala land that Ray McCauley lives in where all of us are Christians, and those of us who are Christians subscribe to the same gold gilded version he does. And there’d be no powerful oppressive institutions like white supremacy, patriarchy, Islamaphobia, imperialism, etc., because everything would be about individual pain and acknowledgement. This way, the only institutions we’d recognise would be the ones led by conservative men who tell us to shut up unless we listen to them justifying the validity of those other power matrices that supposedly don’t exist.

And no, I am not ‘the feminist spokesperson’. I don’t think we need one – we are all our own spokespersons. Women – whether they are feminists or not – are often not taken seriously in this country. Often what we say, and even our differences are generalised as though we are a mass with one mouth. This is patriarchy’s work – finish and klaar. The fact of the matter is that a variety of criticisms have been directed at President Zuma – but none of the variety is addressed in those who jump to his defense.