Blog Archives

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.



Happy Birthday, Tatom’khulu Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela

As so many people choose to do what is right for 67 minutes today all over the world, I hope that we all remember that you have lived your life as a revolutionary who thought that justice could triumph, even as many in our county and the world would rather pretend that you are a teddy bear, benign grandfather figure. Here’s to your most revolutionary self and much love on your birthday.

2009 Elections: wassup with COPE? (Dandala)

What is up with COPE and their presidential candidate? I have read the justifications in the papers and listened to discussions of this on radio and tv, and I still don’t get it. Why does COPE think that having Bishop Dandala as presidential candidate is a good thing? How does this move make COPE more attractive?

As far as I can tell, there are a few broad arguments in favour of Dandala’s election, and I find them all unconvincing. Then I have a few additional reservations of my own about putting my X next to COPE now. I am not saying that I was ever sure I’d be voting for them. But I was considering them for my national X, along with the two other liberation movements I had not considered seriously before. Terror Lekota’s face would have tempted me to put my national X for COPE, for I certainly will NOT be putting it next to Zuma’s face, so my national vote is up for grabs. How I feel about Zuma as state president is no secret, as I have noted numerously in public writing, here and elsewhere. But Lekota’s face I could have lived with, even if I knew the ANC would win anyway.

Before you send me lots of comments about how reactionary I am to say this, let me say upfront that I don’t care who thinks I am reactionary for not voting for Zuma. I won’t vote for a proud misogynist homophobe just to prove I am not reactionary. I am still torn about voting ANC privincially and eventually locally.

Many of my friends have already told me how absolutely dodgy I am to like Terror. And maybe I am dodgy. Maybe it’s nostalgia from when he was Free State premier and he kicked butt. Maybe it is because he is convingly anti-ethnicist and I just love it when he refuses to be bullied by people who claim to speak one language better than he does. I liked that when people were pulling the Xhosa trip when he said “uZuma akabhadlanga”, Terror retorted “that’s nonsense, I speak Xhosa as well as the next person”. He said he meant Zuma has no sense; they said he meant he was stupid. In English it sounds the same, but ngesiXhosa I am convinced it is not the same thing. Akabadlanga is closer to saying someone is crazy than to claiming that they are stupid. Maybe I like that Terror says he has changed his mind about various things, and he may keep changing his mind – like he did before when he moved from BC to ANC. All of this is perfectly fine because we are human beings, and we live in a democracy. But Terror is not going to be president, so that is a moot point.

The last thing I am going to say about Terror today is that he had a lot to do with COPE entertaining me in the first place. As can be seen from previous posts, I like being entertained in the run up to the elections.

With all due respect to Bishop Dandala, why should I vote for him? First of all, I don’t think just because Zuma is deemed “immoral”, that the best way to counter that is having a man of the cloth. I think that makes for predictable, boring politics. Give us someone we can believe in, who has charisma and who grabs and keeps our attention. You are not going to get me to vote for anybody based on a morality argument. That argument belongs in a religious community not in a secular state.

I want a president that is ethical, whether he is moral or not. Frankly, I don’t know what is moral and what is immoral. I do know what is oppressive, violent and as a result wrong. The language of morality is irredeemably religious and extremely shortsighted. Moral people have no problem with the death penalty, or throwing their lesbian daughters out of their homes when they come out.

I don’t care about Zuma’s morality. I care about the political implications of his actions and words. Morality is one of those fuzzy concepts like “taste” or “decency”. These fuzzy concepts can be made to mean anything, and historically they have worked in the most oppressive ways – against slaves, against Blacks, against the Irish, against the Jews, against lesbians and gay men, etc. As far as I am concerned, “moral regeneration”, “family values” and talks about morality, when they are not faith confined, are just conservative rubbish. I don’t even talk morality in church. Leave that kind of stuff to the ACDP.

I am an active Catholic, so this is not even about not believing in religion. Nor is it about that silly business of factionalism and denominations between people who identify as Christian. I would say exactly the same thing about a Catholic bishop, or an Imam or a Rabbi, for that matter.

Secondly, I like living in a secular state. Religion is a personal choice, and I cannot see how a priest in the presidency does not send the same kinds of worrying messages that a soldier in the presidency does. The only cool thing about a priest in the presidency would be the fact that the president goes drag sometimes. Let’s keep the uniformed people from powerful regulatory institutions (church, army, police) out of the presidency, please.

Thirdly, Bishop Dandala was the head of Methodist Church of Southern Africa until recently. The Methodist Church’s stance on termination of pregrancy and same sex marriage is unclear to me. I recognise that members of any faith community differ – just like I am feminist, pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, pro-reproductive technologies even though I have not left the church I was raised in. The Catholic church has policies that oppose termination, contraception and artificial insermination, but it also has a sterling record of fascist top leadership. (That was a trick “but”.) I am a walking contradiction in this regard, but my religious political hope comes from people like Sister Bernard Ncube, Father Smangaliso Mkatshwa and Archbishop Mpilo Desmind Tutu. So, I am not judging Bishop Dandala on what he chooses to believe in his heart. Nonetheless, a presidential candidate who wants my vote needs to tell me in a straightforward manner how he feels on abortion and lesbian marriages.

Fourthly, I am not sure that a “new” political face is the best way to go at this point. I am all for change, but too much change at once needs much explanation/clearly articulated direction. Change in an uncertain direction leads to insecurity. People don’t vote for parties they are unsure about. Did COPE not have enough headaches from the Affirmative Action controversies? Are they really as clueless as they pretend to be about how many Black votes that confusion has cost them? Do they not realise how pissed off many professional Black women are about the affirmative action PRACTICE at COPE which reinforces the national standard? Do they really have to make everything new?

Maybe they do, but then this will affect voter confidence. People won’t vote for COPE if they’re not really sure of what COPE stands for. This new kid on the block has a lot of potential, but COPE will need to do a lot to recapture the November excitement. If it manages to do that again, then the party stands a chance of double digit percentages in the polls.

There are many voters whose voting choices are unclear for the first time. COPE is neither giving me hope, nor making me feel particularly excited right now.

Why the ANC Women’s League (ANCWL) sucks

I did not want to hear who the ANCWL’s presidential candidate was when the evening news bulletins kept announcing over and over again that the League’s deliberations were ongoing. However, this morning I could not keep my head buried in the sand for much longer because as I listened to Redi Direko on Radio 702 on my way from a meeting to the office, I almost cried. Yes, I love Redi Direko’s show. But my feelings had little to do with what she said this morning. She asked her usual unwaveringly insightful stuff. No, it wasn’t that the ANCWL chose Jacob Zuma as their candidate when they should have chosen Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma instead. I suspected that they would choose him which is why I did not want to hear before bedtime that yet another supposedly progressive structure had chosen a man like that as someone they think can and should be a leader. I had been ashamed in anticipation about how the most powerful grouping of women in my country would not come out blatantly in support of a presidential candidate I can be proud of. This the stuff of nationalism, isn’t it? Even though I declare repeatedly that I am not a nationalist, these decisions matter to me at a level I cannot always explain intellectually or politically. Shame is such a South African cliche, after all; yet, ashamed of the ANCWL I most definitely am today.

What is utterly depressing to me is that I listened to Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, the president of the ANCWL defend the position of the League she presides over. I have never heard her sound less convinced of what she was saying. Perhaps I am projecting because I neither know her personally, nor attended the ANCWL meeting yesterday. All I know is that this morning as I listened to a woman who usually makes sense even when I disagree with what she says, I heard a woman I read as feminist go around in circles. Perhaps I was projecting because I wanted to believe that she could not have voted for Jacob Zuma in the presidency. Perhaps because my heart bleeds often for the handful of feminists in the ANCWL surrounded by a gangrenous sea of MaMKhizes, I needed to feel more than shame, so I chose empathy for Mapisa-Nqakula. Maybe I am in the middle of a romantic feminist moment. Maybe something even more sinister is going on.

This is a woman who usually sounds like nothing can phase her in public, whose voice sounds like it does what she wants it to do. Today, her voice shook. She repeated herself and became increasingly inarticulate. She made a few arguments that sounded slightly off and each time she said “we, in the Women’s League” there was a suppressed sigh in her voice. I felt like I was witnessing a woman speaking under duress.

Now, I am not saying she is anybody’s victim. She is not. She is also not a superwoman – but a human being. Whatever happened at those lengthy deliberations held by the ANCWL well into last night sounds scary to me.

So, why the title of my blog entry today? The ANCWL sucks because the last thing South African women need is a powerful women’s organisation saying that Jacob Zuma is acceptable as presidential hopeful. The ANCWL sucks because in the middle of the 16 Days of Activism against women and child abuse, we have to spend time thinking about Jacob Zuma in very unpleasant gendered ways. We have barely survived last year’s brutalisation by this man at the same time of year. The ANCWL sucks because it ingrains itself into our feelings even though we should all look away like we do with the other ANC League whose leadership is filled with babbling misogynists. The ANCWL sucks because it has those handful of feminists who appear to be fighting a losing battle, but because of them we keep looking and listening. The ANCWL sucks because it frightens the hell out of me to think about the extent to which patriarchal women will go to defend their man. The ANCWL sucks because it has a more interesting herstory than it is living up to.

Steve Biko lecture by Achille Mbembe

Achille Mbembe’s lecture, “Black Intellectual Traditions and Democratic Thought” delivered on the 30th anniversary of Steve Biko’s death, delivered as part of Xolela Mangcu’s Platform for Public Deliberation programme for the year took place at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Great Hall. It also formed part of a larger programme by Wits to mark the historic day. It was quite an audience, as anything to do with Biko really draws an audience – hopefully for some interesting reasons as well. But Achille Mbembe is also quite a crowd puller, so I expected the hall to be quite full.

Mbembe chose to do a close reading of Biko’s _I write what I like_ and to also use the ideas of several other thinkers from the Black world – or more specifically the African world – to do this. So, he spoke partly through Du Bois, Garvey and Fanon, but also others which he did not always mention by name – there was a suggestion on Equiano and Cugoano, for example in Mbembe’s lecture. This was interesting enough. However, as two of us from the audience pointed out, there was an unacceptable erasure of Black women’s voices and agency as contributors – at all – to Black intellectual written thought from the mid-19th century. Mbembe defended himself by noting that Black feminist work would have added much value and nuance, but he had been speaking about Biko mainly. The linked points that Bunie M Matlanyane Sexwale and I had made about the erasure of writing and thinking by Black women as a way to reflect on Blackness transhistorically and of Black feminist work specifically for Matlanyane-Sexwale, nonetheless remained. It is clear to me that several women could have been made to work in similar ways as Du Bois, Garvey, Fanon, Equiano, etc.

The more interesting points by Mbembe for me included the following (with my comments in brackets following):

1. Breaking his body as they killed Biko was meant to be humiliating and objectifying in the manner of lynching specifically and slave death more broadly

(I find this reading quite compelling. It is also clear that the apartheid policemen who killed Biko did not succeed in achieving this. By this I mean that breaking Biko would mean so much more than breaking his body. Indeed, it is a strange irony that Biko was so concerned with interiority of Black people and how this was affected by how we are treated as a result of how our bodies are read and yet the state imagined that his broken body would undo Biko’s work. In other words, bodies were not the be all and end all of who we are/were or even where our Blackness and power resided. Of course, breaking Biko’s body would not break his allure or power then or today.)

2. Mbembe also noted that Biko could ask the following questions today:
a) What is the place and role of BC today?
b) What place and shape Black solidarity today given the stratification among Black people in SA due to class, etc?
c) How could we re-invigorate racial reconciliation in favour of a colour blind society?

(The comment I offered from the floor: I wonder whether two of the ways in which we might continue to find resonance with Biko’s thought today a) have less to do with the disappearance of difference per se, but rather the fundamental altering of what differences mean and how they work (a sentiment we see also in some of the more exciting throught of the Black world from the nineneteenth century onwards, and which includes Black women thinkers, something Achille seems to have temporarily forgotten today). Mary Prince writing in the 1830s speaks very powerfully to this notion of shifting meanings of Blackness, as do many women from the Caribbean in the 20th Century among others;
b) and have more to do with the need for us to stop thinking of Biko’s work as a mere response to white supremacy (or even liberalism), but also as an invitation to embrace a different kind of Black self-hood that is creative, radical, and varied even in a post-racist society – which surely cannot be the same thing as a colour-blind society)

3. It is important to reject “communal nationalism”, which Mbembe identified as residing in the works of people like Christine Qunta, and which he defined as “an authoritarian collectivism that holds that all Black people should act under the guidance of one ‘big man'”.

(I also have reservations about Qunta’s recent writing, but found it rather unfortunate that the only time a Black woman writer and public thinker was mentioned was to show what can go really “wrong” if we don’t heed Biko. This is particularly the case given that Qunta’s earlier work, including her first book, were explicitly BC)

Another important point from the floor came from Gillian Marcelle, PhD, who cautioned against reading Black/African subjectivity only in terms of the US situation. She argued that such approaches were limited because there were fundamental differences between the strategies available to a numerical and legal minority than were available from Black people on the African continent who were in the position of majority. Therefore what we can offer the world is a redefinition of self-hood that is quite important and world-altering. And we could start this by not assuming that all Black agency needs to be read against imperialism and histories of white supremacy from the “West”.

I don’t know if Xolela Mangcu was agreeing with Marcelle later on when he evoked Biko’s caution about the dangers of Black obsession with white people (p 108 of _I write what I like_). He seemed to be doing so to me 🙂

a rel=”tag” href=” Africa”>South Africa
a rel=”tag” href=” women”>African women
a rel=”tag” href=” struggle”>anti-apartheid struggle
a rel=”tag” href=” Consciousness”>Black Consciousness
a rel=”tag” href=” people”>Black people
a rel=”tag” href=” women”>Black women
a rel=”tag” href=” Black men”>groovy Black men
a rel=”tag” href=” Biko”>Steve Biko
a rel=”tag” href=” best male writers”>the best male writers

Still Loving Steve Biko – 30 years later

12 September 2007 is exactly thirty years after Bantu Steve Biko, revolutionary, founder of the Black Consciousness movement and genius was killed in detention by the apartheid state. Apart from the many events that are scheduled to mark the thirtieth anniversary of his death at the age of thirty, his words and life remain with us even if we never knew him personally.

I was four years old when he died, so I cannot claim to remember anything about him as a concrete historical being. However, I know that his thinking, life and writing continue to shape my life three decades after apartheid forces killed him. I know that much of how I feel about the world and my place in it owes much to the thinking that went into the Black Consciousness movement (BCM). I do remember all those black fists on white walls at the historic Black university that my father taught organic chemistry at. I do remember my parents’ amusement that even though I spoke no English then, I would repeat “Black power”, having heard the Fort Hare students repeat it.

Biko’s words that survive offered me a skin that I can hug, a voice that I am not apologetic about and confidence to claim the world as mine too. His thinking of psychological liberation – obviously also thought through in conversation with his comrades and co-founders of the BCM -were nothing short of world-altering. Unlike Bessie Head who prefered a comfortable skin offered by Pan Africanism over the proud one offered by Black Consciousness, I like that I can live within a skin shaped by both. Of course, it helps tremensdously that I was raised by a man who embraced BC and a woman who is an unwavering Pan Africanist – they would choose belong to the same organisation later on, but ideologically these stances did not change. I am glad I do not have to choose between the two because they offer me freedoms that I allow me to love my various selves in infinite ways.

And it is hard not to love Steve Biko, a man that left behind such a beautiful gift of love. bell hooks says loving blackness is a revolutionary act because Black people still have to learn to love ourselves. In other words, loving self for Black subjects is a process rather than a given. Biko left us a way to walk that journey to self-love and his vision remains more than relevant today.

Once, when Kimberley A Yates and I interviewed Mamphela Ramphele, co-founder of the BCM, feminist, academic and leader, who was at the time in office as the first Black and woman (and therefore first Blackwoman) Rector (Vice-Chancellor) of the University of Cape Town, she said one of her biggest sources of sadness was that “Steve’s voice had not left a larger imprint on the South African landscape” noting that it was always so hard to get him to write. Kim and I were graduate students both writing dissertations on aspects of Black Consciousness inspired South African literature published in English. I was working on Staffrider literature and she on political biography. That interview was included in the appendices to both our dissertations, and also published as Yates, Kimberley A., and Gqola, Pumla Dineo. 1998. ‘Some kind of madness: Mamphela Ramphele on being Black, female and transgressive’, in

    Agenda: Empowering Women for Gender Equity

, no. 37, pp. 90—95.

This is amazing to me considering how much that young man was able to achieve in just three decades of his life, and how powerful the “little” that he wrote continues to be thirty years on. Biko’s wisdom and insight was far-reaching because it allowed us – Black people – to locate ourselves at the centre of our own lives, thinking, love, politics, stories and spirituality. This is why his thought had as much relevance as an affirming place of resistance against oppression and erasure, as it does for how we chose to treat ourselves and other Black people. It reminds us that love is political, and in a world that continues to devalue Black people’s lives, that how we relate to ourselves and each other matters in profoundly political ways.

Biko’s vision also is the embodiment of hope and joy in discovery, in communion. It reminds us that we are not just Black because white racism exists in the world, that we are never “non-white”. It also reminds us that the most sophisticated intellectual enterprise is political and livable, one day at a time.