Although I have written about this topic in the papers before, several years ago in the Mail and Guardian, this post is motivated by Simphiwe Dana’s courageous opinion editorial in this past weekend’s Sunday Times. There are a few aspects of Ms Dana’s argument that I disagree quite strongly with, but I do share many of the concerns that she articulates. The gist of her argument (in case something happens to the link above, as sometimes happens), as I understand it, is as follows:
a) In much of urban South Africa, outside of townships, looking for schools that teach Xhosa/Zulu/Sotho/Tswana/Swati/Tsonga/Venda/Pedi/Ndebele is a lesson in pain. She refers to experiencing this earlier when trying to get a school for her children in Cape Town. I am pretty sure she had similar hardship in Johannesburg.
b) The above is true because only Afrikaans and English, out of the official languages of the country, are taught in ways that take the languages seriously and in manners that encourage their use at first language level.
c) The status of a people’s language says a lot about the status of that people’s culture – to them, when they are in power – as well as to their (previous) oppressors.
d) Parents should not have to move or take their children to township schools in order to have language -which is their right legally – taken and taught seriously.
e) African languages carry more than the meanings in the words used to communicate. They carry a worldview and a series of abstract and concrete reference points that are present in various African languages. This is why Ms Dana cares less about which African language her children learn well than she does about them learning one (and the world it carries) well. This is an urgent task that we must take up or deal with the consequences of language neglect.
f) She suggests that Zulu be the official language that is taught at first language level in schools since it is widely spoken and relatively easy on the tongue.
g) We need to hold our current government responsible and accountable for the language mess in our schools even as we keep an eye to the historical context that brought us here.
h) Afrikaans is not an African language. It carries the arrogance of the Dutch colonisers and the apartheid establishment. Although the language was shaped through African location, its Afrikaner nationalist use ensured that it remained a language of wounding.
I am really glad that Dana wrote and submitted this article for publication because it raises several issues that I think need to be raised again and again until something changes. I know that the bulk of the responses will be defensive and vile because any questioning of Black marginalisation in this country elicits this kind of silencing. Mark my words, people will write back to her piece and claim that she has a chip on her shoulder, that she is playing the race card, that she doesn’t know what she is talking about. They’ll also write in and say she is out of touch with what is important in the world and the country, that most Black parents don’t mind the condescending third languages taught at Model C schools because they know their children need to speak English to make it in the world. How do I know? Because these are the stock responses that follow us everywhere. So, I applaud Dana because I think that we need to change the sorry state of education in SA, private schooling included. But I’d like to engage with the layers of her argument in more detail – agreeing and disagreeing with her, as I go along.
to a) I don’t think anybody can deny that what Dana describes is the state of language education in many SA schools post-apartheid. This is an insult of the highest order for the children who go through such schooling, regardless of which race they are. South African children should be able to speak various languages in their country – more than their parents can, even when their parents are polyglots. The school system should play a leading role in this. But it does not. This is a topic that has come up in various conversations with other parents in my own life. I was aghast, when my partner and I started looking at possible schools for our child, to learn that most schools we would have preferred – many with ‘progressive credentials’ – teach English and Afrikaans at first language level, and all other official languages at third language level until the end of primary school. I have various friends who did Xhosa third language at school. Many of them did so for twelve years. None of them can speak Xhosa beyond tentative understanding and elementary small talk. Learning a language at third year level does not teach you how to speak it no matter what your grades say. The fact that languages are taught at third language level at all is an insult.
to b) nothing more to add to this argument. This policy keeps all other SA languages marginal. It makes a joke of the eleven official languages policy/legislation since that is only true on paper. It also points to the inefficiency of our government on this point as well as – perhaps much more so – the irresponsibility of the parents who continue to leave this unchanged in the schools they pay fees to.
to c) yes. see my response to b) above. This current situation means that while these schools are located in a democracy, effectively, they operate as though they are in an apartheid state with two official languages.
to d) No, they should not. We should litigate, and in this respect follow Ntombenhle Nkosi’s example of taking a Durban High School to court, and who is quoted after her victory as having said “Parents must just not take it for granted that schools are going to do it for them, they won’t. Every parent must ensure that their language – be it isiXhosa, be it isiSwati, Zetswane, Sesotho Saleboa, Tshivenda, Tsonga – must be offered as the first language because the National Curriculum Statement states that every learner must choose the home language, not the home language of the school.” I will say nothing of the typos in the transcribed quotation, even though they, too, tell an interesting story about the disrespect of African languages.
e) I agree that this is always true of language. This is why even those of us who are polyglots often cannot translate a concept across unrelated language families. This is also why I have said over and over again that I would prefer to send my child to a school that teaches all SA languages on its books at first language. I am not overly concerned about whether the language is Tsonga or Zulu or Sotho. I am mortified that the only schools that do this in my area are schools whose other values are at odds with mine (mainly on consumerism). But I’d rather send my child to a bizzare school that takes his language and his right to language seriously (and deal with the consequences of helping him unlearn the capitalist values) than to one with “ostensibly” socialist, feminist and anti-racist politics but that tells him his language, ancestry and continent are expendable.
f) Here, I disagree on various technical points. First of all, I don’t see why our children should have to learn only one language when we speak several languages in this country and continent. Many of these Model C schools are capable of teaching SA children how to speak German and French alongside English and Afrikaans. I am sure with motivation, they can do the same with various official languages. The second technicality on which I disagree is on whether isiZulu is any easier than some other indigenous languages. I don’t think that there is such a thing as an easy language, where ease is similar for everybody. I think that what is easy for you is based on what you already know. So, no, I am not convinced that Zulu is easier than Tsonga. My third technicality is about adopting a language spoken by a larger group due to issues of possible future dominance – we will be saying something about Venda when we make Zulu more appropriately official. We do not matter because there are many of us. We matter because we are human beings.
g) Yes, let us do this as a matter of urgency. And not just our government either. Corporate SA needs to get with the programme too. In 2010, I am sick and tired of medicine inserts and packaging that comes in English and Afrikaans exclusively, as though it is 1990. This is where the power of coalitions and campaigns might be harnessed. A movement that says we matter and our languages matter is long overdue.
h) Afrikaans is an African language. Afrikaans comes from a range of languages and was formed as a creole in the mouths of slaves. The first texts written in Afrikaans were not written by people who were “Dutch” – the first Afrikaans texts were written in Arabic script because that was the script used by the first Muslims in the Cape, many of whom came as slaves from East African hinterland, East African islands, South Asia and South East Asia. This makes Afrikaans not Dutch any more than Caribbean creole languages are English or Swahili Arabic. At the same time, this once creole, once defiled by the Dutch, then became appropriated for Afrikaner nationalism in a manner that ensured that it could be used against the very people whose ancestors formed it and were punished for speaking it. Yes, someone who speaks Nederlands may understand parts of Afrikaans, and parts of Aukan (a Surinamese creole also formed by slaves using partly Dutch). However, Aukan is not Afrikaans is not Dutch, even if we do not dispute that they are related. At the same time, to say Afrikaans is African does not undo the fact that Afrikaans is also the language of wounding, misrecognition, displacement, oppression, apartheid. To honour part of our African ancestry we must remember the former because it was their mouths that crafted the creole and were punished for speaking it. To honour another part of our African ancestry, we must highlight the latter. For most Black South Africans growing up under apartheid, Afrikaans was the latter. For many Black South Africans (esp. some classified coloured), it was both. This is our thorny inheritance, and it all matters.
I hope we continue this conversation across all platforms. And, while I could have picked up the phone and had this conversation with Simphiwe in person, I chose not to. I think it is important to respond to what artists say in the public publicly – to honour the difficult task of making the important less privately. I am often very annoyed when people send me endless sms and emails disagreeing with me on something I deliberately wrote publicly, so that I have to engage them privately at the same time as engaging other responses publicly. It’s exhausting.
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.
Global feminist conference launches ‘Call for participation’
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
18 January 2010, Ottawa
A ‘Call for Participation’ was launched today for Women’s Worlds 2011, a global feminist conference being held in Ottawa-Gatineau in July of 2011.
Acknowledging that important insights come from academia, community, and everywhere in between, organizers have deliberately dubbed this a ‘Call for Participation’. Proposals from individuals, groups, coalitions, networks, and teams will be accepted until September 15, 2010. Potential presenters are being invited to submit proposals under the main congress theme, “Inclusions, exclusions, and seclusions: Living in a globalized world”.
Since its first congress in 1981, Women’s Worlds has grown from a modest academic gathering to a distinguished international and interdisciplinary event. The 30th anniversary of Women’s Worlds in 2011 will potentially be the largest gathering of its kind in Canadian history.
Bringing together academics, advocates, researchers, policy-makers, workers, activists, and artists of all ages from around the world, the 2011 congress will be an occasion for equality advocates from around the globe to discuss globalization as it relates to women. Organizers also consider it an opportunity to strengthen connections while collaborating on approaches to advancing women’s rights, women’s empowerment, and gender equality.
Proposals are invited in French, Spanish, or English via the online form at the Women’s Worlds 2011 website.
– 30 –
For more information:
Communications, Women’s Worlds 2011
AVIS AUX MÉDIAS
Lancement de l’Appel à participation d’un congrès féministe international
POUR DIFFUSION IMMÉDIATE
Le 18 janvier 2010, Ottawa
Mondes des Femmes 2011, un congrès féministe d’envergure internationale qui se tiendra à Ottawa-Gatineau en juillet 2011, lance aujourd’hui son Appel à participation.
Les organisatrices de Mondes des Femmes ont délibérément choisi de généraliser leur ” Appel à participation ” parce que, de l’université aux groupes communautaires, tous les milieux ont des perspectives importantes à proposer. Individues, groupes, coalitions, réseaux et équipes de travail peuvent soumettre leurs propositions d’ici au 15 septembre 2010. Les présentatrices sont invitées à s’inspirer du grand thème du congrès, ” Inclusions, exclusions et réclusions: Vivre dans un monde globalisé “.
De modeste rencontre universitaire lors de son premier congrès en 1981, Mondes des Femmes est devenu un prestigieux événement interdisciplinaire. Son 30e anniversaire en 2011 pourrait s’avérer le plus grand rassemblement du genre de l’histoire du Canada.
Rassemblant universitaires, militantes, chercheures, décisionnaires politiques, travailleuses, activistes et artistes de tous âges et de partout sur la planète, MF 2011 fournira aux militantes pour l’égalité du monde entier l’occasion d’explorer les enjeux femmes et mondialisation. Les organisatrices y voient également un lieu de renforcement des liens et de collaboration sur des approches visant l’avancement des droits des femmes, leur autonomisation et l’égalité entre les sexes.
Les présentatrices sont invitées à soumettre leurs propositions en français, en espagnol ou en anglais au moyen du formulaire Web qui se trouve sur le site de Mondes des Femmes 2011.
– 30 –
Pour plus d’information:
Communications, Mondes des Femmes 2011
AVISO A LOS MEDIOS DE COMUNICACIÓN
Conferencia feminista global publica ‘Convocatoria abierta’
PARA PUBLICACIÓN INMEDIATA
18 de enero de 2010, Ottawa
Hoy se publicó la ‘Convocatoria abierta’ para participar en Mundos de Mujeres 2011, una conferencia feminista global que se llevará a cabo en Ottawa, Gatineau en julio de 2011.
Al reconocer que las contribuciones de la academia, de las comunidades y de cualquier forma de acción intermedia son igualmente importantes, l@s organizador@s han decidido dirigir esta “Convocatoria abierta”, a ponentes individuales, grupos, coaliciones, redes y equipos para que envíen sus propuestas de participación antes del 15 de septiembre de 2010. Se espera que l@s interesad@s en participar propongan presentaciones en torno al tema del congreso: “Inclusiones, exclusiones, y reclusiones: vivir en un mundo globalizado”.
Mundos de Mujeres, cuyo primer encuentro tuvo lugar en 1981, ha pasado de ser un pequeño encuentro académico, a ser un prestigioso acontecimiento interdisciplinario e internacional. En 2011, el 30o aniversario de Mundos de Mujeres será, con toda seguridad, el encuentro más importante en su tipo en la historia de Canadá.
Como punto de encuentro de académic@s, activistas, investigador@s, legislador@s, trabajador@s y artistas de todas las edades y de alrededor del mundo, el congreso de 2011 será la ocasión ideal para que defensor@s de la equidad de todo el mundo discutan las maneras en que la globalización afecta a las mujeres. L@s organizador@s también lo consideran una oportunidad para fortalecer contactos y colaborar en la construcción de enfoques que contribuyan a la equidad de género, al empoderamiento y al
progreso de los derechos de las mujeres.
Se invita a l@s ponentes potenciales a enviar sus propuestas de participación en español, francés, o en inglés, a través del formulario disponible en línea en el sitio web de Mundos de Mujeres.
– 30 –
Para obtener más información:
Comunicación, Mundos de Mujeres 2011
Women’s Worlds 2011
On Tuesday evening, a rare thing happened on South African radio, especially considering that it is woman’s month (August) in SA. I tuned into Metro FM, a nationwide Black radio station, and the studio guests were three feminists, and what dazzling feminsts they were: City Pulse magazine editor, recovering academic, writer, Gail Smith; Commision on Gender Equality chairperson, activist, photographer, writer, Nomboniso Gasa; and StreetNet International co-ordinator, unionist, widely published socialist, Pat Horn.
The show was hosted by Sakina Kamwendo, who did not always ask the most insightful questions and did giggle here and there. Overall, though, she was not too bad on this topic if you consider that she used words like “lesbianism” and asked “is feminism still relevant” or something to that effect.
Horn reminded the audience that there were various feminisms. She stressed that feminism enables us to deal with issues and systems which are hard to contest as individuals; as a feminist collective, we are able to make inroads. I don’t really think the value of this was completely explored in the discussion, but radio always has time limits. Kamwendo wanted to know the uses of feminism, and I suppose if we have to think in such instrumentalist ways, this was one of them.
Smith and Gasa were their usual brilliant selves. Gasa spoke about how women’s labour and contributions to society are taken for granted, and dealt with the ways in which ‘culture’ is often used as a way to silence women. It is interesting, Gasa, reminded us, that although self-appointed cultural custodians are very eager to use ‘culture’ against us, especially on the African continent, there are as many liberatory practices as there are oppressive one. This is important both for those misgogynist cultural custodians and for the anti-African critics who often argue that African culture is more oppressive, more backward, etc than other cultures. Yes, mostly such discussion speaks of culture as though it is singular, static and fully-knowable. Gasa used the conflicting examples relevant to the presence of wife abuse. One relates to the pressure for women to persevere in marriage (kuyanyamezelwa emendweni). The other relates to the ability of a married woman’s family to claim her back when she is abused or unhappy in marriage (ukutheleka). Now these two appear at odds, but they are from the same cultural sphere. The former is often evoked as though the second does not exit, and conveniently too. Gasa has this incredibly ability to cite very knowingly from very diverse worlds. I value her work, mind and presence for this and deeply envy her that head on her shoulders.
Smith spoke about the intersections between sexuality, feminist expression, and violence in SA. She argued that feminism is demonised in the media and other sites of ideas. Sometimes this is done through the ascription of lesbian status to all feminists as a way to scare young women, who may be complicit with homophobic institutions. The lesson here is that women who prioritise women, care for women politically, erotically, psychically, etc are threatening. In this schema, it is important for women to be repeatedly taught not to prioritise other women, but to compete with them for men, who are seen as the ultimate reward. At the same time, men need not rethink how they give expression to violent masculinity.
Smith insists that as feminists we have much to be angry about as response to dismissive comments by two callers, Alfie and Eddie who ranted and raved about angry women isolating men with talk of feminism and did not quite get what the show was about. Their attempts to put this particular feminst in her place backfired considerably as both Smith and Gasa reasserted the need for vigilance. Smith asked, “Why is an angry woman so deligitimated in this society? I have good reason to be angry. What is wrong with anger?”, having just spoken about the need to embrace and support creative, subversive masculinities. Subversive to patriarchy and enforced heterosexuality, that is. An anonymous gay man had asked a question about solidarity with feminists. Smith had underscored the need to constantly refashion masculinity and embrace masculinities that are not “life threatening to women” forcing us to be “hypervigilant to violence … which has material effects on our lives”. I am sure looking forward to her column in this Sunday’s City Press main body.
There were other questions and comments from callers. Percy, Lindiwe and Lucas were quite interesting, rasing various ways in which it is in our interest to question dominant masculinities and docile femininities always. They talked about specific sites of oppresion, ways to counter these, and the importance of coalitions among progressive (‘the anti-establishment’ types to use Percy’s formulation).
This was a highlight for me because August is so exhausting for those of us who are feminists in South Africa. Not only are we in ‘fashion’ suddenly, and therefore expected to agree to speak at all manner of stupid glitzy functions, but we are also bombarded as women, generally, with invitations to the most patriarchal nonsense throughout. I wish for more intelligent feminist voices on television, newspaper pages, radio and everywhere this August and every month of the year.
Social Movements Indaba
March against xenophobia and hate
21 May 2008
The SMI is mobilising social movements, immigrant communities, NGOs, unions, concerned residents from poor areas around the province for a march this Saturday, 24th of May. The march will gather at Pieter Roos Park (Empire and Queens Road) from 9a.m., proceed through Hillbrow and stop at the Departments of Home Affairs and Housing before ending at the Library Gardens. The message marchers will be conveying is that our struggle is common and knows no borders. Everyone who wants to make their voices heard should join us – our struggle knows no borders.
— No one is illegal —
For directions or other enquiries, please contact Silumko Radebe on 011 333 8334.
For comment, please contact: Silumko Radebe (APF) 0721737268; Mhlobo Gunguluzi (Khanya College) 0843773013; Brian Burayai (Refugee Fellowship) 0732865667
The Social Movements Indaba includes amongst other organisations: the Anti Privatisation Forum, Jubilee South Africa, Imbawula Trust, Sounds of Edutainment, Umzabalazo we Jubilee, Lesbian and Gay Equality Project, Inner City Resource Centre, Kliptown Concerned Residents, Khanya College, Earthlife Africa (Johannesburg), Palestinian Solidarity Committee, Golden Triangle Crisis Committee, Samancor Retrenched Workers Crisis Committee, African Renaissance Civic Movement, Group of Refugees Without Voice
I generally don’t like to do reviews on this site or anywhere else. There are various reasons for this. First, they take too long and then you get asked to do more and more of these. Secondly, they put pressure on you to think a certain way while you read the book. So, I steer clear of them most of the time and only agree to write one if it applies to a book that I would want to read anyway — or one by a writer whose work I simply love. Third, I have so many writing commitments at any given time that it seems as though cutting down on reviews is a guaranteed time-saver.
At the same time, as a writer I know that it’s wonderful to know that you are read, but even more affirming to see what people say about your work — even when they don’t particularly like what you have to say.
Nonetheless, this is not a real review, just excited blogging about a book I love written by a brilliant and daring woman.
I went to Pregs Govender’s book launch straight after opening “Face Her”, the exhibition in Newtown for this year’s South African women’s month. Needless to say I missed the bulk of the speeches and proceedings for the evening. But I did get a book and managed to have the author sign it.
I then proceeded to spend the ENTIRE day on Women’s Day — save for the SABCAfrica appearance — in bed with Govender’s fantastic book. I literally could not put it down. Each time I needed to get up for food or drink, I had to tear myself away.
I have to admit that I am a long-time fan and avid reader of the work of the fiya feminist Pregs Govender. Her memoir does not disappoint, even though I opened it with very high expectations that she would deliver in her usual style.
Govender writes her memoir, love and courage: a story of insubordination, in six parts (Life, Politics, Power, Choices, The Arms Deal, No HIV/AIDS) in attempt to frame episodes in a life that cannot be compartmentalised. It is a touching narrative of a principled life lived as an activist through different eras in our country’s past: apartheid, transition, post-apartheid, etc. Govender’s elegant prose seems to hug her reader to the page, so that she may not turn away even when the material under discussion is as difficult as Govender staring death in the face.
That phrase about staring death in the face takes on a variety of meanings in love and courage since it encompasses the dangers activists faced under apartheid from a hostile and brutal state, going into hostile territory as a unionist, facing hostile principals and other officials of the apartheid education state as a progressive teacher, escaping attempts to have her killed by others she considered comrades, and taking principled stands on HIV/AIDS and the infamous SA arms deal. Through all of these triumphs, she emerges scathed but affirmed by her ability to stand up for what she believes in no matter who she has to stand up to and against.
This book is an amazing example of what it means for the personal and political to be lived as the same thing in both private life and public activism. I know that it is a book I will return to, to read again and again.