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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.


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.

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.

Global feminist conference launches ‘Call for participation’


Global feminist conference launches ‘Call for participation’

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.

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For more information:
Pam Kapoor
Communications, Women’s Worlds 2011
(001) 613.853.8089



Lancement de l’Appel à participation d’un congrès féministe international

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.

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Pour plus d’information:
Pam Kapoor
Communications, Mondes des Femmes 2011
(001) 613.853.8089



Conferencia feminista global publica ‘Convocatoria abierta’

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.

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Para obtener más información:
Pam Kapoor
Comunicación, Mundos de Mujeres 2011
(001) 613.853.8089

Natalie McMullen
Research Assistant
Women’s Worlds 2011

African feminist smarts (1)

Thinking of what animates me, I turn away from the madness and misogyny, sometimes and listen to what the wise have chosen to say at different times.

Sokari Ekine, activist, super-blogger, essayist:
“As in other regions of extreme poverty and militarisation it is largely women and children who are the most vulnerable due to gender disparities and sexism. They face sexual and domestic violence, assault and they are often the last to gain access to food, water and medical care as the fight for survival reaches critical conditions. Children more so now than ever, are vulnerable to sexual exploitation and who is authorising the many “orphaned” children who are been fast tracked through the adoption process to Canada, France and the US within days. How are we sure they are orphaned and do not have relatives searching for them at this very moment? I don’t believe one single child should leave the island at this moment – the cost of flying them to Canada and France can be used to provide them with the proper care they need in Haiti- it’s like kidnapping. This is why it is so important for foreign aid agencies to work with local groups – to search them out and not assume they dont exist – just takes a little effort.”

Nomboniso Gasa, analyst, essayist, photographer:
“When we ask for greater inclusion, we are told – there are protocols and ways of doing these things. Yes, we know. But why can’t we change not only the shape and size of the table to fit more people and stakeholders in Zimbabwe? Why can’t we in fact dare imagine a different script? The one that will lead firstly to an acknowledgement of how polarised our society is and how, here, today in South Africa, there continue to be xenophobic attacks, that we do not want to even acknowledge? Why can’t we put different indicators on the table and say well, yes, SADC leaders in the next six months, let us see normalisation of life in Zimbabwe and the neighbouring countries. By normalisation of life we mean different things of course. But I am sure we all agree on human dignity. Can we also agree that prevalent usage of rape as weapon of war is not acceptable? Can we agree that women’s bodies are not battlefields? Is it possible to have a time-table for the release of those who have been abducted even as speak of normalisation of trade relations?”

Ashleigh Harris, literature professor, poet, essayist:
“In the last century, patriarchy has adapted to feminist inquiry, but it has, ultimately, survived. What is required is that feminism adapt as feminism, without apologizing for its political impetus, so as to oppose these new and insidious forms of patriarchy.”

Jessica Horn, trainer, poet, essayist:
“Reflecting on the notion of radical democracy, what would a feminist constitution look like? And I would add, how would it enable young women’s participation and voice? How do we use our collective power base to push the feminist agenda forward? For while we do spend a considerable amount of time identifying and assessing our vulnerabilities, we also have a strong power base- the power of our numbers as half the world’s population, our collective intellectual power as feminists, our power as voters, as consumers (all of us are consumers) – and use this as the basis for catalysing change and holding our abusers to account.”

Kagiso Lesego Molope, novelist, essayist:
“I believe that in South Africa as in any other place in the world, an honest discussion about sexual assault, women’s oppression and women’s safety needs to begin with how we raise men. I’d like to move beyond the developed world’s approach of teaching women to empower themselves because – as I once announced to a room full of appalled liberal first world feminists – telling women to end rape is like telling black people to end racism. It seems counter-productive to me. When your child comes home from school after being bullied it’s best to address the bully’s behaviour instead of wondering what your child can do to stop it. There are basic behaviour patterns that need to be completely altered. Much of what we need to do, I think, lies in what boys learn – both from women and men – as they grow up.”

Gail Smith, essayist, photographer, journalist:
“Eve has become a South African icon alongside her employer
Madam. And like Bobo and Hall, I believe that this is a is a process that is politically charged and yet goes largely unchallenged. Instead, the cartoon is sold and syndicated internationallyI.t sells everythingf rom cell phones to advertising space on the SABC, and will apparently be turned into a soap opera soon. One of the most obvious examples of the commodification of poor black womanhood, slips seamlessly into the
silence on black women and their subjectivity in dominantc ulture. I am a black woman and I know how quickly white people who treat me like a stereotype lead me into a sense of humour failure.”

Sylvia Tamale, lawyer, law professor:
“Domesticity as an ideology is historically and culturally constructed and is closely linked to patriarchy, gender/power relations and the artificial private/public distinction. The way patriarchy defines women is such that their full and wholesome existence depends on getting married, producing children and caring for her family. In Africa, it does not matter whether a woman is a successful politician, possesses three Ph.Ds and runs the most successful business in town; if she has never married and/or is childless, she is perceived to be lacking in a fundamental way. Girl children are raised and socialised into this ideology and few ever question or challenge its basic tenets. Single, childless women carry a permanent stigma like a lodestone about their necks. They are viewed by society as halfbaked, even half-human. Thus, the domestic roles of mother, wife and homemaker become the key constructions of women’s identity in Africa.”