Today, and increasingly these days, I find myself turning to June Jordan, Jamaican, American, feminist, essayist, activist. I read and re-read her, but today I turn to Jordan’s poem written for and dedicated to (activist) South African women, first read in 1978, first published in 1980.
“we are the ones we have been waiting for” is the final line of this poem. African American women working in other artistic genres returned to Jordan’s words: Sweet Honey in the Rock turned the phrase into a song. Alice Walker wrote a book with that title. An on and on, with the attribution eventually disappearing (yes! appropriation).
In my country I hear it used against the very people Jordan wrote it for, by some who claim revolutionary Black political stance but act hatefully and violently against women and gender non-conforming people. Black radical, feminist, bisexual Jordan must be turning in her grave.
The poem is hopeful and I think we need to see this vision of ourselves, and the women we come from, more urgently now than ever, as South African women. We can be the change. As a South African woman and as a feminist at that, I think we are up against some tough times. The backlash is more virulent than ever and we urgently need new tools – and re-energising – to deal with the insane percentages of femicide, battery, sexual harrassment, rape and other sexual assault. I think the increasingly brazen, theatrical and spectacular expression of violence against women in South African society is directly linked to how many legal and occupational gains South African women have made. The backlash is only as strong as the feminist successes it seeks to obliterate.
Yet, in the last few months, as I speak to various people engaged in feminist work across the spectrum of South African society, I hear despair and frustration. The SA feminist movement will not collapse, but I know that we need to urgently re-craft our tools. I often feel these days that I am being metaphorically bludgeoned with a phallus on my head, to paraphrase feminist poet genius Lebogang Mashile.
Here it is, from her collection Passion, published by Beacon Press in 1980, June Jordan’s
Poem for South African Women
Commemoration of the 40,000 women and children who,
August 9, 1956, presented themselves in bodily protest against
the “dompass” in the capital of apartheid. Presented at The
United Nations, August 9, 1978.
Our own shadows disappear as the feet of thousands
by the tens of thousands pound the fallow land
into new dust that
rising like a marvelous pollen will be
even as the first woman whispering
imagination to the trees around her made
for righteous fruit
from such deliberate defense of life
as no other still
will claim inferior to any other safety
in the world
The whispers too they
intimate to the inmost ear of every spirit
now aroused they
carousing in ferocious affirmation
of all peaceable and loving amplitude
sound a certainly unbounded heat
from a baptismal smoke where yes
there will be fire
And the babies cease alarm as mothers
and heart high as the stars so far unseen
nevertheless hurl into the universe
a moving force
irreversible as light years
traveling to the open
And who will join this standing up
and the ones who stood without sweet company
will sing and sing
back into the mountains and
even under the sea
we are the ones we have been waiting for
It’s Black History Month in Jordan’s country this month, so we have a fitting set of confluences.
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.
Last week, and the weekend before, headlines of first the Sunday Independent and then The Star screamed out information about the SA president’s multiple sexual partners. The Star article quoted his wife in a telephone conversation saying she did not know what the reporters were talking about when questions were posed to her about her husband’s alleged infidelities.
I have a quandary when it comes to SA and sex. It has nothing to do with the nonsense about people’s lives being private when they have a direct bearing on our society. No, it is that we need to question the deadly culture of promiscuity in SA. It also does not matter that journalists may or may not take some pleasure in embarassing person x or person y.
Anybody’s schadenfreude is their business, and this applies to journalists too. Politicians should understand this more than anybody else.
But back to promiscuity on the sly or openly. Public officials will have our eyes set on them. It is our duty to mind their business. They may be entitled to dignity like the rest of us, but sexual politics matter — whether you’re president or peasant. Pretending they don’t is exactly what keeps us in the quagmire that is SA’s gender politics.
Much more importantly, as Gail Smith reminds us, “privacy is a function of class”. [Since she moved to the City Press mainbody, my weekend reading is a lot more interesting – what with Rehana Rossouw’s column (and editorship) of The Weekender as well. Yes, the fabulous Ms Smith is a friend of mine. I was reading her work with relish long before we met. But you don’t have to believe me. Read her for yourself.]
In my book, promiscuity matters full stop. Now, before you rush off calling me a prude, I recognise that not everybody wants to be in a monogamous relationship. When relationships are open and flexibly walled (or completely unwalled), there is a different kind of challenge: safety from sharing a myriad of nasty infections.
That aside, isn’t it irresponsible to have multiple lovers in the age of AIDS? How do you keep track and control of “how many women you’ve put inside of me”, to borrow from a poem by Lebogang Mashile? Isn’t it dodgy to have secret unsafe sex “as a loyal cadre” of a party that claims to uphold gender equity as a priority? Should people in leadership positions not be open to scrutiny given that they have to uphold and “take leadership” on a whole range of politics, including health and safety? Or is that just the problem? Is the State president is simply following (or sharing in) his Party President’s promiscuity?
I was going to have a long post on this, but some other commentators have already said much of what bothered me. So, I’m going to quote from two, and suggest that after you finish reading me, you read their complete posts as well (in a separate window, or tab, please:)
Rossouw’s column had me in stitches this weekend. Called, “The custom of dangerous liaisons”, she wrote
And because our constitution says we shouldn’t discriminate on
the basis of sexual preference, we should extend the recognition
of customary liaisons to everyone.
It follows then that if polygamy is allowed, polyandry should be
too. Any South African woman wanting two, or 15, husbands
should be free to marry them.
The only problem with polygamy is that it clashes terribly with
our political leaders’ commitment to eradicating AIDS.
What do we expect from polygamous males? That they should not
court other women? That they should not impregnate them while
lobola is being negotiated?
And the best part:
Here’s an idea: there’s another age-old South African custom
called thigh sex. Our leaders could insist on their right to practise
that. Then we won’t have to read about them having yet another
baby with yet another woman. And we might listen to their
messages about AIDS and follow their example — and stop dying.
Indeed. The SA double standards on horrifying gender and sexual orientation are horrific. But read Rossouw’s full piece here:
On another platform, Anton Harber’s The Harbinger declared:
If the President is caught between three women in this way,
complicating his personal life and raising questions about the
position of First Lady, it seems to me that this does go to his
character and values. It is a fine line, but I thought the Indie
stayed within the line. It falls into that category of story that
public figures must live with: choose a life in the media eye, and
choose to mess about with multiple and apparently conflictual
relationships, and you better have a thick skin.
That’s all I am going to say on the matter. For the time being, that is. I want to see Smith’s piece in the paper this weekend. Check here the Monday after.