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.
(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.
How is it possible that a party that started with such fanfare and had such imagination can appear to be self-destructing before our very eyes? I am talking about the Congress of the People (COPE), of course.
Many will remember the excitement it created in promising the birth of an opposition that we could respect. There are millions in South Africa who will never vote for the Democratic Alliance (DA) in their lifetime because we remember too much, are too suspicious of the people in charge of that party and have no respect for many of the DA’s policies. It brought suprise, intrigue and really articulated some of the frustrations felt by previously loyal ANC voters.
Although people have much historic respect for the Independent Democrats (ID) leader, Patricia de Lille, we can’t quite figure out who the other people in that party are. So, it seems we’re not likely to have ID as a real, large opposition either.
Of course, if the Pan Africanists in the various parties that now exist were a little more organised, or AZAPO more visibly convincing, there might be hope there too.
But there has been no such hope. This is why COPE offered an interesting turn in recent SA politics. It was not just the fact that many of the founders came from the same liberation struggle background, it was also that this party offered something new to South African politics.
Even if your loyalty to the ANC was unshaken, you could not really dismiss COPE as insignificant. The ANC electoral campaign clearly took COPE seriously in the run up to the 2009 elections. The amount of energy and attention that the ANC paid to COPE showed, even if just metaphorically, that this was a formation that mattered. Think about how little attention the ANC pays to other small parties – even when these are more established. Now compare this to how much ink was dedicated to the ‘divorce papers’ by Lekota, the speculation on Shilowa, the violent utterings by various ANC leaders as they spoke about their previous comrades who has crossed over, the controversies about who else was organising/raising money for COPE, how hard the ANC fought to prevent COPE from having a name of any sort with leftist associations, etc.
But COPE seems hell bent on showing South Africans that the grand promise was all just an act. How else do you account for the repeated bizzare incidents in the public – from the delayed election presence (which they eventually fixed and spectacularly so), to the endless media mess on whether there should be a Congress or not? Bitter in-fighting does not inspire confidence.
Many people voted for COPE, and as with any other political party, the vast majority of these people are not card carrying members – and will never be. If COPE does not stop irritating and embarassing the people who voted for it in such numbers, they can pack up and go home. The best thing they can do now is to surprise their audiences, and pleasantly so, by staying clear of things that will lose them further confidence. They need to remain an alternative for future elections. This will not be the case if we see more priests (bishops)/uniformed men as compromise candidates, more machismo between the two top leaders, there is more talk of a split, or other boring events typical of mundane politricking.
Come on, people living in South Africa may have very high appetites for soapies and dramas, but we prefer these on our screens not in our political life. With their techno savvy, some of the big money behind them, and their media savvy, COPE really owe us something a lot more imaginative, whether we vote for them or not.
Every Friday Jozi explodes in yellow and green. I have it on good authority that the whole country is in the grip of deep FIFA World Cup fever – not just Jozi. A friend updated her facebook status from Mthatha in the Eastern Cape by pointing out that she could not get away from the national flags and soccer jerseys.
Some schools have started asking parents to please ensure that the children are dropped off wearing Bafana Bafana soccer jerseys on Friday mornings. My baby wore his yesterday, and will wear another one next Friday. Another friend’s son was fined R10 at his school because his green and yellow is a Brazilian shirt, not Bafana Bafana. All of this excitement is to show a country well behind our national squad as the soccer tournament grows nearer and nearer.
My family loves soccer, so I have no qualms about the soccer and Bafana are closer to my heart than I’d like to admit. Otherwise, how do I explain the anxiety I feel for days before each match they play whether they are on a winning or losing streak?
I have never seen so many flags in the streets in my entire life. There are SA flags on people’s cars, rear view mirrors, outside people’s houses, on people’s hats and caps. The only flag on my car is a rainbow sticker, and I am not likely to have the national flag waving from my car windows anytime soon. It’s not that I am immune to the fever that has gripped the country I call home.
Far from it.
I am as likely to get swept up in the feeling of the moment as the next person. I was a nut during the Africa Cup. But I am just a little frightened of nationalism so the flags overwhelm me somewhat. At the same time, I remember being less bothered by nationalism and being unapologetically patriotic at other times: when I lived in Germany for a short while, I was extremely South African. In 1994 and 2004, I did not apologise for loving SA and being Southern African. Before 1994, I called myself a patriot sans fear of contradiction.
I know that I will probably buy one of those Bafana Bafana flags for my car before I take my seat at the opening match and my resistance to the shirts is lowering all the time. Everytime I enter a Woolies or Pick and Pay, the green and yellow beckon louder and louder. All I need now, I imagine, is the assurance that the soccer flags and shirts are not made in China but locally, and I’ll exchange more of my cash for the goods. Eish.
Of course, there are larger problems with the FIFA World Cup, and whether all the hyped up benefits will stand the test of time. But I honestly am not thinking about that as I marvel at how popular the national flag is, and how for the most part people actually have the red part on top.
Kubatana.net an online community for Zimbabwean activists have responded to the reports in The Herald that Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai, President and Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, respectively, made anti-gay statements at a Women’s Day Rally with the theme Equal Rights, Equal Opportunities: Progress for All in Chitungwiza, near Harare. Below is Kubatana’s open letter to the MDC:
Open letter to the MDC
RE: Prime Minister Tsvangirai’s comments in The Herald, March 26, 2010
The Kubatana Trust of Zimbabwe is very concerned with what we have read in the article entitled “President, PM speak on gays” in The Herald of March 26, 2010.
The article quotes Tsvangirai in these two paragraphs:
PM Tsvangirai concurred saying: “President mataura nyaya yemagay rights, yevamwe varume vanofemera munzeve dzevamwe varume. [“President you talked about gay rights, of men who breathe in the ears of other men.”]
“Bodo, apowo handibvumirane nazvo. Unogodirei kutsvaga mumwe murume yet vakadzi make up 52 percent (of the population)? Varume titori vashoma,” [“No, I do not agree with that. Why would you look for a man when women make up 52% of the population? We men are actually fewer,”] he said.
It is even more worrying that these remarks were made as part of International Women’s Day celebrations in Chitungwiza, where the theme was “Equal Rights, Equal Opportunities: Progress for All.” The comments made by the Prime Minister speak more to “Equal Rights for Some” – not All.
Is The Herald article an accurate quotation of the remarks made by the Prime Minister’s in Chitungwiza?
If it is an accurate reflection of the Prime Minister’s response, and his personal views, what is the position of the MDC about homosexuality, gay rights and the protection of gay rights in the Constitution?
The Parliament of Uganda is currently debating the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, an extremely worrying and homophobic piece of legislation. This Bill draws strength from its assertion that homosexuality is “unafrican”. However, this assertion goes against the truth of history and culture, which finds instances of same-sex sexual relations between men and women across Africa, throughout time.
You can read the opinion of respected Ugandan human rights lawyer Sylvia Tamale, denouncing this bill, here:
• A Human Rights Impact Assessment of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill – http://www.faruganda.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=16%3Adrtamale-hits-the-hammer&catid=1%3Anews&Itemid=3
• Why anti-gay Bill should worry us – http://www.faruganda.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=10%3Aopnion&catid=1%3Anews&Itemid=3
Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe has been at the foreground of campaigning for gay rights, and have a wealth of literature available explaining the history of homosexuality in Africa. This history makes it clear that homosexuality is not a “Western import,” nor is it a response to demographic pressures in which one gender outnumbers the other.
The remarks attributed to the Prime Minister in The Herald suggest a simplistic, populist view of homosexuality. Is the Prime Minister seriously making an argument that because women out number men in Zimbabwe, men should not be in relationships with other men? If so, he is making an insulting, demeaning argument, which belittles the thousands of Zimbabwean men for whom homosexuality is their personal identity.
One’s sexuality is as integral a part of someone’s humanity as their race, gender, and religion. A Constitution that protects Zimbabweans against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is thus as essential as one that prevents discrimination on grounds such as race, gender, ethnicity, or religion.
When political leaders discriminate against one segment of the population in order to gain popularity with another, it encourages prejudice. This prejudice can easily fuel violence, hatred, and intolerance, which can divide the country. It is imperative that politicians use their public profile and status to promote tolerance, encourage diversity, and embrace all sectors of the population. To do otherwise is an egregious, offensive violation of the spirit of democracy, peace, human rights and ubuntu on which the Movement for Democratic Change is founded.
The Kubatana Trust of Zimbabwe
Born 12 August 1928, in Durban, the courageous, inspiring and energetic activist-academic-icon, Fatima Meer passed away on 12 March 2010. She has been a staunch feminist, having co-founded both the Durban Disticts Women’s League (1949) and The Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) anti-apartheid activist who was banned repeatedly in the 1950s, 1970s, detained without trial, and otherwise tormented by the apartheid state. Fatima Meer was also a prolific writer in various capacities – biography, academic research, history with various books.
I met her only a few times, in gatherings where I spoke to her as one among various other women. The last time was at a South African Women’s Press Inititative (SAWPI) workshop in the Western Cape many years ago. But her words, her work, her life have been as important for me as they have been for a generation of Southern Africans. I am sad, and short of words, somewhat. Thankfully, I can turn around and borrow a sistah’s words, instead. Below, the insanely gifted poet, Bernedette Muthien’s ‘necessary grief’:
since dying is a wedding with the divine
why am i not deaf to the sounds of grief
wrenched from the very hearts of those left behind
blind to their vacant salted eyes
souls wrinkled brittle in suffering & loss
we are the stained
by life’s exigencies
like made-up wallflowers without dance partners
dried up wombs & hollow testicles
trees without fruit
not even worthy of harvests
whipping boys on treadmills without red emergency buttons
seldom bowled over
often fucked over
the ugly sister dimwit uncle
at divine weddings
is my sorrow sacred too?!!
take then the remnants of this carcass
and eat that too
as i rip the skin from my flesh
that some jews
still tear the clothes
from their own bodies
in simple grief
and thus i live