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Remembering the brave genius of June Jordan

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
raising arms
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
if necessary
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.

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.

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.

– 30 –

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.

– 30 –

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.

– 30 –

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

Natalie McMullen
Research Assistant
Women’s Worlds 2011

Semenya as the 21st century Bartmann?

Below is the full opinion piece published in City Press (23 August 2009, p5) with the first half shortened and the 2nd half slightly edited. I did not like the editorial changes, and I see it is not on the website, so I cannot just link to it. If I remember to, I’ll attach the scanned pdf version from the past weekend to my next Caster Semenya post (for those of you obsessive types, like me:)

I wish that the stir caused by South African super-athlete, Caster Semenya, this week was in celebration of how she achieved the previously inconceivable. Instead, Caster Semenya became the twenty-first century Sarah Bartmann.

Like Bartmann, Semenya is a South African woman rendered spectacle in a European city for the world to see. In the IAAF’s statements and ensuing media frenzy, Semenya ceased to matter as more than the subject of humour, humiliation and leering. The widespread use of ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ as if they were synonyms is telling, not just for the failure to recognise that sex is a biological and gender a social category. This apparent confusion shows how Semenya, like Bartmann, is unworthy of decent, humane consideration. She may have scooped gold because of skill, talent and choice – all social attributes – but she is reduced to the field of spectacle. Through the IAAF’s irresponsibility, Semenya the outstanding athlete was reduced to a freak, another curious body that does not fit categories we pretend are neutral. She is not even entitled to privacy from the leering eyes looking for the Adam’s apple they claim to almost see, just like Bartmann’s mischievous ‘Hottentot apron’.

Through her exhibition, Sarah Bartmann was rendered object, and her humiliation was justified through claims that her body held secrets of scientific value. Was she animal, human or something altogether different? Semenya’s journey to Berlin was about skill, talent and determination. It has not mattered what she likes, feels, thinks or decides. She is the spectacular body on display waiting to yield secrets that are the world’s entitlement. Ms Semenya has no right to privacy, unlike other athletes who have been tested before. A band of scientists want direct access to her body so that they can answer once and for all: is she female, male or something altogether different. And what would that be?

Suddenly, it does not matter that sex classification tests are murky terrain, or that many people are intersex. Many scientists tell us that poking around with Semenya’s chromosomes, blood samples and other body fluids, or subjecting her to painful tissue sampling is not as simple matter. Rather than conclusive answers, these biological sex tests may yield more questions. In addition to the technical lab dealings, we must never forget that the business of science is also very political. It was men in European labs who brought us scientific racism which the remainder of the academy legitimised so effectively that we still live its nightmares. In the aftermath of esteemed scientists like Linneaus, who classified, and dissected like Cuvier, sex tests such as the one used by the IAAF would become de rigueur for those whose bodies were safe to question and mark as hysterical.

But we are assured that this is not in the eighteenth century. The IAAF will ensure that competent teams of specialists are responsible for these tests. Their results will hold a very clinical truth.

Is it really irrelevant that these tests originate from the 1930s at a time when scientists were less coy about the connections between race, sex and superiority?

Results are determined by which tests are used, when and how. All research is indelibly shaped by the scientist’s questions and assumptions. The language of scientific sex verification hides the significant role that interpretation plays when faced with the results. This is why the same athlete has sometimes passed and failed very similar IAAF sex verification tests. Science is not the unquestionable truth, and it is important to continue to question the racist gender violence under its cover here.

But even if we accept the validity of some testing, the IAAF does not test every athlete, nor does it release the details of ongoing tests as a matter of course. Most athletes are human beings, entitled to dignity, privacy and respect – unless that athlete’s name is Caster Semenya. Semenya’s crime is that she dared to be that young, fast, strong and look like a powerful athlete at the same time. She does not look like the British Jenny Meadows, who resembles idealised white femininity. But Semenya looks and sounds like many women we all know from across the world. Bartmann looked like many African women. But she did not look like Jenny Meadow’s foremothers.

We have more power to defend and support Semenya than our foreparents did with Bartmann. It is our responsibility to speak in anger at Semenya’s racist gender violation, and to celebrate the achievement of a most remarkable eighteen year old.

Joint Working Group statement on Caster Semenya

The Joint Working Group Statement on Caster Semenya

As Mokgadi ‘Caster’ Semenya proudly received her gold medal today in Berlin we join with the rest of the country in declaring our pride and joy at the astounding achievement of this amazing young woman. We are deeply disturbed that questions around her gender have taken prominence away from her performance throughout the international media and condemn utterly the demand from the International Association of Athletics Federations that she should undergo gender testing.

Some 200 years ago a young South African woman named Saartjie Baartman was forcefully removed to Europe, as a woman who was physically different to the commonly accepted norm she became a figure of curiosity and disgust to the people she was paraded in front of. After her death she was dissected. Now Caster is likewise to be dissected; poked, prodded and tested by a panel of doctors who on the basis of their ‘investigations’ will pass judgement on who and what she is. Making an abysmal mockery of her history, her family and her right to ownership of her identity.

That the IAAF chose to reveal that a gender test had been requested before her race thereby forcing her to run under a media storm was disgraceful. It is against the IAAFs own rules to comment on athletes being tested for drugs related offences before the outcome of the test is known, there seems to be no good reason why the same courtesy was not extended to Caster. Nor is she the first woman to face these allegations, athletes from Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe particularly have throughout the history of the sport been subjected to suspicion around their gender based solely on their physical appearance and perceived lack of femininity. In 2006 Indian sprinter Santhi Soundarajan was stripped of the silver medal won at the Asian Games due to the fact that despite having the external organs of a woman, being brought up as a woman and self identifying as a woman her genetic tests indicated that she was not fully female. The testing is invasive, insulting, based on a very limited and questionable understanding of what constitutes a woman and has no place in modern sport.

We stand in full solidarity with Caster and applaud Athletics South Africa and other sports bodies for throwing their full support being her. We hope this support will be maintained regardless of the results of the gender inquisition to which Caster is to be subjected.

Emily Craven

Joint Working Group
011 403 5566
emily at

Interesting blog posts on Caster Semenya

I have been having various conversations about Caster Semenya and the whole ugliness of not allowing her to celebrate the result of all her hard work. Most of the time, I come across someone who seems to think that there is only one way or reason to be annoyed about Ms Semenya’s treatment. Then there are the people who don’t see what the “fuss” is all about since she should just take the test and be done with it if there is nothing to hide (or think that this is all somehow Athletics South Africa’s fault for various resons since they ostensibly should have tested her first). This second group annoys the hell out of me, so if you’re one of those people, feel free to stop reading, or to send me a comment telling me how much I annot you right back. Finally, there are the people who feel so angry or sad but overwhelmed to the point that they cannot speak their feelings.

So, I have decided to compile a list of some of the varied responses to anger and/or sadness over the manner in which this super-athlete has been treated. I liked reading them, and I did not need to agree with every word the bloggers said to do so. You might like them too, or not.

Sokari Ekine, at Blacklooks, one of my favourite blogs, has posted with necessary clarity in the midst of madness. As one of the readers commented on her post, it is a powefully analytical and very humane piece.

Robert Bravery, the Brave Programmer’s post “Caster Semenya – a lesson” is an wonderful read, beautiful, sensitive and even when I disagreed, the language swept me away. It made me pause and think about Caster Semenya differently. The Brave Programmer interweaves his own adversity with Caster Semenya’s without equating or trivialising either.

And Shane of myfriendshane blog, has simply called the latest post “Caster Semenya” is one annoyed blogger about the entire unnevenness and hypocricy of the IAAF’s stance to Ms Semenya.

Her university website has her very prominently placed and celebrated, which is a good thing

I am sure there are many, many others. Take a look at the anger of the Y-generation after DJ Sbu’s post.

Happy reading, everyone, but remember to come back to come back to loudrastress.