Blog Archives

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.

Simphiwe Dana’s Sunday Times piece on not taking African languages seriously

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.

Happy Birthday, Tatom’khulu Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela

As so many people choose to do what is right for 67 minutes today all over the world, I hope that we all remember that you have lived your life as a revolutionary who thought that justice could triumph, even as many in our county and the world would rather pretend that you are a teddy bear, benign grandfather figure. Here’s to your most revolutionary self and much love on your birthday.

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.

So what if Julius Malema’s flash about his cash?

Maybe I am just not as smart as I used to be, but there is something that does not quite sit right with me about the whole media saga on Julius Malema and how he makes his money. The newspapers have been awash with speculation that the president of the ANC Youth League, who is overly fond of refering to himself in the first person plural (we), may or may not be benefitting from unethical practices by one or more of his businesses. The argument, roughly, is that he is a director/owner of various businesses which have benefitted from tenders from government. This is then used to make the additional point that these untoward business deals support his apparently lavish lifestyle.

Let us first get the disclaimers, or as Sibongile Ndashe would say ‘the passwords’, out of the way. I am no fan of the ANCYL president by any stretch of the imagination, but I do not think he is stupid. Far from it, I think he is incredibly canny, witty and deliberately funny. You don’t get to be as powerful and incredibly popular as Julius is by accident. And make no mistake about it, he is incredibly – and somewhat frighteningly – popular with a whole range of people. I find the ongoing jokes about his real or fabricated matric results distasteful.  At the same time, I think that Malema can be a bit of a loose canon – which is not always a bad thing in life, mind you. I was enraged by his very thinly veiled threats as he announced that he’d kill for Zuma. I was outraged and offended when he made the hateful misognynist comments about Khwezi. And I would not vote for him because I do not knowingly vote for misogynists. In other words, most of the time he annoys me endlessly. That is a very nice way of saying I find him unbearable most of the time.

But.

Yes, but.

I do not understand the specific tenor of the media obsession href=”http://www.mg.co.za/article/2010-02-21-malemas-lifestyle-sponsored-by-govt-tenders”>with how he makes his money. Firstly, I am not entirely sure that this is news, apart from the general way in which the culture of conspicuous consumption, flash living, and  corruption are newsworthy – sort of.  At best, if all that is claimed about Malema’s finances is true, what does it tell us about our society or political elite that we did not already know? The media has never shied away from illustrating the connections between political power and business connections in the awarding of tenders and other irregularities. Corruption does always need to be exposed – but what does ongoing exposure of what we (think we) already know achieve?

It confirms our suspicions over and over again, makes us angrier and then maybe prods us to act differently in response to the shoddy work of those we elect to power.

1. If Malema is guilty of doing something illegal – whatever corruption or other guise it takes – he needs to be brought to book. He needs to be investigated, arrested and convicted (in an ideal world, all three together).  But I am fascinated by how most media reports are less interested in establishing and/or claiming that there is criminality than in focusing on his body and questioning his gumption in being flash about his cash. In South Africa, are you kidding me? In the world in 2010?

2. If Malema is lying about having resigned from the various Directorships, then I would really like to know what he is hiding. It does not make sense for what he is hiding to be what we already know. That would not be very effective hiding, now, would it? And remember, I don’t think he is stupid. On the one hand, there may be something much more sinister here than ‘just’ corruption in usual guise. On the other hand, he did not technically need to lie to cover up the generalised corruption the papers claim they have found. Given that he is not a public state official – but an elected party official. Technically, he can own as many businesses as he likes and do as much business with government, receive as much cash funded by our tax rands as he likes and not owe us an explanation, unless there is something untoward and illegal happening. Unless ‘we’ elected him to the ANCYL presidency, which I did not. The fact that he seems to have lied about these resignations worries me a lot more than the possibility that he is getting tenders and money through political connections. Newspaper reports and arguments by Redi Direko who interviewed Malema on her show on 702 this morning point out that Malema is still listed as Director of several businesses he claims no connection with. She also pointed to some other illegality since he arrived for the interview with her in the same license-plate free white Range Rover he arrived at Wits in last week. As Direko pointed to the irresponsibility and illegality of driving/riding in the car, Malema remarked that he had not noticed and would talk to the driver about rectifying this. Does he really expect anyone to believe this? Then, there is the bizzare gameplaying or scapegoating that he engaged in rather than answering another journalist’s questions.

This all makes me wonder much more about what is really going on here. I wish the media were doing a better job of actually providing some news on this front, rather than telling us how he flashes his cash at the same time that even respectable media outlets celebrate others who flash their cash. Part of this hypocrisy on bling culture and celebrity culture is that old fashioned business is founded on the same unethical and unscrupulous acquisition of money through barely legal ways.

As for Malema, I wait with bated breath for the REAL story to break, and will continue to scan the repetitive ‘news’ for something new.