The roles of men and women in unmaking misogyny in South Africa


A young maiden is photographed standing opposite a choir of maidens during a Reed Dance ceremony in Swaziland.

We have come a long way in South Africa, indeed. Yet, we are still stuck with the habits of thought, speech, and behaviour of the past.  We are not special; such is the story of the world.

At a Southern African Development Community (SADC) gathering, Ian Khama, President of Botswana, thanked Mswati III, the King of Swaziland, for hosting the meeting.  He proceeded to remark upon the ‘reed dance’, commenting on the ‘hundreds of maidens’ who had participated.  He went further, joking that it was exceptional for a head of state and his deputy to attend the gathering, suggesting that he chance of seeing the ‘maidens’ explained Cyril Ramaphosa accompanying Jacob Zuma to the meeting.  Garrulous laughter greeted this moment in his speech.

This was post-millennial southern Africa’s political leaders laughing at a head of state making a joke about young women as objects performing for men’s gaze.  One was suddenly reminded of Zo Wicomb’s ‘To hear the variety of discourses’ (1990), an essay in which she treats the occasion of Albie Sachs speaking at the University of Cape Town’s Jameson Hall to remark on the persistence of patriarchal oppression of women in liberation politics. 

Wicomb argues that the ‘dancing girls’ performing on stage as the audience waited for Sachs symbolise women’s status.  She urges South Africans to ensure that post-apartheid liberation is not only conceived in ‘race’ terms, but also includes the other axes along which power is unequally distributed and exercised.  Gender is a crucial aspect which Wicomb suggests in 1990 is too often ignored.  Now, 27 years later, one has to ask how far we have come.

In South Africa the Constitution guarantees equality before the law, and outlaws unfair discrimination on the basis of gender, sexuality, and class, among other things.  However, the material conditions of post-millennial post-apartheid South Africa ought to alert us to the fragility of those guarantees for many. 

In the femicidal environment of contemporary South Africa, given the casual, everyday misogyny and sexism women and girls have to negotiate daily.  At its least repellent this society subjects women to public sexual harassment too often excused as flirtation or flattery, and body shaming and sexual objectification seen to be ‘boys being boys’ and ‘men being men’.  At its worst, on the far end of this spectrum of the dehumanisation of women, it manifests as the murder of women.  In between, there are the various forms of physical abuse seen to be ‘natural’, and justified by various dubious appeals to religion, culture and tradition.

The African National Congress, when it negotiated a settlement in late apartheid South Africa, was one of the few parties which ensured women were represented in deliberations, and that women’s rights were part of the discussions.  The guarantees for women’s rights in legislation and policy which we have seen passed since 1994 is another achievement the ANC can be credited with, including the right to abortion, a change in the law on sexual offences, and a change in women’s status in marriage.

However, we are nowhere near realising the aspirations for women’s material equality in South Africa.  And the reduction of this to the question of whether South Africa needs or is ready for a woman to be president is misleading.  It is not that that is an unimportant question, but it ought not to deflect from the urgency of realising equality and respect for the full human rights of all women across South Africa.  And a key component of this is security lies in ensuring women’s safety.

Men have a crucial role to play in this, but that role is in changing our habits of thought, speech, and behaviour.  I began working in feminism in my late teens, having gone to university very young.  I have spent nearly three decades doing feminist work, as a researcher and teacher, but also as a critically literate citizen.  Throughout this period I have always known the importance of women only spaces, free from even well intentioned men’s involvement. 

The work of unmaking our patriarchal gender regime, which gives us the morbid symptoms by which girls and women are dehumanised every day, is indeed labour all of us must perform.  The way we speak of and to women, what we are allowed to do to them and get away with in this society, and the almost unreal horrors we visit upon women in this society and then excuse as individual psychopathy rather than a political crisis, must change.

However, there are spaces that ought to be free of men’s involvement.  Because even well-intentioned men have a habit of making women’s issues about them, and then not doing the work we need to do as men, on ourselves, on how we live here and now, in support of realising women’s full political equality and humanity.  Any man who claims to be in full support of women’s empowerment knows that we ought to take a backseat in women’s political organisation, allowing women the space to do their political work. 

At some point in the distant future the playing fields may be level, after much more work which lies ahead, for all of us, where we can imagine that men and women can engage each other as equals in political work to empower women.  We have unfinished business, working on changing boys and men, and working on ourselves as men. 

Styling ourselves experts on women’s issues is such a traditional and destructively patriarchal thing to do it is obscene to suggest it is progressive.  Gender is not a synonym for women; gender is also not a synonym for sex, or sexuality.  We learned these lessons a generation ago.  There is no need to endlessly rinse and repeat with self-induced political amnesia. 

And even if the ANC Women’s League does not get it, progressive men, some of us know our place is not to take up the places of women in their organisations.  There is nothing progressive about speaking on behalf of or in place of the people you profess to want to help achieve freedom or full political equality.  Wicomb cautioned us to listen out for the full variety of discourses which shape human experiences, and our own history of political struggle in this place, this South Africa, ought to make us sensitive to the importance of strategic essentialism. 

Also, we need to stop laughing at sexist jokes as if they were funny, or out of politeness.  Those jokes have consequences, they rely on beliefs which are so entrenched and unexamined we barely realise how toxic they are.

We have come a long way, but we have much further to go.