by Camalita Naicker, Bokomoso
During the Rape Crisis Teach-in held by the Rhodes University Politics Department in Grahamstown this July, South African historian and researcher Dr Catherine Burns, brought up a little known event that happened in Soweto in February 1990.
Mary Mabaso had organised an anti-rape march to draw attention to the increase in rape after 1976. Young women were being abducted and raped by gangs of young men who were known as ‘jackrollers,’ and this soon became a ‘fashionable’ practice amongst some male youth.
Rather than celebrate and support the march, which was already highlighting an issue that would later reach crisis point in South African society, she was told by many that her efforts were detracting from the most significant moment happening in the country’s history at the time: the release of Nelson Mandela.
That same man would later write an autobiography called Long Walk to Freedom. In it, he would argue that the African National Congress (ANC) defiance campaigns in the 1950s took on their mass-based protest style, which encouraged people to be arrested and fill the prisons without fear, because of the influence of Ghandi’s Satyagraha (passive resistance) campaigns. At the Women’s Academic Solidarity Association (WASA) Roundtable discussion held at Rhodes University on Women’s Day this year, South African writer, researcher, and activist, Nombaniso Gasa recounted an interaction she had with Mandela many years ago related to this issue. Gasa told Mandela that the African women of Bloemfontein 40 years before, in their 1913 anti-pass march, had in fact already been practising the very same politics of protest. Mandela responded with a request for a reference. At which point she turned to him and said, “I am not going to do your work for you”.
It has often been the case, in South Africa and the rest of the continent, that women were asked to subordinate themselves to the national liberation struggle and save questions of gender for another day. It was assumed that once the nation state was captured, then all other things would work themselves out.
In fact, it was cadres from the ANC and Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) in Kwa Zulu Natal province and elsewhere in the 1980s who started to use rape more frequently as a means of sexual and social control. This intensified in the early 1990s when men raped women from opposing parties to “get back at” the other side or to punish women who came from ANC or IFP strongholds who dated men from other areas. Women also had to subordinate their sexual freedom to the liberation struggle by, for example, providing sex as a ‘service’ to men of the struggle.
There has been little attempt to acknowledge and deal with this history in the public domain. Or, for that matter, acknowledge that women were told not to destroy black solidarity and not to fracture the liberation movement by bringing up gender specific issues. Yet, as the women of Algeria and elsewhere soon discovered, as Frantz Fanon had predicted, once the state is captured, the people are sent back to their caves. Having given themselves wholly to liberation struggle, the women return to the same systems of male dominance that continue to shape political, social and economic relations today.
Hence, the response by Zwelinzima Vavi, Secretary-General of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the largest federation of organised workers on the continent, to the dismissal of rape charges against him in a British SWP-style internal investigation was disappointing yet unsurprising. Upon reading his statement which said, “I hope that we all can put this saga behind us so that we all can concentrate on the real issues of the day,” we realise that women’s bodies remain the site upon which political struggle is waged and then discarded.
This is why when I read an article written by Andile Mngxitama, a leader of the newly formed Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) titled “Decolonising the African Queer Movement“, recently published in the Mail and Guardian, I was a little uncomfortable.
In it, Mngxitama calls for the African Queer Movement to decolonlise itself by realigning with the de-colonial project of reclaiming land since “before we are queer, straight, or anything else, we are black and shaped fundamentally by our experiences of slavery and colonialism.” He argues that colonial forces are using LGBTI rights to denounce and derail the revolutionary project of the ZANU PF in Zimbabwe; furthermore, that the African Queer/ LGBTI movement has failed to decolonize itself.
There is indeed value in calling for the linking of LGBTI struggle to a decolonization project; it is true that the depoliticised LGBTI rights groups who fail to understand how people’s identities coalesce around race and class and gender will always remain the domain of middle class interests. This is the kind of gay ‘politics’ that only thinly veils racist malicious intent like we saw during Joburg Pride last year. Yet there exists a whole sphere of gay politics which have been in dialogue with post-coloniality, organisations such as 1in9, Sonke Gender Justice, Soweto Pride, Johannesburg People’s Pride and the International Queer Boycott Divestment Sanctions (QBDS) movement are some which are testament to this.
However, when Mngxitama says, “One hopes that in the 2018 elections ZANU-PF will elaborate a new vision on sexuality politics and begin to see the LGBTI movement as a legitimate part of decolonization. That reality is dependent in large part on what the African Queer Movement does between now and then to decolonise itself,” it is not clear what he means by “dependent on” since it is not the responsibility of one set of people alone who are outside of a decolonization process writ large.
While Mngixtama is right that it is the bodies of black gay people who are most at risk of violence, he forgets one thing: most rape is inter-personal and it is within the communities of black gay and lesbian people that people are subjected to the most dehumanizing forms of violence. That cannot be attributed to whiteness alone. Although ‘homophobic Africa’ may find its roots in colonial discourse, black and white men alike, have for a long time used the policing of women’s bodies as a political weapon.
It is no longer possible to think of these things as additives. They are not ideas heaped on each other where one adds race and then class and then sex and then gender, so that the person left holding them crumbles under the weight. They are an entanglement of the intersections of identity: a testament to human beings’ complexity.
The need to acknowledge these intersections in people’s everyday lived realities was highlighted in the 80s and 90s by thinkers like Audre Lorde, Kimberlé Crenshaw, bell hooks, and many others. They began to see the failure of race theory to capture women’s experiences and the failure of feminist theory to capture the experience of black working class women. It became increasingly important to incorporate the intersection of race, gender, and class into one analysis. This became known as intersectionality focusing on the multidimensional identities of people and the different levels on which they experienced discrimination and oppression.
While many radical black feminist groups and radical queer movements have been calling for this approach to politics for years, there remains silence on the part of mainstream political groups and organisations where there should be parallel calls for intersectionality. Rather, one-dimensionalism has become endemic to mainstream South African politics, which does not view decolonisation as the end of all discrimination and the beginning of what Fanon called, “the veritable creation of a new humanity”.
In this sense, the measure of struggle should be common links to dignity and humanity, whether those struggles are for land or freedom of sexual preference or, in the case of many Africans, for both.