In South Africa, patriarchy has designed systemic oppression of women in the form of gender-based violence (GBV).
As the Xhosa proverb advises: “asinakugawula umthi ngomthi” — it’s impossible to chop wood with wood. In the fight against the scourge of violence against women in our society, we cannot use one form of entitlement to fight another. We need much sharper tools of analysis and a deeper understanding of women’s movements against GBV in South Africa.
The women’s movements fighting GBV show a profound historical understanding of how black women have been owned by different social groups in society. These groups have a deep sense of entitlement to women’s time, labour, attention and their biological reproductive capacity.
It is this history that enables us to understand the rationale behind black women opposing well-meaning men who use the term “our women” in their protest of GBV.
In the past few weeks, well-meaning men and some leaders have been appealing to other men’s consciences to defend “our women” — as if women belong to them in some way. The fight against GBV, however, should not be based on the same sense of entitlement that mostly causes the brutal killing of women. Women are fighting for their dignity and their personhood as opposed to being someone else’s property.
When Simphiwe Dana’s Instagram post Because you Know was trending after the killing of Tshegofatso Pule in the past few weeks, she used the close relations between men and women to awaken isazela (living conscience) which demands ethical accountability and responsibility of men to greater society.
It is sad to think that well-meaning men are moved to action because of the closeness “our” invokes instead of isazela. Isazela seems to die when violence takes place against “other women”.
The death of conscience when violence is unleashed and later defended in public speaks to what Kondiwe Khondlo terms the “lack of ethical accountability” in how we imagine social transformation today.
We cannot depend on well-meaning men and their benevolent entitlement to “our women” to fight GBV. Instead, we should all understand that it’s unethical for all of us to live in a male-dominated democracy which promotes unequal freedoms and severely threatens the existence of women.
Within the Nguni cosmologies, ethical accountability defines our individual and collective humanity, hence the other Xhosa proverb “isazela siyamakha umntu” (a living conscience maketh a person). This is the difference between being and non-being in a society. Once this is dead, it means we are in a state of doom because society no longer has a buffer between that which is ethically permissible and socially reprehensible.
The death of isazela in public misogynistic discourse in South Africa systematically seeks to challenge the very citizenship of women and their inherent rights and freedoms. Therefore, this appeal to the subjective emotional ties of men seems to be the only reason why well-meaning men would “know” and understand the effects of systematic violence against women in this society.
The peculiar reasoning of this approach is the inherent paradox where even with this idea of “our women”, women are not safe in the private domain when they refuse men the entitlement to their bodies, sexuality and attention. It seems like the very understanding of subjective justification of not killing women still borders on violence.
This idea of “our women” and the entitlement it holds towards women’s bodies, only defending them because they are “ours”, is dangerous in that women are moved from one set of owners to another.
It also feels like an insult to women’s histories as warriors, queen mothers, religious leaders and traders in pre-colonial Africa.
Understanding the histories of African women in coexistence with men in a complementary system seems to be missing when men speak to “defend our women”.
This is where we have dedicated most of our academic project within the Centre for Women and Gender Studies at Nelson Mandela University — to reread these histories and centre women’s experiences in how we think and practise a more informed advocacy for a better and more humane society.
Dr Babalwa Magoqwana is the interim director at the Centre for Women and Gender Studies at Nelson Mandela University