Can African Feminism Offer Solutions For Gender Tensions In South Africa?

By Katlego Mereko

Indeed, the gender dynamic in society remains a complex one. This is precise because patriarchy as it exists in South Africa, at least, is tied up with colonialism, capitalism and racism. This easily creates a situation where different sections of society, including intellectual groups, prioritise one antagonism over the other. But African philosophy, at least on the face of it, seems to arm us with richer tools with which to engineer solutions towards problems in our society. In an increasingly gender-sensitive political and economic landscape, women, especially black women, have been on the receiving end of some of the most atrocious violence at the hands of black men. This has brought forth public rebuke and the emergence of several responses in some sections of society, from your liberal to the radical, under the banner of feminism. While it is important to have these responses, which aim to push back problematic manifestations of patriarchy, it is similarly worthwhile to interrogate the responses themselves; their history, cultural, and political grounding.

It is for this reason, and that such endeavours are better explored at the behest of an expert in the said field, that we have taken time to speak to an African Philosophy lecturer at the University of Johannesburg, Dimpho Takane Maponya. The latter, whose focus is on African Feminism, follows the works of renowned scholars in the philosophical and anthropological fields such as Ifi Amadiume and Oyeronke Oyewumi.

Any theoretical undertaking eventually falls prey to context if it is to be actualised. It is therefore important to interrogate not only the historical origin of feminist sentiments and movements but also the socio-political and economic contexts from which they rose. By this reason, the historical context of South Africa will also need to be taken seriously if gender-based issues are to be sufficiently theorised. Feminist sentiments began to rise across the West (the USA and Europe) in the late 19th century as women resisted against non-representation in the political arena and unequal distribution of wealth. No thanks to colonialism, some of these problems are transported in South Africa. To what extent then, in a country that should push back against coloniality, is it justifiable for a critique, rooted in Western contexts, to spill into social institutions like, families, friendships and social spaces? What do our indigenous cultural institutions say about gender issues?

Prof. Oyeronke Oyewumi describes gender to be best understood as an institution that establishes patterns of expectations for individuals (based on their body-type), orders the social processes of everyday life, and is built into major social organisations of society, such as the economy, ideology, the family and politics. This is what Oyewumi describes as reasoning predicated on body-logic, a conception foreign to African, or at least Yoruba people. In fact, the concept of gender does not exist in Yoruba thought in the same way it does in Europe. It does not delineate roles in society based on the fact of one’s gender. The primary organizing principle instead is seniority. UJ lecturer Maponya also identifies similarities pertaining to a kind of gender fluidity found in the Bantu languages. She makes the example that in Sesotho culture logic, the role of a mother or father can be played by a male or a female respectively. “Gender is fluid in the African context. For example, in Sesotho culture, one’s father’s female sibling is called Rakgadi which means a female version of one’s father. Just as Malome is a male version of one’s mother,” Maponya muses.

On the violence that black women have been on the receiving end of, Maponya urges us to be critical on what is the root of the violence. “The position of black men ought to be interrogated. African men are not fully responsible for what they have become.” Here Maponya alludes to the influence colonisation has had on African men. “Right now, the African man is being turned into a monster or a beast, a logic which has its history in racism,” she says. “But patriarchy is not an inherent feature in African cultural thought.”

Maponya further makes the point that as by the precepts of what can be termed the Ubuntu philosophy, raising the community is paramount, therefore as abantu, the progenitors of Ubuntu, we can ill-afford radical feminist ideas which advocate for a complete split of black women from black men. The whole point is not to separate men from women. 

“In African philosophy and culture, the community is the priority. So, there is no space for a radical feminist agenda of separatism in African Culture.”

“Feminism as we know it has its history embedded in the Western perspective. Western feminism has limitations for women of colour. Hence the rise in movements such as womanism and black feminism. The feminism that exists doesn’t speak to black women’s problems.” We need to be critical of the ideas we consume."

 She adds:  

“The need to interrogate African thought stems from the sore need to rediscover our own identity. We ought to sift these ideas and their origin and decide whether they are useful for us and our context." 

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