Christi van der Westhuizen
Christi van der Westhuizen

Now for the 21st century round of South African sex panic

Twenty years into democracy and the battles to capture and define South African identities are at fever pitch. Race seems to have a new lease on life and, unexpectedly, so does sexuality.

Some say that South Africa’s future is black, in the sense that state power will never be in the hands of a white-defined minority again. Hence the increased pressure to draw the boundaries of “authentic blackness”, as that determines who gets let into power and who will be relegated to the margins. This confirms a position for which race still has traction after apartheid, albeit in different ways.

It can be seen in the rhetoric emanating from the Economic Freedom Fighters’ (EFF) Julius Malema but particularly from the EFF’s Andile Mngxitama, who now has a political home and a platform from which to racialise the obvious results of decades of neoliberal policies, which have exacerbated the effects of the racial capitalism that went before. The ANC has also been deploying rhetoric to re-racialise South Africans, which seems to be stepped up now in competition with the EFF.

Of particular interest, however, is that efforts at mobilising power through identity prescriptions seldom invoke race on its own. Rather, sexuality and in particular black feminine heterosexuality seems as contested a terrain as race. For example, it is rare for Zuma to reference race without sexuality (and gender). His latest statement is that he prefers Venda women as they “lie down” to show respect. Previously he insisted that women must marry and have children for the purposes of “training”. And that a “real” black woman does not straighten her hair. And then there is the exposition on “correct” Zulu sex that he delivered at his rape trial.

When Malema was still Zuma’s favourite supporter, he (Malema) described how women should behave after being raped, which led to an equality court case. ANC MP John Jeffery, formerly Zuma’s parliamentary adviser, last year in an unprecedented move took politics to the body of the leader of the official opposition. DA MP Lindiwe Mazibuko was attacked on the basis of both dress and body size. It is no coincidence that she is a young black woman.

Other young black women have been assaulted for their dress, most notoriously at the Noord Street taxi rank in Johannesburg and in Durban where a woman’s shack was burnt down “because” she wore trousers. Black lesbians have paid with their lives for committing the “sin” of non-conforming gender identification. Thus ideas of “authentic blackness” are coupled with particular directives for a “correct” sexuality and gender.

It would seem we are finding ourselves in a period akin to that after the South African War of 1899-1902. Historians call that a time of “moral panic” but it seems more like a sex panic. Social relations were in flux after the war, as women moved into the cities to eke out livelihoods.

White patriarchs were concerned that the young, white, Afrikaans-speaking women who had left farms were slipping from their grip. They used “fears of miscegenation” to rein them in. Nationalism, in that instance of the Afrikaner variety, positions women as the boundary of the nation, integral to the nation’s identity due to their reproductive capacity. Hence control over women’s sexuality and indeed their bodies becomes imperative. White men responded to the “danger” with the first Immorality Act of 1927, declaring sex across the “colour line” illegal, and the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act of 1949.

Similarly, black men at the time were concerned that young black women were adopting “western” ways and becoming too independent. Among others, this meant pressure from fathers, husbands and chiefs that contributed to black women’s status being cemented as “inferior” in customary law.

Currently, in a kind of 21st century sex panic, another scramble to corral women seems to be under way. When South Africa ventured into democracy, the position was at first to put in place laws and policies to entrench women’s human rights, especially those of black women who had suffered the brunt of apartheid.

Since 1994, women have benefited from the legalisation of abortion to stop preventable deaths. Women most access the child support grant as the bulk of care-giving duties in the family is still shifted onto them.

During the 2000s, in a noticeable change in the public discourse, currently dominant African nationalism has positioned young women as a “problem”. Think of the stigmatisation of pregnant teens, as though these pregnancies happen by immaculate conception. Or the ridiculous allegation that women routinely use the invasive procedure of abortion as “contraception”. Or the accusation that young women get pregnant to access the child support grant, which continues to circulate despite a Human Sciences Research Council study debunking it. The Zuma coterie’s comments fit the trend. The sex panic led to the criminalisation of teen sexuality in the 2007 Sexual Offences Act, which was only overturned after an application to the Constitutional Court.

The first sex panic a century ago sharpened the knives for the carving of a highly inequitable country. What are we cutting out now?

Dr Van der Westhuizen will be in conversation with Dr Zethu Matebeni at the UCT Summer School on the topic of “The politics of sex/The sex of politics” on January 29 on the UCT campus. See This article first appeared in the Cape Times.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

  • So what exactly DID happen?
  • Pandora’s box has opened…again!
  • KwaZulu-Natal Lamb Curry
  • Where’s my invite?
    • J.J.

      “Or the accusation that young women get pregnant to access the child support grant, which continues to circulate despite a Human Sciences Research Council study debunking it…”

      Whether or not debunked locally, this is a fact happening in many countries with health support systems. It’s an indisputable fact in the UK and Ireland, I can assure you that, (having lived in both countries – for example in Ireland young mothers get council housing + a grant) and no one would attempt to deny that over there, because it’s so common. Therefore one could make a logical conclusion that there could be some truth in it locally.

    • J.J.

      …young SINGLE mothers that is… and I meant to say: good social support systems.

      However in SA it’s more likely that the “child support grant” comes from fathers.

    • J.J.

      Another logical conclusion (whether this is true we don’t know but), if abortion is very easy to access/have done, there’s potentially less motivation to use contraception.

      If pregnancy could lead to financial benefits, i.e, either state support or support from a father who takes responsibility, there’s logically speaking, potentially less motivation to use contraception. This is regardless of race.

    • Milo

      I do really really love this. Blown away. Thank you

    • J.J.

      Overall I don’t think you make such a good case for a “sex panic” (it’s not very clear what that is meant to mean). Even with aids, we certainly don’t see people disengaging from sex – and with so many “unplanned” pregnancies, it’s not clear how serious people take contraception either. If there’s a panic about this (not being more responsible with/about sex) then that would be justified.

    • V. Ranchhod


      Overall, I take your point, but you make some strong claims that are unsubstantiated here. (Maybe they are substantiated somewhere else?)

      In particular, I have a real problem with your statement: “…especially those of black women who had suffered the brunt of apartheid”.

      Since the people who implemented apartheid were white people, and their target was black people, I just don’t see how you get the gender dimension here? The humiliations were experienced by all (black) people, the lack of safety and security by both. Broken families due to the migrant system affected both, poverty and a loss of land were felt by both genders, working in physically hard jobs in mines (males) can’t be much fun and was physically dangerous. I’m willing to bet the victims of police and state security violence were more likely to be male than female.

      So … why do you make this statement? I just don’t understand – is there something else that you mean or am I missing something?

      Best wishes,

    • J.J.

      “Women most access the child support grant as the bulk of care-giving duties in the family is still shifted onto them.”

      Christi, are you saying that women are not meant to be the care-givers of their own children – and that those “duties” are imposed on them? If I understand correctly you are saying that instead of women being driven by nature to be caregivers, men are unfairly expecting women to be caregivers (to the children that said women have birthed) – and that is the reason why they need a child care grant. Should we interpret this as: women are oppressed by men by being forced to birth children and care for them?

      In my opinion, if this is what you are saying then we are in more trouble than we thought. (In relation to people rejecting their responsibilities and gender roles in life)

      This would confirm that women are even rejecting their natural biological mothering functions and drives, in the name of “equality” and in the rejection of accepting any form of gender role.

      Also if pregnancy becomes a means to a financial end (morality issues and ethics aside for a moment), where does this leave (the) men involved and what about costs to the state? (which the tax payer ultimately has to cover)

    • Christi van der Westhuizen

      @Vimal, thanks for the question. The generally accepted term for the burden carried by black women is that of “triple oppression”, i.e. oppression compounded by a coming-together of race, gender and class oppressions. One can use intersectional analysis to consider how different categories of subjugation work together to exacerbate the domination of individuals. Thus while black men under apartheid can generally be said to have suffered oppression through race and class, among others, black women’s position was further exacerbated by sexism, including the efforts to hem them in that are described in this article.

    • Christi van der Westhuizen

      @JJ: No, gender roles are not biologically determined. And, no, we’re not in trouble when we accept this fact. We are merely liberating ourselves from attempts to use “biology” to justify the relegation of women to the domestic sphere, robbing them from a full experience of their capabilities as humans. We also liberate ourselves from the use of biology to justify “gender roles” that pin manliness to performances that unnecessarily reduce men’s life span and also rob them from experiencing their full capabilities as humans. (For more regarding the reasons for the high levels of male homicide, see the work of Prof Kopano Ratele.)

    • J.J.

      @ CvdW:

      How are gender roles not biologically determined if women can have children and men cannot?

      “…the relegation of women to the domestic sphere”

      Women are free to determine whether they shall have careers or have families or both. When they have children they are supported either by men and/or the state.
      Men don’t have these choices and support systems.

      Many women CHOOSE to rather have children and not give preference to a career.

      In some European countries like France and Germany, men now also get PAID maternity leave. When that starts happening here in South Africa, some of your arguments might carry more weight, in the meantime it is men who are disadvantaged.

      Also ignoring biology completely never ends well as nature tends to trip up those who do at some stage or the other.

    • J.J.

      “….that pin manliness to performances that unnecessarily reduce men’s life span and also rob them from experiencing their full capabilities as humans.”

      Men are happy with their gender roles, thank you very much, and they take responsibility for it, they don’t try to “get out of it”. Imagine a world where all men would down tools because women refuse to help them build the bridges, roads and buildings, dams, power-plants, etc,etc…

      Men are completely capable of reaching their full capabilities as humans while working hard – in fact one could go as far as saying it is a requirement. Losing a few years at the end of your life (compared to women) is a small price to pay – you will know you have lived your life fully and have contributed to society fully during your lifetime.

      The only men exclude from this, whom I imagine you speak for, is a rather small minority.

    • J.J.

      “South Africa:

      Maternity leave:

      4 months Up to 60% dependent on income

      Paternity leave:

      3 days paid family responsibility leave”


    • V. Ranchhod

      Hi Christi,

      Thanks for your response. I get your overall point, and maybe I’m being too pedantic, but I still wouldn’t attribute the ‘brunt of apartheid’ to women. The gender burden exists/existed before, during and after apartheid.

      But maybe your point is that the gender ‘costs’ were higher under apartheid? Either way, this would be a pretty difficult hypothesis to confirm or reject empirically.

      This attribution question is also, in my opinion, not a trivial issue. These groupings by race, gender, race x gender etc, can affect people’s identities and sense of solidarity, with apartheid victims/beneficiaries being in all likelihood the biggest determinant of contemporary identity in SA. This in turn has strong implications for the public discourse here. So on a practical and pragmatic level I’d also be more cautious about the claim.

      In any case, thanks – I think the article was thought provoking and useful.


    • Emma Lousie Powell

      Thanks for this Christi. Your responses to the comments also blew both me and the undertones of misogyny contained in some them straight out the water. You rock! keep up this good work and see you at Summer School next Wednesday!

    • J.J.

      @ CvdW:

      – “No, gender roles are not biologically determined. And, no, we’re not in trouble when we accept this fact.”

      I guess “the biological clock” for women doesn’t exists then and all that stuff about “hormones” is just heresy, I mean hearsay.

      Well, I think I’ll rather go tinker on my car in the garage now and leave this debate for intellectuals – need some time for this to sink in, as this is getting REALLY confusing.
      (So all those biology books at school LIED! Very upset about that!)

    • J.J.
    • Momma Cyndi


      When you start lactating and getting up every four hours to feed the baby, you too can have 4 months of maternity leave (don’t even go with the idea of expressing into bottles because woman biology doesn’t have a manual time setting). Yes, we have always had four months maternity leave for women in South Africa via the UIF.

      Yes, there are things that women can do that men can’t and there are things that men can do that women can’t (well so I’ve been told). That is not the issue. Men can now CHOOSE to be ‘househusbands’ and stay home with the kids.

    • J.J.

      @ Momma Cyndi

      “Men can now CHOOSE to be ‘househusbands’ and stay home with the kids.”

      Yes, without pay. Unlike women. Feminist issues are always about how women are disadvantaged as apposed to men, yet on closer inspection it’s very often (if not most of the time) the other way around.

      A bit of honesty from feminists (and *non-feminists alike) would honestly be refreshing!

      (*We don’t see non-feminists take feminists to task much for their slanted views and sometimes outright disinformation, or dare I say, outright lies…).

    • J.J.

      …but I guess it’s ideology over integrity or responsibility.

    • Momma Cyndi


      Who pays women to stay at home and be housewives?

      Women are practically forced to stay with the baby for the first few months because breast feeding is best for the baby – not because it is best for them! You seem to think it is some kind of a glorious holiday to survive on four hours of sleep and being a hormonaly challenged mobile dairy.

    • bernpm

      @Momma Cindy: “Who pays women to stay at home and be housewives?”

      IN the majority of cases the father will pay either by law order or agreement in the form of free board and lodging (in SA very often with supply of a “home assistant” is included).

    • Race

      Women don’t look after babies all by themselves anymore, I always got up with our kids in the night even on the days i had to get up for work. I never once got any credit for it and I know that our society and especially feminists don’t want to give fathers any credit for anything to do with kids because that would take away from the greatness of mothers. I did everything around the house that my wife did and more like the plumbing , shingling the roof, dry walling the basement for her etc.I never got help with that from her. Everyone would say “I don’t know how she does it” because the assumption is I just sit on my butt and drink beer. It’s not politically correct to say that men do share the work around the house and look after the kids, and on top of it all your own wife won’t admit it to anyone. Talk about thankless. In this economy there are allot of fathers home looking after babies and young kids while moms out working. Nobody knows how she does it!

    • Race

      …and men have never got paid for anything they do around the house either

    • HendrikAfrica

      It is that time of the year, February. It is true that in the marriage there are some ‘modern’ husband that appreciate the change of the modern wifes profile in the combined lifes they now lead. Allow me though to step a bit further back to where relationships are actually welded together. It is there that a proper foundation should be layed for future relationships and profiles within the marriage to come.
      Being the 14thFeb, the day located to love it unfortunately also goes combined with many sharing a broken heart and it is about that I now want to speak – those experiences that lead to many a wet pillow in times where others biggest problem is to get a bunch of roses at a fairprice or attemp, maybe at the last minute, to get a place for an unforgettable romantic evening with his/her partner.
      There is two kind of wet pillows related to love, those that suffer heartache due to having experienced a love and then there are those that suffers because their hearts are empty with no love to frame within the broken frame that frames a picture of love in its full beauty and depth.
      One suffer from a broken heart not because you have not had the pleasure of experiencing love, but because you did. My advice to you is to be glad that you have a picture of such great value, framed maybe by a broken frame but still that picture there painted with a brush using colours mixed to perfection by you yourself. Spare a thought for those that dispaly an empty frame today.