Gcobani Qambela
Gcobani Qambela

The problem with ’emasculating men’

“Gender activist” Mbuyiselo Botha and University of South Africa professor Kopano Ratele recently wrote an article published in the Sunday Independent titled “Capitalism has emasculated black men”. They argue that “the struggle of the mineworkers is part of the long war waged by the black working class and poor men to regain their self-worth”. And that “we need reminding of the miners’ emasculation by an unfeeling racialised capitalism that values profits over people”.

According to the authors “men without money are looked down upon” in capitalist societies and men without money are often unable to fulfil their duties as fathers. The strike is not only about decent wages but “a contestation between capitalist, white, masculinities and poor, black masculinities”. At the crux of the article is the idea that if we envisioned a more caring society, then we have failed because “we have not shown sympathetic outrage and empathy towards the men, who also have families to support”.

I cringed numerous times while reading this because it’s written by black men who make a living off gender equality work, and yet it ends up promoting harmful, heterosexual, black patriarchy. There is indeed a long history — tied to colonialism and apartheid — of assault on black male bodies and labour by white capitalism and patriarchy particularly in the mining sector. This is linked to the larger global historical process of codifying dark, male bodies, which goes beyond industrial and scientific racism.

In A Grammar of Black Masculinity: A Body of Science Arthur F Saint-Aubin notes that historically, as early as the 1700s, “white supremacist patriarchy” had already begun an obsession with proving the inferiority of black men (along with black women and white women) to the “superior race” of white men. In South Africa this showed itself not only in racist scholarship, but also state policy, which restricted employment, wages and the movement of black South Africans.

Yet, as noted by Mark Hunter in his book Love in the Time of Aids: Inequality, Gender and Rights in South Africa, in particular the chapter on “Shacks in the Cracks of Apartheid: Industrial Women and the Changing Political Economy and Geography of Intimacy”, the process of labour migration had never been a simple linear process of men going to the mines/factories to provide for their wives or children.



Hunter shows through a number of case studies that the South African women who lived in informal settlements in the 1980s “disturbed two apartheid fantasies: that most African women should live in rural areas and that all women should be subjected to men’s authority in the patriarchal home”. According to Hunter, although apartheid was able to sustain itself in part through the promotion of the patriarchal home, “the unravelling of both apartheid and the male-led family were inextricably linked”.

In her book We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity bell hooks shows that the concept of “emasculation” is often used, in particular by black men, to (re)inscribe patriarchal order because “black men who are most worried about castration and emasculation are those who have completely absorbed white-supremacist patriarchal definitions of masculinity”.

Thinkers such Nawal El Saadawi have done great work in showing how patriarchy — manifested as a system of male power — in Africa has the effect of victimising men and women. And in her groundbreaking TEDxTalk “We should all be feminists”, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says there is no word she despises more than “emasculation” because it has the effect of privileging men to the disservice of women and girls.

I also take the view that the “emasculation” discourse does not get us very far particularly in instances where we should be talking about the dehumanisation of black people and not just black men. It’s difficult to understand how Botha and Ratele cannot see the violence of the patriarchal system they’re advocating for (to the detriment of the marginalised women miners).

If we’re going to talk about economic justice we should take it all the way, especially in a country like ours where black men assume the duality of being the oppressed (by white capitalism and patriarchy) and often the oppressors (of black women). A multimedia report by the Mail & Guardian on “How to survive as a woman miner” showed that while we focus on the wages male mineworkers get, female miners face the additional stressors of discrimination, sexual violation and violence at work.

The “emasculation” argument is reductive and erases the gains black women have made to free themselves of the traditional, black patriarchal household with man as sole provider. This is not to deny that many women and children rely on the miners, but Botha and Ratele ignore that even in these scenarios black women are often structurally and economically limited and hence their dependence on the male is often not by choice. Botha and Ratele assume that a working breadwinner who is a male automatically equals a happy homestead. Women deal with numerous oppressions tied to their race, gender and economic circumstance. This prevents them from being able to sustain themselves without a male.

More worrying is that Botha and Ratele seem to fall into the trap of assuming that the only way to be a black man is to be heterosexual although it is well-documented, especially in the context of the South African mines, that historically there are black miners who engage in same-sex “marriages” and take “wives” of the same gender.

We shouldn’t see the struggle of the miners through a heterosexual, male-centric lens, but rather as part of the larger systematic capitalist and patriarchal devaluation of black labour and exploitation of the black body. In South Africa black women remain far worse off than men in terms of unemployment, income, education and this should never be downplayed to engage male egotism, at their expense.

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    • http://www.aspo.org.za Yaj

      good article.profound.

    • The Creator

      Fair point.

    • Grant

      And yet Kenny Kunene, Malema and others seem just fine with Capitalism and they are black. Is it possible that being poor and earning low wages for menial labour also emasculates white men and Asian men too?

    • Joseph Coates

      Interesting video on how to survive as woman miner .Overall a good article.

    • Barbra

      Men (and many women) should stop looking for reasons to justify abominable male behaviour. As you point out, black women are generally much worse off, but not too many of them use that as an excuse to go out and abuse others.

    • Edward Jimla

      Those who have read Botha and Ratele will agree with me that this article is missing the point some how to their article. Their point was pretty clear that in the Capitalist society as a man if you are not working and have children to take care of is downright belittling in our societies and from where am sitting that is undiluted truth.

      I do agree that women are facing huge challenges as they form part of the designated groups and needs to be empowered but that should not blind us towards the plight of the black men in this country. Black men were also discriminated against back then and yes being disadvantaged now again does affect black men psychologically

      There is a new culture that is rearing it’s ugly head in our societies that in talking about the challenges facing our women counter-part then we have to attack black men and that is wrong. We usually hear men being called dintja(dogs) for no apparent reason, is it the kind of society we want to breed. Let’s be careful that in correcting what is wrong, we do don’t do a wrong thing again. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Botha and Ratele putting forth what men in this country are facing post ’94.

      Mr. Qambela your article is well-researched but missing the point in terms of Botha and Ratele’s article.

    • conrad

      well-argued article. Under the pretext of writing about race, a lot of hogwash is written. .

    • Banzi

      Grant, you missed it. “black men who are most worried about castration and emasculation are those who have completely absorbed white-supremacist patriarchal definitions of masculinity”.

    • Monwabisi Ncayiyana

      A well-argued discussion indeed and I have always said we must never personalise the question of race or be subjective. We must remain objective as possible.

    • http://aubreymoeketsiblog.wordpress.com AubreyMo

      thats one sided and crap….
      i dont agree with you sir

    • Bovril 24

      “… men who are most worried about castration and emasculation”, and patriarchy in general, have nothing to do with capitalism, black or white.

      The condition is as old as the hills, particularly among primitive societies, as aptly demonstrated in the most widely read and damaging book in the whole of Africa, i.e. the Old Testament.

      With the Black Baptista spouting patriachal women hatred and and eye for an eye morality to the under-educated, on a hundred radio stations, what do you really expect?

      A well considered article, nevertheless.

    • Annica

      Excellent. Said it so much better than I ever could.

    • hippiegoth

      Some excellent points made – thank you.

      I particularly agree with the suggestion that “dehumanisation” would, in many cases, be a more accurate and useful term than “emasculation.”

    • J.J.

      You points have some validity in the South African context, but then what about miners in countries where there are only Africans? Or only Asians? Or only Europeans? (Like Scandinavian countries). The only difference is likely to be that in the developed countries miners are paid well as opposed to the developing world.

      So for example – being a miner has a very low income in Latin America, Africa and Asia and a good or fair income in Europe. The conditions will probably be poor in the developing countries and the much better in the developed countries. Other than that, all miners would have the same struggles like families to support, regardless of race.

      In fact in European countries where men earn good money for hard labour, like in the construction industry or mining or working on oil rigs, men do not have a low status. In those countries it’s not “a poor man’s job”.

      Also in general, “men without money” are not looked down upon on those old European countries. Having money is not a requirement for “being a man” or for being valued as a man. This is a South African mental construct which comes from a left-over Apartheid legacy mentality, i.e: Hard labour jobs are done by black men (mostly) – hence hard labor is looked down upon… Hard labor is paid for at low/er wages. The men who do those jobs have no other choice, because of a lack of education…, which justifies the lower wages, etc, etc.

    • J.J.

      It’s up to us to release ourselves from these colonial mind constructs which we have not only adopted, but completely assimilated. So, again, in the SA context the bad conditions of miners takes on all sorts of connotations which it simply wouldn’t have in other parts of the world – as pointed out above. I don’t see how “emasculation” is at all relevant in this context – I’m yet to meet a man who has ever felt “emasculated” because he was paid low wages or did hard labour – and I have personally done hard labour (amongst other jobs) in foreign countries (building construction & agriculture) with men from various countries (and races) including fellow South Africans and the idea that either the wages or the conditions made a man feel emasculated is laughable. Which makes one wonder where all these theories come from. These jobs should be paid better – absolutely!! But, not because men feel insecure as men due to the wages. If that is indeed the case – I have personally not worked in SA mines, so can’t say for sure – it would have to do with the fact that women in this country look down on men with lower incomes, which indeed is a result of capitalism and materialism. And it has become so bad that men actually feel insecure about it. Miners should be paid more because they deserve it for the hard graft they do. Maybe women should show more respect for hard working men. Of course making this an issue about “the patriarchy” is just too tempting for some…

    • J.J.

      I don’t think this is a race issue at all. Any man would want to be able to earn enough however to sufficiently support his family financially. That’s just normal. Even if you had to remove the illusive concept of “the patriarchy”, that will never change. It’s hard coded in our biology. It’s seems to be very much coded in women to expect that from their men as well.

    • J.J.

      Men have been exploited by other men for their (the so-called patriarchy) since the beginnig of humanity (except if the garden of Eden really existed before that…). This has happened in every single political and econimic system, whether socialism, communism or capitalism. Miners in communism and soscialism didn’t get paid well (if at all… bar a few handouts – but there was often good state support, making up for that). The family unit was much stronger though and wifes and families fully supported their hard-working men. Women were usually working hard too – often in factories and in the lands/fields. The value of a human was not related to his income, as it is in capitalism – or at least, not for the general polulation – for the elites yes – Corporations or mines in Asia and Latin America are mostly not “white owned”, so the argument of the “white patriarchy” is not as relevant there as here, although even here not all are white owned. The point being that hard labor will always be required from men doing those jobs, regardless of the race/s of those doing the work or owning the firms/companies. Men having to work hard for other men – since men run/rule countries/companies/corporations/kingdoms/lands, agggresisve, demanding, etc) Even where you have had women rule/run the show, that didn’t change. I’m afriad the patriarchy is a fact of life. Who shall we blame? The universe. Men have historically been consistently exploited much more than women have.

    • J.J.

      “…there is no word she despises more than “emasculation” because it has the effect of privileging men to the disservice of women and girls…”

      The problem is that much feminist and LGBT discourse seems to be based on a type of competition for exposure.

      Although the word “emasculation” was used out of context by Botha and Ratele, that does not mean that emasculation does not happen or does not exist.

      There is a new trend that we notice in feminist discourse in relation to men – because feminist theories are always framed in relation to men – and that is that whenever mens issues are brought up (real issues – the ongoing exploitation or men, dehumanisation of men, rape of men, unfair legislation towards men, etc, etc) it is considered as “taking something away” from women and non-heterosexual men.

      It meet be worth taking into account that this approach in itself is the denial of the rights of others…

      Men have always been disadvantaged in some respects – in different respects than women – men traditionally just don’t bring the issues up since men accept (maybe wrongly) that that’s just part of being a man… . When men DO start pointing out that they also have always been disadvantaged and exploited or discriminated against, it’s not very well received at all, ironically.

      Those who claim to stand for and promote equal rights and human rights need to reflect.

    • Kopano Ratele

      Thanks for taking the time to criticise us, Mr Qambela. I appreciate it, and believe so does Mr Botha. However, as Mr Edward Jimla said, you did miss the point of our article.
      I didn’t write sooner because, well, because I was taken aback how you could have thought we promote ‘harmful, heterosexual, black patriarchy’. Really? Our point is that, to be clear, the mineworkers’ strike called for an intersectional analysis. Class, gender, sexuality, and race are co-constitutive of each other. We are very aware that many men are still hobbled by narrow definitions of fatherhood (and manhood) because they are complicit with racialised capitalist hetero-patriarchy. And so we do need queer and black and anti-capitalist (pro)feminisms in reading masculinities and femininities.
      You take exception to the word emasculation. Emasculation simply means some men, such as black men under colonialism and apartheid, were denied their manhood. We might very well have used the word dehumanization. Same ends. We were simply recalling that the word boy, was often used by whites, and even white kids, to refer to adult black men. But white racist capitalist hetero-patriarchy’s denial of black men to be regarded as men went much farther than that. Hence, we argued, trying to persuade men to support gender equality is likely to succeed if we also support their struggle for material and racial (and yes, sexual) freedom.
      Thank you again. Till next time.