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 www.summerschool.uct.ac.za. This article first appeared in the Cape Times.

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