Recently the Mail & Guardian held a Google Hangout revisiting the decision by the newspaper to establish a section dedicated to women. This is out of a concern that despite the good intentions of the section, it could have the effect of negatively contributing to the further ghettoization of “women’s issues”. I was invited to form part of this discussion but due to my technical connection on the day, I could only participate briefly before being cut off. However I do believe that many of the points that were raised in the discussion need continued engagement by a wider audience. There are critically two issues of significance that remain unresolved. The first issue concerns the purpose and politics that inform the M&G’s women’s section. The critical questions here being whether should it be an activist platform shaped by clear feminist agenda or a dynamic space that also offers a generous amount of “soft news” that affect women? The second issue concerns the question of “who is this M&G woman”? Is she an upper/middle class woman? Is she a “poor” rural/peri-urban woman or something in-between?
The editor of the women’s section, Aliki Karasaridis, correctly pointed out that like in most countries in the world women remain underrepresented in the writing and reporting of news in South Africa. A site like this thus offers the potential to both promote greater writing by women and a kind of reporting that places women’s lives in the centre of “mainstream” politics and news. This is a fair and factual response, but this recognition does not go further enough to articulate the unique South African condition and factors that find women in this country in the margins of media coverage. An ability to get a sense of clarity on the political conditions in this context will do well in providing direction regarding the content that a site of this nature needs to focus on. For me what is particular in South Africa is the masculinisation of the public sphere which resembles an “isibaya” — a kraal. Our public space resembles “bulls” fighting each other in the kraal while the women watch on the sidelines crying or ululating for their favoured bull. While they may enter the kraal, this is done at their own risk.
What has increasingly been deemed a “feminist backlash” to the work of the 1990s to transform political culture by addressing a history of racism and sexism, has to some extent succeeded in punishing racists to a degree. Yet when it comes to misogyny in our political culture we continue to give space and voice to men who eat sushi on women’s bodies, a president who thinks women will not have succeeded in their civic duty if they do not have babies, and men who claim to champion “worker’s rights” while seeing no problem with irregularly employing young women for the pure motive of attaining sexual favours.
Occurrences such as this, which are accompanied by an ANC Women’s League that resembles a femocracy, informs this moment in which a women’s section has become an important political interventionist act for a serious South African newspaper. In the transformations of the past years, which are exhibited by a vulgar “dressing down” of women’s rights, a section like this has the potential to become “ixhanti” for women — a sacred place. A space and place where women who care about this country can find a safe space to think aloud about how to either degender or engender the “isibaya” or plot how to dismantle it altogether without the threat of the raging bull(s).
I have faith in such potentially sacred spaces because in my own university I belong to the Women’s Academic Solidarity Association that was formed the year the university was celebrating its centenary year. To most women academics the centenary year seemed to be nothing more than a celebration of a hundred years of white male history in the institution. The clarity about the weight of that political moment made it easy for women to find necessity and safety in a separate space composed of women of different races, class, ages and nationalities to convene and plot as a collective how to dismantle hundred years of white male empire from these different intersections.
If this section is treated with clarity about the seriousness of the particularities that have led us into what I will call the isibayarisation of political life, it will be easier to source content that engages this reality for the writers and bloggers. As Chris Roper correctly noted we are currently in a “fake post-feminist” moment, but this recognition must come with also serious attention to the specific workings of the patriarchy in this country. At present the section occupies a curious position between rightly highlighting broader global sexisms while at the same time only offering flirtations to our own sibaya.
Once clarity of context is provided, this will allow us to start to address the second issue raised of the “kind” of women who will be interested in this section. Michelle Solomon rightly noted that the section as it stands is very white and middle class. What about the concerns of poor women in rural and peri-urban settings?
It may be true that there is nothing transformative about giving middle-class women, who already monopolise the small percentage of space that women get in the media, I however think that the majority of South African women who should be targeted for this section do not lie comfortably in these extremes of either middle class versus rural woman. There are many women who fall in-between these two women and understanding them may offer interesting and important insights about the state of our politics.
For instance, we know very little about the politics of the aspirant “Luminance woman” who is not yet a member of the small clique of women who can already afford to walk into that store. We still know far too little about details of the life of this pencil-skirt, high-heel wearing young black woman in her twenties or thirties in the corporate sector whose fashion is not just about comfort and style but about also making sure that her clients never mistake her for the company secretary. This hard-working black woman often leaves her office at some ungodly hour to work her way to the top. She has important tales to tell us about the institutional cultures of the corporate sector. She has better insights about whether the white “boys’ clubs” have been reconfigured to include the blacks or whether the black “boys” are creating clubs of their own. What tales does she have about the “sisterhood” she has formed with other women in her circle?
For us in the academy the case seems to be that “progressive” men in the political “left”, black and white, can be found sharing the spoils among themselves. The women on the other hand take up to 10 years to finish a master’s degree because they are caught, knee-deep, teaching hundreds of students while the men do “research”. We are yet to tell the horrid stories of the young women who are forced to accompany their department heads to their lectures to end up only assisting them click their PowerPoint slides! These women have much to tell us that perhaps the “isibaya” is all around us and not just peculiar to national politics.
And somewhere there is still another woman. She’s young, probably with a baby or two. She managed to finish matric but either did not complete tertiary or could not afford it. She rents a flat with one bedroom with two friends or more. She is definitely on Facebook, and maybe Twitter too. When she has temporary employment she is either working at Jet or Mr Price. Bonang Matheba is to her what Khanyi Dhlomo was to women before her. As a friend of mine has noted, this woman spends most of her days of unemployment watching repeats of Generations and Isidingo. She is part of what Nomalanga Mkhize has defined as the “Peter Pan” generation — economically forced into perpetual adolescence.
But unlike the invisible rural woman, this woman knows what is “trending” but has no real way of getting the trends herself. How is she affected by the isibayarisation of our politics?
I am sure that I have misrecognised many women in this crude categorisation of the many faces of “the South African woman”. What I wish to show is that women relate differently to the isibaya. The work of telling the joys and pains of all of these women can offer us fresh perspectives at these different levels of how to think ourselves out of this kraal and work on building our sacred space — ixhanti lethu — where we can start writing ourselves into the “mainstream”.
Doing so will do well in also redefining the seemingly clear binary between “soft” and “hard news” by showing the intersection of the political on the “everyday” lives of South African women.