“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.