Lean Back, Please

Natasha Skoryk
Natasha Skoryk

by Natasha Skoryk

First off, I’d like to say that I read Lean In last year, and I liked it. I liked it so much that I took photos of certain paragraphs and messaged them to my best friend. I particularly loved the sections on not feeling the need to be ‘unemotional’ in a workplace environment, Sandberg’s telling women to stop expecting more senior females to mentor them purely on account of their shared gender and her trepidation about women setting unattainable standards of perfection for themselves, which then prohibit them from feeling successful. I did not find the book particularly revolutionary in how it dealt with gender issues. I didn’t really get a sense of it being any sort of concrete manifesto. I read Lean In as a memoir of a very successful career woman, whom I admire, and a self-empowerment book. And I felt pretty self-empowered by the end, so I recommended the book to others, because I figured it did what it set out to do pretty well.

But I was wrong. Because Lean In had actually set out to become a practical movement. Lean In, a book about one middle class white woman’s success in the corporate world and her (genuinely good) advice for others like her, is now being framed as seminal doctrine. Which is where my confusion starts. The book is all about self-empowerment, so I struggle to see how it can form the basis of a grassroots movement that seeks to bring about meaningful transformation. I struggle to see how personal advice about things women can do to better themselves in corporate environments can be institutionalised to bring about mass change. But apparently, there is now a Lean In Circle at the University of Cape Town, trying to do just that. I quite like that name, I fancy the idea of women seated around a table, leaning the fuck in and grabbing opportunities. I just don’t really see how this Lean In Circle is doing that.

Lean In at UCT has fringed my life – I have several friends involved. This is unsurprising – most of my friends, both male and female, self-identify as feminists. However, this week the organisation made its way onto my social media radar with ‘The Man Campaign’ that they have now implemented. The idea, I’ve been told, is to ensure men are not sidelined from the feminist movement. The idea, as I understand it, is to get men’s ‘buy in’ to support gender equality. And, well. I fundamentally disagree with the premises that led to those two ideas.

Men have never been sidelined from feminist discourse. Men have never been excluded from the conversation. In fact, men have been, and still are, shaping the conversation. Lawmakers continue to predominantly be men. Most of current female-centric media is being produced by men. This is a problem. This needs to change. While we undoubtedly need support from men, we don’t need the conversation focusing around how men view gender inequality. We need men listening to the conversation, and participating in it to a degree, but the conversation needs to be shaped by women. This is not a radical notion. The idea of allies to the oppressed is present in most equality movements – yet for some reason, the idea of ‘allies’ to feminists continues to appear problematic to a lot of people. For some reason, ‘allies’ to feminists are expected to ‘buy in’. They are allowed to purchase a part of our conversation, a part of our experience, in order to validate it to society at large. They are expected to own a part of the discourse for their ‘mothers, sisters, wives and daughters’.

The reduction of women to their relationships to men has already permeated ‘The Man Campaign’. The first image shown depicted a young man saying that women are the most powerful people in the world (this is a well-meaning lie, women are not the most powerful people, women continue to take up but a small percentage of leadership roles in both the public and civil sectors and there remains a pervasive pay gap between genders – all issues, interestingly, that Sandberg highlights in her book), and that he really loves and respects his mother. I have no problem with the latter claim, except where it ties into feminism.

Please, men. Stop being feminist for the exceptional women in your life. I don’t like the insinuation that because certain women are phenomenal, all women must be. I don’t like women being reduced to one homogenous group based on preconceived ideas of femininity gleaned from the other women in men’s lives – regardless of whether those ideas are positive or negative. This takes away women’s individualism and agency. Some women are horrible. I simply don’t love all women. I also don’t love all men. But I believe they must be treated equally, because I believe in fundamental human rights. And I know that women are currently oppressed, whereas men are not. Which is why I am a feminist and not broadly egalitarian.

Another thing that needs to stop is the idea that men ought to support feminism because they stand to benefit from gender equality. They do. Feminism supports stay-at-home fathers, paternal rights and men being sensitive and creative. Patriarchy is harmful for men and women alike, the gender binary is devastating for us all. If ‘The Man Campaign’ had focused on the ways men are harmed by patriarchy, I would have possibly resented it less. That is a worthwhile conversation. Still, let’s not focus our attention on the benefits to the oppressor. Men should be supporting feminism because they believe in principles of equality. Not for certain special women. Not for themselves. But for us all, as a society.

Honestly, I really don’t need men validating my feminism. ‘The Man Campaign’s’ insinuation that I do, that by having men talk about my issues they somehow gain credibility in broader society, is abhorrent to me. I want men supporting and engaging with feminist discourse. But no, I’d rather they not Lean In with us. Why? Because they’ve already been leaning in for centuries. Let’s have men lean back for once, and let women shape this one conversation.


Natasha is a third year humanities student at the University of Cape Town. She is passionate about societal transformation, and is actively involved in student life, currently serving as Deputy Chair Internal of Ubunye. Ubunye is one of UCT’s development agencies, committed to meaningful change amongst the student population and the communities at large.

School girls hope community media becomes their salvation on their journey into womanhood.

Masutane Modjadji
Masutane Modjadji

By Masutane Modjadji

The most trying thing about working in a rural environment is not the lack of better roads or basic services not reaching areas that need them the most – it is watching people falling through the cracks of a system designed to improve their status quo. On any given day community media journalists get bombarded with complaints from members of the public wishing for recourse for the injustices they’re faced with. Community media is viewed as a salvation for those who are looking for affirmation that they are right in demanding better treatment from those entrusted with bringing them services.

It’s not uncommon to hear stories of local clinics closing after lunch because the nurses are too tired to continue working. Either that or they are just unwilling to do their jobs. The negative attitude public servants greet rural masses with also leaves a lot to be desired. These are people who have to wake up in the wee hours of the morning to walk long distances for hours queuing to get help. More often than not it has to take a call and few follow ups from a newsroom to help someone obtain their ID from home affairs due to years of unexplained delays. Here nothing happens unless you know people who can push it. This has become a normal part of working for a community media. It can be as fulfilling as it can be frustrating.

Frustration perhaps is a word I can best describe the plight of girl students at a Ninakhulu Primary School in Lulekani villages around Ba-Phalaborwa Municipality.

From a distance their new school looks like it was plucked from a city and put in this arid area surrounded by golden grass. When you step inside and meet the students you don’t need the principal to tell you that a big percentage of the learners come from poor family backgrounds. You will still need to give your ear to listen to the situations most go back home to after each school day. When the school year calendar ends the principal identifies learners whose need for food are more urgent, in order to give what is left from the government’s feeding scheme to them.  At times their food packages get stolen as their households have no doors.

I first came across their story as a rumour that turned out to be a dire need for girls, many of whom at puberty are at the threshold of womanhood. The story was that a high rate of absenteeism among female learners had lead to an investigation that uncovered that the girls would be absent for an average of three days per week. Upon further investigation the acting principal Mrs Sibiya said she discovered that learners were absent during their periods. She had conducted this investigation talking to them and assessing their backgrounds. The majority of the girls came from impoverished households and their parents could not afford sanitary pads.

Not having sanitary towels to aid them during their periods is a problem the girls’ families cannot afford to have. The principal took it upon herself to do something about this. Armed with a zero budget and mostly hoping for donations from members of the public she started her request for help with the common of “Can your radio station please help…..” Like most people in this area community media is where she hopes her girls’ salvation will come from.

If you can assist, please contact us on feministssa@gmail.com and we will put you in touch with the principal directly.

MEC cannot ask for an ‘apology’ for the sexual violation of learners

Jen Thorpe
Jen Thorpe

By Jennifer Thorpe

This is your chance to show that you take children’s rights seriously and object to the violation of female sexuality in our country, and in our schools.

It is Child Protection Week this week in South Africa. Last week a bloodied condom was found in the girls bathroom at Jordao College, a private school, in Gauteng. Instead of using this as an opportunity to encourage positive and healthy discussions around sexuality, the principal instructed teachers to conduct ‘tests for sexual activity’ on all female learners between grades 10 and 12 (average age at starting grade 10 – 15 years old). The way they chose to do this was to force female learners to remove their underwear so it could be inspected.  Girls were not given a choice.

In South Africa we have clear legislation around virginity testing. A guide by the Children’s Institute at UCT on the Children’s Act makes it quite clear that virginity testing can only be conducted in South Africa under very strict circumstances and by qualified health care professionals.

The guide states:

“The Children’s Act, Section 12(4) prohibits virginity testing of children under the age of 16 years. Anyone who contravenes the prohibition is guilty of an offence and can be fined or imprisoned for 10 years or be given both a fine and a term of imprisonment (section 305(1)(a) and (6)). Virginity testing of children older than 16 may be performed but only under strict conditions that are specified in the Act and the Regulations:

• the child must consent to the test – i.e. it must be the child’s choice

(the child must sign Form 1);

• the test may only be performed after the child has been counselled properly;

• the child’s age must be verified;

• each child should be tested individually and in private;

• the test must be done in a hygienic manner (in particular, a separate pair of sterile surgical gloves must be used for each child);

• only a female can test a girl child and only a male can test a boy child;

• the results of the test may not be disclosed without the child’s consent; and

• after the test, the child’s body may not be marked in anyway (i.e. the outcome of the test must be kept confidential).

It is an offence not to comply with these requirements and a person is liable on conviction to a fine or to imprisonment for up to two years in some cases, or even up to 10 years in other cases, or to both a fine and imprisonment.”

Instead of taking decisive action against all those involved in this violation of girls’ dignity, and stigmatisation of female sexuality, the Gauteng MEC for education has simply asked the teachers to write an apology, to the parents of the learners, not even to the girls.

The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Act 32 of 2007 also describes the offence of ‘compelled self-sexual assault’ which applies to this situation. It states as Section 7:

“A person (‘A’) who unlawfully and intentionally compels a complainant (‘B’), without the consent of B, to:  (b) engage in any act which has or may have the effect of sexually arousing or sexually degrading B, is guilty of the offence of compelled self-sexual assault.”

The Act defines consent as follows:

“‘consent’ means voluntary or unforced agreement.”

It is alleged that the girls were not given any choice, and in fact were threatened by teachers. If this is the case then these teachers have committed a crime in terms of the Sexual Offences Act and should be removed from their positions with immediate effect, and charged for the failure to do their duty to protect learners from harm.

Nowhere in the article does it make mention of inspecting the boys and thus this is a clear instance of gender-based violence. Gender-based violence cannot be something that is let off with an apology. That is what we have the law for. It is not acceptable that we continue to allow the violation of children’s rights, especially not in such a critical period as children’s week. The MEC has an opportunity to show South Africa that the Government takes children’s rights seriously.

An apology is not enough. I encourage you to email the MEC and the Gauteng Department of Education (gdeinfo@gauteng.gov.za) and ask him to follow the law in terms of removing the principal, removing those teachers involved in this abuse, and holding all responsible parties accountable. Girls should not face fear when they go to school, and should not wonder about whether their dignity will be violated.

A case for gender parity in education

Athambile Masola
Athambile Masola

By Athambile Masola

Until Malala Yousafzai’s story became well-known, I doubt many people considered what it means to be young and female and seeking an education in a conflict-ridden society that has a bias against the education of girls. Recently I read about a teacher from Afghanistan, Nahida, and I realised that in another part of the world a girl’s education is not a given. Nahida is a school principal for a girls school in Kabul. She has persevered through many difficulties in making sure the education of girls in Kabul matters. Her experiences also reveal that when a country is conflict-ridden for three decades, the people who suffer the most are girls and the women who teach them.

If we focus on Afghanistan alone, Nahida’s story brings to light the interconnectedness of politics, security and education. She points out that

In the last period of time when Mujahidin came to power, different portions of Mujahidin started fighting in Kabul and other provinces. Schools closed because of security, especially girls schools. Schools become a target for Mujahidin. Slowly when stability came to Afghanistan and Kabul for me it was priority to encourage girls and their families to come back to school. I gave the message to their families and asked them to send their daughters to school again.”

Nahida’s story is relevant when we consider the education of girls in other regions because girls living in the Arab States are at a greater disadvantage: the share of females in the out-of-school population is 60%, compared with 57% in South and West Asia and 54 % in sub-Saharan Africa.

A more gendered narrative reveals that girls education can still be sacrificed at the altar because of sexist ideas that reveal that women and girls do not matter. This is especially the case with the Taliban’s laws in Afghanistan. Nahida reveals that

When the Taliban came to power, it was their policy to close all the schools for females. For me, it was difficult to go to school to teach. When I went to my school, the principal of the school was a Mullah and he didn’t allow me to enter the school and asked me after that not to come to school. But for the boys, school was open. When I understood the policy of Taliban was not to allow girls and female teachers to go to school, I started a home school for girls because families and their parents asked me to teach their daughters.”

Let’s consider some statistics from UNESCO’s EFA report related to education in Afghanistan and the Arab states:

  • 175 million young people in low and lower middle income countries are unable to read a single sentence, of whom 61% are female. In South and West Asia, two out of three young people who cannot read are young women.
  • Afghanistan has the highest level of gender disparity in primary education in the world with only 71 girls in primary school for every 100 boys. It is likely to remain very far from the Millennium Development Goal target of gender parity in primary education by 2015.
  • No girls were in secondary school in 1999 in Afghanistan. By 2011, the female gross enrolment ratio rose to 34%, which meant there were only 55 girls in secondary school for every 100 boys.
  • While almost 80% of the richest boys in urban areas were completing primary school in 2011, the same was true for only 4% of the poorest girls living in rural areas.
  • In Iraq, not only has progress towards gender parity been slow, but poor, rural girls have not benefited. The lower secondary completion rate was 58% for rich urban boys and just 3% for poor rural girls in 2011. Safety remains an issue for girls’ schooling, particularly in areas of major instability and insecurity.

What do these numbers suggest about the education of girls? Beyond considering the role of the teacher, it seems that in societies where the girl child’s education is not taken seriously, a cultural shift needs to happen alongside the change in policies that recognise that the education of girls is central to the development of any country. Girls born in middle class homes (where both parents are usually educated) have chances of escaping the narrative however for poorer women and girls more needs to be done politically and socially.

Writing about the education of girls immediately invokes the position of boys. It matters for both boys and girls that girls should be treated equally and have access to the same education. Boys that do not grow up around girls  whose minds and opinions matter become men who may interpret that as the default setting for women. An equal education is a good idea for both boys and girls.

Whenever the issue of gender equality comes up amongst the boys I teach there’s always the rolling of eyes and defensiveness. Boys have misunderstood gender equality: they have been duped into the idea that the equality of girls means that boys do not matter; that boys are the enemy that are the target when women and girls are being empowered. Boys need to be given a new narrative not only about their masculinity but also about femininity and an equal education with equal opportunities is central to making those changes.

I went to a girls school for 12 years of my life. My learning was never disrupted, not even by teacher strikes. I never had to contemplate whether my education mattered or not because whenever I went to school, I knew it mattered and it made me believe that I matter too. Apart from the criticism against girls’ schools, when we consider the global context, we need to prioritise the education of a girl child even more. Girls who stay in schools that function are more likely to make different decisions for their lives and these decisions are important for their families, communities and the rest of the world.

Amadoda – challenging masculinity

Sona Mahendra
Sona Mahendra

By Sona Mahendra

Concepts such as femininity, womanhood and other issues directly impact a young woman’s sense of self growing up in this patriarchal world, especially concepts of virginity, ‘purity’ and honour. Feminist discussions on these topics invite young women to participate and provide a platform where we can voice the challenges and obstacles that we face and how contemporary and orthodox definitions of the topics listed above stifles our actions and voices.

These discussions have been extremely helpful for young women such as myself to help define ourselves where our immediate social circles may be dominated by male interests, thoughts and actions. Much of this conversation has also targeted the ideas of masculinity and manhood and how these have come to be exhibited in our societies past and present in an oppressive manner towards women.

Many women feminists have also approached this topic in an academic way, deconstructing the masculine identity very effectively.  I was eager to find out if there was a space where young men were given the opportunity to deliberate, discuss and debate these ideas, a lot of which have great relevance to the creation of their identity. I was looking for a platform where men can voice their opinions in this regard and watch them deconstruct historical and societal notions on manhood and create their own definition of this identity.

It was to my great delight to have found a new youth movement that has dedicated itself to filling in this vacuum and addressing issues of masculinity and ‘maleness within the context of South Africa, that is, addressing issues surrounding young South African men.

AmaDODA is a student-based social movement at the University of Cape Town. It is keen on targeting topics and issues affecting young males and encouraging them to be better educated and sincere to the world around them, which not only makes them better allies for women’s rights movements, but it also creates disciplined, conscientious and moral individuals and citizens. The conversation that they have started is important because it encourages men to question their privileges and realities.

To find out more about the movement, I spoke briefly to one of AmaDODA’s co-founders, Dalisu Jwara, who highlighted certain aspects of this project.

Sona. M: What purpose is AmaDODA trying to serve in the community?

Dalisu.J: Amadoda aspires to raise men of value. We have noticed the dearth in good male role models in society, and we are trying to create a positive change in our generation.

SM: What main issues will AmaDODA be tackling?

DJ: Issues we are tackling are leadership, values based manhood and of course, the contentious gender debate. We have created a platform where people are engaging on issues of masculinity and the possible effects of such a movement as perceived by feminists.

SM: Will AmaDODA address the issue of gender inequality?

DJ: Not sure on gender inequality, I think indirectly we may be tackling this. But this is not our sole purpose. We are saying, we see that as men we are perceived in a negative light, we have left many homes, fatherless, how can we be better and useful “men” in society. And I guess this begins by recognizing that men and women must co-exist, we are both equal, but face different issues.

SM: What are you doing right now to carry out your vision? 

DJ: We have formed a partnership with international women’s organization V-day, and are bringing an initiative called One Billion Rising to UCT. We are also taking part in Cape Talk/Primedia, 16 day activism campaign in December, and are scaling up nationally-we are looking to launch in JHB and in the Eastern Cape.

SM: How does one became part of this project? 

DJ: Like our Facebook page, join in on the discussions. We don’t have a formal process. One can purchase a T-shirt to show that they support what we stand for.

SM: Is AmaDODA open only to men?

DJ: No it isn’t. If one identifies with our ideals, they are free to be part of the movement. We welcome criticism (as it stimulates debate) and open, frank conversations between men and women.

To read more about AmaDODA and its origins, click: http://uct.ac.za/mondaypaper/?id=9664

You can find them on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/amadodamovement) where I would encourage the youth, especially men, to follow and join the important conversation they have started.

Ladies; please!

Jonathan Smith
Jonathan Smith

By Jonathan Smith

Being an English teacher, the usage and the power of language is a daily reminder to me how—even in the small words we say—gender, racial and all forms of oppression can be re-enforced, leaving little room to be challenged.

I’m finding there is a fine line at times between a much needed political correctness to changes in the way we speak, or a descent into absurdity. Perhaps the hardest challenge is figuring out which usage is which; should a ‘man-hole’ become a ‘person-hole’ –or some other terminology (or is it one of those absurd small things that waste time?)

I have written previously on this blog about the usage of “guys” as a generic word used for groups. Recently another discussion I entered was about whether lady or ladies is an offensive word. From arguments on both sides, by female and male, I have heard a strong condemnation of its usage and an equally strong feeling that it is one of the better words to describe a woman. Personally I had started to make a conscious effort a few years back to refer to women and not ladies; and I still think in practise it is a much safer, if somewhat harsher, word.

Those opposed to its usage argue against it as a descriptor word on two main basis. Firstly, the connotation often associated with ‘lady’ is one who fits the nineteenth century image of a soft, sweet, well-mannered, obedient young lady/wife who is willing to support her husband and stand behind him all the way, without any ambition or real power. It is a limiting word used to dismiss woman as equals in a sarcastic swipe (as per my title).  Secondly, the connotation of a “Lady of the night” also not only limits this woman’s viewpoint, but plays on her sexual prowess as an object that can easily be manipulated.

Yet there are others who see stopping the usage of ‘Lady’ as one of those aspects when equality should not come at the expense of femininity; on the contrary that feminism is not a drive for an androgynous race of wo/men but rather a quest for complete equality and choice; those who still choose to be traditionally feminine (as in pretty, caring for one’s self and appearance…) remain so. Thus for them ‘Lady’ is an acknowledgement of this; it is a sign that their holistic nature has been seen; and when used, in contrast to ‘woman’, brings a more personal touch and an acknowledgment of themselves.

So what do you think? What should we (male and female) call someone who is not a man, a male, a guy, a dude, a gent, a chap, a bloke, a fellow,…as in someone who is equal but whom language fails to identify positively and with strength. As a male who has privilege (far more than I most probably am aware of) I should, in humility, listen to the voices of the female. But whose voice do I listen to? And who should decide who is right?

The scourge of the single-mother

Athambile Masola
Athambile Masola

By Athambile Masola

As a teacher I have come to appreciate some of the challenges that teenagers have to face: teenage pregnancy, drug-use, sex education in relation to the myths they hear from friends! All these ills are often clumped under  the portmanteau word: peer-pressure. Beyond these challenges, access to quality education and opportunities that will ward off poverty also form part of the teenage-question. In truth, the list is endless.

What is also often included in the list of the many social ills that plague young people is the question of family structures. For many working class teens the prospect of being in a child-headed home is a real possibility or a home where the mother is the primary care-giver, raising a child (or children) alone. As someone who was raised by a mother who opted for divorce and a grandmother who raised six children alone, I am often uncomfortable when single-mothers are lumped into the list of social ills that I’ve listed above.

My purpose is not to glorify the experience of single mothers as I have no doubt that it is often (not always) circumstances beyond many women’s control that leads them to a place where they are left with the responsibility of raising children without the assumed extra help of the father or a father-figure. I have also been surprised by friends (who happen to be white) who have spoken about being single-mothers. The one shared how she opted to be a single-mother because she was financially independent enough to do so and another said she would opt to be a single-mother if she felt ready to have a child whether or not she’s in a relationship.

I’d like to question how it is that we continue to add single-mothers to the list of social ills. The truth is, the reality of being a single-mother and the extent of the hardships one faces are closely related to a woman’s social class. The reality of raising a child or children alone without the expected help of a father, is different for a middle class woman than for a working class woman. The middle-class woman has resources the poorer woman does not have and the poorer woman is often called in to be the child-minder for the wealthier woman who can afford to pay someone to help look after her child.

My other concern is that the focus on the poor, single-mother should rather shift to the harsh reality that renders the lives of poor women an eternal hardship. Poverty. Together with poverty, the obsession with the idea of the nuclear family means that women are a problem unless they conform to the social structure of family where there ought to be a father figure in the home. Where a man or father figure is absent in a home, we refer to this as a broken home (but if a man is in a position where he raises children alone, he is the hero).

If we consider the reality of many working class black families, the family unit has never been prioritised. Many working class women have never been “kept” women who stay at home and look after the children. They have mostly been working mothers who have been in exploitative working environments without the benefits to support child care (When my aunt had her first child in the 1970s she was working in a factory. She did not have maternity leave and she was back at work the day after she gave birth to my cousin). Fathers, brothers and uncles were migrant labourers who could not be in the home to help raise the children. And this form of family life in the black community still exists where work opportunities do not allow working class men and women to fully support their families either financially or with their physical presence.

The single-mother question often brings into light the question of what kind of children does a single-mother raise? The perception is often that single-mothers cannot raise boys who will become “real” men and their daughters will become women who are too independent with “daddy issues” and will therefore seek attention from men because they have never received attention from their fathers. These are negative perceptions about what it means to raise children as a single-mother.

We need to recognise that whether a woman chooses to be a single mother or not, she has the right to be given the space and the rights to raise her children in a society that does not damn her for not conforming to the heteronormative idea of what is means to be a mother. We all have taken-for-granted ideas about what it means to be a mother and a father without thinking about the role of the extended family as well as the role of more supportive networks that woman may have when they are single-mothers. These networks may be informal or formal but they must allow us to recognise that single-mothering is a legitimate form of parenting.

Do Boys-only Schools Breed Violent Men?

Kameel Premhid
Kameel Premhid

By Kameel Premhid

To my horror, my daily news readings found me looking at a picture of five murder-accused where I recognised at least 3 of them as definitely having gone to my former high school (IOL). They were either in my year or a year or two below me. This fact was confirmed in the article itself.

I was shocked not only by the brutality of the crimes for which they are accused but for the fact that they went to the same school that I did. The thought that I was in the same environment as possible murderers is chilling: it makes the magnitude and reality of their alleged crime hit closer to home without (thankfully) having to experience it. Darwinian self-preservation in full force, the question is selfishly asked, “Could it have been me?”

It was this commonality and selfish preservation which led me to think critically about our school, violent crime and societal patterns of behaviour. Admittedly, we all have different experiences in life and our outlooks are shaped by a plethora of differing experiential realities. One thing that we have in common is the schools that we attend and what kind of life lessons they impart on us. Some may even argue that a failure to even get to school leaves an indelible mark: it is a proposition with which I am willing to agree.

So if we accept that schools have this kind of potential and ability to influence how we view the world, is it fair to question whether this school in particular contributed to what may have been the thought-process (or lack there-of) of these individuals who allegedly committed this crime?

It would be unfair for me to say that the school actively taught violence or that it officially condoned it. It would also be unfair of me to suggest that it could have been the school alone which is responsible for their questionable behaviour, whatever the outcome of the case may be. But is it fair for me to critically examine institutional culture I know to have existed at the school during my time? And which continues to exist (given the stories I hear)?

If it means that this school and others like it will critically examine the role that they play in shaping the many young men who pass through their hallowed halls, then yes I believe it is. In a country like ours, which is so devastatingly characterised by gender violence, we must do everything that we can in order to ensure that we stop this decay. The well-being of would-be aggressors and their possible victims depends on it.

Let me begin by saying that despite my own run-ins with management and my less-than-sympathetic critiques of the school and its personalities, I am immensely proud of that institution.

The school is a shining example of how public schooling can work, and work incredibly well. To a large degree, it offers boys a good education as well as excellent extra-curricular activities. It presents them with the ability to interact with boys from far flung parts of the province, to build a sense of camaraderie through the shared identity of that unflattering green blazer! Even though its racial demographics are still off the national scale, the possibility for integration does exist and in many cases has been achieved. It has produced champions in all fields; its matriculants have ranked highly, taken top places at South African universities and gone on to win major scholarships ending up with degrees from places like Oxford! It has produced artists, entertainers, sportsmen, politicians and businessmen all of whom have gone on to achieve magnificently and all of whom undeniably owe part of their success to the school. 

It has also done much for the surrounding area. By making itself a centre of excellence within the community, it has contributed to increasing investment in property and business: the area is desirable for families and entrepreneurs because activity revolves around a school that most parents want to send their boys to.

But it would be remiss of me to suggest that the school does not have concerning problems that need to be properly addressed. Agreed, no school is problem-free but the problems which concern me are not matters of mere administration. They are problems which speak to an institutional culture and which themselves have the possibility of leaving negative imprints on some of the boys who pass through it. In my opinion, it is not good enough to be satisfied that only a minority may go on to act like these young men stand accused of acting. One could go so far as to say that in South Africa, where rape and abuse of women is more prevalent that in war-torn countries, the minority’s problematic behaviour it too great an issue to ignore.

So what are the issues of which I speak?

One such issue is that of a culture of silence. Meaningful criticism and engagement is either ignored, swept under the carpet or mischaracterised as being disloyal. And where the stench of disloyalty can have you excommunicated, you are most likely to keep quiet. This is especially the case where the least charming or intelligent epithets are used to harangue you into silence. Sometimes it comes from on high. Other times it comes from apparatchiks. The point is: it happens. I know. My big-mouth got me into a lot of trouble. I was able to withstand that because my own ego allowed me to treat such behaviour with supreme disinterest. What also cushioned the blow was the fact that I belonged to a circle of friends who were like minded and unlikely to be silenced. We were a minority but we spoke for many more.

Related to this culture of silence then is the creation of a machismo-centric culture that is both exclusionary and oppressive. The creation of camaraderie is great. The creation of an exclusive identity of what a true man is however is very problematic. Usually because this identity, or at least my experience of it, is a euro-centric, heteronormative, outdated cultural stereotype that is valued and rewarded. You must be a straight, rugby-playing, hulking child-beast in order to succeed. Yes, we give our kudos to the high-flying academics and cultural achievers (it is in our interest to do so), but we really want you to be one of our type. And we reward those who are our ideal with praise, leadership and adulation – with the exception of a few token appointments of course.

The over prevalence of (unqualified) old boys who were usually doyens of the sports field as academic staff, whilst problematic in terms of academic standards and quality, is also problematic in terms of institutional culture. Retaining these big names who never seem to grow up and move on from their school boy personas means that the testosterone filled environment only gets that much more contentious, with staff not being separated enough in age or temperament from the boys they are supposed to teach.

Effective discipline is confused with the need to appear and/or be tough. Threats, cajoling, shouting, swearing and physical posturing are favoured tactics amongst the enforcers. They work more often than not. And more often than not they result in that culture cascading all the way down the rank and file. Poor grade 8s. This again smacks of a predominantly male culture.

And it isn’t only the boys who are oppressed or excluded because of these constructs. So too are the staff. Independence is not valued and if anything, the independent voices are either made irrelevant, undermined or driven out of the school. The few female teachers that do exist are treated with respect but are treated in the same way that one would a trophy wife. Nice to look at but not really important to listen to. Women staff must surely feel this institutional culture intolerable if not oppressive. It is a pity that so few have any ability to act.

Allowing for difference is important. And schools must be safe environments in which the right to be different must be protected. A failure to do so only engenders more problems. It incentivizes underground activity which is itself risqué because boys do not want to be found out. Be that in something as serious as their sexual orientation or as unimportant as a penchant for singing classical music. Most of them know they have to lead a double life for fear of being outed – the start of a possibly unending round of psychological and physical torment.  

I remember vividly that a cheeky (straight) friend once asked what would happen if someone chose to bring a male partner to the revered matric dance. The official line, if my memory serves me correctly, was that they would not be stopped from doing so. But the school would not be held accountable for the actions of their classmates.

This culture of official indifference was prevalent in other aspects of school life. Whilst bullying was outlawed, it was also expected that a certain amount of ‘boyish’ teasing and muscle-flexing would happen. Psychological distress and in some cases physical abuse was only ever acted against when the consequences were severe enough that the brand could be damaged. And even then, whilst officialdom took a certain line, the conduct of those in senior positions or those closely affiliated to them made it evident that this sort of thing was ‘snitching,’ ‘unmanly’ and worthy of contempt. Again, the reasons to remain silent and bear it were strong.

The school is in a unique place to rid the boys that go to it of decades long constructions of masculinity. In actively tackling these ideas and in making young boys understand that violence, chauvinism and sexism is incorrect, my old school, and no doubt many schools like it, can do society a great service. In moulding impressionable young minds and making them more tolerate, less prone to using violence as a solution and being more open-minded, maybe we can undercut the prevailing perverse culture of male violence in South Africa. If the schools are successful there is no telling of the type of change this can bring when those young boys become men.

Going beyond representation to true equality

Claire Martens
Claire Martens

By Claire Martens

I recently attended a high-level dialogue on the future of development in Africa. The discussions centred on governance and development and were attended by delegates from a number of African countries. Admittedly, I have not travelled through much of Africa, and so my distorted perceptions of gender equality throughout the continent are based on anecdotal evidence and media reports. But I think it is fair to say that gender rights and equality is not equally prolific in every African country, and even where these are supported, the results are far from perfect. I was surprised then to hear a lot of support for gender equality as a development outcome, voiced by both male and female delegates. I guess I must be somewhat naïve…or maybe not.

One discussion, in particular, was about gender representation in parliament. Interestingly, in Kenya a strict gender policy is being implemented which seeks a 50/50 representation, which sounds very noble. But I admit that my definition of gender equality does not encapsulate only one aspect of representation, as important as gender leadership is, but considers more the day-to-day trials and tribulations which exclude women from active participation in every aspect of life – from birth to school and family, to employment and giving birth and death. I always think about development in terms of the reality of the human being and what makes up their existence.

This thinking is strongly influence by Amartya Sen’s “Development as Freedom”, which sees development of human beings as something quite different to conventional theories of development which miss out on all the good stuff that make us human – our relationships, desires, needs and opportunities. Development as freedom understands and accepts that people are different and that true development of the human self comes from having a range of capabilities.

While I fully support gender representation in Parliament, because there are many useful and positive aspects which come from having female leaders at such a high level of governance, I wonder what these women truly represent in a world which continues to segregate women from the same opportunities as men, constraining their capabilities and confining them to worlds imposed upon them. As my colleague said to me, the changes don’t happen before the woman gets to the top, but only while she is there. Hence, that climb is difficult and I am continually surprised when women “make it”, when though I shouldn’t be.

But, when you really think about the challenges faced by women, you may also start to react like me. Think about China and how many girl children are born, in comparison to boys. Think about how being born into poverty denies you a good education in a country like South Africa. Think about how many girls are taken out of school to support their other siblings, or denied an education from the beginning, like fourteen year-old Malala Yousafza who was shot for wanting to go to school. Think about how many South African girls fall pregnant while they are still at school, or children themselves. Ever heard of the practice of ukuthwala? Well, it happens. I have yet to hear of a child bride who has gone on to be a world leader.

When I think about the world in this way, I see gender equality as equal opportunity in all facets of life and death, from simply the willingness of your parents to allow you to be born, to being able to attend school, finish it without being married or falling pregnant and go on to study anything you want to study or work in an environment where you are respected and valued.

Imagine the life you want and ask yourself how much of that you have achieved, what has set you back, and how is it related to the patriarchal norms and conditions that exist in this country. I am not talking of money, even though wealth can buy you many capabilities, but being able to have relationships with anyone you choose, love whoever you want, think and believe in anything that affirms your life and values and be capable of making real choices. We need to move away from gender representation to true equality, which means breaking down the social and cultural norms which deny people the lives they want.

Will the youth leaders please stand up!

Masutane Modjadji
Masutane Modjadji

By Masutane Modjaji

June the month of the youth is here. Never in my life have I ever been conscious about the significant of this month as I am of it this year. This could be because the year has been very challenging for the country’s youth and youth leaders. Just to recap, this year ANCYL leaders have found themselves at the in such a rap that those who are left to lead are not sure where how to proceed without the vocal forefront runners. Other youth bodies like the NYDA have been accused of looking out for their own and nobody takes them seriously anymore. In a way this has exposed the fear I have always harboured regarding the lack of high calibre youth leadership with a clear vision of what the needs of the youth are in 2012.

Those of us who have heard about the class of 1976 and their bravery find ourselves wishing for similar heroes today. As history teaches us, their quest for a decent education for every South African student is the main reason we are commemorating June 16th.

Exactly 36 years later millions of South African student find themselves relying on civil society bodies to force government through court battles to face its obligation of providing the basic norms of a standard education.

The increasing litigation against education officials at the low levels of education follows a successful action by Equal Education to compel government and Limpopo’s provincial department to provide text books to school kids in that province.The latest one is the Eastern Cape over the department’s failure to fill teaching posts. At the height of these court battles we are missing the youth leaders’ voices elected into authority to speak out against the national crisis that our education is turning into.

Higher learning institutions are not without challenges. Apart from the controversial administration policies at some of our university, education remains the one most important tool that will help our government curb staggering unemployment levels among the youth. Sadly the very same poverty, that makes many wish to escape its hold, is the stumbling block in the way of getting that education. Even though it represents a way out of a life of doom, the reality is that education is just too expensive.

At the end of last year Cape Peninsula University of Technology provided a ray of hope for students how have completed its graduate courses but still have outstanding fees. The letters were mailed encouraging those who have successfully completed their studies to apply to a bursary fund that was made available by the Minister of High Education.

Most graduates who could not afford to settle their accounts after successfully completing their studies just cannot seem to crack it into the work force. After a process of filling out forms after forms, and submitting one or another document, the process was frozen just before payment was supposed to have been made. Half a year later with no explanation, students were advised to start making arrangement to pay their fees. The muted reaction from the SASCO, PASMA and other student representative organisations just prove what I most fear. South African youth are on their own.

Editorial: What hopes for the youth in SA?

Jen Thorpe
Jen Thorpe

June 2012

It’s not easy to be young in SA.

I started the month of June by reading this article about the number of girls falling pregnant in Grade 3. As in, at nine years old. When they are 27, their daughters and sons will be in matric. There is nothing in the article about the fathers of these children, other than to suggest that they are rapists. Sex with someone under the age of 15 is always rape. What about paternal parental responsibilities when the child is conceived with another classmate? How can children of 9 years old raise a child?

These are the young women we want to lead South Africa one day. Many of them are being educated outside of classrooms, because of a lack of teachers, a lack of government commitment and a lack of facilities. This should be of major concern to us.

Sexual violence flourishes in South African schools. This year we have seen the Soweto rape video, and many more instances of abuse against minors. There is no nationalised sex education curriculum, and the provincial ones that  I have seen do not have any lessons on sexual violence or rape.

Girls are absent from schools because they are menstruating. President Zuma promised to provide sanitary towels to young girls of school going age. I haven’t heard any more about whether this has been implemented. Girls leave school when they are pregnant – sometimes at the school’s request, sometimes because of peer pressure. There are next to no support structures for mothers in schools.

Girls will leave school, with a matric or not, and will face soaring unemployment rates. Some will live in areas of affluence, others in areas with a lack of service delivery. A lack of education limits the life choices of girls in their adult years.

We need to change this somehow. This month I think we need to start looking critically at our lack of activism as women relating to education. We can no longer afford to remain silent about the risks that girls face going to school, and the more significant risks that they face when they don’t get an education. If girls in South Africa are not educated, we will remain a patriarchal country, and perhaps it will get worse for women.

I’d love to hear your solutions, suggestions and hopes. We need to see our way out of this tunnel. Shine some light for us.

Jen Thorpe


Call for Chapters: Women`s Rights in the XXI Century

This post originally appeared on the Writers Afrika website.

Deadline: 5 June 2012

Each chapter should combine theoretical considerations & practical problems affecting women. We welcome chapters devoted to the following topics (but not limited to):

– Women`s Rights (legal studies, case studies)
– Women`s Rights & Conflict
– Sexual violence
– Women`s Rights & Migration (displacement, refugees)
– Women`s Rights in developing countries
– Women`s Rights & Democracy
– Women`s Rights & Religion
– Women`s Rights & Culture
– Women`s Rights & Activism
– Women`s Rights & Community Development
– Women`s Rights in Public International Law
– Mothers’ Rights
– Other problems affecting women

Prospective contributors are invited to submit their initial proposals (500 words) and short CV to the editors by June 5, 2012. The invited essays (8000-9000 words) are to be submitted by July 15, 2012.

The language of the proposed publication is English. Please also feel welcome to circulate this call for papers to colleagues who may be interested in contributing a paper.

Deadline for abstract submissions: June 5, 2012.

Deadline for final chapters: July 15, 2012.


For inquiries/ submissions: caroline.schultz.unim@gmail.com

Reconfiguring ‘The Violent Black man’, and the succesful black woman: a critical response to Jonathan Jansen

Gcobani Qambela
Gcobani Qambela

By Gcobani Qambela

I have just read a highly disturbing and problematic piece by the Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State, Professor Jonathan Jansen. In this piece he notes that

“more women, compared to men are graduating from high school and from university with dire consequences for our still patriarchal society.”

Understandably, he questions the sociological impact that this will have on South Africa’s patriarchal society, with a large focus on the impact on heterosexual marriages.

In this piece Jansen, using American focused research in the book ‘Is Marriage for White People‘ by Stanford University’s Ralp Banks whose research shows that as black women succeed, many black women remain unmarried (as they do not want to compromise or settle for a less educated man). Jansen correctly notes that many men in South Africa have been socialised as the head of the household, however I disagree with his gloomy and pessimistic, almost urgent conclusion that these

“emasculated” (black) South African men who in ten years time will find themselves overridden by women occupying important and influential occupations will result in “tension and violence in many homes as men struggle to come to terms with their changed status.”

I do not agree with Jansen because he wrongly equates women’s access to education as a threat to (black) men, and that is not correct. While Jansen has colourblinded and tried to keep his article race neutral, his utilisation of American centric research amongst black African-American men, implies his piece is focused primarily on black South African men, and not all races.

Jansen sees black men as inherently violent and patriarchal, so it’s only natural to him that if black women assume powerful positions of power in both academic institutions and the corporate world, then necessarily black men (seeing their status threatened by black succesful women) will retaliate in violence and consequently continue to fill up the prisons. Jansen further goes on to perpetuate the racist stereotype of the political arena in South Africa being a domain for only uneducated black men who cannot find occupation anywhere else. He says he imagines

“more and more of these emasculated [uneducated black] men following their role models into politics, where in this country you need neither a degree nor any limits on your appetites for the intimate.”

It is not clear if this is directed at a particular political party or not, but I wonder where he places all the black people in South African politics with Masters degrees and PhD’s from reputable institution?

I see his piece as not only  deeply  sexist, but also an innately racist piece of writing, and contributes to essential white supremacists colonial misrepresentations of black men. In ‘We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity‘ American feminist scholar and cultural critic bell hooks for instance notes that black men are often easily

“seen as animals brutes, natural-born racists, and murderers, black men have had no real dramatic say when it comes to the way they are represented. They have made few interventions on the stereotype. As a consequence they are victimised by stereotypes that were first articulated in the nineteenth century but [still] hold sway over the minds and imaginations of citizens of this nation in the present day.”

While Jansen notes that patriarchy is learnt through socialisation, I am surprised that he seems so ardent and sure that amongst black males it cannot be unlearned through the same process of (re)socialisation.

Jonathan Jansen misses the point that women, especially black women doing well professionally and academically, could be an important teachable moment in the lives of South African men, especially for black men to rise up. I’ve been blessed to have been surrounded by incredible young black succesful women during my time at university and in my working life, and most of these women were not only working to pay off student loans and supporting their families, but were often educating their younger brothers and sisters. Many leading world thinkers including Oprah Winfrey, (who was awarded an honorary doctorate in 2011 under Jansen’s leadership at the University of the Free State) have long recognised ‘to change the world, educate a woman’, for women as opposed to males are able to use their education to further advance their families, as opposed to the common focus on self-enrichment amongst men.

Jonathan Jansen further sees stay at home fathers, as inherently emasculated consequently perpetuating harmful patriarchal understandings of fatherhood, with men being portrayed as incapable of being nurturers, and women bearing the sole responsibility for rearing children. He sees fathers who stay at home (whether by choice or circumstance) to raise their children  as beaten down, emasculated and failed men.

It’s highly problematic that a man of stature such as Jansen would not see the fringe benefits of educating women. Jansen in his piece does not question patriarchy and the negative remnants its left behind for men and women. His piece assumes that just because a black woman is successful, then that necessarily puts her in danger of the failed violent black South African man, so as to assume women less are less likely to suffer violence when their economic circumstances are less than those of men.  With SA’s painful history of forced marriages, I am surprised that Jansen assumes it to be a bad sociological choice for women to choose NOT to get married where they feel they are better able to support themselves/happier alone.

Masculinity, patriarchy along with violence are all learnt, and can similarly be unlearned. Unlearning however is the hard part, but it is possible to break the cycle of patriarchal thinking and violence. It seems to me however, Jansen has given up that we can reconstruct and reconfigure masculinity and patriarchy, but it appears to me that he is preoccupied with managing it, than overhauling it completely.

Since Jansen is using American research to understand black South African males, I would further counter the book (which he uses to support his predictions), by directing him to a 2012 study released by the University of Pennsylvania’s newly founded Centre for the Study of Race and Equity in Education which actually highlights that the achievement among black male undergraduates often goes unnoticed by most education experts. Dr Shaun Harper focusing on black undergraduate males notes that for instance

“To increase their educational attainment, the popular one-sided emphasis on failure and low-performing black male undergraduate must  be counterbalanced with insights gathered from those who somehow manage to navigate their way to and through higher education, despite all that is stacked against them.”

This is further supported by bell hooks who notes that

“negative stereotypes about the nature of black masculinity continue to undermine the identities black males are allowed to fashion for themselves.”

Jansen, makes the same mistakes that these education researchers Dr Shaun Harper is talking about, by focusing on studies of black men who have strayed, as opposed to looking at those who have succeeded not only professionally and academically, but as whole and fully realised black men in stable non-violent relationships with women (or even men)  who earn more/less than them.

There are many powerful and succesful black women in South Africa and internationally who command a lot of money and power (with relatively less affluent black husbands/partners), who don’t seem to fall into violent patriarchal blanket  terms that Jansen seems to us to address all black men.

I don’t see a pessimistic future for relations between black women and men, I see a more equitable one, where women have choices, are increasingly free from violence and better educated along with their black male counterparts. Just last week for instance we were celebrating one of Jansens black students, Sibusiso Tshabalala (20) who has recently been named one of Google’s top 10 young innovators, and there are many other young black males doing extraordinary things right next to the females.

As we highlight and celebrate them, along with their female counterparts, I believe the few left behind/straying will gather inspiration to become more better self-aware men. That’s why the work of organizations and programs such as One Man Can and Brothers for Life are important in introducing young men to new forms of masculinity, to counter patriarchal socialisation. It’s too early for Jansen to promote such a negative image of black men, especially when he himself is in a position to help change it.

Freedom of movement and education

Athambile Masola
Athambile Masola

By Athambile Masola

Last month Premier Zille’s tweets caused yet another outrage across the social networking world. Many took umbrage with her reference to education refugees from the Eastern Cape who have flooded schools in the Western Cape running away from the dismal quality of education.

I did not follow the furore as closely as I should have as I was recovering from my first term of teaching, in the Western Cape. I decided to spend some of my school holiday (at home) in East London and Grahamstown, in the Eastern Cape. Conversations inevitably led to the Premier’s tweet and her defence and justification for using the word refugee. I was moved by the extent of outrage amongst friends and I found myself taking umbrage with all the talk about education and refugees in a democratic country such as South Africa.

Premier Zille’s defence was in the attempt of reclaiming the word refugee for herself and how she understands it in the context of the chaotic education system in South Africa where people are voting with their feet and leaving the Eastern Cape for greener pastures in other provinces. As a teacher and someone from the Eastern Cape, I empathise with those who have had to relocate because their basic right to education in the Eastern Cape is being flagrantly disregarded. I have been asked numerous times why I did not stay in the Eastern Cape and teach in schools where there is the most need.

My reasoning has always been about the practicalities of teaching: the Western Cape Department of Education issued several vacancy lists for teaching posts whereas in the Eastern Cape there were none. Friends who decided to stay in the Eastern Cape and teach have still not been paid their first salary. These conditions amongst many others made it easy for me to consider a teaching post in the Western Cape where I have been paid regularly since January. But above all, I made the choice to move to the Western Cape. As a citizen of this country, the right of movement is one that I value as an individual.

The discourse of displacement and education refugees makes me uncomfortable considering that all citizens have the freedom of movement in this country. I doubt that yuppies would be dubbed as employment refugees when they move to the Western Cape for better employment opportunities (as is the case with many friends who decide to become lawyers and accountants and remain in the Western Cape after they have graduated from local universities). I doubt middle-class learners who move to the Western Cape (and attend private schools and expensive public schools) form part of the group of education refugees. It seems that education refugees refers to learners from poor, working class and marginalised communities. This implies that the freedom of movement is taken for granted for people who have the social capital to move, but those who are poor and in most need, it is problematised.

As a woman whose legacy is about forced removals and carrying the dompas as my grandmother did during apartheid, the freedom of movement and the choice to be able to move where I want to move is one I do not take for granted. It seems bizarre that the freedom to basic education can affect the freedom of movement as we have seen happen in the Eastern Cape. As a teacher who is well aware of the travesty that is taking place in the education system, I wish more people would be enraged by the state of education in the Eastern Cape (and all poor people in this country) rather than deconstructing Premier Zille’s misuse or disuse of the word.