The story of feminism in South Africa and the world has always been fragmented, conflicted and contested. This has largely been the case because of the many different voices amongst women who identify with feminism for different reasons. Understanding feminism in relation to race, class and sexuality highlights that there are many perspectives about why we still need feminism, and particularly, the kind of feminism we need. It’s important to investigate whether this is really happening, especially in a country like South Africa.
The current debates about feminism seem to happen in academic institutions where transformation still needs to happen as highlighted in Mandisi Majavu’s recent article. This is also happening within a context where race and class are also part of the transformation debate. Because of this, I am always unsettled when feminism seems to become the concern (and dare I say, the monopoly) of privileged, middle class (mostly white) women in South Africa. Spaces such as this blog and the Johannesburg tweet highlight this complexity. When reading the blog or watching “vag mag”, I still can’t help feel that the conversation needs to shift.
The missing perspective has to do with the (south) African narrative of feminism, or whether such a thing exists at all. When we talk of rebranding feminism we’re still talking about it from a white middle class perspective, why is that? And much of that is cloaked in American white feminism’s route of rebranding feminism. The onus always seems to be on those who have experienced feminism from different perspectives to highlight the need for understanding the complexities within feminism.
I have an understanding of ‘white middle class’-ness through my complex education(18 years in former white institutions), but my primary experience of feminism has been through stories of women like my Grandmother, womanism, black consciousness and how these have affected the reinvention of feminism. Whose responsibility is it to talk about bell hooks, Alice Walker, Nomboniso Gasa, Pumla Gqola, Amina Mama and the endless list of black feminists who have contributed to this debate before? Mary Sibanda’s work, Long live the Dead Queen is another example of understanding the different tropes to the story of women in this country. I am not suggesting that her work is feminist or that she is a feminist (I would hate to appropriate my perspective upon someone I don’t know), but her work is an opportunity to understand that the conversations we have about feminism might have an implications for other women in this country who have a different life experience beyond the walls of academia and the safe circles of middle classness. How do we reinvent feminism in order for these stories to emerge as well? The stories we never read, about the black working class single mother feminist who has no voice nor access to blogs such as this but the conversations we have about feminism and the extent of the hard work of economic transformation that still needs to be done, have an impact for how she lives her life. Whose story are we telling in this debate and how can we “make the circle bigger” for others to start reflecting on the middle classness of feminism? Is it possible, or even necessary, for feminism to represent all women?
The need to reinvent feminism is not a new debate. In isiXhosa we say, Inyathi ibuzwa kwabaphambili (In order to know something, ask those who have experienced it before you), which highlights the need for all feminists to keep going back into the history of this debate, while trying to take this forward in order to understand the relevance of feminism for our future. We need to constantly ask ourselves, who are we reinventing feminism for if feminism is about “making the circle bigger”?