Forget the skirt, arrest the fashion police

This post was originally posted on the Mail and Guardian Thoughtleader platform, and has been reproduced here with permission of the authors (detailed at the end of the post)

If Lindiwe Mazibuko and Angie Motshekga appear poles apart politically, there is one reality they have shared socially — being subjected to public sexist insults.

Mazibuko’s case is only the latest in a number of public incidents where women are dismissed on the basis of body, age and dress — that age old language of reminding women that even when we have earned our right to leadership, we are not truly to be taken seriously in the public sphere.

This kind of belittling manifests itself even more aggressively in public spaces outside the plush carpets of Parliament. Too often these scenes play out in our taxi ranks where black women are punished for owning their bodies.

The pattern of crowd subjecting the woman to humiliation is remarkably similar. Like in the taxi rank, the scene had its ring leaders (‘bra Manamela and ‘ta Jeffery), cheering spectators, mostly older women (imbokodo), who watched as the patriarchs disciplined the wayward woman who is, in their eyes, a perpetual minor.

But this letter is not about Mazibuko.

It is about all black women. From the taxi rank to the Parliament women are subjected to sexist insults and are undermined regardless of their position and role as leaders. Respect is now reserved for men, some defended on the basis of their so-called “eldership” rather than political office.

Potso ke hore: tlhompho le thlomphano ke eng? Re botsa hore re utloisise hore na baholo ba reng ha ba re Lindiwe Mazibuko o hloka tlhompho. Tlhompho le tlhomphano tsebong ea rona ke tlama-thata; baholo ba bonts’a tlhompho ho baena hore baena ba tsebe tlhompho ea ho itlhompha le ho ba hlompha.

Ngabe abafazi inhlonipho ayibafanelanga na? Ngoba kutheni thina siyaqhizwa esidlangalaleni?

Kwezinye intsuku kuthiwa sityebe okwee “mvumbu” okanye okwee “ndlovu”. Ngenye sithi sibukele umabonakude sibone iibloomers zabafazi sivezwa esidlangalaleni.

Lusikizi olu.

Nontsizi Mgqwetho rightly proclaimed that “asinak’ukuthula umhlaba ubolile” (we cannot keep quiet while the world is rotting); in this case, we cannot keep silent because the decay is playing itself on our bodies.

Njengo kuba sinibeke pha ePalamente, asinibekelanga ukuba nichithe ixesha ne mali yethu niphikisana ngeempahla zethu bafazi. As former police commissioner Bheki Cele once said — stop playing fashion police, just do your jobs!

Signed by:

Nomalanga Mkhize (lecturer, history, Rhodes University).
Mathe Maema (PhD candidate, computer science, Rhodes University).
Babalwa Magoqwana (lecturer, sociology, Rhodes University).
Siphokazi Magadla (lecturer, politics, Rhodes University).

* We have chosen to write the letter in three languages, English, Sotho and Xhosa. We do so because we believe that as feminists, specifically black feminists, we lose the debate even before we start if we use English. We need to be able to articulate this feminism in our own languages. We also wish to respond in a language that the people involved will understand. Thus we are not willing to translate the message into English. In this country, it should be easy for the English speakers to find someone to translate the bits they do not understand. This is an act that all other South Africans do on a daily basis, translating English into their languages. The reverse should also be possible and not peculiar.


Sunday Times’ article on Khanyi Mbau disturbing

Tammy Sutherns
Tammy Sutherns

By Tam Sutherns

I assume it was because a double page spread had already been ‘booked’ for an exclusive interview with Khanyi Mbau (who allegedly never pitched for said interview) that the Sunday Times’ Lifestyle section instead ran a two-page letter by a writer on the socialite on Sunday.

And yet I’m not quite sure what the writer was getting at – forgive me, her name escapes me and my newspaper has long since been recycled. Her two-page, in-depth rant about Khanyi Mbau that attacks everything from her lifestyle to her clothes is an embarrassment to South African journalism. More so that a two-page feature spread on Khanyi Mbau was expected to appear in the first place.

We really don’t need to break down the problematic kind of woman Khanyi Mbau represents, that much is obvious. What is concerning is that a fellow female, who it seems was all too excited to interview her, lashed out in a bitter and spiteful letter when she did not pitch to the interview. The letter dismantles her as a mother, as a female and as a wife. I don’t think I’ve witnessed such a literary bitch session in all my life.

What’s more is that the Sunday Times chose to use up valuable, editorial space for this piece of fluff, glossing it up with a timeline of Khanyi Mbau’s controversial life on the bottom. Is in anyone really interested in this woman? I’m not sure if I should be more offended as a female that the Sunday Times wanted to feature her at all, or that when she didn’t materialize for the interview, that she still felt it necessary to fill the gap with the garbage.

I don’t care about Khanyi Mbau and I don’t want to read about her or her drunken bitch fights, her affairs or her array of cars. I certainly don’t want to read a writer then making a mockery of herself, as if she was surprised that Khanyi Mbau did not pitch up at OR Tambo International Airport when Sunday Times had already footed the bill for her flight.

Perhaps the writer thought the hype behind Khanyi Mbau was just that and in person she might surprise and even entertain. But the reaction is laughable. Please idolize some more appropriate, editorial-worthy South African women. And could the real journalists please stand up.


Madams and Maids: an opportunity for empowerment

By Athi Koyana

I recently read the book, The Help by Kathryn Stockett[i]. The story is set during the time of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi. The story raises many issues about segregation and inequality between men and women. However, I couldn’t help but wonder about the strangeblessings that come from racially complex relationships between the black woman who is the help (maid) and the white woman (madam) she works for.

After I read the book I was deeply moved and started to ask questions about how things are in our country because the relationship between a white woman and “her help” is vastly different from that of a black woman (like me) and “her help” (and not always in a good way but that it is whole can of worms for another day).  The reality is that there are still tensions among black and white South Africans but there is so much hope and many inspiring stories that can emerge from these complex relationships.  I could not help but appreciate the blessings that come when women choose to use their historically ordained roles of the madam and maid as a model for change in themselves and their communities.

On World Aids Day I had the privilege of witnessingthe beautyof Durban in the new South Africa.  I attended the Olive Tree Church(OTC) Sewing School Graduation[ii].  Women from the OTC volunteer their time on Thursday mornings to teach sewing skills to women who are domestic workers or unemployed.  When I walked into the room I immediately noticed how different these 2 groups of women are, in terms of race and socio-economic backgrounds (their historically ordained roles).  The reality is that, the white women who volunteer could be (and in some cases are) the women that employ black women to clean their homes and care for their young children.

The respect and understanding underpinning the relationships formed in the school amongst thewomen has seen the school run successfully for 19 years.  The women from OTC volunteer their time, skill and patience to serve the domestic workers or unemployed women so that they are empowered with a skill to uplift themselves and their communities.  The black women receive a sewing machine at the end of the 2 year course so that they can teach other people in their own community and they can start their own business.

As people spoke of their experiences I realized that they were similar in the sense that the sewing school has given the volunteers a sense of purpose while the students graduated with a skill.  There was a collaboration where all involved were learning. It was inspirational to hear one of the volunteers giving hope to all the women by sharing her personal life of being a single mother.  These are the issues that bind us as women no matter what race or class and it’s vital we share these aspects of life to motivate each other.  This makes us all belong to the human race.

Equality is not a word to throw around loosely when it comes to the relationship between a white woman and a black woman within these historically embedded positions.  There are incredibly complex issues that I cannot even begin to delve into but believe me when I say that there is equality amongst the women at the sewing school.  Perhaps not equal in terms of social capital or class but equal in value.  Each has needs that need to be met and no one is being exploited; the women have a symbiotic relationship, a balance.  That is equality.

It is vital that we play our part in seeing a change within our communities.  We all still struggle with stereotypes of how a relationship between a black and white woman cannot be seen as equal, but I saw that equality is not always about equality in material possession but it is a mutual respect and understanding that the women at the sewing school share.  Recently I was walking with a friend at a shopping center and I was carrying her baby while she did grocery shopping. Onlookers were of the impression that I was the nanny (not friend or colleague) because I was minding her daughter because it is hard for people to see past historically ordained roles of madam and maid as far as black and white female relationships are concerned.  There is no need for us to stay in these stereotypical roles if we understand our value.

The reality is that in order to have a renewal of mindset, it starts with the individual;are we being the change we would like to see in our cities and country?  It’s no use to have conversations at dinner parties asking these questions. There is so much we can learn from each other, but we need to be vulnerable to volunteer because when we give of ourselves we open room in our hearts to receive.  My experience in Durban made me realize that the need for transformation is great but we can’t change it with one grand gesture.  It takes the 19 years of women committed to the sewing school.

[i] Kathryn Stockett, who was raised in Jackson, Mississippi, was inspired by her close childhood relationship with her family’s black maid to write The Help. Her debut novel tells the story of privileged families in Jackson and the black women who work for them but lives in a separate part of town and are segregated from whites.

[ii] The Olive Tree Church Sewing School is situated at the Whirling Wheel Building off Arbuckle Road off Umgeni Road.


‘Good’ girls, sex and Gareth Cliff

By Jen Thorpe

The Independent Online reported today that Gareth Cliff has been reported to the BCCSA for sexist comments whilst interviewing Angela Larkin, a young female philanthropist.

To begin the interview, Cliff praised her for starting her work at 22, saying it was unusual because most 22 year-olds “do nothing but lie on their backs with their legs open”. I was listening to the interview at the time, and remember thinking that this was a rather unnecessary, sexist and irrelevant thing to say and something that would make me feel really uncomfortable if I were being interviewed. Larkin managed a brief hesitation before she politely answered him.

According to IOL, the reason that he was reported was because Tex Collins who reported him said:

“He sends out the message that every young girl is nothing but a prostitute and a whore.”

To which Gareth Cliff responded on his blog this morning

“I accept that some sensitive people may have felt the comment offensive, but who (unless they were described by it) would consider themselves so described if there were no truth to the insult?” ,and

“The reason I had Angela on my show is because she is precisely the opposite of the kind of girl I am alleged to have offended.”

There are a number of things that are being said here:

  • Women are represented as whores by a statement like Cliff’s, and this is wrong (Collins)
  • Only sensitive people are offended by sexist comments, if they do not apply to them (Cliff)
  • It is acceptable to make sexist comments about ‘whores’, but not about ‘good’ girls like Angela Larkin (Cliff)

Let’s unpack those.

Message 1: It is wrong to represent women as whores. Collins thinks that it is wrong to describe women as whores, but the articles don’t go into details on why he felt this way.

Perhaps it was because reducing women to their sexuality is something that denies them alternative ontologies. The power of a label like ‘whore’ is that it says that the woman is nothing more than a vagina on legs, and it ignores her various life achievements.

Second, it might be disagreeable to represent women as ‘whores’ because we are widely uncomfortable with sex work, or women having lots of sex, and with women as sexual beings at all. Society portrays men as predators, and women as passive recipients of sex so calling a woman a whore is saying that she is against society’s acceptable sex roles.

Message 2: Only sensitive people are offended by sexist comments, if they do not apply to them.

Cliff says that he doesn’t understand why someone would be offended, unless the comment applied to them. This is simply a really weak response.

Of course Cliff can understand why what he said was offensive even if he isn’t a 22yr-old sex crazed woman, in the same way he can understand that what Darren Scott said was offensive even though he’s not black. Labelling those offended as ‘sensitive’ is part of challenging their ontological resistance. It denies that people could be offended unless they themselves were whores.

Anti female comments affect all womenSo if I’m offended, then I’m a whore, in which case he doesn’t hold my opinion worthy enough of his consideration. It’s a clever trick of language which allows him to avoid considering what he has really said. It’s the same bad tactic that you find in many male arguments which undermine women’s rights (like labelling them hysterical).

Anti-female comments affect all women, regardless of their sexual voracity. They either reduce women to sex-organs, or label women who are not sexual ‘good girls’. This simply creates a message that some women are acceptable, whereas others are not.

Message 3: It’s acceptable to be sexist to whores, but not to ‘good girls’ like Angela Larkin

Cliff’s message here is particularly powerful. He believes the only people he could have offended are women who pursue sex, who he deems to have no right to be offended precisely because they pursue sex, and that his comment could not have affected Larkin’s ability to do the interview because “she is precisely the opposite of the kind of girl I am alleged to have offended”. This is an even more complex statement to make because it says two things:

  1. He wouldn’t have had a woman on his show who did enjoy lying on her back with her legs open
  2. Women who pursue sex achieve nothing
  3. Larkin achieved something, so she can’t be someone who is sexual.

This makes it seem as though being a woman and being sexual or wanting to have sex has a negative effect on the chances that you will make positive change in the world.

women's sexuality is their businessIt also says that if you have achieved something as inspiring as Larkin has, then there was obviously no time for you to be having sex.

What Gareth Cliff is saying is that it’s ok to be sexist to the ‘bad’ girls who are sexual, but not ok to this girl that he interviewed. That sets up standards for acceptable femininity that are completely out of line with the world I want to see. Women’s sexuality is their business, and has no influence on whether they make positive change in the world. You can have sex with who you want as much as you want and still make a difference – this is not for Cliff to decide.

His comments were offensive and I think the report was completely justified. His defence of his comments shows how ingrained his sexism is – if it were a comment that were racist he would understand that racism is offensive to everyone in a democracy based on equality. The same goes for sexism – when you undermine the rights of half the population, the entire population has a right to be offended.


He stripped down my underpants and my private parts were exposed: commentary on the Krugersdorp Sex-tape scandal.

By Rethabile Mashale

As I write this I am angry and confused. As a woman, social activist and researcher, I feel the need to address the issue of the “scandalous sex-tape” between the male prison warden and female police officer in Krugersdorp.  I have both seen the video and followed the story in the media, on Facebook and twitter and am still struggling to understand what is happening about this incident from a leadership point of view as well as a gendered and human rights perspective. It is from this departure point that I would like to share my humble opinion on the matter.

From the stories in the media, the male warden and police woman had accompanied an inmate to a hospital in Krugersdorp, while the inmate was being attended to, the two law enforcement officials engaged in the sex act which was filmed without the informed consent of the woman. This lack of informed consent for the filming and distribution of the tape sets the issue as a gross violation of the woman’s human rights, right to dignity, right to privacy, right to give consent and ultimately the right to self-determination about one’s body and how it is used and portrayed. It also highlights the intent of the male official in secretly recording the incident.

There is no denying that the sexual act took place, however, the way the situation has been portrayed in the media seems sensational and one sided and mainly favours the perpetrator, who in this instance is the man. As far as I am aware, the woman did not consent to the filming and distribution of the tape. Instead her “lover” secretly recorded the tape as evidence in case she cried rape. Then the tape was “mysteriously” shared to male friends who then distributed it further to their circles.  The impression I am getting is that the man wanted to brag to his friends about his sexual exploits and thus made the tape available to those interested. Unbeknownst to the woman, the tape was shared to everyone and the story went viral in a matter of hours.

I am not denying her involvement in the sex act, what I am questioning are the events that transpired post the sex act. The events that transpired subsequent to the leaking of the tape place her as a victim in this case.The public frenzy that has served to inflict secondary trauma and humiliation on her has spurred me to comment.

Had she been aware of the filming of the video, I probably would not be as sympathetic. I believe that she was coerced into sex, violated by the man she trusted and now is being violated by the media and public. This echoes experiences of sexual assault survivors who report a violent act to the authorities and are then violated and let down by the Justice System in South Africa. The man then admits himself into medical treatment for depression and suicidal ideation, resigns from his work while she is left humiliated and fired from her work.

The media frenzy that ensued after the leaking of the video tape and photos and subsequently led to an episode of Special Assignment being aired (SABC3, 24 August 2011), it is interesting to note the Special Assignment panel consisted of three men, including the editor of the Sowetan Newspaper.  The Special Assignment episode showed video clips of the two, with a pronounced focus on the woman, which served to further violate her in the public domain. A male decided to record the video, the video was passed on to males, a male editor decided to publish the story, special assignment had a male only panel,  but the woman has suffered the most! This leads me to invoke the age old questions of minority movements: who is speaking for whom in this situation? And what are they saying? How was the voice of the woman, whom I consider the victim here, heard in that context?

The failure of the appropriate legal leadership structures to address this matter in the public domain, which is where this case is currently negotiated, only serves to reinforce the notion that because the act was committed by a man, they cannot sell out one of their own. This inaction on the part of leadership structures reinforces the oppressive gender norms and further undermines and objectifies women in our society. This has implications for women’s rights by underminingthe struggle and advances of women’s movements and more recently men’s movements.