Skhumba and what satire isn’t

A whole lot of people have had a whole lot to say about the Wits students who staged a topless protest on Tuesday as part of the ongoing #FeesMustFall protests. Now, there’s nothing new about topless protests. Students at Rhodes University earlier on this year went topless in order to protest about rape culture, and while the causes may differ, the purposes had similarities including showcasing the vulnerability of the protesters in sharp contrast to the armed police who had been violent towards them.

In predictable fashion, misogynists and pearl-clutching conservatives alike took turns bashing the protesters. The criticism mostly ranged from hysterical “these girls have no respect for themselves” slut-shaming to body shaming the protesting women for having the audacity to be topless while not looking like airbrushed supermodels. One such detractor was themostly irrelevant comedian Skhumba who released a video in which he body-shamed the protesters by comparing their breasts to “wet sneakers without shoelaces”.

Twitter responded accordingly. Within hours, the social justice organisation Amandla.mobi launched a petition to have Skhumba removed from Kaya FM until he apologized for his offensive comments. Although he did give a (half hearted and defensive) apology, that didn’t stop many of his fans from complaining about how the evil feminists are incapable of taking a joke with even some of his fans bringing up the excuse that consistently manages to make my skin crawl out of pure irritation.

It’s just satire!

I struggle to think of a term that is more misused and misunderstood than the term “satire”. Over the years, I have witnessed the term satire being used as a lazy, politically correct way to allow comedians, both professional and self proclaimed, to say the most offensive thing they possibly can without taking any responsibility. Its extensive misuse has aided the rise of the Schrodinger’s Douchebag, the person who makes an offensive statement and then decides based on the reaction of those around them whether or not they were joking.

Comedian Skhumbo, who is in hot water after making offensive comments about protesting students’ breasts

Those who misuse the term satire in this manner show that they have absolutely no understanding of what satire is. When one simply looks up the term satire on Dictionary.com, it’s easy to see one. Satire is defined there as, “the use of irony, sarcasm, ridicule, or the like, in exposing, denouncing,or deriding vice, folly, etc.”. Well this is true on a shallow level, this definition misses the primary function of satire.

What satire is:

The purpose of satire is to effectively “punch up”. Satire is used as a tool to challenge powerful/privileged individuals and institutions, bring them to account, and to challenge the status quo. It often uses sarcasm, ridicule, and exaggeration to expose and denounce the worst aspects of powerful individuals and institutions as well as provide social commentary on topical issues.

One can see this happening in the most famous examples of satire we have. This includes one of the earliest examples of literary satire, A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift. In his pamphlet, he proposes that in order to convert the starving children of Ireland into “sound and useful members of the Commonwealth” they should be fattened up and fed to Ireland’s wealthy landowners. In reality, Swift was making a scathing social commentary on the debilitating and dehumanising conditions of the Irish under the English and the wealthy Irish landowners of the time. Although Swift does criticise the common Irish citizens for not doing anything to rise up against their oppressors, the wealthy and powerful remain the primary targets of his critique.

Other more temporary famous examples of satire include the highly controversial Monty Python film The Life of Brian which ridicules the Christian church and organized religion, among other things. An example of satire that is not necessarily funny is Animal Farm by George Orwell, which uses animals to on one level criticize the Russian Revolution and communism yet on another criticizes the circulatory nature of revolutions. Perhaps one of the most famous examples of South African satire is “In detention” by Chris van Wyk which ridicules the Apartheid police force’s official explanation for the death of Steve Biko, who died in police custody.

Still from “The Life of Brian” by Monty Python

And what satire is not:

Although successful satire takes many forms, it is by definition concerned with holding the powerful to account. Comedians such as Skhumba are not doing this by joking about the perkiness of protesting students’ breasts. Neither are comedians who make jokes relying on tired, centuries old stereotypes related to race, gender, disability, sexuality, or any other marginalized group in order to tell jokes. I’m looking now at Fox News, who decided to air a blatantly racist segment on Asian people earlier this week and then defended themselves saying it was “all in good fun”. In fact, what they are doing is continuing to uphold long standing beliefs about marginalized people. Ironically, so-called satire in these examples is being used to do the exact opposite of its purpose: maintain the status quo rather than challenge it.

Satire is not an excuse to through out whatever bigoted statement one might have been thinking and then shout “ha, I was just kidding” when that statement is challenged. When done properly, it can be an incredible tool to challenge the powerful, the privileged, and the status quo. I truly believe that continuing to associate satire with the kind of lazy Family Guy type offensive humour displayed by comedians like Skhumbo undermines satires entire purpose and cheapens its value.

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Making lemons out of ‘Lemonade’: the hypocrisy of hooks’ critique

Many think pieces have already been written on Beyonce’s latest album Lemonade, and so I’ve been debating what value yet another think piece written by me could add to the discussion. The album itself is a masterful artistic work that demands attention. Its unapologetic examination of the pain and struggles that black woman often experience at the hands of black men, and our patriarchal society as a whole, is expertly explored through beautiful symbolic imagery, raw lyrics ,and the heart wrenching spoken word poetry of Somali-British poet Warsan Shire. It’s a brave album by Beyonce and it is amazing for a diehard member of the Beyhive such as myself to see the phenomenal artistic growth that Beyonce has undergone since her ‘Bootylicious’ days. She has gone from slut shaming her fellow women through songs like ‘Nasty Girl’, to celebrating black womanhood and black female sexuality, and it’s a transition that we as black women are only too happy to celebrate.

Well, not all of us.

In typical fashion, the Beyonce critics of the world have come out for her in full force. Beyonce has been accused of exploiting black pain, feminism and the current political climate for her own monetary gain, as it has “become fashionable” to do. And then of course, there are those who have picked up from where they left off after her self-titled album was released and have criticised her for her expression of her sexuality, of herself, and have bashed her feminism as watered down and not truly progressive.

One of those critics is former feminist icon of mine, bell hooks. In her recent piece, hooks criticises Beyonce for a number of reasons, including not adding anything new to the table, her use of violence displayed in “Hold Up”, her presentation of herself and other black women, and of course the way Beyonce has supposedly exploited the black female body in order to capitalise off of it. This is far from the first time hooks has criticised Beyonce. A few years ago, she criticised the singer for her expression of her sexuality, stating that it pandered to the male gaze, and even went as far as calling Beyonce a terrorist because of the enormous influence she has over young girls.

Now it must be said that I have a lot of respect for hooks in terms of the work she has done on misogynoir and dismantling patriarchy. However, I have a lot of issues with her, and the majority of my issues are exemplified by her criticisms of Beyonce.

The first issue I take with hooks, is her long standing femmephobia  that has permeated her work. Hooks has made it clear through her past work that she finds traditional presentations of femininity, such as wearing makeup and dresses, fundamentally oppressive towards women as such presentations are rooted in patriarchal standards of beauty and gender norms. While we most certainly should be criticizing patriarchal standards of beauty, I find it problematic for hooks to dismiss feminine presentations as fundamentally oppressive. Firstly, it is exclusionary, particularly of queer women, such as trans women, who depend on those presentations for safety and survival. It is also exclusionary of the many women who actively identify and choose to express themselves in a traditionally feminine manner. Such a view attempts to police the ways that woman can or should express themselves, and this attempt to remove women’s agency from the way that they present themselves is fundamentally problematic.

In other words, hooks has a very narrow idea of how feminist women should express themselves. If feminist women do not conform to her idea of feminism they are discarded, as not real feminists at best and “terrorists” at worst.

The second issue I take with not only hooks but with everyone who holds this position, is the idea that Beyonce is “exploiting” black women’s pain and struggles through capitalist gain. In the first place, this idea completely attempts to strip Beyonce’s blackness and womanhood from her. Yes, Beyonce is extremely privileged. She benefits enormously from her class privilege, her cishet privilege, and especially from the fact that with her light skin, thin nose, and long straight blonde weave, she fits Eurocentric standards of beauty far more than the average black woman. While this must be taken into account, and interrogated, the fact remains that as a black woman Beyonce is still not immune to misogynoir. She may be Beyonce, but she still operates as a black woman in a white supremacist patriarchal world and that has certain implications for her.

In Lemonade, Beyonce draws on the pain and experiences that she as a black woman has had in order to make wider social commentary about the pain and experiences of black women as a whole. Beyonce’s decision to draw on her own experiences is nothing new. This is something that artists, particularly male artists have been doing for years. For much of the 80s and 90s, black male artists would rap about issues affecting the black community, particularly issues relating to their own personal experiences and would receive praise for it. Even today, when Kendrick Lamar released a song like “Alright”, no one is questioning his motives for doing so. And while Beyonce’s work has not always been overtly feminist, artistic growth is so common as to be expected, and one wonders if her artistic growth would be questioned had she been a man.

One also needs to wonder if Beyonce’s work would be bashed as “capitalist” exploitation had she been a man either. This is criticism that I find particularly violent for a number of reasons. As mentioned before, a great many male artists use their music to speak on societal issues and not once are they accused of exploiting anyone’s pain, let alone their own pain and the pain of their people, for capitalist gain. I have never once heard of Kendrick Lamar or the late Tupac being criticised for the way they profited monetarily from their activism. In fact, the entire idea that one should not profit monetarily from activism seems to only present itself when a black female activist is doing it.

I find it particularly hypocritical for hooks to make this criticism. Hooks has been writing feminist literature since the late 80s and she profits from the sales of those books. She is paid to do talks and panel discussions on feminist issues. She is also paid to lecture on feminism. In other words, hooks has been profiting off of her activism since she first began publishing, but in her mind, and the minds of many, this does not seem to be a problem.

I don’t personally think that it is a problem. I think that black women in activism spaces are performing labour and, as they exist in a capitalist system in which compensation for ones labour is essential for survival, they should certainly be paid for it.

In “Feminism is for Everybody”, hooks highlights the need to make feminism as accessible as possible. She criticizes feminism in academia for being too elitist, too insular, and therefore failing to serve its revolutionary purpose, especially in a world where patriarchal ideology permeates every facet of pop culture from music, to TV shows, to books. She then makes the case that feminist ideology must become more accessible through books, music, movies, etc so that it can reach a wider audience and effectively counteract patriarchal thought. She even goes as far as to write her books in a casual style far removed from the stiff, verbose, and overly complicated style of academia in order to make her work accessible.

I would argue that what Beyonce is doing is exactly what hooks has argued needs to be done. Beyonce is using her powerful position and enormous platform to spread black feminist ideology. Through her work, millions, who may not otherwise have, have been exposed to black female writers such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Warsan Shire as well as black female works such as “Daughter of the Soil”. Lemonade also showcased black women of different ages and backgrounds, including the mothers of black men who have died at the hands of police brutality, who may not otherwise have been showcased. While Lemonade may not have been the perfect representation of black women, it is a step in the direction hooks wanted us to move in. Instead of acknowledging this, hooks dismisses it completely and argues “well, there’s nothing new here”.

Hooks’ complete dismissal of Beyonce’s feminism is particularly contradictory when one examines the way she has previously praised women such as  Emma Watson. Emma Watson is an especially important case, because Watson is also presents her self in a traditionally feminine manner and while she may not express herself sexually in the same way Beyonce does, she embodies the very type of feminism hooks claims to hate. Hooks’ has openly spoken out against feminism which focuses on making women equal to men as opposed to calling for an entire overhaul of the patriarchal capitalist society we live in. Yet, this is exactly the kind of feminism embodied by Watson’s “He for She” campaign.

There are a number of other contradictions within hooks’ criticism of Beyonce, including her equation of violence against property and the anger that is expressed by someone who has been a victim of violence, with the patriarchal violence men have enacted on women’s bodies. But what disappointed me the most about hooks’ criticism is that it feeds into the very same hypocritical at best and misogynoirist at worst approaches that so many others have taken towards Beyonce’s work.

A case can certainly be made that Beyonce’s work and feminism could use some improvement. But the current criticisms of her lack the nuance to look at her work in a fair and honest manner.

 

“Why didn’t you report”

This article was originally published in the Oppidan Press in February 

There’s a very specific set of reasons I decided not to tell anyone outside a small group of people in what was supposed to be a safe space about my sexual assault. One of the reasons is that I had decided not to report, and I did not want to have to answer the above question. Simply put, there are very specific and personal reasons why I decided not to report. These reasons, as well as the incident itself, were something I was perfectly content to forget about. Until one day, the Student Representative Council found itself embroiled in controversy and I found myself having this incident used in a personal attack against me by a student.

The personal attack was a shock to my system. It forced me to once again think about exactly what I had been trying to forget. I started remembering the sexual assault. And once again, I was asked by others, and ultimately asked myself, why I had not reported the incident. Perhaps, most importantly, I once again began to radically question the notion that survivors should need to report at all.

It is a narrative that we often hear. We are often told that over half of all sexual assault victims do not report their assault and that over 90% of all perpetrators do not spend even one day in jail. We are often fed the idea that if we are assaulted we should report it, and if we report it the perpetrator will go to jail.

We are not often told of the second hand victimization that we are likely to experience while reporting. The second hand victimization that leads to survivors being treated carelessly by the authorities they report to, and that leads to being questioned on every decision made that led up to the incident itself including the survivor’s choice of clothing, company, and sexual history. We are not told of just how often it is that the perpetrator gets off, despite being reported, while the survivor is left with new scars.

This is not to scare off any survivors who do want to report their assaults. A survivor who wishes to report should of course be given all the support they need. Rather, this is to say that the decision to not report is one that many survivors make for a variety of reasons. And all of these reasons are valid.

There are a number of societal factors that make reporting difficult. The one is the pervasive idea that there is a “perfect victim”, a morally upright woman who is assaulted while doing something as innocuous as walking down a street. Survivors who don’t fit this mold are often subjected to victim blaming. Another is the fact that the majority of perpetrators are known to their victims and this may deter a survivor from reporting them. Another is the fact that many survivors are assumed to be lying because of the myth that women lie about being raped out of revenge because they feel guilty about having sex.

The belief that a survivor needs to report in order to prevent the perpetrator from assaulting again is one that is rooted in rape culture, as it places responsibility for the perpetrator’s actions on the survivor. Regardless of the reasons, a survivor’s choice to report or not report is a decision that should be respected by all parties. And perhaps, before one questions the validity of not reporting, one should first question how our society treats those who do.

 

“Black First”

So…yeah

I realise that I’ve taken a perhaps longer than intended and strictly necessary break from my blogging. When thinking of how I would get back into the swing of things, I kept pondering on exactly which angle I would take. These four months into 2016 have offered no shortage of political headliners, including the recent ComCourt ruling that is finally holding our president accountable for Nkandla. And of course, there’s the issue that hits closer to home for me.

But I don’t want to talk about Zuma. What I want to talk about is an issue that hits me on a far more personal note. And this is one that is linked to the recent protests at Wits. The one thing that these protests have done is reveal the underlying patriarchy and homophobia that has existed within Fallist movements since their inception last year. Long before the protests began, I had started thinking of our country’s student movements and at exactly what point they began to disintegrate on an ideological level and then on a physical level into the fractured shells categorized by infighting and break away movements that they have now become. And while there are many issues that one can point to, I personally believe that one of the biggest issues within #FeesMustFall dates back far before the movement began. Far before the members of #FeesMustFall were even born.

I am talking of the idea that one is black first. This is an idea that one sees cropping up time and time again in works written by those revered by hoteps such as Steve Biko and Frantz Fanon. The idea is simple: that the black struggle is the quintessential struggle that must be tackled first before one can hope to tackle other “lesser” struggles such as patriarchy, homophobia, ableism, etc. In fact, according to those who subscribe to this belief, the black struggle is characterized solely by racism and classism. All other systems of oppression are not only seen as less important, if one attempts to tackle them in any meaningful way one is automatically seen as “divisive”.

This is a critique that black feminists have faced, and that we are constantly facing even now. We are told that our feminism is dividing the black community or even (and this is my personal favourite attack) that feminism is a concept invented by white women to destroy the black community. For what purpose? Racism mostly. In some versions, white women have set out to make us black women as unloveable as possible so that they can have black men to themselves. Because according to hoteps, there is no more powerful tool in the world than a black penis, which capable even of curing us hateful feminists of our beliefs.

The entire idea that one can be “black first” ignores the ways that different forms of oppression intersect with one another. For a black woman, there is no such thing as “black first” or “female first” and the idea that there is has historically forced women to ignore the one side of their oppression for the benefit of the most privileged group. During the suffrage movement, influential black women like Sojourner Truth were marginalized by their white feminist counterparts while back home in South Africa, black women were told to prioritize racism, which would ensure the the freedom of “all” black people before tackling patriarchy.

The truth is, the only people who benefit from “black first” ideology are the most privileged members. Specifically, cisgender, able bodied, heterosexual, black men. Failing to take into account the multiple oppressions that queer, disabled, and female black people face allows cishet able bodied black men to maintain their level of privilege over other groups of black people. You see this time and time again when more privileged black people actively participate in the oppression of other blacks, like when black men are patriarchal towards black women or black heterosexual people are homophobic towards queer black people. In other words, black men who push for a “black first” ideology are not truly fighting for the emancipation of all black people. They are merely fighting, to use that quote from a black revolutionary whose name I cannot remember, for a “seat at the master’s table”.

Sure, it may be overly simplistic to believe that the black first ideology is the major factor in the collapse of our student movements. I believe that the collapse is rooted in a number of causes, including the leaderless nature of the movements which leads to a lack of a clear voice, a clear direction, and accountability. Such a recipe will inevitably lead to a lack of stability, infighting, voices that seek to co-opt the movement for their own political gain, and eventually fracturing. This is exactly what we are seeing today in movements like #FeesMustFall and the Black Student Movement at Rhodes University.

But what it does show, is a fundamental fault that lies at the heart of many social justice movements. Social justice movements almost inevitably fall into a pattern where the most privileged members at best ignore the struggles of those facing intersecting oppression and at worst continue to exert their privilege over others. We’ve seen this with middle class white cisgender women in the feminist movement and white cisgender gay men in the LGBT movement.

So this begs us to ask what the solution is. As black women, our solution to white feminism was womanism, and for queer black people their solution to the overwhelming whiteness in queer spaces has been to create new black queer spaces such as Soweto Pride. So when it comes to our student movements, the question that we are left with is whether we as female and/or queer black people should start our own student movements, bearing in mind that we have not only performed tireless labour and played instrumental roles in the existing ones but we deliberately set up existing student movements with the intention of making them as intersectional as possible. Or, do we go the route of the UCT: Trans Collective and radically challenge and reclaim our position in these spaces? And of course, what do we do about the violent patriarchy that we face in our movements now, especially when this patriarchy has made it very clear that it is completely unwilling to listen to queer or feminist voices?

It’s tricky. And it’s one of the main reasons so many black women no longer identify with the current student movements.

A popular saying in intersectional circles is, “you can’t be pro black if you’re not here for all of us”. And until Black First proponents learn that, I don’t think I’ll be able to see myself in the current student movements anymore.

 

 

“Our Perfect Wedding” and the normalisation of predatory relationships

Last night, Mzansi Magic decided to air, for the second week in a row, a predatory relationship between an older man and a younger woman on the hit reality show Our Perfect Wedding. It’s probably worth noting that the first time I watched the show, they were airing an episode with an older man who had met and begun dating his fiancee when she was 13 and he was 21. In the duration of their relationship, he had had three children with three different women, but the bride had felt lucky that a light skinned man like him wanted to be with a dark skinned woman like her, and felt that the fact that they hadn’t had any children together was a personal failure on her part. So suffice to say, OPW has been guilty of airing these kinds of episodes for quite some time.

However, this week’s episode pushed the boundaries beyond the limit. It featured a couple in which the woman had been 14 and the man 28 when they began dating. The groom was a taxi driver at the time and confessed to deliberately targeting young school girls for sex. He would have sex with three or four of them in one day. Yes, during the #16DaysofActivism against gender based violence and child abuse, Mzansi Magic decided to air an episode in which a man confessed to multiple counts of statutory rape on an entertainment show which attracts more than 1 million viewers.

The episode has sparked legitimate outrage ranging from discussions around how the episode contributes to rape culture by presenting such relationships as legitimate, to petitions calling for the removal of Our Perfect Wedding. But most importantly, the episode has led to a serious discussion on how normalised statutory rape and predatory relationships are in South Africa.

For the producers of Our Perfect Wedding, statutory rape is seen as just another way to generate views and as far as they’re concerned, if a predatory relationship ends in marriage, then it’s perfectly acceptable. Or perhaps, this is not just the viewpoint of the producers of OPW but is rather symptomatic of the attitudes towards predatory relationships as a whole in our country.

A big part of the problem here is in the fact that for many of us, we were sexualised from an unacceptably young age by much older men. I received my first sexual advance, from an adult man who appeared to be into his thirties, when I was nine years old and began receiving advances from older men regularly from when I was about 12 or 13. This early sexualisation is indicative of the fact that for many men, teenage girls are not seen as the children they are and are denied their innocence from the moment they hit puberty.

It’s also seen as normal. As girls we began to alter the way we dressed in order to avoid unwanted attention. From about 14, whenever I arrived at a mall early to meet my friends I would hide in Exclusive Books to avoid creepy older men who hit on me. Time and time again, girls who dressed in a certain way or acted a certain way were condemned and any attention that they got from older men was blamed solely on them.

To make matters worse, I’ve often found that conversations around sugar daddies don’t focus on how predatory it is for older men, often well into their thirties and beyond, to target young school girls who usually come from poor backgrounds by paying for their expenses in exchange for sex. Instead, they focus on teaching the young, vulnerable girls to stay away from these men. The onus to prevent these relationships is placed on the girls, rather than the men who exploit and abuse them.

The discussions that are now being generated from this particular OPW episode are important ones, because they are ones that are strongly condemning the motives of men like the groom, and are seriously questioning the kind of society we live in that airs a confessed rapist as entertainment without ever holding him accountable. People are openly coming out, saying that what happened on OPW last night was not okay, and making sure the producers face consequences for it. And I firmly believe that one of the first and most important steps to take in fighting gender based violence and child abuse is to seriously challenge anything that presents such practices as normal

How the ANC Women’s League is Failing Women

An edited version of this post was published by “Africa is a Country” under the title “The ANC Women’s League is dead”. This version can be accessed here

Last Friday, Twitter was in a frenzy about the ANCWL’s march against the now infamous Mabulu painting of President Jacob Zuma, which the Women’s League held to “protect the president’s dignity“. Contrary to some, I do not have an issue with the idea of marching against this painting. The painting is disgustingly misogynistic and I have written before on how violence against black women is normalised in South African satirical art. If they were protesting against the disgusting depiction of the black woman in the painting and how we as black women are tired of seeing ourselves beaten, raped, and brutalised in the name of male artists’ social commentary I would have been okay with it. The degrading way in which Jacob Zuma was depicted could have even featured as a secondary issue. What I was not okay with was the fact that Jacob Zuma’s degradation was the only issue the march was focused on. I was not okay with the fact that once again, black women, whose pain and suffering is treated so carelessly by male artists such as Ayanda Mabulu, did not feature, even in a conversation started by other black women.

It was not terribly surprising. These days, the organisation’s silence is often more powerful than their actions. The ANCWL has been noticeably absent when brazen misogyny has reared its ugly head within the ANC party, ranging from serious incidences, such as the Jacob Zuma rape trial of 2006, to the misogynistic comments often made by leaders of the ANC. When male ANC leaders feel comfortable calling women dirty panties, attacking the weight and clothing choices of female parliamentary speakers, and referring to single women as deformities unchecked, it is an indication of a serious lack of dialogue surrounding patriarchy within the ANC.

Most disturbingly, even when the ANCWL does tackle gender issues, many of their efforts still seem to miss the mark. The most recent example would have to be their stance on virginity testing and ukuthwala. While they rightfully condemned ukuthwala, the bastardized Xhosa practice of kidnapping young girls in order to force them into marriages with older men often for her family’s profit, they retracted their earlier condemnation of virginity testing by stating that it is a valid method of preventing HIV infection and teenage pregnancy, and that as a “pro-choice” organisation, they believe that if a girl wants to participate in virginity testing then she should be supported in her decision.

This stance is problematic for a number of reasons. It seems to completely ignore the fact that the areas with the lowest rates of HIV infections and teen pregnancy are areas where comprehensive sex education and reliable birth control are readily available. It places the onus of preventing HIV infections and teenage pregnancy on the girl’s ability to keep her legs closed and not also on the boy who shares half the responsibility. It also fails to problematize virginity testing as a whole as well as the mechanisms at play surrounding a girl’s consent. For example, if I am not comfortable with virginity testing but I know I will be branded isifebe and ostracised if I don’t participate in it, one must question how much of a choice I really have. If one can safely say that this sort of slut shaming does not happen in communities where virginity testing is common in reaction to those who do not to participate in it, then, and only then, can one really speak of a woman’s choice in the matter.

While the ANC has some of the most progressive gender policies, there is a serious disconnect between what the party’s stance on gender is on paper and what its leaders are saying in public. Considering that more people are likely to listen to leaders than they are to read a 33 page document, this disconnect is a dangerous one, and one that the ANCWL should be doing more to address.

It is disappointing to say that the ANCWL in 2015 is a far cry from the anti-Apartheid organisation that earned its place in history under the leadership of women such as Lilian Ngoyi, Albertina Sisulu, and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. The organisation of late has failed time and time again to check misogyny within the ANC and has made shallow attempts at best to check misogyny outside of it. Therefore, if the ANCWL wants to take seriously its role as an official voice for women, some serious introspection is needed.

Reclaiming “Political correctness”

One of the most annoyingly overused terms in modern times is without a doubt “political correctness”. The term has come to be used as a pejorative meaning speech that avoids language that might cause offense, particularly to already marginalised groups. Popular examples include changing B.C, meaning “Before Christ” to B.C.E, meaning “Before Common Era” as well as changing anything with the prefix “man” to more gender neutral terms.

There are obvious problems with this usage of “political correctness”. For starters, it ignores the very real ways that language has been used to oppress marginalised groups and seems to suggest that critiquing and altering harmful language is somehow oppressive towards the people who want to continue using said language. It also disguises existing oppressive viewpoints as “the truth” and paints those who critique them as shrill, irrational, and too easily offended. It is no surprise that those who speak out the loudest against political correctness are often the most privileged who are unaffected by certain systems of oppression and will obviously not be offended by a form of violence that has never targeted them.

What interests me the most about political correctness is the way that the term has been bastardised over the years. One of the earliest usages of the term as we know it today came from black feminist Toni Cadre in her 1970 book The Black Woman where she stated “a man cannot be politically correct and a chauvinist too”.

What did Cadre mean by this statement? From my understanding she meant that one cannot claim to be against oppressive systems and say all the correct, socially acceptable things that allude to that while simultaneously buying into and perpetrating those systems. Another interpretation of Cadre’s usage states that when she spoke of “political correctness” she was really referring to codified language that sounds socially acceptable but is really just a smoke screen for an oppressive bias. In other words, “political correctness” is when someone says “thug” when what they really mean is “n*****”.

There are a number of politically correct terms that we use in our everyday life. One of the clearest examples is “thug” which is a racially coded term almost exclusively used to describe black people whether they are protesting or getting killed by a racist vigilante while walking home after they’ve purchased an iced tea and Skittles. Another example is the use of the term “ghetto” that is almost only ever used in association with black people or black culture.

But I believe that political correctness extends beyond this. It’s not just about using words that are convenient, coded replacements for more offensive words. It’s about carefully constructing language as well as picking and choosing facts that portray an oppressive ideal in a way that will ensure the general public does not understand what’s going on but a member of the targeted group often will. It’s a newspaper knowing that they can’t call Nicki Minaj an angry black woman for speaking out against racial bias in the music industry so they opt for an unflattering picture that conveys that stereotype instead. It’s a news outlet knowing that they can’t call a rape victim an irresponsible slut who was asking for it outright so they instead opt to mention what she was wearing, how much she drank, and possibly her sexual history so that the reader draws that conclusion themselves.

This definition of political correctness is one that is far more relevant and far more harmful than the idea that it is somehow inconvenient and ridiculous to have to not to use certain language at the risk of offending someone. This definition of political correctness is one that we see in action in our media and our language everyday while the other is a silencing tactic employed by those who are too privileged to understand the nuances of oppression and how these nuances play out in our language. While both definitions see political correctness as a social concept that must be problematized, the one excuses oppressive ideas and blames marginalised people for being offended by their own oppression while the other recognises the subtle ways that the oppression of marginalised people continues to play itself out in our everyday lives. In an ironic twist, the bastardised definition of political correctness is, in and of itself, politically correct.

Therefore, the term “political correctness” is one which should be reclaimed by social justice circles as it aptly describes a particular type of microaggression that marginalised people encounter. In a world where overt bigotry, particularly in relation to race, gender, and sexuality, is often rendered unacceptable in public, political correctness ensures that marginalised people remain so in subtle, and insidious ways. Reclaiming “political correctness” for ourselves gives us both a means of identifying this type of microaggression and allows us to beat bigots at their own game. We know what they really mean when they tell us we’re being “ratchet”. And we’re not going to tolerate it anymore.

Zapiro, Mabulu, and the normalisation of violence against Black Women

[This article was republished on the website The Journalist]

Today has been a bad day on Twitter.

There has been a higher than usual amount of misogynoir and acceptance of violence against black women on my time line. It started this afternoon when Pearl Pillay reported that *her friend had told her that an  ex boyfriend Siya Nyezi had abused her.  Within minutes, Black Twitter flew into a frenzy tracking down Nyezi and informing his place of work, Investec, that he was an abuser. His ex girlfriends one by one came out to talk of how he had emotionally abused them as well.

At the same time, there were many who defended Nyezi, saying that it was wrong to expect a man to be fired because of what he did in his personal life. There were even those who suggested that Pearl may have cheated on him, because as we all know, in a misogynist’s world, cheating makes it okay to beat your partner half to death. Then there were those who blamed her for staying as long as she did and even joked that within a few days she would go straight back to him. In other words, the same tiring rhetoric we have to deal with every time the issue of domestic violence comes up.

But I don’t want to focus too much on Pillay and Nyezi. It is far too tiring.

Instead, I want to focus on the other misogynistic nightmare to appear on my time line earlier this evening. Controversial  artist Ayanda Mabulu released a painting that is far too upsetting for me to put here. Basically, the painting depicts Jacob Zuma naked, because in the world of satirical art, Zuma must apparently always either be naked or at least have his penis exposed. Black men must be degraded like this constantly while even the worst white men like Hitler and Stalin get to keep their clothes on. Curiously enough, this is exactly what happened in Mabulu’s painting; the figure made to represent white capital was fully clothed. But this is a conversation for another day.

As unnecessary as it was, Zuma’s nudity was the least offensive part of this painting. The worst is what is in the center where a dark skinned black woman is on all fours.  Zuma’s extremely large penis is forced down her throat while the white figure penetrates her from behind. Her breasts are also being milked against her will. The woman is frightened, in pain, and is depicted in such a cartoonishly racist manner it seems as though Mabulu tore her directly out of a page of an old colonial guide to Natives.

The painting reminds me of this Zapiro classic:

And this one:

And even this one:

All three of these cartoons use women who are clearly codified as black by their hair and lips as symbols for the justice system and in the last cartoon’s case, free speech. Similarly, the painting uses a black woman as a symbol for the ordinary South African taxpayer who is (literally, in this case) screwed over and sucked dry by both the government and corrupt white multimillionaire business owners in the private sector. In all of the above depictions black women’s bodies are graphically brutalised, but this brutalisation is made to come secondary to the grand symbolic message that Zapiro and Mabulu seek to convey in their works.

And that is the problem. In the world of South African satire, when it comes to criticising mainly black male politicians, black women, our bodies, and our pain are seen as collateral damage. Many of those who are criticising the painting are focusing solely on Zuma’s right to dignity, which is a valid concern, but even more concerning is the amount of people who are neither black women nor feminists who are not even mentioning the woman in the painting and what her depiction says of Mabulu’s attitudes towards black women as a whole. Then, of course, liberal Twitter is heaping praises on Mabulu’s work, calling it, “revolutionary”, and “daring” because in South African satirical art, the more brutal the violence against the black woman, the more poignant the social commentary. Black women’s bodies are mere vehicles to be dehumanised and used at will so that male artists can call that dehumanization “social commentary” and profit off of it.

It’s actually hardly surprising. Given that South Africa has shockingly high rates of rape and gender based violence, widespread misogynistic ideals and norms, and prevalent racism, cartoons like Zapiro’s and paintings like Mabulu’s are one manifestation of our violently racist and patriarchal society. In Pillay’s case, the fact that the number of people who would put a man’s employment status over the life of the woman he abused is not at all insignificant is another manifestation of that. The heated argument I got into with someone who attacked a rape victim for not reporting her rapist and instead of attempting to sympathise with her, strongly suggested that she would be responsible if he raped again, is yet another manifestation of that.

And the fact that so much of the commentary surrounding the painting is focused on whether the painting is disrespectful to Zuma, or whether the artist is exposing the truth in a brave, daring way is yet another.

Because in a society where patriarchy and racism exist not just side by side but always connecting and intertwining with one another, the lives of black women don’t matter.

Maybe I should stay off Twitter for a while.

 

*I had originally posted that Pearl Pillay had been abused by Siya Nyezi. This was false, as a friend of hers had reported the abuse. This has been corrected and I apologize for the error