Black women must stand up for themselves

2010-02-12 00:00

THE latest controversy surrounding President Jacob Zuma illustrates a consistent thread running through his character and the current spirit within the liberation movement in general. They believe that they can get away with anything and everything by virtue of relying on the nondemanding vote of our general population.

As a mother who is still raising children, I feel the president is a bad role model for the youth, something very regrettable for the first citizen of the country. Some will fault me for expecting moral leadership from a political leader. I don’t see why. After all, politicians sell themselves as decent members of our communities, otherwise we wouldn’t elect them. But I’m not going to dwell on the issue. I reserve the greater part of my disappointment for the women who knowingly place themselves in situations where they are prone to be abused, especially by men of power.

I’ll not pretend to understand the thinking of these women. I don’t know what they aim to gain in going for married men who are philanderers. Perhaps, with my apologies to Henry Kissinger, “the real aphrodisiac is power”. Hence, to paraphrase another great man, Steve Biko, I think our duty is to infuse them with pride and dignity, and to remind them of their complicity in the crime of allowing themselves to be misused.

With this kind of attitude, why are we surprised when our children put themselves in situations where they exchange sexual favours with older men for material profit? Children learn more from what we do than what we say. They learn from us that it is acceptable to seek material gifts for sexual favours, to prostitute themselves, confusing licence with freedom.

I fully agree with Rhoda Kadalie when, referring to the former president, Thabo Mbeki, she says: “Maybe we black women should start telling the president [that] most black men treat black women badly, as borne out by the startling evidence of domestic violence, default on maintenance, sexual offences and the criminal courts of this land ... Maybe we should tell the president that sexual autonomy is a myth, men do not accept no as an answer, and many think women are their property.” The same is even more relevant for the current president.

I’ve also seen women turn a blind eye to their husband’s philandering ways, not because they cannot afford to walk away and start a life afresh on their own with their children, but because they are afraid of what people will say or how it might look. I can testify to that from personal experience. It takes a lot of undoing of bad indoctrination for a woman, especially in our black communities, to decide to stand up for herself and stop being used as a doormat in the name of culture, tradition or societal mores.

What I’ve noticed about my black sisters is that we are loath to put clear boundaries on what is acceptable and what is not in a relationship. Hence our men find it so easy to straddle the divide. Although I’m not a feminist, my personal experiences have made me understand that the idea of social revolution has to be intrinsically linked to the liberation of a black woman’s psyche also. This is what frustrates me even with the women’s leagues in this country. There you find women who still think and act in patriarchal terms, and who are ready to betray the cause of women’s liberation for purposes of party factionalism. What in real substance do they do for women and their cause, except being just another den for opportunistic climbing of the greasy pole of politics?

What seems to be hidden from my black sisters is the fact that to conceive and actualise the idea of freedom is our responsibility and within our means. Most of the time when we are oppressed we are our own worst enemies. We allow ourselves to be used as half- humans, or tokens, even when we know there’s no substance.

If we say we are liberated, we must reject everything that comes with our oppression, even when disguised as culture or custom. The modern situation gives us the opportunity to make better choices about our lives. It is up to us to make choices that are in line with our dignity as women and human beings, and to depoliticise our struggle for women’s liberation. I mean this in Biko’s sense that the essence of politics being in directing oneself to the group that wields power, which in this case almost all the time happens to be muscular. Where there are failings even in our feminist philosophy we must re-evaluate and re-enfranchise.

I often mention in meetings of the women’s sector of the Congress of the People that I joined this organisation not only out of frustration with my old party, but because I saw a new kind of political and cultural movement that is needed if this country is to break the habit of women’s submission to patriarchy. A dear white friend of mine says that what she does not like about black people in this country is how they prefer to experience (which I always read as endure) a situation than face up to the problem head-on and seek its solutions.

Biko’s Black Consciousness in the case of women can easily be adopted as gender consciousness. We need to infuse pride and dignity into our women folk and remind them of their complicity in the crime of allowing themselves to be misused. More than that, we need to rid ourselves of political swindlers, to expose and penalise gender swindlers who use their political status and cultural imperatives as means to abuse women. Otherwise our country will continue to sink into the deep hypocrisy of saying politically correct things while acting differently. We cannot afford the current situation where we’ve become a global disgrace and a laughing stock.

I think that it is at times like this that a clear voice about the real liberation of women needs to be heard. It is time we learnt to contradict popular jargon as a means of putting our country back on the path of its historical aptitude. James Connolly, the Irish socialist leader who was executed by the British in 1916 for his role in the Easter Rising in Dublin, once said something very pertinent to our situation today: “None so fit to break a chain as those who carry it, and none so fit to identify what a chain is.” To break mental chains is probably much more difficult than the exterior ones, but we have to start somewhere and now. —

• Tozama Nomsa Bevu, MPL (Western Cape Provincial Parliament), is Cope’s Women’s Movement national organiser.

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