A historian and a sangoma talk feminism


I have a suspicion that “feminism”, as a political term and as a framework for theorising, has largely become a preoccupation of the contemporary global literati scene, with little political value and practical purchase beyond the literati publics.

Even though feminism may have always conceptually been something of an elite preoccupation, it had a widely felt effect across society. Even when there were many variants of disagreement, feminism as a whole was translatable into tangible gains for women across many societies. These gains, although uneven, universalised the principles of the emancipation and equitable treatment of women.

The set of ideas that we call “feminism” today, I think are more likely to be confined to university campuses and donor-funded activist civil society organisations, manifesting over the past several years in campaigns like Slut Walk and campus anti-rape culture protests. There has, of course, also been a convergence of feminist aims with many other political currents, including queer politics, over the past 25 years as the critique of heteronormative patriarchy evolves.

However, while the political language and frameworks evolve, I do not get the sense that they grapple with the contradictory realities faced by women across various classes and income levels, especially in a country like South Africa, where Black people, and Black women in particular, are constantly navigating many socioeconomic cross-currents. This really applies to Africa as a whole, where economic and political life is marked by flux, mobility and precariousness. This precariousness is a growing feature of late 21st-century capitalism that is felt not only by the traditional working classes, but also by the global professional classes whose university education is no longer a fixed access path to middle class lifestyles and job security.

In the context of this 21st-century Africa, where sociopolitical gains are made and unmade, where communities are under various kinds of strain, and yet still forced to remain tenuously resilient, how do we answer the question: “What is the state of contemporary feminism?” My sense is that the answer may be a bit unpalatable for those of us who use the term and identify with it.

This conversation with Gogo Ngoatjakumba is an aid to help me in thinking through the question.

NM: Gogo Ngoatjakumba, this year you became a gobela, meaning you have now taken initiates through the rituals of ukuthwasa. The initiates call you “baba” [father].

Using your insights into the multiple idiomatic and theoretical lenses of gender, please explain what you think being called “ubaba” tells us about gendered titles in the southern African context.

GN: I am not sure why someone is called “baba” even if they are a woman, but the only thing I can think of is that, because our lineages are patrilineal but spiritually you are led from your grandmother, so your father “ubaba” gives you your law, but your gift of the calling comes from your grandmother.

This means that the title of “baba” means that I raise amathwasa [initiates]. I don’t raise them per se, I guide them to remember the things they need to know. The spiritual force and gift, however, the life giving, comes from the grandmother. As such, “ubaba” can be a gender-neutral term. You see, even my initiates call the man who initiated me “ugogo”; he is a man, but he gets called by the female designation.

The terms are more about the role the person plays rather than the gender, although they capture the gender practices in our societies.

The terms are thus transferable across all genders depending on the role you are playing, not so much the gender of the person. In the practice of ukuthwasa, the gogo principle helps you in the spiritual aspects, and your father – ubaba – is the one who helps guide you in the physical world. So in fact they are gendered but also gender neutral.

NM: Let’s dwell on that complementary dualism of these terms being gendered yet gender neutral. What I see here is what African feminists have tried to point out about “gender” as a culturally specific construct, even though there are universal dimensions to it.

GN: It’s not so much male and female, but masculine and feminine – maybe sort of like left brain and right brain. So feminine and masculine are gender neutral that can be held in any physical form.

[In the practice of ukuthwasa] the terms are gendered, but do not necessarily speak to biological gender. So that is why a woman can be ubaba and a man can be ugogo. There are any infinite numbers of possibilities of how this can be...

NM: Whereas the kinds of Western feminism we are all taught at university tend to be in a struggle with a very clear binary gendered scheme, where masculine and feminine are inscribed completely onto biological male-female bodies.

GN: You see, if you are a physical woman and you have a period, then you are initiated with a goat that is masculine, but if you are male, you are initiated with a female animal.

Some family rituals require a gendered alignment, but there is always a pursuit of balance. Even in the way traditional huts used to be built, there’s a physical design of space that tends to want to see a balance between feminine and masculine energies. These are forms of energy as much as they are physical attributes...

NM: So if we extrapolate from this, what are the underlying principles that might inform feminist theorising?

GN: The principle is balance, and acknowledging the difference. Because sometimes Western feminists want to see opposition. These things are on the same spectrum of energy, but just on opposite poles.

NM: But the criticism here would be that masculinity and femininity themselves are constructs that have been gendered, a priori?

GN: They have been gendered because white people are concerned with femininity as something dainty and soft, and masculinity as some aggressive all-encompassing thing, like violence. But in the realm of idlozi, there are elements of everything in everything. There are elements of the dominant aggression in the feminine and elements of the so-called soft in the masculine. But these words are a problem because of the language...

NM: Well yes, language is a key concept builder...

GN: You see, I could not easily put the word ‘violence’ in there if it is in isiZulu ... whereas the word ‘power’ – ‘amandla’ – does not necessarily always evoke the same sense of male-dominant masculinity that the Western feminist conception is attempting to deconstruct

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24