These are no wounded souls

The world has mistaken the self-effacing humility of African women in the name of culture for a lack of confidence or prostrating themselves before patriarchy.

Perhaps one needs to be intuitively connected to their resilient spirit, which has defied and defeated colonialism and apartheid, to appreciate their subtle and nuanced self-assertion and confidence.

It is common to find people, including women, who believe that African women should be aggressive, confident, prominent media darlings like American vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. But African women are complete and fine as they are. We need to understand them.

I am born of a tough African woman who confronted a hostile world on her own terms and emerged victorious. Nomali, my mother, delivered and raised nine children under a brutal economic system that limited her to being a washerwoman and domestic helper. But this did not kill her spirit and she lived to the age of 84.

I look at her daughters — who have become resilient African women professionals raising their own children and keeping their families together under the most challenging circumstances faced by modern Africans in the past three centuries — and I see women who can make Palin fade into pale native.

In fact, disparaging remarks about the docility and subservience of African women speak directly to the problem of super-achieving black women who turn against those they should care about. This is often the case with women who attend world-class conferences and seminars at top hotels and have lost touch with the spirit of being a true African woman.

It is disappointing and hurts that African women are the subject of disparaging rage and hostility from fellow women, who, unwittingly, inflict pain. I have heard my mother’s voice from the grave questioning: ”How could there be any doubt about the worth of African women when they have ascended to the highest rung of success in the past 15 years?”

I am puzzled that some among us, particularly non-African women, seem to have internalised the pain of living under apartheid and are thus informed by self-rejection, which misleads them to believe that African women are not up to scratch.

The reality of African women, especially in government, who prostrate themselves before patriarchy is not something that many Cabinet ministers, MECs, mayors and councillors would identity with. In fact, nobody has any business equating African women who have decision-making powers with sycophants whose role in politics is limited to pleasing their male bosses. If we were to put African women in government under a critical light we would see that they not only measure up but have the potential to surpass the likes of Palin in terms of asserting themselves.

I know that comparing Americans with Africans is unfair because of the difference in upbringing, culture, world outlook and the self-definition of their roles in society. It is this practice that encourages people to look down on African women in the name of critical thought and freedom of expression.

I have lived, worked and played with African women, including those who are big names in politics and business today. The triumphant spirit that resisted the imposition of the passes — which men, ironically, resigned themselves to — still beats in their hearts and souls. Not only have they grappled with the problems of colonialism, apartheid, racism, capitalist exploitation and sexism, but they have defied it. They have fought alongside their male counterparts to liberate this country and to run it. They have always possessed a political awareness that saw them raise the children of their oppressors and they were torn inside when their own children left this country in pursuit of freedom, education and the armed struggle.

We need to understand the spirit of African women so that we can transform ourselves. If the truth be told, it is their spirit that has brought us to where we are today: a democratic and non-sexist society. This self-empowerment has seen African women become members of the ANC executive, for example, and equal to their male counterparts in all respects. We cannot call them sycophants and weaklings when what has happened to premier Ebrahim Rasool is good (sic) for Nosimo Balindlela.

We have to talk about the different experiences of African womanhood, informed by class, geographic location, religious background and, of course, cultural influences. We should not assume that because African women do not make international headlines they are subservient, docile and have prostrated themselves before patriarchy.

The African women I have encountered in my family, government offices, corporate suites and community love themselves and are full of confidence. We must be wary of portraying them as ”wounded” souls who are not in charge of their fate and political destiny. This perpetuates a patronising ”victim” syndrome when, in reality, they spearhead a struggle that challenges sexism and racism.

African women must be judged on their own terms. The fact that patriarchal African culture prescribes that they express a self-effacing humility does not mean that they are weak and subservient.

Sandile Memela is spokesperson at the ministry of arts and culture. He writes in his personal capacity

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