Nomboniso Gasa: Long and short of the gender issue

Gender activist Nomboniso Gasa has been on Twitter for most of this year, although she hasn't yet memorised the social medium's first commandment: brevity. Her tweets, as a result, are often numbered 1 to 10.

"I was always intrigued by the power attributed to social media, the role it played in the Arab Spring, its power to report things as they happen," she said at her home in Observatory, Johannes­burg, on why she joined Twitter. "But I have always wondered about the depth of the platform. I didn't understand how you could communicate substantial issues in 140 characters. I still haven't mastered it. That's why I do the lists."

Once a regular presence in the press, writing about gender and politics, Gasa has eased off. The time that she should be using to write is spent "engaging in conversations on Twitter". But there is something else going on – the setting in of fatigue.

"I have got to a point where I feel I am repeating myself. That's why I write less. Part of my hesitancy about writing is ‘what value am I adding?' What else have I said that I haven't said before?  Ten years ago, I wrote about the death of circumcision initiates. The response was: ‘That's a beautiful article'."

She proceeded to deliver a nuanced decon­struction of the aftermath of the ritual of circumcision.

"The statistics on death are easy," she said. But what never comes out are the individual tragic stories of people with lifelong erectile dysfunction problems or men with mutilated penises.

"When these boys come back from the bush, they go and have their first sexual experience with women they will never marry that they think are less than them … to get rid of ‘dirt' in the name of culture.

"We talk about the injuries and the death but we don't talk about a certain masculinity that they are being taught; a violent masculinity which is different to what we think they are being taught. [Some] even speak the language of prison gangs …"

Halfway into the interview, the conversation that had been proceeding with a spring in its step suddenly hesitated, like feet approaching an abyss. We had turned to talking about the mentally disabled child who was repeatedly raped in Bram Fischerville in Soweto.

"Why are we having these mani­fest­ations of sexual violence?" she asked. "What does rape mean now? Are the explanations that we have given before still sufficient? When a 30-year-old man rapes a six-month-old, should we simply call it patriarchy? These things keep happening and editors keep asking me to write. Yet for the last 15 years I have been writing about this."

Weary of recycling tired arguments, Gasa said: "We need to find a language but we also need to go deeper into these issues."

She said that the Sexual Offences Act is so tough that the courts can jail someone for life and yet daily, the horrors never cease.

Gasa tweets about the personal and the political with a miniscule dose of the frivolous. In the past week, she has tweeted about her husband, Raymond Suttner, who was, 35 years ago, sentenced for the first time for his activities as an ANC underground operative. She has also ranted about a "major bookshop" that didn't have a copy of a new book by a "an established Mzansi writer".

She said that delving into the inner machinations of the medium had exposed her to "the depth of South Africa's [racial] problem".

"I am very shocked by how brazen the racism is. Twitter puts racism right in your face," she said. "The extent of the anger on Twitter … Give someone three minutes and they will come with an expletive. Is our past catching up with us? Is the entire society suffering some form of post-traumatic disorder?"

Gasa went on to pose profound questions, the answers to which will help us to heal.

"Are we dealing with white people, in general, and white men, in particular, who are dealing with the loss of privilege and status as superior [beings]? Are we dealing with black people who are not quite sure where they fit? Or are we dealing with a society that's spiritually bankrupt, not in a religious sense but [in terms] of being?" she asked.

For the 8 000 people who follow her, Gasa poses and addresses these and other questions. Hers is a combative and disruptive persona, always challenging power in whatever forms it appears.

Follow her on Twitter

Fact file

Name: Papama Nomboniso Gasa

Date of birth: 12 February 1967

Place of birth: Cape Town

Profession: Researcher and analyst on gender, politics and cultural issues

Married to: Raymond Suttner

Favourite books: There are so many, but these are always near me. Song of Solomon and Sula by Toni Morrison; So Long, a letter by Mariama Ba; Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga; Migritude by Shailja Patel; Ake: The Years of Childhood by Wole Soyinka; Ways of Seeing by John Berger; Sometimes There is a Void by Zakes Mda; A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far by Adrienne Rich and many others.

Heroes/heroines: Dorothy Zihlangu – my maternal grandmother, who was a political activist. She spent so much time in detention and under house arrest during my childhood that I almost thought she was a figment of my mother’s imagination because we stayed in rural Eastern Cape and hardly saw her; Mthunzi Gasa – my paternal grandpa whom I never met, whose stories of defiance, independence, joie de vivre and struggle to be whole inspire me greatly. He was ahead of his time; Vulindlela Zihlangu – my maternal grandpa, an ANC activist and volunteer for the Freedom Charter campaign, who died shortly after his imprisonment in the 1960s, before I was born; and My uncle Melisizwe Zihlangu, who introduced me to jazz, especially to Winston Mankunku Ngozi, John Coltrane and Miles Davis.

Favourite drink: I can drink a cup of Earl Grey tea any time; I also like a chilled glass of sauvignon blanc and a full-bodied cabernet sauvignon.

Pastime: Gardening and feeling soft, moist soil on my hands.

Indulgence: Flowers

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Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

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