If the current tide of politics and discourse in South Africa does not turn soon, this year’s events concerning womanhood will be remembered for the country’s lack of interest in the emancipation of women from a feminist theoretical perspective.
Ushered in by the public outrage over the upsetting image of Thabiso Setona assaulting a woman outside Luthuli House and the death of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, a particular notion of “womanhood” has now usurped public space and political discourse.
This depicts women as fragile creatures, with constant referrals to motherhood, framing women’s agency and value merely in relation to their ability to give birth and care for their children.
The now embedded habit of responding to patriarchy when it flares up in the media, which is to elicit public outrage and sympathy which then dies out, is unproductive. Events that portray patriarchy are simply a reflection of our deeply patriarchal society, an exposure of our limited perceptions or understandings of womanhood, and our limited interest in the emancipation of women.
The practice of waiting for a feminist response to sexism or misogyny delays our coming to terms with the deeper problem of patriarchy, and it is evident that black women remain burdened with the responsibility of dealing with patriarchal culture in all its manifestations.
About two months ago, buoyed by Cyril Ramaphosa’s win at the ANC’s 2017 elective conference, a growing negative perception of former president Jacob Zuma and damning court judgments involving him, a group of pro-Zuma supporters gathered outside the ANC headquarters, Luthuli House, to hand out a memorandum outlining their grievances.
A group calling themselves Defend Luthuli House also gathered there to stop the pro-Zuma supporters from handing over the memorandum. The two factions faced off, and eventually it escalated into violence.
It was then that the country witnessed with dismay a disturbing spectacle. Setona emerged from the crowd of pro-ANC supporters who were trying to disperse the pro-Zuma protesters. He was seen kicking a woman lying on the ground.
The country was outraged by how the man violated “an old woman”, or “someone else’s mother”, but this kind of language failed to recognise her agency as a woman in the face of hyper-masculinity. The 52-year-old woman, Olivia Makete, was reduced to biology — to being old, a mother, a nurturer, a source of love for someone else.
(Makete had been there to hand over a memorandum about service delivery — water, houses and electricity at Orange Farm — and not to protest in support of Zuma.)
Under patriarchy and feeding into sexual binaries, the recognition of women is premised on reproduction, reducing them to their breasts and wombs, which in turn leads to excluding those without. Equating womanhood with reproduction is only about breeding heirs, which results in women being appreciated and recognised on this basis alone. This equation lends itself to transphobia.
Those who refuse to be depicted as fragile creatures, with constant references to motherhood, are condemned.
Madikizela-Mandela’s death on April 2 accorded us a moment to bring the reality of male power over females into stark relief.
It exposed the shortcomings of patriarchal caricatures of family, femininity and motherhood, and how these were interwoven in the fight for liberation.
Madikizela-Mandela, whose hallowed place in the pantheon of South Africa’s liberators was eroded by allegations of kidnapping, murder and the adulterous implosion of her fabled marriage to Nelson Mandela, died in Johannesburg. She was 81.
Though gendered, she was affectionately known as the “Mother of the Nation”, which came at a cost for an avant-garde woman concurrently fighting two unjust, unequal systems — white supremacy and patriarchy.
The far-reaching political character she forged as mother and wife was irrevocably destroyed by allegations of her connection to the murder of 14-year-old Stompie Seipei. Her prestige was effectively obliterated by accusations of sexual infidelity.
The ciphers, instructions and beliefs of motherhood proved an effective narrative to elevate Madikizela-Mandela. But it proved even more effective as a narrative to destroy her reputation as a wife, a mother and a politician.
We should also remember that, even in the case of her alleged atrocities, including her alleged involvement in the killing of Stompie, Madikizela-Mandela was indirectly tarred and feathered during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission proceedings for her lack of motherly instincts because women are expected to have an automatic, saintly connection with children.
A shy beauty turned volatile, Madikizela-Mandela metamorphosed from “shy country girl” into a political firebrand.
With patriarchy hounding her to her grave, it is revolutionary to admire her memory as the embodiment of male anxiety about female power.
Follow Zanele Stuurman on Twitter @ZaneleQStuurman