Nonkanyiso Chonco: Othered to sustain our public gaze at Zuma

In their quest to enforce white supremacist capitalist patriarchy onto the African social terrain, the foot soldiers of the colonial project sought to construct whiteness as racially purer and more ideologically civilised than blackness. 

They established a social hierarchy at whose apex was white hegemonic masculinities. The project succeeded primarily by strategically reinventing African identities through the destruction of traditional family institutions. Simultaneously, the colonial gaze was permanently cast on African masculinity which was viewed as the biggest threat to colonial progress. 

Black femininity, on the other hand, was rendered invisible, and black women as perpetual minors. It is in a society precipitated by and inherited from this historical background that Nonkanyiso Chonco joins a new family through marriage.

Ours is a society that continues to obsess over and fear African masculinities. Through Chonco’s profile, we have collectively reinforced and reproduced our inherited patriarchal colonial lenses. In media platforms, she is made into an invisible protagonist of her own life story. This is achieved by use of her living experience to direct our gaze at former president Jacob Zuma, and his brand of African masculinity.

As the story of Chonco’s customary marriage first emerged last week, TimesLive published an article titled ‘Yes, I am marrying Jacob Zuma’, whose gaze is fixed on the former first citizen of the country. News24 published ‘Five things we know about Jacob Zuma’s alleged wife-to-be’, which begins with ‘former president Jacob Zuma is set to tie the knot again’. TimesLive also wrote ‘Future Mrs Zuma has brought shame to our custom: virginity testing activist’, in a bizarre interview with the ‘doyenne of virginity-testing in KwaZulu-Natal’, Nomagugu Ngobese. In these and other discussions, society eschews its responsibility to grant her the right to dignity, choosing rather to enforce colonial fixation on the African man.

It would be just to argue that the public would likely and should rightfully focus its gaze on its former first citizen as opposed to an otherwise anonymous young woman. However, when that same otherwise anonymous young woman is invisibilized and simultaneously utilised as a conduit through which the public sustains its gaze towards its main subject, we should as society raise alarm. Most importantly, when negative public perceptions about African masculinity and customary practices affect the livelihood and living experience of the women, as it does with Chonco, we should collectively call foul.

On Sunday, April 22, Ms Chonco’s then employer, She Conquers, released a media statement in which the organisation positions former president Jacob Zuma as the primary protagonist in an ‘affiliation’ between himself and Ms Chonco. The statement further argues that this affiliation contradicts the principles and objectives of the She Conquers Campaign, which it names as decreasing the number of new HIV infections among adolescent girls and young women, decreasing the rate of teenage pregnancy, decreasing the rate of gender-based violence, and increasing economic opportunities.

In the statement, the organisation states that while it is “cognisant and respectful towards Ms Chonco’s cultural beliefs and practices”, it nonetheless chooses to focus primarily on “not sending out contradictory messages,” “ensuring the dignity of this campaign is restored”, and eliminating “the concept of reliance on blessers”.

A day after this statement was released, the chairperson of She Conquers was quoted by Eye Witness News saying that “we’re not saying she’s a blessee or she’s coerced into being with an older man but what we’re saying is that we need to also show young people that we’re fighting patriarchy.”

Without explaining how Ms Chonco’s ‘affiliation’ to the former president contradicts their organisational messages or compromises the dignity of the campaign, the organisation requested Ms Chonco to resign with immediate effect or face a structural ‘recall’ from her position.

From the statement and available media interviews alone, it is difficult to comprehend how Ms Chonco’s customary marriage contradicts the principles and objectives of the She Conquers Campaign. In the absence of available rationale, a thinking public is left to consider the actions of She Conquers as indirect means to present Chonco as a naively helpless blessee who is void of agency. This, however, contradicts and renders as invisible the true character of Chonco. Information available publicly introduce her as demonstrating, from an early age, signs of a young woman determined to assert her agency.

In 2013, as a teenager, she bravely challenged the Zulu Monarch, King Goodwill Zwelithini’s decision to open the annual Royal Reed Dance to other races. She is quoted stating that “anyone who participated in the ceremony should do it in a Zulu traditional way, or not do so at all”. This was in protest of the dilution of the customary nature of the festival by white and Indian maidens who were alleged to have been afforded preferential treatment over the Zulu maidens. Chonco courageously protested, asserting that she felt “undermined and insulted”.

Again, in 2016, she advocated against inhumane sleeping conditions that some maidens were subjected to for the duration of the festival. In The Mercury she is quoted expressing her disgust at the conditions of bathing and toilet facilities. These examples alone tell us of an active young woman determined to assert her agency and contribute to the preservation of indigenous customs.

But we are not interested in her resilient character.

Ours continues to be a society obsessed with African masculinity. At the same time systems of patriarchy, through vile tactics, continue to inconspicuously recruit all agents of socialisation into positioning men at the apex of our social structures and as the focus of all social narratives.

Our social reality is that it is not Chonco that the public is interested in. We are continuously and casually attempting to destroy her young life in order to sustain our colonially inherited obsessive paranoia with African customary practices, and to reproduce tropes of African masculinity as barbaric, violent and uncultured.

If we must learn anything from the public narrative surrounding Chonco, we require a process of introspection. Firstly, we must question our gaze each time we engage in discussions about her story. Secondly, we must ask ourselves how, given their stated principles and objectives, Chonco’s adherence to African customary family structures compromises the She Conquers Campaign. Thirdly, we must consider how we would frame Chonco’s private life were she a man. Lastly, and most importantly, we must interrogate how our thoughts and actions in relation to Chonco reinforce common law views of marriage and reproduce views of customary law as the its native opposite.

Philile Ntuli works for the Minister in the Presidency responsible for Women. She is also the Donness of an imagined scrabble Mafia.

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