Decolonising feminism in Africa

The often embattled project for gender justice in South Africa cannot be said to be central to the current calls for the ‘decolonisation’ of South Africa’s universities and society. Nevertheless, the issue has been visible in the firestorm of student protest.

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Revelations of sexual harassment among fellow protesters have emerged from behind the scenes of the heated clashes between students and university security companies. These instances have provided the opportunity for some female student leaders to interrogate the abuse enabled by gendered power disparities in South Africa’s liberation struggles.

Furthermore, the students’ struggle against the exclusion of blacks and other people of colour from the knowledge production and pedagogy enterprise has laid the groundwork for confronting the dominance of white feminists in the articulation and theorisation of black women’s experiences of oppression.

These are but two limited illustrations of the strained alliances between subaltern groups divided along the lines of gender, race, class, sexual orientation and region – to name a few.

Of course, the growing plurality of feminist schools of thought and other gender-centred activisms have arisen from the need to address the nuanced demands and priorities of different groups of women.

Similarly, the current decolonisation movement is broadly aimed at overcoming the enduring multiple subordinations of previously colonised people, but does not imply consensus on a single strategy or theoretical framework to achieve this broad objective.

Decolonial thought, comprising of multiple theoretical schools converging on the unfinished project of decolonisation, provides one of a number of possible bases for courses of action.

Some argue that decolonial thought is as old as the earliest instances of resistance to the European colonial erosion on indigenous knowledges and ways of life. However, decolonial thought’s current appeal is its perceived ‘newness’ in academia, suggesting that there is room for its further expansion and development.

Decolonial vs postcolonial

Where postcolonial thought largely accepts the distinction between colonial and postcolonial eras, decolonial thought calls this distinction into question in its stronger emphasis on continuity in the structures and processes that have perpetuated the survival of colonial relations between people of white European descent and the historically subjugated peoples of what is now known as the Global South.

It links the dehumanisation of subjugated peoples who were dispossessed of land and other resources to the racially hierarchised categorisations of the world’s peoples and territories in ways that now seem self-evident.

As a black feminist with a special interest in black communities’ understandings and responses to gender-based violence, I am considering how adopting decolonial feminism/s may enable a successful balancing of the promotion of women’s rights and the upliftment of marginalised communities.

In my interpretation, such a feminism does not deny that many harmful practices against black women have both indigenous and colonial roots.

Rather, it enables an examination of how some of the defensiveness or trivialisation around gender-based violence may be traced to blacks being situated as passive objects of both research and policy-making directly related to gender-based violence and empowerment initiatives – as opposed to being people who can make authoritative assessments of their conditions.

It is a state of affairs that is inflamed by a history in which black people’s movements and relations with others and among themselves have been criminalised under a variety of justifications. The problem has also not been entirely addressed by the ascension of governments purporting to rule with the mandate of a black majority.

Violence against women

There are numerous commentaries in the white-dominated international media and scholarly literature on rape cultures in (white) society. Such commentaries make an effort to understand how (white) patriarchy has rationalised violence against women.

In contrast, black men who perpetrate or condone violence against women are often too easily dismissed as irrational creatures, mindlessly following the dictates of ‘culture’ or (worse still) an untamed sexuality.

Practices with black culture-specific names such as ‘ukuthwala’ [the abduction of women and young girls by men – usually working in a group – for the purposes of forced marriage and/or forced sexual relations] or ‘ukuklinya’ [a practice by which young women corner a peer, strangle her until she just about passes out and then trap her in a room with a man who will forcibly initiate her into sex, that is, rape her] are exoticised.

‘Date rape’ and other sexual assaults frequently attributed to Western college fraternity or ‘jock’ culture (for example) seem run-of-the-mill in comparison.

Black women are portrayed as passive victims of such violence. The rape law reform movements highlighted a need to recognise that women’s strategies of resistance may differ from the law’s masculine expectation of physical resistance.

And yet in focusing on brazen acts of resistance that put exclusive emphasis on women’s rights to individual autonomy and freedom, feminists may have missed or downplayed the ways in which black women may emphasise community or family responsibilities in a myriad of alternative strategies to grapple with violence or to promote their interests.

For instance, Sindiso Mnisi Weeks and Aninka Claassens have illustrated how women in rural areas of South Africa involved in contests over land ownership may use the language of both custom as well as the constitutional language of equal rights to support their claims to land in instances where male colleagues have tried to dispossess them of land.

In this way, we see that resistance may not always take the aggressive and overtly adversarial forms we’ve come to expect as activists, but it is resistance nonetheless.

Such examples also show that black women are not simply ‘made’ by culture; they also play a part in the making of it.

It is with such dynamics in mind that one understands the importance of diversified research teams and taking local/indigenous knowledges seriously, without entailing deference to ‘traditional’ leaders as the ultimate authorities on this knowledge.

But decolonial feminism does present challenges that may lead to scepticism about its persuasiveness in South Africa. I attempt a cursory discussion of only three of these challenges here.

The first stems from the fact that most of the established experts on decolonial thought are Latin Americans based in institutions in North America and Europe. Many of the examples they use to illustrate their arguments largely reflect their specific backgrounds or geographical locations. Furthermore, the existing body of scholarship positions the conquest of the Americas as the pivotal point in the evolution of modern European colonialism worldwide.

Some South African academics oppose decolonial thought on the grounds that it seems to run counter to efforts to entrench Afrocentric approaches by promoting theories originating in Africa. Some students have also voiced their frustrations that their experiences are not reflected in the decolonial lectures and literature that they have been directed to.

These objections are very similar to the varying objections to feminism(s) in Africa. In many quarters, men and women reject feminism on the grounds that the very notion of it is foreign to the continent. In others, the African credentials for feminist thought are fiercely defended against detractors as well as the perceived parentalism of white and black feminists in the West.

Ecologies of knowledge

For their part, decolonial theorists have reiterated that their intention is not to universalise their specific experiences or state that they have a comprehensive understanding of the South African context. Instead this perceived shortcoming highlights the room for growth that decolonial thought presents and the importance of cultivating ecologies of knowledge.

Another challenge is the fact that some decolonial feminists have disputed the usefulness of gender as an analytical tool. Scholars such as Nigerian sociologist Oyèrónke Oyewùmí and Argentine philosopher Maria Lugones have provided some compelling illustrations of how colonial constructions of gender were imposed on colonised communities, profoundly disturbing the fluidity in what we would call gender identities and gender roles in today’s parlance.

Gender binaries have been the basis of the struggles that predominantly white feminists launched against patriarchy, especially since the so-called ‘feminist second wave’ of the 1970s. Disputing the existence of gender binaries prior to colonialism, Lugones has proposed the abandonment of gender analyses.

This is a proposal that I disagree with. If anything, these disagreements around the issue of gender have helped to illuminate its complexities and have the potential of opening new avenues for positive interventions.

The last challenge mentioned here is the objective of democratising knowledge. Feminist methodologies have always set out to address the exclusion of women as knowledge producers and to diminish the inequalities between the researcher and the researched.

Decolonial thought posits that these earlier attempts did not go far enough in addressing racial privilege in the global knowledge economy and in giving marginalised communities any real decision-making powers in research conducted about them.

Decolonial critiques make the different dimensions of these power disparities more visible than other schools have done. They may go some way towards providing the necessary motivation for staff and curricular diversification in the academy.

However, the problem of affecting more equitable relationships between researchers and the communities with which they work is a more difficult one to resolve. Methodologies have emerged that require considerable input from research participants and other partners to determine the content and direction of research.

However, given the prevailing prestige of the researcher within the academy, serious concerns about the ownership of research ultimately remain.

Nompumelelo Motlafi is a lecturer in the department of political sciences at the University of South Africa. She is also a PhD candidate at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa.