Dear Vanguard Readers,
“The song Nantsi indonda emnyama meaning: “Here is a black man” was changed to include black women by adding Nangu umfazi omnyama, which means: “Here is the black woman”, to the lyrics.”
-Mbali Matandela, March 2015, ‘Rhodes Must Fall: How black women claimed their place’
The UCT Rhodes Must Fall Mission Statement begins as follows: “We are an independent collective of students, workers and staff who have come together to end institutionalised racism and patriarchy at UCT”. The movement goes on to further clarify their grounding in intersectional feminism:
“We want to state that while this movement emerged as a response to racism at UCT, we recognise that experiences of oppression on this campus are intersectional and we aim to adopt an approach that is cognisant of this going forward. An intersectional approach to our blackness takes into account that we are not only defined by our blackness, but that some of us are also defined by our gender, our sexuality, our able-bodiedness, our mental health, and our class, among other things. We all have certain oppressions and certain privileges and this must inform our organising so that we do not silence groups among us, and so that no one should have to choose between their struggles. Our movement endeavours to make this a reality in our struggle for decolonisation.”
The significance of an anti-racist movement that centres an understanding of various Black experiences and forges solidarity on that basis cannot be understated. It signals a new political moment for Black Consciousness as defined by heterosexual maleness to the recognition of, what I call , an Intersectional Consciousness of Black experiences as defined by gender, sexuality, class and other social identities. Most importantly, this new Intersectional Consciousness holds the promise of ending the reproductions of oppressions such as patriarchy, homophobia, classism and transphobia within anti-racist movements.
In speaking of how “a small group of black feminists changed the politics of a black consciousness space” within the Rhodes Must Fall movement, feminist Mbali Matandela makes mention of the fact that this was “a space that has previously excluded these populations.”
Rightly so, because the exclusion of gendered (and other) black experiences within Black anti-racist movements has happened time and again as many male (and female anti-racists) have seen sexism as a “secondary issue” to be dealt with “once the revolution has come” at best, and a “divisive non-issue” derided as symptomatic of “bourgeoise imperialist feminism” at worst. As such, Phyllis Jordan (nee Ntantala), who can be described as a feminist within the ANC, observed the following her 1984 essay titled ‘Womanhood and national liberation’:
“An unfortunate attitude has taken root in the movement against what people loosely refer to as ‘feminism’ and sometimes ‘Women’s Lib’. More often than not this attitude shields and is a convenient cover for traditionalist attitudes against the rights of women, and masks the fears and inadequacies of men who feel threatened by the loss of the power they at present exercise over women.”
Consequently, many women in these movements have towed the patriarchal line, as is evidenced by this statement by members of the ANC Delegation to the Nairobi Conference on Women in 1985 that, “[i]t would be suicidal for us to adopt feminist ideas. Our is the enemy is the system and we cannot exhaust our energies on women’s issues”.
Of her own evolution as a feminist, former Black Consciousness Movement leader Mamphela Ramphele has said: “Ours was not a feminist cause at that time – feminism was a later development within my own political consciousness.”
Similarly, I’ve written about my own stance on “the hierarchy between my blackness and my womanhood. I had always been certain in the idea that I am black, or at least African, before I am woman. Liberation for black people first, liberation for women second. Being aware of this, I had been a little wary about using the term ‘feminist’.” I subsequently came ‘to it’ through interactions with and reading from black feminists largely in ‘consciousness-raising conversations’ on social media.
What these experiences of Black feminists show is that is there is often a ‘tension of loyalties’ that is created by the false dichotomies between anti-racist and feminist movements. In the words of Kimberle Crenshaw, the black feminist scholar who coined the term “intersectionality”: “[t]he concept of political intersectionality highlights the fact that women of colour are often situated within at least two subordinated groups that frequently pursue conflicting agendas.”
More importantly, the negative implications of the dichotomy for anti-racist movements are such that “[t]he failure of anti-racism to interrogate patriarchy means that anti-racism will frequently reproduce the subordination of women”, as Kimberle Crenshaw has said. In addition to the sub-ordination of women, the singular politics of anti-racism sub-ordinates other Blacks on the basis of aspects such as sexuality and class.
Consequently this reproduction of various oppressions within anti-racist politics brings about pivotal moments and experiences that, for example, force Black women to confront the fact that they are indeed ‘Black women and not just Black’, or, for example, force Black lesbian women to confront the fact that they are ‘Black lesbian women and not just Black’ . The pivotal moments may be as ‘benign’ as being relegated to the duty of ‘ensuring accommodation and entertainment’ at political meetings or as violent as ‘corrective rape’ that is inflicted on Black women wrongly or rightly suspected of being lesbian.
In these ways Black women have had to come to appreciate the fact that the simultaneous experiences of sexist, racist and other oppressive experiences is symptomatic of Black feminist Patricia Hill Collins’ “Matrix of Domination” which famously described “interlocking systems of oppression”. As such, bell hooks can be seen to characterise this matrix in more precise terms as “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”.
Thus the words of Black feminist Audre Lorde that “your silence will not protect you” seem to ring true as Black feminists within the Rhodes Must Fall movement who recognised the materiality of patriarchal oppression and intent on “claiming their space” within Black anti-racist movements have had to actively work to make Black men and the wider movement alive to their pain as women as Mbali Matandela noted:
“We began speaking up at meetings about what it means to be black women or LGTBQIA people in an institution that still celebrates misogyny and white supremacy symbolically with the statue of Cecil John Rhodes statue…The feminists said their pain, which at times is different to men’s pain, needs to be known. We asked for a meeting with the movement’s leaders and told them that before the movement became a powerful resistance to institutional racism, there needed to be healing within to be able find solidarity. This meeting enabled those that had been silenced to reconcile with the black males who had previously simplified or devalued women’s experiences.”
Echoing this new Consciousness in Black politics, the students of University of the Witwatersrand’s Transform Wits movement also define themselves according to this new understanding of intersectional Black subjectivities stating in their manifesto that“[w]e are an intersectional movement that centres the struggles of Black South Africans”.
In reading the statements from emergent Black student movements, it is clear that this political moment is embodied by a new ‘coalition’ or ‘collective’ style politics that recognises the diverse nature of Black experiences and thus characterises their struggle as one against the interlocking oppressions of “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” as opposed to the singular oppression of white supremacy. Importantly, this is an intersectional politics that has the potential to end the reproductions of patriarchy, homophobia, classism and other oppressions within Black anti-racist politics before and after “the revolution has come”.
Before concluding, it must be noted that the students are not the first to theorise versions of intersectionality within South African anti-racist politics. For example, in the same 1984 essay Phyllis Ntantala spoke to the “threefold oppression” of black women, saying “it is high time we had the courage to grasp the nettle and subject all these [oppressions] to criticism”. However, the manner in which this new political movement foregrounds intersectional feminist politics beyond glib commitments to ‘non-discrimination’ such as ‘non-racism’ and ‘non-sexism’ is new.
The politics of this generation of youth is decidely different as they recognise Intersectional Consciousness of multiple Black experiences and organise on that basis. While it remains to be seen whether these manifestos will merely remain statements of intent or the movements will jn fact deliver on their promises, that Black intersectional feminist futures are being actively imagined and created remains cause for celebration this June as we commemorate 29 years since Soweto Uprisings, arguably the apex of the Black Consciousness Movement student organising.
Indeed, this new intersectional moment is captured in a placard created by LGBTQIA activist Sivu Siwisa for the Rhodes Must Fall protests that triumphantly reads, “Dear history, this revolution has women, gays, queers and trans. Remember that.”
We hope you enjoy our content offering this June.
Your in intersectional fierceness,