African feminists: Talking the Walk

African Gender Institute, UCT presents Chandra Mohanty in discussion with South African feminist scholars, 16 April 2014, District Six Museum, Cape Town.


A number of feminist issues have been drawn into the South African media in the last year or two. Notable examples are the trial of Oscar Pistorius for the murder of Reeva Steenkamp, the rape and murder of Anene Booysen and lastly, the controversy surrounding University of Pretoria lecturer Louise Mabille and her criticism of feminism and African culture in Dan Roodt’s right-wing publication, Praag.

What these three incidents all point to, are the lack of a cohesive feminist consciousness in South Africa. For instance, the sympathetic plea of the Pistorius case is reliant on settler-colonial tropes of masculine paranoia and anxiety, as Margie Orford has pointed out, “rather unfortunately” resulting in aggression worked out on the female body. The murder and rape of Anene Booysen and its reception in the media indicates a South African rape culture obscured by racism and class. And lastly, the Louise Mabille saga perhaps most deftly illustrates the difficulties that intellectuals have in addressing these issues. Combined, these incidents indicate that the South African public, and its intellectuals, are still cultivating uncritical biases, and that legitimate and nuanced theories of feminism are still not accessible and have not filtered into the national consciousness. Either way, the general lack of awareness and downright hostility displayed by role-players in the media, university and general public has suggested that feminism in South Africa exists within a truncated space.

In light of this context, it’s particularly fortunate to hear an important feminist figure like Chandra Mohanty speak. Perhaps the best way to understand Mohanty’s significance in feminist and decolonial theory is to consider the impact of her groundbreaking essay “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses” (1986). In this essay, Mohanty argues that feminist scholars from the West have constructed the “Third World Woman” as a “monolithic subject”. Mohanty’s argument is that this homogenising of women in the third world is made possible through “the implicit assumption of ‘the west’ […] as the primary referent in theory and praxis”. What Mohanty brings to light, really for the first time in this essay, is the capacity for an empowerment movement like feminism to effectively colonise – discursively disempower – its subjects. Her essay exposed the contradictions at the heart of feminist theory particularly when it was focused on the third world, and created a space for the development of intersectional feminism.

Mohanty starts her talk with a description of her biography, emphasising how her young life in Mumbai fed into her work. Later, her collaboration with diverse groups led to the formation of a radical transnational intellectual movement with a desire to pioneer women’s place-based resistance. This approach fused a focus on gender and community with decolonial theory. These exchanges would subsequently guide her writing and research, and led to the penning of “Under Western Eyes”.

At the time, Mohanty’s paper was received with relief and recognition from postcolonial scholars and women of colour. It is now 20 years since this paper was published and she acknowledges that much has changed. For one, Mohanty has been canonised and her theories have been institutionalised. She remains critical of the ways in which radical theory is adopted and commodified within institutions that harbor their own racialised knowledge politics.

But another significant change in the last 20 years, and to which Mohanty dedicates the rest of her talk, is the way in which neo-liberalism and post-consumption have changed the world and academic institutions. These changes have given rise to distinct challenges for radical feminism.

For Mohanty, neo-liberalism’s focus on the individual and individual achievement as the accumulation of dream-world consumables has come to stand in for empowerment. Neo-liberalism presents the market as a neutral force, a level playing-field on which freedom and equality can be gained. By this logic, any discussion of human rights has become passé.

In this climate, radical knowledges become domesticated by higher learning institutions: radical theory becomes a product to be consumed, losing its capacity as an incitement to action. Hereby collective responsibility is collapsed into personal prestige.

Beyond this critique of the corporatisation of the academy, Mohanty reminds us that the feminist principle, “the personal is political”, is meant to emphasise common experiences and the existence of a collective for which personal experience provides an entry point. This imperative is atrophied under neo-liberalism’s emphasis on the individual, in which the social is disallowed as the personal, rendering feminism irrelevant.

Furthermore, what comes to stand in for feminism is a privatised politics of representation, effectively disconnected from its materialist anchor. These politics of representation are easily reduced to a vague multiculturalism and a “politics of presence”, whereby one coloured person is meant to represent and stand in for all people of colour.

Additionally, the emergence of a theory of gender lacking the feminist critique of power relations serves to erase the need for social transformation. This delegitimising and domesticating has been called “post-feminism” – whereby difference has been emphasised over solidarity. Within this context, solidarity needs to be redefined.

In response to this talk, Yaliwe Clarke (Gender Studies, University of Cape Town) and Desiree Lewis (Women and Gender Studies, University of Western Cape) both highlighted the continued relevance and salience of Mohanty’s “Under Western Eyes” for Southern Africa. For Clarke, having worked as an activist in the Zambian women’s movement, many academics and researchers residing in the global South still tend to slip into the ethnocentric universalism of the West, and indeed perpetuate its stereotypes in their work.

Additionally, Lewis highlighted issues of discourse and language by noting the importance of the re-insertion of the self-reflexive and intellectual authorial presence in our writing. That the autobiographical voice has been ghettoised has impoverished feminist discourse. Furthermore, she notes that in the university we need to reclaim ownership of the language of feminism, which has been euphemised into “gender activism”, with “male dominance” standing in for patriarchy.

Amanda Gouws (Department of Political Science, University of Stellenbosch) continued the discussion of neo-liberalism in the South African university. Acknowledging the discursive shift from feminism to the depoliticised term “gender”, she highlighted the problem of “gender mainstreaming” which coincides with Mohanty’s “politics of presence”. Hereby, the mere counting of women in various institutions has come to stand in for proper transformation. Gouws also noted the disappointment felt by feminists over the lack of collective response to the rape and murder of Anene Booysen. Whereas Mohanty had highlighted the large-scale protest following the Dehli gang rape in 2012, which reached international audiences, very little collective action had emerged from our own watershed case.

Lastly, Marion Stevens (research associate and the co-ordinator of WISH associates), who works in women’s health and aid, criticised the veneer of identity politics without an analysis of power. She highlighted the ways in which the government and political parties in South Africa still produce a hostile environment towards women’s issues. This is particularly so in the areas of contraceptive rights (with the relegation of contraceptive issues to “family planning”) and abortion (with the provision only of “surgical” abortions, rather than medical abortions; a lack of access to clinics; and a dearth of statistics and information concerning abortions in South Africa). She further underscored the fact that politicians only speak of gender within the context of violence, and that there was yet to be a proper discursive space carved out for women’s rights.

Perhaps then, what this talk most emphasised was the importance of thinking through a historically-based and context-specific feminist platform in South Africa. One respondent even suggested that perhaps this should be sought through party politics.

The irony is that for all the talk of solidarity, critics of intersectional feminism could claim that the movement has done much itself to undermine solidarity in the feminist movement. This claim pivots on intersectional feminists’ emphasising of the local over the general and difference over commonality and a general skepticism of any large-scale social theory. And perhaps in South Africa, with the impact of neo-liberalism and the remains of the apartheid and colonial past, this becomes all too prevalent in the public, academic and media turning away from the language of feminism.

To hear Mohanty speak serves as a reminder of the dedication and integrity that nuanced forms of thought and consciousness-raising require. These include, in Mohanty’s words, a consideration of “the micropolitics of context, subjectivity, and struggle” as well as of “the macropolitics of global economic and politics systems and processes.” Perhaps it is precisely a lack of social responsibility and nuance in current intellectual work that has led to South Africa having failed thus far in defining a truly collective feminist voice. By Mohanty’s reasoning, this can only be attained via a “vision of equality attentive to power differences.” Attention to differences seems particularly important in a South African context where deep economic and social divisions persist, but where nevertheless this discourse has not yet become part of our national consciousness.

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