Apartheid’s Ghosts – Being Black and a woman in South Africa

when black women winI am a [Black] woman and a lesbian ―all three stand outside the realm of choice” – Audre Lorde

I am always interested in the ways in which Apartheid South Africa and its patriarchal systems continue to express themselves through their control of Black women’s bodies. How have systems we were told died in April 1994 continued to attach themselves onto our bodies, slip under our skirts, kidnap and rape us and lurk in lonely streets sitting with us in boardrooms and stick onto our lips like matte lipstick.

Every day I am surprised at the excruciating ordinariness of oppression. I am gobsmacked at the ways in which the past constantly pushes itself onto the present.  I felt this presence when I tried to explain to a friend why I do not, as a matter of policy, pick up to private-number calls. I attempted to explain to him the number of times I had , out of fear, given my number out to a strange man  – research shows that womxn only consider men to be strangers[1].

Ferial Haffajee argues, correctly, that Apartheid – racial oppression – and patriarchy – sexist systems of dominance – are twins.[2] I wanted to ask her what happens when one twin dies?

I remember my mother telling me my uncle, her younger brother had a twin who had died.. In my 8 year naiveté asking when she had died. She responded by saying, “Akutiwa iwele lishonile, kutiwa’liyoteza’. In my culture we recognise the connectedness of both twins, that the one is very much still in the present and impacts on the life of the living twin. To me this is how I conceive of Apartheid’s continued impact on my im/mobility. My body was controlled by both twins – racial oppression and its twin patriarchy.

Apartheid as disappearance

All systems of oppression are in essence systems of disappearance. They derive their legitimacy by disappearing the humanity of undesired populations. They render the oppressed as defective, undesirable and subhuman. Apartheid was not a single system signified by racial oppression, it was a collection of oppressions. Thus the disappearing of Black people accompanied the disappearing of womxn, the disabled, the Queers, the illiterate.

One of Apartheid’s central tenants was the designation of anything outside of white masculinity – particularly Black womanhood – as a position of complete “undesirability”. This meant the designation of Blackness and womanhood as subhuman. Segregation was not merely the designation of different space of racial occupation, segregation was the social designation of humanness[3]. In this matrix South African (Black) womxn literally did not exist. We were considered minors until 1984 when the Marriage Act abolished marital power. This largely applied to white women. Black womxn were understood as minors in customary marriages until 2000[4] and only gained full adult status in all marriages through the Customary Marriages Act. Gay men could not occupy a space two at a time nor show any affection which could be read as stimulating sexual passion or give sexual gratification[5] . These were the ways in which the Apartheid state sought to cleanse itself of the undesired, through their literal disappearance. To be unseen, unrecognisable, criminalised.

Apartheid’s spatial exclusion system was an allocation of humanity. Like feeding scheme rations, each race and gender were dehumanised in relation to its closeness to whiteness and masculinity. Thus the further away you were from whiteness and masculinity, the less human you became. Spatial exclusion also designated who could be violated without fear of legal punishment and– Black womxn, sex workers, lesbians and gay men being the categories of the most violatable.

Apartheid through law and social control rendered these categories of people as having less value.  Those who had value could exchange their value for social mobility through access to economic opportunity. White men had the most value and Black womxn the least.

In short Apartheid established networks of value depend on your proximity to whiteness and masculinity. It is these networks of value which still govern who is able to access public spaces and economic spaces.

Post-Apartheid South Africa promised freedom. However it merely removed the visible mechanisms of disappearing. Spatial exclusion is – particularly of womxn – still used to regulate womxn, particularly Black womxn. The ability for Black women to access mobility – accessing the public and accessing economic mobility – is still contingent on the networks of value established through Apartheid spatial exclusion.

Becoming Apartheid’s ghost – the disappearing Black womxn

  In 2016 I took an uber to work every morning and got an uber back home to my flat in Maboneng/ Jeppestown to JHB CBD every evening. Between work and home was a walkable distance of about 30 minutes. Had I been able to walk to work or take safe and reliable public transport without the fear of being raped, mugged, and kidnapped or all three, I would’ve done so.

But my entire existence is governed by fear, a fear grounded in the understanding that my life as a Black womxn is limited and severely under threat in South African streets.My life as a Black lesbian woman is limited because I exist outside the realm of white masculinity. I am Black and I am not a man. Even the option of using masiclinity as a shield – through making myself desirable to masculinity or have a man as a social shield are not possibilities for me.

 Because of this knowledge my life is a constant negotiation and dance of minimisation of the certainty of my death, rape, kidnapping or all three.

Every morning womxn across the country learn to disappear ourselves. Every day womxn find new ways to not occupy certain spaces, to avoid traveling to and from work at certain times. When we are unable to negotiate ourselves from traveling certain spaces at certain times we seek protection by asking co-workers, neighbours, siblings who are men to form a social shield by walking with us or waiting or taking us to taxi/bus stops.

The effect of our heightened awareness of how violable our bodies are is that we pushed into the home – the place patriarchy deems our natural place. We are forced to seek men as companions in order to afford us some level of protection. The effect of our fear is a deep understanding that we do not belong in the “public”, that a womxn’s place is in the home. In short womxn, particularly the most vulnerable womxn are rendered “unlawful” occupiers of public spaces. Every day we make ghosts of ourselves, we are Apartheid’s ghosts living breathing but never seen nor heard even when we scream in pain.

[1] Gill Valentine “The Geography of Women’s Fear” (1989) The Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers

[2] Ferial Haffajee “Family and feminism” in Jen Thorpe (ed) FEMINISM IS: SOUTH AFRICANS SPEAK THEIR TRUTH, page 53.

[3] Thus the definition of “Black” in section 12 of the Group Areas Act included “any woman married to or cohabiting with one who is or is accepted as a member of the aboriginal race or tribe of Africa,” or any white man married to or cohabiting with a Black woman.” Thus Blackness had the ability to “taint” whiteness, render it impure and thus of a lower level of humanness.

[4] Marital power in Black customary marriages was abolished through the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act 1998.

[5] Section 20A of the Immorality Act 1957