Pumla Gqola: Moving beyond patriarchy
Pumla Gqola is amongst the most influential public intellectuals and feminist academics in South Africa. Her writings and analysis on South African patriarchal parenthesis have been cited as both insightful and drawing from a number of influences. She is a lecturer at Wits University and recently published a book entitled What is slavery to me. We spoke to her about the role of public intellectuals in South Africa, and the dangers of men leading feminist movements and the importance of activism
MindMap-SA: I want to start by asking a question that has been weighing heavily on my mind lately just from scanning the news and the culture, is activism still relevant in post-apartheid South Africa?
Pumla Gqola: Yes, definitely and by that I mean different kinds of activism, and maybe using different strategies than the ones we have learnt to take for granted. So, inequality is rife here. Any context with huge inequality and violently enforced oppression on various fronts demands activism. We keep hearing – and witnessing the ways in which the gap between the wealthy and the impoverished is widening. We hear of the failure of the State to deliver on some basic necessities. The education and health systems have collapsed except for those who can access the privatised versions of these. Queer people, and women, continue to live under siege, so yes we need activism still.
MindMap-SA: It would seem to me that the post-apartheid dream is dying. People are really getting agitated by South African social parenthesis, but for me the question is where is the next South African struggle? Is it going be a class struggle? A gender struggle? What is going pull us from this numbness that we seem to have fallen into?
Pumla Gqola: well, I don’t think everybody is numb – or numb all the time although the very numbness is an expression of disillusionment we are seeing different kinds and fronts of struggle on various fronts and often we see less of them in the media – or at least the powerful mainstream media, with routine under-reporting of the variety of activisms on the ground as well as responses to this. But okay, even if we leave the media aside, I think that the next wave – and we are seeing evidence of it – is across different fronts I am often struck by how many echoes and resonances there are in the language of demand for human recognition (which always has a material dimension) across activist groups working with the one in nine campaign for example and abahlali basemjondolo or even something like the September National Imbizo so, while these grouping are radically different in what they prioritise – and what they pay no attention to – there is the same impatience, the same refusal to think of the state as anything but the problem and the refusal to adhere strictly to old fashioned “struggle type” activism and I don’t use “old fashioned” as a value judgment, simply as a description
MindMap-SA: It’s interesting that you mention the role of the media in helping bring these issues and divides to public attention. Why do you think the media locally has been stagnant in terms of reporting about issues that affect the wider South Africans social order?
Pumla Gqola: I think the media – or much of it – can often be out of step with what the public thinks, feels, values and that’s the kind explanation of what is going on. At other times, mainstream media simply has different ideological investments, agendas and values from many other people. So there is little progressive about the bulk of our media – save obviously alternative media, but that’s what alternative media is really for, isn’t it? But it is mainstream media that have the largest reach and for as long as that is mainly liberal, we will continue to see that reflected in the kinds of coverage, emphases, blind spots, etc even if there are pockets, usually within the analysis and letters and column spaces for a more varied articulation
MindMap-SA: So than how do we bridge that information gap? How do we articulate these issues?
Pumla Gqola: Through a combination of approaches: 1. amplifying the alternative spaces that we do have, across platforms, so that they do really occupy a more widely subscribed to space; 2. using more digital platforms to articulate what the mainstream does not value, but that we do. I think we do this too, but it cannot be overstated. 3. Using the power that we do have in relation to available media but not continuing to support media that works against our interest – whatever that interest is. so many people continue to buy newspapers that piss them off weekday after weekday and weekend after weekend because they feel “helpless” and don’t want to be left out of the loop maybe we just need to turn to – financially as much as in terms of who and what we give time to – the kinds of alternative media spaces that do offer us something interesting 3. I think we need to collectively re-invest in the value of critical thinking. It’s not just nationally that there is a general consumerist, lazy, dumbing down and conformist culture. It is global, so we need to be quite mindful of this even as we cultivate critical thinking as valuable at the local level. 4. Today you don’t need as much as you did 20, 30 years ago to get your thoughts out there.
Yes, there is so much data in the information age that it is difficult to discern what is important and what not. But a co-ordinated alternative media network helps here. But the co-ordination can’t just be by the people putting up the digital architecture and building content, it has to be by the readers/subscribers too. 4. We also need to come up with new strategies – and test these out – that we may just be germinating still. It’s a different world, in many respects, and so the “struggle” needs different tools. And it needs a lot more intolerance for the violent oppression that runs rampant. 5. we also need to hold the state accountable more, and we need to do that beyond marches and pickets and petitions – which served us well, in the past, but which are not going to do all we need done today. So we need to be open to new strategies – recognising that some won’t work, but we won’t know till we’re trying them out. 6. We also need a radically different approach to class and the creative – together and separately.
MindMap-SA: But the trouble with these spaces is credibility, is it not? Academics that are well nested in the comfort of the Sunday papers are not all too keen to give that up and thus thess alternative spaces to which you refer often suffer from a brain drain and whether we like to admit it or not credibility plays a lot in insuring that people take your message seriously.
Pumla Gqola: (Laughs) I am not sure how many academics are well nested within the comfort of the mainstream papers. A handful on a really good day. That “comfort” is not really as comfortable as it seems – yes, maybe within the context of a specific paper. But within academia, very often the public work that one does is unrecognised, misrecognised, outright disparaged, etc except when you need to fill in some promotions form, where it suddenly matters. So I think this comfort can be overstated and most commentators are not academics – and there is no reason why they should be either. The academy manufactures enough nonsense on its own, so I don’t think the only intellectual work that matters happens in the academy.
But I do value intellectual culture, critical thinking wherever we see this. If enough people start speaking about, linking to, citing, and sending other people to certain kinds of alternative spaces, those spaces become more visible. It is the audacity that we need. Look at how audacious conservative tabloids are. Who would have even imagined the kinds of circulation they have a few years ago? Yet, there you have it. As someone who teaches thousands of students every year, I am very aware of the enormous hunger there is for alternative forms of knowledge spaces among young and older people so we have to figure out how to increase visibility of alternative spaces even without the huge advertising budgets that the liberal and conservative press has. And academics are not the ones who are going to give the media credibility. I know that what I read has to make me want to read it – it’s not just who writes for it one and I am afraid the cutting edge critical spaces have to be cool too without being conventionally attractive you don’t need a 1000 000 people. Very few publications have that. You just need a growing core for a length of time
MindMap-SA: Let’s speak a little bit about the role of the public intellectual in South Africa. What is it exactly? Because often it can come across to regular working class South Africans as elitist philandering.
Pumla Gqola: Who are these regular working class people? I don’t buy that. I think the “elitist” tag is very often thrown about in public by previous political radicals who are now political conservative elites. I have seldom heard a working class person bother to call some public intellectual elitist. Yet I hear many of the powerful epistemically violent men and women call people they disagree with this. So I don’t buy that. But people watch the same TV programmes that have the same class of academic other located intellectuals all the time and they are not intimidated they call in and argue with you on TV and the radio and are not in the least bit bothered about your graduate work they argue with you, they call, they SMS, they write letters telling you you’re speaking nonsense or they like what you’re saying but in the print media, there is all this nonsense about elitist public intellectuals because it is the most conservatively GUARDED space but it is not the media platform that the majority of people choose. That is not an accident it is important to have public intellectuals they should not just be middle class folks, but they are for a range of reasons that are structural – and I am not making apologies for this, it is part of our implication in the nonsense of power – and this is linked to who has the kind of class and professional location that enables a few hours in the middle of the day to drive to a studio or have an interview or pen an op-ed
MindMap-SA: You spoke earlier about how work in academia can be misrecognised, has this happened to you personally and if it has how so?
Pumla Gqola: (Laughs) It happens to most people who do work that has an unapologetic “left” ideological location that they make explicit so I am not special in that regard. I am a black woman who teaches, researches, publishes and works with matter/people that foregrounds race, class, gender, sexual orientation that can make you a nuisance in an academy that masks mediocrity through the language of “standards” so, it has ranged from MA thesis content being questioned in the examination stage even though it had passed all the usual things “easily,” through irregularity of its treatment given the faculty and university regulations at the time (UCT, mid to late 1990) s0- that is a long story-, that I dealt with by getting another MA from a UK institution by distinction. Upon return, suddenly the mystification at UCT ended. To students walking out and staging a right-wing protest at the end of one of my lectures at UFS or UOFS as it then was and the Dean siding with them and flouting regulations to snide comments about the absence of rigour in locating my work as feminist and post-colonial, to less explicit bizarre things that come up in the very administration of your bureaucratic professional subjectivity. To having to take on some of the more academically rigorous “but” ideologically radical research supervision by fantastic students who keep hitting a brick wall.
MindMap-SA: So when all these things happen, how do you deal with that? Why not pack up and say to yourself, “Pumla be a good conformist academic and stop offending people.” Why keep confronting this social thesis when it is so easy to go the other way?
Pumla Gqola: Because I am not wired that way. I am not a quitter and I am very stubborn and I can back down from anything but something that will make me complicit with some oppressive madness and because I think we need to change as much as we can, where we are and when you are one of less than a handful of academically senior black women in the academy you get more stubborn with time and more determined. I think maybe it is also because I don’t know how to say I don’t matter and you are never going to get me to say Black people don’t matter, that gender does not matter so that’s my problem. But it’s also my job and it is harder for me to shut up and be like everybody else – even with non-political things than it is to speak my mind so if I conformed, I’d need drugs
MindMap-SA: So knowledge and ideas by themselves are not enough, there is a need for some level of personal conviction in order to stake your claim in this space?
Pumla Gqola: Knowledge is always political how you do knowledge is always political whether you admit or not my work is political – everybody’s work is some of us admit it and that is a deliberate political choice some of us pretend our work is not and that is an equally political choice to obfuscate
MindMap-SA: Ok going back to the issue of South Africa post 1994. I remember reading an article you wrote in the Rhodes Journalism Review about memory and national identity and this idea of the Rainbow Nation. Do you think it is possible in this space and time to create an all inclusive South African identity? Or is this just fallacy that is informed by long-term selective memory?
Pumla Gqola: An inclusive SA identity is not something that can exist all the time and maybe it is not the best thing we should aspire to look for. I am a feminist so I don’t like nationalisms it doesn’t help that I am also Pan-Africanist. But my biggest problem is with SA post-1994 nationalism is that it glosses over differences, rainbow nation unity in diversity all of this nonsense just glosses over the remaining inequalities and while most Black people and most lesbians -esp Black ones live under the specter of violence all of this rainbow nation stuff is nonsense I am less interested in what we call our pretend identity than I am in large scale material transformation.So the day most Black people are not poor and impoverished and the day all women can walk down the road without fear of verbal and physical violence I can entertain make believe metaphors and the day everybody’s child can get a decent education and everybody’s parent and sibling decent healthcare but right now, I feel like it is a waste of all our time to be thinking about an identity as though an identity is not always shaped by real power in the world.
MindMap-SA: The trouble that I have with feminism locally is that it has tendency of looking at women’s issues as monolithic, should class divides not also be considered when looking at the role or image of women in this country?
Pumla Gqola: Which feminist locally does this? I hear this a lot, but nobody can tell me who these feminists are and which feminist movements they are talking about so, when I work with one in nine, or few- or rape crisis previously, or the few meetings of the WNC I went to, or women’s meetings in Salt River House – there were women from student, trade union, working class, rural etc movements and when I look at the people – apart from the ridiculous women’s league and even they are multi-class – I don’t see monolithic I just hear the accusation and the only time I see monolithic is first generation of academic feminists but mostly retired or retiring so they are still not the face of feminism in SA I think the monolithic claim is a smokescreen there has never been a middle class vocal feminist movement in this country historically maybe fringe parts of it, yes but historically? No today? No it’s just something people say all over the continent, all over Latin America, all over the Caribbean it’s a way of saying “it’s western” but because the people who say this are not crude right-wingers but people who are left on everything but liberal on gender, they say “the limitations of feminism here” or “liberal feminism in SA” but where it is? No one can ever tell you more than one name and that is simply because it is not true of SA feminisms
MindMap-SA: In this vein I am thinking of people like Linda Stupart for instance and her commentaries on Slutwalk and even Sarah Dawson to a much lesser degree, Let’s look at the state of the feminist movement in South Africa, where do you think it is and where is it going? Is it getting better or weaker? What is the texture there?
Pumla Gqola: Who on earth is Linda Stupart? or Sarah Dawson on the greater scheme of things? And I am fascinated that although many SA feminists responded in writing with contempt to Slutwalk, these are the people you focus on. Not the feminists who said it’s a crazy, ridiculous idea that has no relevance here and pointed to the hypocrisy Slutwalker who claim feminism but never support or work with any of us in the anti-GBV spaces created locally so you see, you are choosing to focus on the fringe even in the face of the bulk of the feminist response to Slutwalk in SA being dismissal, rejection and anger and this happens all the time but feminist movements have to take the blame for the words and support of a few feminists who hanker after solutions from elsewhere so they can be “global” even internationally, many women of colour feminists outside SA rejected with contempt the whole Slutwalk thing. But we – the country where it has the least support from the feminist movement – get it used as one of “our” limitations? That doesn’t even make sense to me.
MindMap-SA: lets speak a little about the education of Pumla Gqola. You were a student during very politically turbulent times, at what point are you like, “Ok I think I need to start looking at gender issues.” Is this a sudden thing or do you sort of gradually get into this feminist realm?
Pumla Gqola: (laughs) I started calling myself a feminist in high school so by the time I got to feminist academic stuff, I had been growing into feminism for a while so, while the strand of feminism that I most identify with has changed and I have grown deeper in love with feminism. It has never been primarily academic for me.
MindMap-SA: So who are the people that have influenced your thinking and the way you approach gender issues?
Pumla Gqola: when? As a child? Or do you mean in my adult life?
Pumla Gqola: That’s a hard question, but ok. I guess everybody grows up with women who are a little strange by the standards of the day and society. I just always found women that were not like everybody else, fascinating and women who spoke their minds my family is weird about being outspoken both sides of the family seem to think expressing what you think is sacred, so I was brought up by men and women who listened to what I had to say and to what other children and adults had to say even if they then told you they disagreed or were crazy and so there isn’t a single person or group that did it. Yes, my mama is fiercely opinionated and nobody is gonna shut her up or control her but her brothers were gentle and weren’t really into controlling my dad and his sibling were similar so that was normal. it did not make sense when I stepped out of my family that there was such an explicit attempt to shut me up and make me smaller and often explicitly because I am a girl and I had great women teachers who just did wonderful, weird, imaginative and magical things.
Nomntu Mali my primary school teacher\English is still one of my all time favourite people on the planet she was smart, gorgeous, political and an amazing teacher she still is and she was this fiercely independent woman who took care of a whole lot of siblings and was not married and didn’t sweat it and she made us read things that weren’t in the syllabus and made us create our own library just things that were unimaginable. She made magic out of nothing and I wanted to be her, when I didn’t want be my mama, I went back and forth my paternal aunts were fantastic clever girls who laughed too loudly one smoked and there were all these other visible women in the world who were crazy bold that were just part of the time in the country and the world.
Like Winnie Mandela so there were just many images of women who were themselves made me want to be myself too. Then an older political naming came when I found out there was a name for girls like me who thought we should all be allowed to be who we are, or want to be as girls and women etc then academically and so forth. Alice Walker was very important to me she still is, Patricia McFadden, Sylvia Tamale, Gloria Anzaldua completely changed my life. I could rattle off a list of names, but Thandeka Kunene in high school and in SANSCO Thembeka, I forget her surname now also in SANSCO leadership was one of the most magical people I’d ever met so there are hundreds of people these are the ones whose influence I explicitly recognised
MindMap-SA: One of the things that I get when you talk about your upbringing is the emphasis on the role of education in bettering yourself; do you think the same can be said for other young women today?
Pumla Gqola: Well, I don’t know about “bettering yourself” you make me sound like a renaissance man. (Laughs) But seriously? let me think I just think it is a world that is more hostile to women in many ways even though in formal sense it is more receptive to women there is a lot less tolerance of women who are crazy and different and magical and a clearer emphasis on the circulation of women who fit into a certain mould. So I worry about younger women enormously because education is crucial still but in the information age, the information machinery is so fascist that the out of classroom, out of home education is so hostile and maybe that means there needs to be more rigorous education in formal structures to enable the unlearning and yet our education system in SA is collapsing and Zimbabwe’s spectacular education system – gone too.
MindMap-SA: Are women in privileged positions or positions of power doing enough to empower other women?
Pumla Gqola: Some women are some are just patriarchy’s foot soldiers there isn’t a consistent script, I suppose but the whole empowerment discourse in SA at least is one that I am very nervous about because empowerment does not necessarily mean/contain anything politically transformative in a deep sense so sometimes the empowerment discourse is decidedly anti-feminist in many aspects. But I have written about this elsewhere and was talking a bit about it in my class this morning , it’s a con but if you’re talking about empowerment in the old fashioned sense, rather than the current conservative discourse, I think many women do this work some because they choose to and some because it is inevitable so yes, I think many women are doing this work even though we hear more about the pull-her-down syndrome in the press and pop culture I don’t think that is the majority of cases.
MindMap-SA: Ok, let’s look at something you spoke about earlier in the interview the issue of the discrimination and abuse of lesbians in South Africa and that struggle in relation to feminism. How do you think these two struggles complement each other what role can feminists play in bringing the struggle of lesbians to light?
Pumla Gqola: The reason we even know about this is because black feminist lesbians put it on the agenda. Wendy Isaack said it over and over and over again in every press release she wrote the first public piece on it calling for a state of emergency to be declared because of the violence against black lesbians, she is a feminist, black lesbian zanele muholi – feminist, black lesbian and again, I could rattle off names\ that’s how we know 1 in 9 is majority black feminist lesbian run, membership FEW is a feminist black lesbian NGO these are the people who are behind us knowing in the first place.
MindMap-SA: So there is a lot of work to be done from within the feminist movement
Pumla Gqola: But these people ARE part of the feminist movement so I don’t understand the question the work is being done I think I am missing what you’re really asking me.
MindMap-SA: I guess what I am asking is why do people sometimes see these struggles as exclusive and separate? I remember Zanele was doing a talk in Durban and she got a barrage of questions about why she calls herself feminist. And this was from an audience of well educated people. They still did not get the relation between the two.
Pumla Gqola: Oh! feminism gets a bad rap (Laughs) that’s what I said to be students this morning. So to be a feminist and a lesbian is just too much to handle, you are the epitome of the monster for patriarchy and most people buy into patriarchy even as it continues to brutalise all of us and remember, well educated people are responsible for almost of all of the most horrific systems in the world so at any given time there are more conservative middle class well educated people than there are people with a more marginal location.
MindMap-SA: I like that last sentiment, it is so true. My next question I guess in a way is somewhat contradictory to the point of feminism because it’s based on male centralism. What is the role of men within the feminist movement?
Pumla Gqola: Men can be feminists, some men identify as feminist not all women feminists agree that men can call themselves feminists and that’s fine. I belong to the school that says they can but I don’t think women should spend forever discussing this. So I think feminist men are in the feminist movement and they have to do feminist work and they do, I think some men are pro-feminist and can support the feminist movement but men cannot lead feminist movements so that’s my position.
MindMap-SA: Because the movement looses credibility when it is lead by men?
Pumla Gqola: No because patriarchy says men are leaders and feminism can’t agree with patriarchy it would not make sense but feminist men get this and they would not try to lead a feminist movement or speak for feminists and when men within the progressive gender movement engage in such behaviour they are not feminist by any stretch they are just regular patriarchal men and they are especially dangerous.
MindMap-SA: Finally I would like to ask as a very well travelled academic and author, when you go to other countries and you look at South Africa how far off are we from being a post-patriarchal society? And where do we stand compared to other parts of the world?
Pumla Gqola: (Laughs) apart from the Scandinavians? (Laughs) well, I think SA and Rwanda and Ireland are miles ahead of most in terms of the clearly visible measurable gains in the legal and professional stuff. But I think we are in the same insane place as most other countries when it comes to the more private, unregulated hard to measure stuff if you look at percentages of senior women in the SA academy, the German academy seems prehistoric in how behind it is. If you look at legislation in SA – same but when you look at the practice of everyday sexualisation, policing of women’s bodies and deviant men’s bodies, the way the state secondary victimises women who report violence, then we’re doing appallingly I must admit – save for Rwanda and Ireland – I often feel like we’ve won a few more battles here when I am in the US I feel like the policing and probing and cutting and violent male gaze is magnified
but in these same places women “feel” safer in the streets than here even though we all know that the streets are not the most dangerous places for women all over the world, home is most dangerous and I have never been to Scandinavia, so I don’t know if I believe that it is a more equal society and closer to post-patriarchy. There is a lot of work to be done everywhere – there are glimpses of a fairer world but the backlash is virulent and patriarchy is mutating faster than before but we will win it can’t mutate forever it won’t. I am thrilled that more and more young women I come across call themselves feminists than ever before in my teaching career
All images courtesy of Victor Dlamini and Books Live