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by Brandon Edmonds, image by Jason Bronkhorst / 30.04.2010

Are women disappearing from South African public life, only to return, distortedly, as caricatures? Consider that the last two major media moments exclusively involving women were framed by aberration, by panic over non-normative “strangeness”. The Culture Minister’s “see no evil” walk-out when faced with the loving sapphic couplings of Zanele Muholi and Caster Semenya’s disturbing ordeal in the prurient global spotlight of a perturbed “male gaze” – demanding “what in hell are you?”

To matter, to register, to appear in public, the presence of women seems to require novelty – as if masculinity holds such sway over South African media space, is taken so unthinkingly as the default setting of articulation, that women are increasingly announced as oddities, gold-diggers, angels or witches. Why?

Obviously an unconscionable President smeared with libidinal goo, doesn’t help. His own friend’s daughters aren’t safe. The man is a priapic dynamo singlehandedly morphing the once-righteous rurally-rational tradition of polygamy into a sordid contemporary excuse to pile on wives like wood for winter. He has enough spare children to get calls from broody Hollywood starlets looking to crash-dive maternity without the exhausting rigmarole of gestating. Ours is a political imaginary haunted by a shower scene – it’s as if Hitchcock’s Psycho is our national sexual anthem! That scathing Zapiro shower-nozzle is the defining millennial image of our country and the utter encapsulation of the miserable public presence of local women – appearing only in relation to the dangerous desires of men.

With sugar daddy lotharios like Zuma at play, his wandering eye a kind of analogue for the unthinking patriarchal habits of mainstream media, women make the news only insofar as they are getting fucked, beaten, and rhetorically praised to the hilt (cue the neo-liberal cocktail-circuit of mostly meaningless “Women of the Year” awards). Behaving against the hetero-normative grain of accepted femininity by loving each other or rejecting the all-defining rabbit-hole of marriage and reproduction, may see these women get covered, but only ever as warning signs, their exposure warding off the liberating instincts of other women by the price they pay. Hence the grisly specter of “corrective rape” for exposed township lesbians.

Bluster isn’t helping either. Het up male rhetoric steeped in accusation and fisticuffs, and charged with antagonism, pervades public life, from Parliament to the streets. Women must either out-shout the carnival barkers or turn into mice. The maximum privileging of “race” as the primary mediator of local social dynamics shuts out other ways of seeing the world. Feminism, and many other effective approaches to addressing inequality, takes a back seat.

Resisting the erasure of “women” from public life, thanks to the looming presence of outsized male ranters, and our default masculinist media setting, involves the slow enabling of female experience, achievement and expression through alternative media, popular campaigns, social movements and open forums. The ANC Youth League Prez is certainly no friend of “women’s issues”, nor do the patrician ranks of the ruling party seem particularly roused by the grinding poverty of women-headed households proliferating daily in this country. The effort will have to come, as it always does, from women on the ground taking time out from demanding lives to organize, inform themselves and address us.

Lastly, beyond the menfolk, there’s a problem with the emerging self-articulation of black women in our country – it’s running along banal consumerist globally standardized post-feminist lines. Self-serving, bi-polar socialites in barely there dresses at camera-choked launches win local media space for women framed entirely by glamour, conspicuous consumption and narcissistic self-promotion. This does not advance the cause of female prominence. It merely endorses the regressive culture of entitlement plaguing the ruling party. Given the immense and decisive involvement of women in “the struggle” – is it too much to expect a little more from its direct inheritors, the young ones in whose name it was waged? Liberation increasingly seems to mean boning a banker, getting your boobs done, and shaking your ass at the club before shopping very hard indeed.

Imagine a continuum of female public presence running from Albertina Sisulu at one end, the end marked “overwhelmingly positive”, and model-actress Khanyi Mbau at the other, the end marked “utterly underwhelming”. Be fascinating to graph the cluster of local media representations of women over time – would they bunch closer to MaSisulu or the self-styled “Queen of Bling”?

Mbau was Doobsie in Muvhango for a bit before marrying a very rich older man who spirited her away to a penthouse in Marble Arch. They had a child together then the marriage broke apart like bank notes in brine. Khanyi enjoyed access to a yellow Lamborghini as well as a pair of out-sized breasts. She replaced them both upon divorcing. “The last thing I want,” she said, “is a man coming back to me saying
‘I bought you those boobs and want them back’.” Yup. Someone else, older and rich, squired her for a while. This resulted in another Lamborghini – black this time – since lost. She also got new breasts, sang a bit, modeled, acted and got an online “reality show”. Her facebook fan page neatly heralds her as “South Africa’s Queen of opulence, Bling and fabulosity”.

Here are a few of her recent tweets to get the feel of her mind at work: “Tummy sore my word! Need to fart but with ppl gsh! Wht do I do?” / “I know I’ve said this before, but I live in a beautiful house. quite nice. love my pad.” / thanx guys for the love too haters poor pple r fucking petty! Sitting on a russels lounge sweet! i am Khanyi mbau”. The capitalization of her own name in the last Tweet is perfectly symptomatic of her approach to life: me myself and I. To date her only contribution to South African public life is smelling condoms for an article in the Sowetan – “these are not easy to open, other than that it smells of a dead rat!” – and reminding us that “putting on a condom is absolutely necessary.”

Albertina Sisulu, on the other hand, besides spearheading campaigns against Bantu Education and pass laws, enduring house arrest and solitary confinement, being the only woman present at the inaugural ANCYL meeting with her beloved husband, Walter, and rallying the greatest of all popular fronts, the UDF, along with worrying over the daily finances of the Women’s League, was a nurse and midwife for over forty years. “You know what it means to be a midwife? You have got to carry a big suitcase full of bottles and lotions, bowls and receivers, and we used to carry those suitcases on our heads, everywhere on foot.” Countless babies fell into her hands over the years, justifying her hard-earned handle, “Mother of the Nation”.

“Although politics has given me a rough life,” she once said, “there is absolutely nothing I regret about what I have done and what has happened to me and my family. Instead, I have been strengthened and feel more of a woman than I would otherwise have felt if my life was different.” Wow.

You can torture yourself with Mbau’s painfully generic dance pop here.

Image © and courtesy Jason Bronkhorst check more from his twisted pen here.

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