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How South Africa’s young women activists are rewriting the script

Women students have been at the forefront of South African university protests. EPA/Nic Bothma

What does it means to celebrate Youth Day in 2016, when many young South African women are little more than second-class citizens?

Young women are disproportionately exposed to gender-based violence. Women aged between 15 and 24 are four times as likely to contract HIV than men in the same age group. In 2013 99,000 female school pupils got pregnant and less than a third reentered school.

It is against this backdrop that we should think about the role young women play in the country today.

In 1976 women students were deeply involved in the struggle against discriminatory education but were not viewed as actors in their own right. Forty years later women students are not willing to take a backseat again.

(Black) women still marginalised

In June 1976, at the time of the Soweto Uprisings, the apartheid government was relentlessly pursuing and intimidating Black Consciousness leaders and organisations. In September 1977 it killed Stephen Bantu Biko for his beliefs.

Four decades on, Biko’s beliefs are influencing a whole generation of students. Many of the recent students’ campaigns have drawn on the Black Conciousness philosophies of Biko and Frantz Fanon to give content to their struggles.

These philosophies hold that black Africans need to free themselves from the psychological oppression of racism. It also means that black Africans must mobilise in “safe spaces” that don’t necessarily include white allies.

Back in 1976 the experience of black pain was central to students’ mobilisation, as it is now. But many women students feel that their experience of the pain of gender oppression is ignored.

That has changed. As Mbali Matandela explains:

As a member of this group of feminists, I have had the chance to voice the pain that black females experience based on how the “ideal” personality of an elite white male has influenced how black men treat black women and LBTQIA [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex and Asexual] people … we decided that the way this movement was happening needed to change. And it did. Strong black women took up leadership positions in the movement and LGBTQIA members have taken leadership positions in our sub-committees, joint-meetings and protests. The movement also changed one of the songs we were singing at protests to make it inclusive of women. 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” …

Women students have not been afraid to embrace the label of feminist. They have been instrumental in starting the #EndRapeCulture campaigns on various campuses. Black women students have started to use the feminist concept of intersectionality to argue that oppression refers not only to race but also to gender, sexuality, sexual orientation and able-bodiedness.

Women were at the forefront of the #Feesmustfall campaign. Many men became profoundly uncomfortable when gender took the front seat in campus decolonisation struggles. At Stellenbosch University it became such a bone of contention that a number of male students left the #OpenStellenbosch movement. This confirmed some men’s entrenched patriarchal attitudes.

Uniting marginalised bodies

Black women’s bodies are closely linked to the decolonisation project, which envisions a shift from Eurocentric curricula and institutional cultures to Afrocentric knowledge production. As was written in Johannesburg Salon on the decolonisation of tertiary education:

We have realised that the systems of exploitation which confront oppressed people at this institution cannot be tackled internally, precisely because they are rooted in the world at large. Black bodies, female bodies, gender non-conforming bodies, disabled bodies cannot become liberated inside [of the University of Cape Town] whilst the world outside still treats them as sub-human. The decolonisation of this institution is thus fundamentally linked to the decolonisation of our entire society.

The women students in the #EndRapeCulture campaigns were not afraid to name and shame those whom they believed had got away with rape without any sanction from their institutions. They were also not afraid to employ topless protests as part of their strategies to raise consciousness about the endemic rape cultures on campuses.

These students use the body as a site of resistance – for purposes of subversion, but also as a medium for change and movement building.

The women students have generated a certain feminist solidarity with their sisters all over the country through their #EndRapeCulture campaign.

Based on their intersectional approach they have linked their struggle with those of the LGBTIQ community. New concepts have become commonplace at South African universities. These include “cishet” – people who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth and are heterosexual – as well as “trans”, or transgender people.

We can call the topless protests a form of the “politics of the spectacle”. It is visual and in your face. It is also called “sextremism”, aimed at shocking the viewer.

The politics of the spectacle has found common ground with the Economic Freedom Fighters, whose spectacles in parliament are well known. But it is not the same. These young women are committed to the principles of gender equality and to showing how women’s bodies are harassed all the time.

A great deal achieved in little time

These women have only been in the public eye for a short time, but have done more to break the silence around gender-based violence, especially in the tertiary education space, than some other longer-term initiatives.

The government, through its now defunct Ministry of Women, Youth and People with Disabilities, tried to deal with gender-based violence by establishing a National Council on Gender-Based Violence in the wake of one particularly shocking and brutal gang rape and murder. Women students – working without funding or the support of established structures – have raised consciousness and managed to get universities to appoint task teams to investigate sexual harassment on campuses.

In 1976 women students were deeply involved in the protests but not on a gender platform. Forty years later it is women who are now instrumental in raising consciousness about race and gender oppression, and who are at the forefront of mobilisation around gender-based violence. These women are fierce, principled and accountable to their constituencies. This is what we want from our future leaders.

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