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Where is black feminism? An interview with Desiree Lewis

Wits Student during Protest. ©Nicholas RawhaniWits Student during Protest. ©Nicholas Rawhani

What should a postapartheid black feminism look like? Gabeba Baderoon and Desiree Lewis, editors of the new book, Surfacing: On being black and feminist in South Africa, have been at the heart of academic debates about this and related questions for at least the last two decades, so they would have an idea. To mark the book’s appearance, I interviewed Lewis about some of the debates swirling around black feminism in South Africa.

One of the main quarrels of the book is with global black feminism; its insularity and limited focus. As Baderoon and Lewis write in the introduction, “… our students often cite African American theorists and, less often, the Caribbean and West African scholars, but very rarely southern African ones …” At some level, this may have to do with the political economy of publishing, social media and celebrity culture, but it may also have something to do with the disappointment that younger, black feminists have with the ruling ANC, its Women’s League, the transition as well as with previous generations of feminists. But the young feminists, whose politics found concrete expression in Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) and Fees Must Fall (FMF) in the mid-to-late 2010s, may also be reacting to a perceived sense that their elders haven’t produced enough theory or activism to help them make sense of and challenge the new. To the credit of Baderoon, Lewis and contributors, some of the difficult generational debates and divides are taken on, and new ones introduced. For example, they insist on a dynamic definition of black that connects them with the Black Consciousness Movement of the early 1970s as well as the RMF and FMF activists. The same energy is present in how they include contributors from elsewhere on the continent who live and work in South Africa. Some highlights include an interview by Lewis with Zoe Wicomb, arguably one of South Africa’s finest novelists and literary theorists. Other contributors write about how their most significant influences are white feminists—Gertrude Fester writes about being influenced by Sally Gross, and Sa’diyaa Shaikh by Denise Ackermann—suggesting possibilities for meaningful collaborations between black and white feminists in South and Southern Africa.

This book covers a lot, and should be celebrated for being the first collection dedicated to contemporary Black South African feminist perspectives. However, I was looking for contributions that relate to questions animating blogs and social media. What do the editors and contributors make of popular figures such as Chimamanda Adichie (mentioned in passing in the introduction), who now occupies a lot of space (often controversially) in mainstream feminist discourses for her commentary on African and Black feminism, including trans identities? Even more striking, the book is silent on class politics or how black feminism relates to postcolonial, mainly state-led nationalist projects in the region. For example, where would Myrtle Witbooi of the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers UnionWomen on Farms, the working class women in places like Manenberg profiled by the late Elaine Salo, or those women who left the ANC Women’s League for the EFF, feature in all this? Where do they fit into new conceptions and applications of black feminism? How do aspirations of black South African feminism relate to existing social movements? The interview was conducted over email.

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Firstly, belated congratulations on the publication of the book. Let’s start by briefly telling me about the genesis of the project. How did it come together?

This needs responses at different levels. The idea of a book about feminism from the perspective of black women resulted from three of us being strategically positioned—at different points—in writing/ publishing worlds: Gabeba [Baderoon] as a poet and academic, myself as an academic with various other writer-editing interests, and Roshan Cader as a commissioning editor at Wits University Press. I’d been thinking about a collection of my own essays on feminism, intersectionality and assemblage, and discussed this with Roshan from the end of 2014. With the explosion of black feminist thought in public debate and especially among students in the context of the Fees Must Fall (FMF) Movement (from 2015), Gabeba, then a research fellow at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies (STIAS), began a conversation with Roshan about the value of a black feminist collection. Roshan felt that this would be politically important and commercially viable. The outcome was our meeting and committing ourselves to a collection at STIAS. The STIAS is in many ways a bizarre space to think about this particular book’s conceptualizing. But it’s also possibly symbolic (if one wishes to be optimistic about “storming a bastion of hegemonic knowledge production”) or dismally prophetic (if one is being cynical about centers appropriating margins).

A second and hugely important level had to do with the timing of work on the book. A first conceptualizing meeting took place in the wake of the start of the FMF movement when young black South African feminists were speaking out extremely bravely about misogyny and homophobia within FMF and anti-racist movements generally. The wide circulation of their views—especially through social media, images and the mass media meant that black feminist thought was dramatically thrust into the public domain. One aim of the book was to demonstrate how black feminist politics and thought energized (and didn’t simply “add on” to) critical race theory, decoloniality and anti-racist politics. Another was to participate in the discussions, arguments and interventions among young black feminists at the time. And to signal that  black feminist thought has a long legacy in South Africa. What could be called the editors’ generation may seem like “a first.” because we went to university around the time of South Africa’s transition to democracy and wrote and circulated our thoughts in almost “mainstream” ways. But, as I hope the collection indicates, Gabeba and I wrote and grew in the wake of generations of southern African feminist thinkers and activists before.

As radical teachers and women who are active in worlds of knowledge-making, the two editors felt it was important to archive certain voices between the covers of a book, and the challenge of course was where to draw the line. The collection probably contains twice as many contributions as what we initially envisaged and discussed with the publisher.

At yet another level, South African publishers have tended to focus on black women’s fictional and autobiographical writing, or on poetry. This tends to be symptomatic of a publishing and reading/marketing stereotype about black women in the public sphere being “interesting” mainly as entertainers, storytellers, or so-called “creatives,” rather than as knowledge-makers and critical thinkers with writing to offer a broad audience. One aim of the collection was to collapse the usual distinction between fiction/autobiography and non-fiction, to focus on the collection as being “knowledge,” and to be provocative about which forms of knowledge are considered to be authoritative. Hence the choice of the personal essay, whose force the introduction discusses.

Who were some of your own early influences among black South and southern African feminists?

First and foremost, Patricia McFadden. And in relation to that, several Zimbabwean-based feminists including Rudo Gaidzanwa and Ruth Meena (who were very immersed in the hub of black southern African intellectual activism based in Harare, especially in the 1980ss). The radical focus of intellectual activist work at Southern African Political Economic Series (SAPES) in Zimbabwe was actually huge for me, and of course the radical women especially so because they were speaking about what many of the admired male scholars were, while also flagging attention to gendered dynamics. Ultimately their takes on, for example, postcolonial nationalism were for me much richer than those of Ibbo MandazaSam Moyo, or Brian Roftopolous, for example. Second,  my peers. A number of black feminists were starting to publish in the mid-1990s, so people I studied with or connected with socially and in groups (for example, Yvette Abrahams started an important collective in the 1990s called the “women of colour consciousness raising group”) included Elaine Salo, Gabeba of course, Pumla GqolaZimitri Erasmus, Zine Magubane, Mary Hames (who has a chapter in the book), and many others. All of us were grappling with our positionality relative to white-centric academia and masculinism.

But another important influence for me, and I suspect for very many other young and older South African feminists, were fiction writers, especially Bessie HeadYvonne Vera and Zoe Wicomb, among others. What was remarkable was their attentiveness to so many levels of social and psychic experience. Theoretical frames require us to categorize power quite technically to explain it, hence our use of stolid terms like “intersectionality”. Writers like Head, Vera or Wicomb (who I interview in “Surfacing”) plumb depths of racialized and gendered human experience in ways that defy clinical categorization, and that are so much richer. African-American feminists, because they have been hypervisible, were definitely an influence, as is the case for many young feminists today. Retrospectively I realize I leaned on them mainly as sources of authority, because African-American feminists had more conventional “clout,” and not necessarily because they were as useful to what I was trying to explore as, say Patricia McFadden or Bessie Head.

©Barry Christianson©Barry Christianson

One of the main quarrels of the book is with global black feminism, meaning  African-American feminism; its insularity and limited focus. The introduction is very frank about this, but it appears less frequently in the chapters. Can you say more about this?

I hope the “quarrel” as you put it doesn’t seem like an incidental or contrived intervention of the book. The various chapters make the case implicitly since it’d be pointless for each individual essayists to invoke the problems of hegemony in global black feminism; they speak to and about their locations in colonial legacies and global knowledge economies against the backdrop—so to speak—of the authority of certain strands of black feminism. The introduction establishes why the need for a regional geopolitical focus is important in the identification and appreciation of positioned knowledge. What’s often understood as global or diasporic black feminism has drowned out certain voices, not only South African (though the case is made about this). But also, for example, black British writers. I started reading the work of the black British feminist Gail Lewis only after meeting her at a conference somewhere fairly recently, and found (still find) her wide-ranging work extraordinary, especially because of its connection to activism. (Much black South African feminism bears similar evidence of connectedness to activism). The introduction’s point about black American feminism isn’t that it’s set out to be insular or dominant of course, but that it has become so because of the weird operation of the global knowledge economy, which elevates what is Euro-American, and mainly North American. It irks me terribly when certain black American feminists are incessantly quoted for saying something that southern African feminists may have said in much more compelling or relevant ways. The essays certainly don’t talk about this, because the introduction frames the essays. But they do implicitly demonstrate that, for example, intersectionality (that word again!), for example, can be thought about differently and in ways that resonate for many readers in southern Africa compared to North America. What I do hope that readers of the book recognize is the distinctiveness of voices that are attentive to race and gender, and also the politics of region and standpoint epistemologies.

Let’s talk about the politics of definitions. In the introduction, you write that by Black South African you mean those who identify as black and that yours is a dynamic definition. This connects you to the Black Consciousness Movement dating back to the early 1970s and more recently to Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall activists.  But at the same time, we also know that there is no consensus among those student activists about these definitions; that in some instances coloured and Indian South Africans and even black people from elsewhere on the continent are excluded from it; this also points to concerns about inequalities within these social movements. So your definition of black rubs up against a more restricted or exclusive definition of black that only includes South Africans who were classified as “African” under apartheid. Some who identify as “Khoisan” also resist being included in these blanket categories. Can you comment on these tensions?

An ongoing South African story. To start off with, the inclusive Black Consciousness definition of black is shared by the editors, and determined our approach in finding and selecting writers. It may not be shared with all the contributors, but I think it is with most. As editors, we wanted to develop a collection that countered the sorts of claims to identity that ultimately mirror South Africa’s colonial and apartheid era chauvinism, prejudice, and hatred. The book seeks to draw together writers who have neglected but radical ideas about South African experiences and senses of self. And this meant they shared experiences of being othered in gendered and racial terms. We didn’t want it to mean a shared or collective effort to claim or celebrate any essentialized identification—whether gendered, racialized, national, or ethnicicized. The claims to identification that you refer to are, of course, very real for many South Africans, in recent social movements as they have been in the past. We hope that readers of the book will value or at least find meaningful and important the senses of being black (the use of the present continuous was meant to signal identification, rather than a fixed identity). This would be a very different response from trawling the book in desperate search of an expression of identity that a reader wishes to claim for various political or existential reasons—and only when this is found deem the book satisfying. In this sense, we could be said to have deliberately excluded writing that insisted on, for example, celebrating being coloured, or affirming the significance of entitlement to South African citizenship and belonging by virtue of birth or national origin. What we call South African culture and writing is profoundly affected by regional and continental figures and trends.

Similarly, there are people who would contest how you define national belonging. Why do you think that an expansive definition of South Africanness is so elusive among South Africans, including among its scholars?

South African society thrives (and has always thrived) politically, economically, and culturally because of the flow of ideas, bodies and things across arbitrary borders created by colonialism. Many of the contributors to the book would—to some—not be South African. But they belong to this place in many ways; they have invested their intellectual excellence, their creativity, their passions in people, places and activities in this country and have been inspired by and inspire these. It is hard to understand how many South Africans truly believe that “the rest of Africa” has nothing to offer, which is a sad and tragic colonial legacy at the heart of many South Africans’ sense of exceptionalism; Stuart Hall’s ironic use of “the west and the rest” is very real in the fixation among South Africans with “us” and “Africa”. It was encouraging that a sense of South Africa’s inextricable connectedness to the rest of the continent surfaced at moments in the FMF struggle. But the curiosity about and interest in African politics, literature, and academic knowledge still hasn’t really taken off, whether among students or established scholars. Clearly a groundswell of feeling around this  —among an intellectual elite and people in general—has not begun to go far enough, as we see in the recent spate of politically orchestrated and rationalized attacks by South Africans on black African foreigners in the form of the social media campaign, Operation Dudula. Not, of course, on white “foreigners.”

Interviewee

Desiree Lewis, a professor in the Women’s and Gender Studies Department at the University of the Western Cape, has published on feminist politics globally and feminism in Africa for about three decades.

Article originally published at Africa is a country on 28.04.2022

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