Contradictions in Constructions of African Masculinities
Rather than the yearned for comforts,
the advent of a democratic dispensation in Southern
Africa has thrown up many uncomfortable questions.
Many people would agree, for example, that as the
country has moved to establish a human rights culture,
crime levels seem to have risen sharply and the police,
courts and correctional services so far seem unable
to cope adequately. Some people would commend the
African National Congress government for succeeding
in providing free health services for pregnant women,
poor people and young children, but many more people
are baffled by the indecipherable strategy or perhaps
lack of will of the government to face up to strong
indications that the spread of HIV is rampant and
AIDS is plundering our communities. And while black
economic empowerment has spawned a very small nouveau
riche class, recent figures suggest that the poor
are getting poorer, and the gap between the rich and
the poor is increasing.
There is also one seemingly 'minor'
question that some critical citizens have been trying
to draw attention to because, they correctly point
out, we imperil ourselves and our entire future as
a country by paying insufficient mind to it. It may
be that this minor fact is part of all the other contradictions
South Africans are experiencing. This fact that seem
to contradict our freedom can be found in official
documents of the democratic government. For instance,
we saw it in the latest census forms. To be sure,
one will find an apology of sorts tucked away in a
footnote where writers recognize it is a contradiction,
or at least a discomforting question. But critical
researchers and scholars have also been guilty of
replaying the contradiction, even while they apologize.
The apology usually runs along the lines that this
is for statistical purposes only, or that the concerned
researchers or scholars themselves do not need to
use the category because of the history of South Africa.
The question I am referring to of course is that of
race and with that strike-through it could be argued
that am sort of apologizing.
What makes the acknowledgement of race a contradiction,
it may be asked? What about race causes us to apologize?
Why do I say that it could be part of all the other
cultural, political, economic and psychological contradictions
of the new as of the old society? I think it is a
fact that race and its small-writ politics and large
one have always been and continue to be the incubus
of the South African drama. In one form or another
race is the problem of black communities and individuals
all over the racial aspect of our identities trumped
all other forms of being. Racialised identities under
pinned our everyday lives and politics. Our practices,
our institutions, our histories and our politics,
our relationships, prospects, needs for belonging,
psychic investments and fantasies, all have always
been indexed on the question of radicalized identity.
Of course (racialised) identity
is not an original South African preoccupation. South
Africa merely exacerbated it, precisely because South
Africa believed it could solve the troubles of identity
with it, even if it was to be at very great expense.
Any kind of identity is inherently a puzzle with at
least one piece always missing from the box. Identity
is fundamentally a contradiction. And as has been
said by many commentators, what we take to be identities
are always changing. So is racialised identity.
I have been talking mostly in the past tense when
talking of the race puzzle in South Africa. This may
lead to a misunderstanding. I should correct it. Much
of South Africa life is still predicted on race. That
remains a social, economic, and political affair.
We continue to believe very much in the idea of race,
and this belief, to iterate, is what lies at the centre
of the contradictions of our young democracy.
What makes the question of identity a contradiction
is not just that one is sometimes forced to respond
with such lumpish things as Africa South African male
when, for instance, filling a visa application. Yet
this rheoretical awkwardness accentuates the ever-present
contradictions of racial and other identities. It
is important to keep this in mind especially when
one is confronted with seamless, perfect 'names' or
identities such as White South African, or African
man. In other words, when there appear to be no 'lumps'
such as 'African culture', which is another way of
saying, when the identity 'sticks' that is precisely
when we should be most suspicious.
Another form of the identity puzzle
that could be taken up is that even in the new society
the name African, for instance, does not seem to 'stick'
on white South African bodies or white citizens of
Zimbabwe. The puzzling aspect is that this is even
when the owner of the body him- or herself wants to
take the identity of African on.
Still another discussion is around
what could be called 'travel of identities'. As one
travels from one place to another, from home to elsewhere,
from workplace to dentist's room or to theatre, from
continent to continent, one has to produce an identity.
The identity one leaves home with, is not exactly
the same as the one, which is shown to a customs official,
and not the same one returns home with. The example
given about applying to enter another country can
be used again. African people and black people generally
must always travel with their race in addition to
their nationality. This then begs the questions of
when is or not racial identity more consequential
than national identity, and when is or not one or
the other of these more central to one's subjectivity.
I could speculate and argue that those called African
South Africans are generally only South Africans when
traveling, and largely Africans when at home, among
other South Africans.
Power and Contradictions
of African Masculinities
All of this points to, re-writes, re-establishes,
and plays out what goes into African masculinities,
how to turn young boys into African men, and some
of the contradictions involved. But the contradictions
I want to concern myself with here are those that
hides or shows power. I wish to posit that the emergence
of a rich class among Africans should worry us enough
to want to interrogate these African men - for most
of these rich people are men- about power. We must
interest ourselves about the lives of these African
men not just as Africans but equally if not more urgently
as men. Focusing on the sex/sexuality/gender of African
males is a deliberate and productive move of disturbing
the taken-for-granted nature of African-ness, and
of such objects as ' African Culture', 'African masculinity',
'African womanhood' and 'African sexuality'. This
move reveals the contradictions that inhere not only
in African identities, but also the inherent contradictions
of all identities.
The obvious contradiction of 'African
masculinity' is that African males 'share' one part
of the identities with African women and another part
with white/European men. If African-ness is 'shared'
between males and females then 'African masculinity'
is defined not just by African males. In the same
way, if 'the thing' that makes a man a man is something
all men know or most know something about, then white/European
males help in making African/men. Further, masculinity
is not made by males only, and there are many more
different 'types' of males than in the categories
of African and white/European, and in fact, more than
one type of masculinity; we should talk of identities
rather than identity.
The less obvious contradiction is that African masculinities,
just like other sorts of masculinities and all identities,
are sets of practices that cling together around points
of power. In speaking for or against a particular
identity, for or against the notion of African masculinities,
and in taking up or being forced to assume the identity
of an African man- that is to say instead of father,
physicist, footballer, lover, or chef- one is already
implicated in a dialogical material world that is
always structured by and around power. This means
that in discussions about African masculinities certain
voices carry more weight than others. This is in spite
of the fact that several groups and individuals 'share'
in the kind of man that ends up being built. It also
means that one raises a (real) African man, as one
raises a (real) white man- at least in South Africa-
does not simply raise a scientist or an athlete. This
is because the phrase 'just human' is an empty one,
and rather than helping us, it avoids the contradictions.
Masculinities as socialized,
In speaking of showing the contradiction in constructions
of masculinities I am tracing a shape of a practice,
a configuration of socialized embodied power. The
shape of this practice of being man is disposed to
hide the contradictions. The more 'real' the man,
the more certain the masculine practice, the bolder
the figure, the harder the work that goes into it
and the higher the orchestration of maintaining the
original shape of the figure.
I think what Steven Mokwena's1 study on urban youth subculture showed was just this:
that the divergent, contradictory forces that went
into shaping African Masculinity were proving too
onerous to hold together. The study reported high
levels of violent practices along with survival-oriented
identities or at least imaginations. The study was
focused on the 1980s. But I think it is evident- from
the violence and crime levels in South Africa- that
we are still dealing with some of the things that
informed that youth subculture. That study explained
the violence by referring to the crisis of racist
capitalism. The study argued that the crisis created
material conditions that led to the marginalisation
of great numbers of African youngsters. These youngsters
grew up to (believe in) hustling and using violence
to get what they could not get in other ways. When
one gets to believe, one 'buys into' something, one
internalizes, one embodies. What the young African
men then may have bought into, internalized and embodied,
is exactly the violence and hustling that was first
Dominant constructions of
masculinity then and now
Now and then one observes that the dominant construction
of masculinity is still mainly of men as economic
providers; these young men must have looked to their
futures and their own sense of fulfilling their manly
future roles with a sense of ever increasing desperation.
Indeed there was no sense of looking to the future.
There was none to look forward to. These conditions
then could be said to be unhappy ones for arguing
for engagement in things like a (re) negotiation of
male identities and male power. When one is going
hungry it looks somewhat insane for some intellectual
to come around speaking about opening up and allowing
for multiple understandings of what it means to be
a man, to be African, to be a South African in the
future. As a matter of fact, the predominant sentiment
among males is that the concerns of African men cannot
be around 'niceties' of gender and masculinity. Back
then, if gender was ever broached and dominant masculinities
shown to be a problem, the reasons given for dismissing
the problem would be that African males had to deal
with more important stuff, 'bread and butter issues'
continuing the struggle. Now, if gender is broached
and dominant African masculinities shown to be a problem,
they are dismissed with laughter and arguments that
African males have to deal with more important stuff,
'bread and butter issues', deepening democracy, building
and running a country, making some money. African
men, that is to say, back then and still today, do
not have the luxury to forge new concepts of masculinity
and new ways of relating.
'Nouveau riche' and violent
cultures as two sides of the same coin
This kind of argument is oppressive and dangerous.
Pulling apart our identities, practices and institutions
and examining their constituent parts- especially
those things we are convinced we cannot live without,
our very own history and culture, our names and lives-
is always urgent. It is of such importance that it
is now insufficient to merely show the rhetoric above
as tails-side of the same coin as the rhetoric that
produces strong men as dominant, in charge, sexually-potent,
BMW-driving, platinum MasterCard-carrying managers
or owners of this and that company.
In other words, survivalist, violent,
materialistic subcultures are parts of the same cloth
as the capitalist greed that produces the African
nouveaux arrives. The racist patriarchal social structure
of apartheid, the masculine African youth subculture,
and the small band of rich Africans derive from the
vampirism of capitalism that feeds and feeds off the
idea of what it is to be a man. It may be shown then-
contrary to what may be common sense- that rather
than being free of all the structures of apartheid,
most of us are still caught up in, defined by and
supporting oppressive discourses also supported by
that racist patriarchal social structure.
I think the major point here is
that refusing to admit how in raising a boy- child
we are always implicated in power, is what imperils
the future. In making an African man, and thus reproducing
a particular, dominant identity, we must be aware
that African manhood is made within a field of power
struggles that includes such things as class, sex/sexuality/gender,
and of course race, provides at best a lopsided view
of the realities of individual African men. The worst
of it though is proceeding on the assumption of an
uncritical, uncontradictory view of a shared history
of racial oppression, while glossing over class and
sex/sexuality/gender hierarchies is part of the epistemic
and material violence that goes into constructing
1 Mokwena, Steve, 'The era of the jackrollers: contextualising
the rise of the youth gangs in Soweto'. Paper presented
at Project for the Study of Violence Seminar, Wits
University, Braamfontein, Guateng, 1991.
Ratele, Ph.D. Dr. Ratele is a professor with the Psychology
Department and Women and Gender Studies, University
of Cape Town, South Africa. Article originally published
in News from the Nordic Institute, Nordic
Africa Institute, Uppsala, Sweden. Reprinted with
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