Category Archives: Human Rights

Linguistic Exclusion: War on Words


written by Doreen Gaura for Africa on the Blog

A couple of months ago, I found myself smack bang in the middle of a debate on the injustices of colonialism and its persistent legacy and the impact thereof on post colonial Afrikan states and the Afrikans therein with a Caucasian man who identifies himself as “half Italian, half French”. My European counterpart was not only defending colonialism but he was also justifying it and I of course was challenging his assertions that colonialism was possibly one of the best things to have ever happened to Afrika but this debate is not the focus of this post; what happened during the debate is.

As we exchanged words and opinions, and in some instances rather heatedly I must admit, things took a sudden turn for the worst when I made (in hindsight) the mistake of referring to my opponent by the all too common familiar and most times endearing Zulu/Xhosa/Ndebele termbhudi which means brotherI now consider this to have been a mistake as I believe I may have been too generous in my use of that South African vernacular familial term of acceptance and inclusion.

I now realise that it may have been overly presumptuous and naïve of me to think that this man who could not have been more than a couple of years older than me; who had spent the last fifteen years of his life in South Africa; was not only familiar with that word but also understood what it meant. It is a very common word after all. Now, had I said mfanami perhaps he’d have had the right to be offended or feel slighted or as he put it “insulted” but I used bhudi which is really a term of endearment, camaraderie and respect.

Nevertheless, despite the ugliness that ensued, I did manage to take away something from that experience and that is, his outburst spoke to an issue greater than our individual egos, opinions, perceptions and biases and spoke to the greater racial inequality and idea of white supremacy that still exists in the world today and more specifically in Southern Africa.

I, a brown Afrikan woman, had dared to deviate from the prescribed and accepted norms and standards of acceptable communication, even if for only a moment, and in doing so, I had offended my peer so much so that he felt deeply affronted as he did not appreciate this deviation that forced him to leave his comfort zone and site of privilege that is English and venture into mine that is a Nguni language. This event presented for him an improbable upset of the power dynamic that according to patriarchy and white supremacy, positions him above me and forced my fellow interlocutor to wade in waters that made him the one who was vulnerable – even though, if we’re to be honest, given the current structure of systemic male and white dominance, such a dynamic would be a mere illusion or superficial at best, however many brown vernacular words I may have thrown at him in that moment.

I have been lauded by white people and brown people alike for being “well spoken and articulate” in both my written and spoken English on innumerable occasions so my use of vernacular in that moment had nothing to do with an inability to convey my opinion logically and eloquently but let’s just say for a moment that had been the case, would I have been allowed to state my position in the language most comfortable to me and still be taken seriously? Of course not.

It is 2014 and people of colour still have to bend over backwards to accommodate whiteness as whiteness is the presumed and imposed transcendental norm or default setting for communication. It’s the determinant of any kind of “civilised and intellectual” interaction and our entire existence as a species.

It’s been my experience in South Africa that Afrikaans speaking South Africans who speak only two of the eleven official languages i.e. English and Afrikaans, often ask why I have not learnt Afrikaans in the years I have been in the country, never mind the fact that I speak isiZulu, isiNdebele and I know basic isiXhosa in addition to English. Basically, I am conversant in four official South African languages as opposed to just their two. It does not make sense to them why I would prioritise any of the indigenous languages over the second imperial language of my host country because apparently it is not enough to be dexterous in multiple languages if that dexterity is in languages that are not situated in imperialist linguistic whiteness.

This is not exclusive to South Africa though but extends to other countries in the world, including the US. In 2008, Afrikan American philosopher, George Yancy found himself in a position where he was expected to defend/justify his use of Afrikan American Vernacular English (AAVE) a.k.a Ebonics in the book The Philosophical I: Personal Reflections on Life in Philosophy at a conference convened by the American Philosophical Association to a white fellow philosopher. In an interview with C.S. Soong he recounts this experience and rightly attributes his colleague’s audacity to confront him for writing his chapter in the book in AAVE to the fact that the man thought that Yancy was “using an ersatz language, a child-like language, an inferior language, and that that language was incapable of communicating brilliant and profound philosophical ideas”.

The world has for a long time considered Ebonics to be ‘slang,’ ‘mutant,’ ‘lazy,’ ‘defective,’ ‘ungrammatical,’ or ‘broken English’ and such characterizations are not only incorrect but they are also very demeaning to say the least. Afrikan American actor and producer Bill Cosby is also guilty of completely dismissing brown vernaculars as illegitimate languages. A meme has made the cyber global rounds over the last several years which contains words he allegedly espoused during his speech in 2004 at a public event, championing respectability politics that are amongst other things, centred on language. This meme condemns the perpetual use of Ebonics in brown communities and justifies the continued oppression and marginalisation of people of colour in the US because of their refusal to do away with their “primitiveness” which, according to Cosby, lies, in part, in their vernacular. Of course, some have come out to say that Cosby did not actually say the things in that meme but the fact remains that someone did say it and what’s worse is a lot of people endorsed it, including brown people.

My greatest concern around linguistic exclusion, does not emerge from a place of how white people view and value us brown people and our linguistic identities but it instead emerges from a place of how we view and value ourselves in this seemingly never shifting paradigm. As brown people, we ourselves have generally become the guardians of linguistic whiteness, persecuting each other for “defiling” the master (pun intended) piece that is the European language system, British/American Standard English to be precise. We justify its dominance and attack any attempts to elevate our own languages or variations of the colonial languages imposed on us that exist on the continuum we have today – with Standard English as the acrolect and varieties closest to the original creole/pidgin as the basilect.

We also tend to laugh and shame each other for the different and diverse ways in which we express ourselves in Standard English as well as in our various forms of local Englishes. I cannot count the number of times I have heard South African radio personalities like T-bo Touch, for instance, repeatedly mock Nigerian Pidgin English, obviously without appreciating it for the powerful weapon of resistance that it and other pidgins and vernaculars have been in the past and can still be today. Nigerian musician and revolutionary, Fela Kuti understood this and this was evident when he declared to journalists in an interview “You cannot sing African music in proper English. Broken English has been completely broken into the African way of talking, our rhythm, our intonation.

Pidgin English is, much like AAVE, often referred to as “Brokin” English which suggests  that it’s “incorrect”, “impure” or “debased” however, many people, myself included, feel that the “Afrikanization” of language and by extension, communication, must not only be considered valid/ legitimate but also equal. Pro Ghanaian English linguistic scholars in Ghana advocate for such a recognition in their country as necessary and claim that the recognition of a variation of English would reflect the cultural distinctiveness of Ghana and I am inclined to agree with them. Besides, the language imposed on us cannot remain immune to resistance forever surely? As the late Chinua Achebe so eloquently put it “The price a world language must be prepared to pay is submission to many different kinds of use”.

In my opinion, a true recognition of brown vernaculars and Englishes will greatly aid the empowerment of our people as it will challenge the subtle politics of exclusion of Afrikans. Too often, we are undermined or dismissed as unintelligent and backward because we cannot express ourselves fluently or effectively in the imposed British/American Standard English; simply because our languages are not considered worthy or equal. Perhaps, it is because of that dismissal of our vernaculars and Englishes that some of us unapologetically choose to leave the site of white privilege that is English from time to time and resort to our Mother Tonguewhile at the same time refusing to be excluded, ignored or dismissed any longer because of it.


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Yindaba Kabani Nxa ndilahl’umlenze: That Time When I “Hung Out My Thighs For All To See”

Written by Doreen Gaura for iamTehn 



So it was a regular Saturday morning (and by morning I mean well after midday) and I was chilling at home, you know? Vegeing out, minding my own business, dealing with my most recent existential crisis (I get a lot of those and quite frequently too) of whether or not getting out of bed and showering was something that featured in my immediate future when my phone went off. It was a whatsapp message. “Could it be Great Mother Universe stepping in to rescue me from the prospect of a dreadful day of planlessness brought on by that insidious devil called brokeness?” I wondered as I excitedly picked up my phone to open the message. I could barely contain my excitement I was almost certain I was going to need to open a bottle of wine right there and then and take a swig straight from the tap just to calm my nerves when lo and behold, right before my eyes, was a message from one of my uncles instructing me to change my whatsapp profile picture right before he proceeded to question my sanity. o_O!

I was so angry I almost did actually open that bottle and take that swig but because I was operating in rationing mode due to my most recent post holiday financial crisis and also, well, because I am not an alcoholic (of course) I opted to make a really strong cup of filter coffee instead. That and ignore the message. I have a general rule not to respond to anything whilst I am angry, especially if it’s coming from family, friends or jobage people a.k.a. colleagues. My weekend shot on by, in that hateful bullet-speed way weekends tend to do without any further incidence. Monday arrived, uninvited as usual, *blegh* and yet another message pertaining to the offending image found its way to my whatsapposphere but this time it was from another uncle, whose approach, to his credit, was a lot more tactful because he first acknowledged its “artistic” value (bless his heart) before telling me that he considers it inappropriate. I again chose to not respond instead waited another couple of days before I eventually did.

During this waiting period I experienced various emotions; of which, to be honest, most of them were really just a variation of anger; and also drafted and redrafted my response to them, all the while leaving the controversial image, right where it was, as my profile picture. After venting to friends, consulting the ancestors and battling with myself over what to do I eventually respectfully responded to both uncles inviting them to a mature and respectful dialogue on the issue of my (exposed) thighs and my identity as a post-colonial/ Afro feminist, Afrocentric Pan-Afrikanist and Afro Spiritualist woman.

Outside of the obvious personal/subjective elements that this whole situation just by its very nature presents, there are greater issues that speak to public politics as well as identity at play. This seemingly minor debate goes beyond my whatsapp profile picture, power struggles within my family and my uber sexy thighs (yes, I have decided that they are uber sexy) but speaks to various problematic issues that exist within our communities, especially in Zimbabwe. It is really because of those issues that I’ve got my knickers all bunched up in an uncomfortable knot and has left me feeling some type of way and I’ll quickly highlight two of them here.

  1. One of my uncles, rather predictably, pulled out the “our culture” card and I felt compelled to inform him that in recent years I have made the conscious decision not to put too much stock in the dictates of our quasi “Afrikan” culture as much of it is grossly contaminated by the influence of our colonisers and their religions. It has, in the main, become so bastardized that much of it, and how we engage with it, makes a mockery of our pre-colonial/”authentic” ancestral heritage. It is true that cultures evolve and some may argue that is what happened with our cultures on the continent as they have done most everywhere else in the world but what people do not take into consideration is the conditions under which our cultures “evolved” i.e. oppression, colonisation and slavery. When the occupiers of our lands came, they observed and judged our societies and the way we lived. They decided that our way of life was wrong, they interpreted it using their own understanding and in certain countries, like SA for example, they decided to codify our laws using this understanding and make them secondary to their own which they deemed superior.

It is worth noting that many of our societies had more “revealing” dress codes in those days and the sexualisation of the black body as we know it today (both female and male) is as a result of the adulteration of our cultures and it has reconfigured our moral compass to align itself with that of the colonial masters, ultimately dividing our communities by not only introducing foreign definitions of masculinity and femininity; creating binaries in societies that traditionally had a lot of grey areas but also by creating new hierarchical structures that are more oppressive and destructive e.g. patriarchy.

  1. My uncle also pointed out that according to our “Afrikan” culture (because we must remember ka that Afrika is a country with one culture, one chief and one donkey and plough) certain parts of the body are not meant for public consumption and true as that may be this is not true to the parts in question here and as I have already highlighted, back in the day, and in very few places today, boobs, thighs and buttocks were the order of the day in our communities’ fashion trends, from the oldest gogo to the youngest little whippersnapper in the village. The female body is sacred. This was true then and this is true today and our people knew that respect of this body was not only the responsibility of the soul in it but also the responsibility of all who gazed upon it and that is why it was not necessary to impose morality and ensure personal safety and bodily integrity by covering it up.

This kind of thinking that informed my family’s intervention plays out almost daily in public spaces where in our cities and villages, women are subjected to being harassed and stripped by mobs of mostly men, for donning clothes considered indecent and you have countries like Uganda that have even criminalised the wearing of mini skirts. The notion that certain parts of the female body being exposed automatically translates to an open invitation for anyone to help themselves to it, be it by physically taking it forcefully, or by hurling verbal abuse at a woman and her body and turning around and placing the responsibility and blame on the victim of their violation not only vindicates but also condones the alarmingly increasing levels of gender based violence in our societies. It also supports the notion that we (women) are minors and that our bodies do not belong to us but instead belong to the men in our communities giving them the go ahead to define and dictate how we should live in them and for the men to do with as they please. What is particularly troubling is that instead of men (and other women) standing with us to fight these heinous forms of oppression and violation which are the ones that actually go against our authentic culture, they endorse them.

The controversial image that is my profile picture when captured and posted as such was never meant to be sexualized and by extension controversial. The focus when captured was not on my thighs but on my feet and the water and it was in this spirit it was posted which begs the question “who is really responsible for any discomfort in this context? The subject of the image or the one engaging with it or both?”

We take pride as a nation in being conservative, despite the fact this conservativeness can be attributed to colonisation gone “right” more than it can be attributed to the preservation of our cultural identity and heritage. It is only in an attempt to justify oppression and exploitation that people pull out the “culture” card and champion and claim it as ours even though most of it really isn’t not to mention that most of us have turned our backs on our ancestors and their ways of knowing and doing and labelled them as evil and/or demonic. The result of this is an increasingly divided community with women being pitted against men and vice versa by false cultural ideals and ill informed western neo liberal (western feminism) ideals simply because as women we fight for our natural and authentic cultural rights to be respected, loved, seen as equals and to be safe in our homes and our communities. Not only will I continue to challenge this foolishness but mina ngizabe ngilokhu ngilahlumlenze wami ngoba thina njengabantu abamunyama, siphila ngengoma njalo ngiyaziqenya ngalokho (I shall continue to dance this way because as children of the soil we live by the drum and I pride myself in this). That is the way of my people.


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Confronting Cultural Imperialism in Human Rights Discourse

Written by Doreen Gaura for Africa on the Blog

Photograph taken by Beenish Ahmed for The Atlantic

Photograph taken by Beenish Ahmed for The Atlantic

A few days ago, a good friend of mine brought to my attention The Atlantic’s article Confronting a Sexual Rite of Passage in Malawi penned by Beenish Ahmed and the subsequent response to it by Kim Yi Dionne published on Africa is a Country and she asked for my thoughts; particularly with regards to Dionne’s response. In short, I am inclined to agree wholly with Dionne’s position but I’d like to take it further and extend this discussion to include the human rights sector and not just limit it to international media and it’s reporting on Afrika and the cultural practices therein.

I work in the human rights sector and actively work on children’s rights so it goes without saying that I appreciate what The Atlantic was attempting to achieve with this piece. Indeed, child protection is of paramount importance however, people must remember that children’s rights are an all encompassing issue and therefore must be approached with a holistic strategy and this is to say that in addition to ensuring their physical, psychological and emotional well being, we should also seek to ensure their social and spiritual/ cultural well being and that also means the right to have their cultures. This of course applies to all children but I particularly want to focus this discussion on the children of Afrika exclusively.

Often international reporters come to the continent and do more harm than the good they believe they are doing especially with such irresponsible reporting and activism. This is not the first time we have seen this. One side, often one that tends to paint whole communities with a very dark brush with very little to no attempt to fully understand the very cultures they are confronting, how they have evolved and to what extent that has been as a result of colonial influence, poverty, conflict, disease, migration, education, greater global politics, exposure (or lack thereof) and access is often the only one presented before the global audience which in turn results in reinforcing cultural imperialism directed towards Afrika as well as enabling the perpetuation and normalization of unchecked ignorant ideas around Afrika and her communities.

I have never been to Malawi and I confess that I know very little about the various cultural practices in the country. This little is mostly (and sadly) thanks to an extremely biased/one sided international media and international human rights organisation reports on human rights issues in the country but based on my experience on the never ending vilification of the Afrikan cultures I am more familiar with such as my own along with some of the responses from Malawians to this story, I know that initiation rites are not as entirely harmful as often portrayed by/ for the western observer neither is their portrayal very accurate.

Malawian on January 26, 2014 at 12:39 pm said:

Thanks so much, professor for your well-informed article. As a Malawian, I fumed as I read the original article due to its careless disregard to facts. A girl goes through initiation only after reaching puberty and has started menstruation, never before. 13-14 years or above is more like it. Therefore if a girl goes to initiation when she is ten or less, as claimed in the original article, she must have had very early menses indeed. Also the article makes it look like the Malawian’s life is all revolved around sex. During initiation people are taught more than sex, like how to behave in society, how to respect elders, general hygiene etc. In any case, sex education is important in life, and there is nothing wrong in learning about it from elders who have experienced it. It is certainly much better than learning it from porn, which is usually the case the so-called advanced societies, or fumbling around by trial and error, which can easily dent one’s self-esteem.

As highlighted above, most initiation rites are not as bad as they are often portrayed, at least not entirely. It is important to highlight that there are a lot of positive qualities in these rites of passage which we almost never hear about in international discussions around Afrikan cultural practices as well as that these rites are also sacred to those that practice them and that too should be respected even if it’s not understood.

It is disturbing to note that in various human rights spaces here in South Afrika where I am based for instance, there still exists a somewhat imperialistic vendetta against Afrikan cultures and this is often expressed through the ubiquitous phrase in these spaces “harmful cultural practices”. It is true that there are plenty of cultural practices on the continent that are harmful and should be abolished as a matter of urgency and others still that have either become irrelevant or redundant and should either evolve or face dissolution but there are plenty more that are not, in their truest form, harmful or polarised against the realisation of human rights for all but are instead being practiced harmfully or used as a weapon of oppression instead of the tool of building the community that it was always intended to do.

It goes without saying that practices like female genital mutilation, for instance, are in my opinion extremely harmful and serve no other purpose but to oppress whereas practices such as ukuthwala in their original form were never intended to oppress but, instead, to facilitate an honourable union between two young lovers who might have otherwise met with opposition, mostly from the girl’s family, to said union. Generally speaking, this practice is no longer relevant given the various pieces of legislation that exist in South Africa to protect children from forced marriage as well as those that enable adults to marry whom they wish but this of course does not take into account that to a lot of people community values and family honour are just as important to them as their individual rights are so such practices can be very relevant and very useful in aiding them to fully enjoy their rights without doing away with their cultural identity.

When one googles the definition of ukuthwala they will find a western/ modern definition and understanding of the practice and this is mainly; and rightly so; due to the abominable way in which it has been practiced in recent times, the result of which being activists calling for its abolition and culturists calling for its protection with no common ground and/or collaboration being reached by the opposing camps and ultimately little effectiveness of whatever protection initiatives are being conducted being realised. It should be noted that majority of the people who use ukutwala nowadays in the manner in which and the purposes of which they are using it are in fact in violation of their culture as it was intended and go against the fundamental values of their traditions which summarised boil down to the principle of ubuntu.

Much the same can be said of the also contentious issue in South Africa and Kenya which is traditional male circumcision of boys and young men that has resulted in the tragic deaths or grievous injuries of hundreds of boys and young men due to botched circumcisions. People in a lot of human rights spaces are baying for the elimination of this cultural practice without actually engaging with it – and most other cultures in fact – and working with those charged with protecting said cultures i.e. traditional leaders and communities to establish how best to protect the rights of people while at the same time preserving people’s cultures and their cultural identities.

The trouble is a lot of activists, and journalists alike do not realise that the cultural identity and autonomy thereof of the communities in which they work is very important in any real empowerment discourse therefore alienating and undermining cultures and traditional leaders does nothing to aid the fight for human rights. Such insensitive, ignorant and harmful reporting as seen in The Atlantic’s article and activism as seen in a lot of human rights spaces is in my opinion counter productive to the cause. Instead, it reinforces imperialist views that Afrikan cultures are inferior and barbaric as well as make community members more resistant to making the necessary amendments. As Afrikans, we have found over the last few centuries that our right to cultural identity is one we have fight for because in all honesty it is currently not truly a right but instead a privilege. A privilege that we do not have while others do.

My recommendation would be that we need to move away from alienating traditional leaders in our initiatives. We also need to stop being paternal in our engagements with them in our bid to eliminate the harmful and irrelevant aspects of cultural practices. We need to form equal partnerships therefore mutual respect for the other is paramount. Lastly, as Afrikans, we need to start telling our own stories and taking charge in the evolution of our cultures and be prepared to leave behind the things that go against the protection of our people and their human rights and the advancement of our communities in our bid to preserve our cultural identities. We need to uphold the fundamentals of our heritage which in these here parts in the South most part of Afrika we call ubuntu.


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When Afrikans Can’t Even Be Afrikan in Afrika

Written by Doreen Gaura for Africa on the Blog




On the 5th of December, 2013, Judge Azhar Cachalia of the South African Supreme  Court  of Appeals made a unanimous judgement where he ordered the reinstatement of Johanna Mmoledi, a section chef sacked by the Kievits Kroon Country Estate, near Pretoria, in 2007.

This judgement was met with mixed reactions with some people (the minority judging from comments on online news publications) celebrating this judgement and the rest of the people being highly critical of the judgement. It is worth mentioning that the majority of the negative responses to the judgement came from non brown (black) commenters who, to say the least, found it to be ridiculous which I in turn found very offensive.

For centuries Afrikans have been at the mercy of the dictates of others outside of ourselves and we have been forced to give up a lot, not least of all our identities and beliefs and this case and the responses to the verdict are proof of this. We have had to defend, on the battle field, in the churches, in the classrooms, at the ballots and everywhere else imaginable our identities and even today, we continue to be forced to do so, and in our own land no less.

A year ago, I attended a traditional ceremony hosted by a friend and colleague of mine who happens to be a sangoma, at her house in predominantly white suburb Observatory in Cape Town, South Africa and to say that her mostly white neighbours were not pleased is an understatement of note. Despite the fact that she had followed all the dictates of etiquette and sent out communication well in advance to all her neighbours notifying them that she would be having this ceremony as well as notified the police in the area of the event who in turn gave her the green light and a curfew of midnight and yet her neighbours kept knocking on the door every half hour (before midnight) asking us when we would be done and if we could keep it down;  i.e. the drumming, singing and dancing. It is interesting to note that when my friend (who hardly entertains anyway) throws a less traditional affair which is more in line with western culture and has more or less similar levels of “noise” they never complain.

What is very apparent in these two scenarios is that it is still considered unacceptable for us to be truly ourselves in the land of our birth and that of our ancestors and we are expected to seek permission and validation from white “Afrikans” as to what parts of our identities and heritage get to survive and which ones should be done away with. In addition to this, based on the comments at the bottom of the article published in the Mail & Guardian  reporting the ruling, it is very clear that there persists the ideology of white supremacy and notion that the only and best ways of knowing and doing are the western (read white)ways. In the one comment a man exhibits his ignorance and bigotry by infantilising traditional healers by referring to them as “naïve” as well as by stereotyping traditional leaders through his hard accusation suggesting that butchering children is what all traditional healers do:

“It’s no wonder we have one of the world’s highest export of trained medical personal, who would want to be campared to some naieve person with some animal bones and children’s body parts!”

 Another frustrating thing about all this is that people know very little to nothing at all about Afrikan traditional spiritualities and yet are so dismissive of it to the point of discrimination never mind that a significant proportion of the population of the continent and most especially South Africa, identify, utilise and venerate this part of our heritage in one shape of form. Several commenters to the article substantiated their disdain by comparing the duration of the western medicine course and the traditional medicine course with one commenter saying:

“Surely the honourable judge cannot get away with dissing the medical profession so easily? Qualified doctors spend the better part of a decade learning their trade – how can a five-week “course” of traditional healing be considered an equivalent when it comes to the issue of a sick note?” 

Again this highlights just how little people know or understand of indigenous cultures and processes and yet they want to come out being very superior and dismissive despite their gross levels of ignorance on the subject.

Others still argued that Mmoledi should have been a little more considerate of her employer’s needs but the same can be said for the employer. He does not need to believe in what she believes but he needs to be considerate of the fact she does, if for nothing else but for her Constitutional right to do so and for staff wellness on the part of the employer. One needs to be aware and respectful of the fact that they live in Afrika and that there are certain things that they may not comprehend but must respect nevertheless because not only are they revered but they are also borne of the continent and precede all else that exists in post colonial Afrika.

It is funny how a lot of white Afrikans identify as such and yet continue to disregard and undermine fundamental aspects of indigenous heritage and when they do recognise them it is usually in a disrespectful and self serving manner. They love Afrikan “art”, the Afrikan drums, dress etc; even to the extent of capitalising on and profiting from them by starting businesses around indigenous Afrikan effects and yet they refuse to accept that the physical and aesthetic are inextricably linked to the spiritual that they are so quick to dismiss.

When people purchase Kananga masks of the Dogon while on vacation in Mali they do not take into account that in a lot of cultures these same “artefacts” actually symbolise people’s ancestors or spirits; or when people go to (mostly white owned) restaurants with an “African” theme they do not realise that the very same mbirafeaturing in the “Afrikan music” they are grooving to, is more than just an instrument but is in fact believed to be a spirit by the Shona peoples of Zimbabwe; and yet the same people will vehemently protest a Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court finding in favour of the recognition of the legitimacy of ubungoma and its equality in status to the more modern and Western forms of medicine.

People need o take cognisance of the fact that the Judge Cachalia did not in his ruling demand that people (employers) believe in indigenous belief systems but instead said that people must at the very least acknowledge and respect them which to me is a very fair and just judgement indeed.



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written by Philisile Mudekunye

We smiled when they gave us new names

Celebrated our colourful languages in hushed tones

And stumbled over their rough expressions

Nodded with the shyness of an awkward teen

When they asked, “are you from Africa?”


We answered to their nicknames

Went into their houses backs bent

Desperately clutched to the idea of home

And did for a dime what they wouldn’t

To feed the expectations we left behind


We forced our children to be unlike us

To speak larney, tsotsi-taal and Afrikaans

Watched them blend and slip from us

Better I light the fire myself

Than be adorned in a tyre necklace


Philisile Mudekunye is a 20 something year old Swazi-Shona lady, medical doctor by profession, but a student of life. A lover of life, laughter and all things beautiful. “I’m passionate about issues that affect women…I also dream of and pray for the day Africa will sell her treasures to the West only on her own terms.”

© Philisile Mudekunye 2013

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Posted by on December 5, 2013 in Afritude, Human Rights, Poetry


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The Problem With Respectability (Race) Politics

Written by Doreen Gaura for her column on

About four years ago I made the life changing decision to go BACK to natural (no such thing as “going natural” in my opinion); about half a year later I was back on the job market after completing my internship at a renowned regional (SADC) gender organisation in Johannesburg. With a full head of uncombed, Afro textured hair, and at the risk of sounding as though I am tooting my own horn, I was totally rocking it, I sent out dozens of CVs and decided to volunteer at another NGO in a bid to keep my foot in the door.

Somewhere in the middle of my professional purgatory, some relos from back home visited with us and like any concerned Zimbabwean adult, they wanted to know what my plan for the future was i.e. was I actually actively looking for a job or was I sitting on my lazy, ruffian tattooed and pierced ass, just sponging off people as is the usual assumption made about people who look like me. I told them that I actually had an interview lined up for a managerial position with an organisation in Cape Town (the very same one I find myself currently employed at) to which they responded with a barely concealed sigh of relief that was quickly replaced with a look of what I can only imagine horror fornicating with disgust would look like were they flesh and blood; something freakishly ugly. “You are planning on doing something about your hair aren’t you? You can’t go for an interview looking like that!” the one relo exclaimed. To be fair, hers was constructive criticism because she didn’t just stop at the criticism but went as far as to offer up a range of “solutions” to my perceived dilemma which ranged from me getting a weave to me relaxing my hair, however, not one “solution” involved me keeping my hair natural. Apparently that isn’t an option on the road toward “respectability”. Who knew?

This actually isn’t an isolated incident but is in fact the story of my adult life in my Zimbabwesphere as it is the story of many-a-person of colour around the world since time immemorial and as Jay Smooth articulately pointed out, the story of the very many Treyvon Martins’ and the abuse they have suffered and/or their subsequent deaths. In spite of the political and the perceived socio economic emancipation of the brown (black) person, the quest to “deniggerfy”/ “dekaffirise” the Afrikan seems to be very much alive and kicking and it appears that it is the very same brown person who claims to be emancipated that is leading the battalion into war against the “unrespectable black”, be they sitting at a CNN news desk in the U.S. or in an office at Karigamombe Centre, Harare.

I have found that we are the biggest critics of “blackness” and are quite content with being dictated to by others what determines our right to respect. “You have tattoos? Well then, you deserve to be discriminated against and be passed over for that job you applied for that you were the most qualified for out of all the other candidates who applied isn’t it?” “You have dreadlocks? Well then, it makes total sense that you were profiled at Maputo International airport and suspected of drug trafficking because in all fairness, you do look like a thug.”

This is not just the plight of the average Shupi/Jane or Joe/ Kwame on the streets of Harare or Joburg or Accra or Miami or Kent but it also goes to the highest office of the land in a lot of places, especially Southern Afrika. I have heard South Africans express their dismay at how Msholozi a.k.a. Jacob Zuma sometimes likes to tog the traditional Zulu attire, ibhetshu, because they think it’s embarrassing or unprofessional but the very same people are totally OK with the leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama, traipsing across the globe being profound and enlightened and shit, all the while donning an orange curtain like thingy and I must admit, some very groovey beads.

People say presentation is everything and in a lot of ways they are right but they negate the fact that presentation cannot be viewed in an overly simplified and singular manner. A good presentation is not necessarily reliant on what you are wearing or what your hair looks like but on how you carry that look that serves to express a part of your personal identity. I have eight tattoos, a nose ring, finger combed “nappy” hair, I do not own a suit (I hate them; they’re stuffy) and my idea of dressing formal is donning one of my many kente, capulana or chitenge print outfits and believe me when I tell you that none of these aspects of my “presentation” prevent me from writing articles and papers that have been published around the world, or from addressing parliamentarians and politicians in South Africa and Italy on children’s rights,or from drafting national guidelines on combating child exploitation with SA government and ILO (Internationl Labour Organisation) officials, or being invited, on two occasions, by the Department of Labour to be the keynote speaker at their national events on the National Day Against Child Labour. Not only do I do these things which are part of my job in spite of my allegedly unrespectable look but I do them well.

When Don Lemon of CNN suggested that if brown people presented themselves more respectably by, say, young brown men pulling up their pants, tragedies like that of Treyvon Martin would be easily avoided I saw red. Now don’t get me wrong, I personally detest the whole sagging jeans thing, but I would never discriminate against someone or justify an injustice committed against someone because they had their trousers hanging halfway down to their ankles. To me it’s no different from the “she deserved to get raped because she was wearing a mini skirt” codswallop that misogynists often spew. This line of thinking only serves to justify systemic racism and the continued oppression of brown people and blames the victim instead of the perpetrator.

And it doesn’t end at appearance mind you, but it even goes as far as accents and our command of the English language or the professions we choose. Venturing into the arts is still not considered a respectable career choice in a lot of places, especially Zimbabwe where artists not only struggle to eke out a living through their art but also to gain respect from society for their chosen profession. The same goes for the way we speak. People are more ready to accept and respect someone who speaks private school English than someone who speaks English with a heavy Shona or Ndebele accent. We use one’s fluency in the English language as a bench mark for their intelligence regardless of the fact that the former does not necessarily guarantee the latter. Trust me, I have met some fluent English speakers in my time who are as thick as door nails and not quite as useful. If anything, this bar that has been set as a result of colonialism only serves to discredit people’s opinions and positions and render them inadmissible or void and this is mainly because a lot of Afrikan peoples who are otherwise well informed on a particular subject find it difficult to articulate themselves effectively or coherently in the English language.

The idea that brown (black) people need to look or act a certain way to deserve respect or be safe from racism or discrimination is ludicrous and reinforces the colonial belief that Afrikans are primitive or subhuman. It serves to justify the historical (and in a lot of ways still existent)oppression of the brown person. The real tragedy is that this system and the issue of respectability (race) politics are so entrenched in our societies that we as brown people have internalised them and are now their propagators and are zealously feeding into it (racism)ourselves. What we do not realise is that this detracts from the real issues and prevents us from reclaiming our common identity, redefining it on our own terms(whatever the result maybe: sagging jeans and dreadlocks or not) and subsequently demanding its (said identity) global recognition as equally respectable and demanding an end to the vindication of racially charged discrimination and violation.


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Ties that Bind: Could Tradition and Culture Bridge the Gap Between the Personal and Political?

Written by Doreen Gaura for Bokamoso Leadership Forum


In spite of the progress that has been made thus far regarding public policy and legislation to ensure gender equality and bodily integrity in a lot of Southern [1] Afrikan countries there continues to be a barricade impeding the smooth flow of these policies from the public/ political space into people’s personal spaces and more specifically the home. It has become abundantly clear that it is not enough to just have laws written down on a piece of paper  that the majority of people do not know exists or do not understand or cannot identify with.

I recently attended a symposium organised by the Women’s Legal Centre, Heinrich Boll Stiftung and Bowman Gilfillan in Cape Town, South Africa, on customary law and women’s rights. The recurring theme of the conference was the need to find an effective way of marrying customary law/ traditional justice systems with state constitutions which are essentially designed to ensure equality and entrench the inalienable rights of all people. Yet, of course we know that in most cases as in some countries “all” does not include their queer citizens, within that state. The attempt to reconcile customary law with common law especially as it regards gender equality is nothing new as this has been the aim, at least in theory anyway, for decades and a question remains: is it working?

The answer is both yes and no. Yes, in the sense that a lot of countries in the region have either signed or signed and ratified various international and regional instruments that speak to the advancement of gender equality such as the Convention to Eliminate all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women, Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC), Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the United Nations Millennium Declaration, the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development and the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons especially Women and Children and most — have gone as far as legislating the provisions in most of these conventions. However, it is a ‘no’ in the sense that implementation in most countries has left a lot to be desired as well as the fact that there hasn’t been substantial buy-in or internalisation of these principles and laws as they are presented and understood from the majority of the public.

Various factors play into the perceived resistance of these ideals along with obstructions to effective implementation but here I will focus one of the perceived main obstacles to entrenching human rights on the continent: cultural and traditional practices. I am of the view that the differences between common/constitutional law and customary law are that to most people, the former exists only in the confines of the public and political domain while the latter exists both in the public and the personal spaces so in other words, it is a matter of accessibility and ownership.When I speak of accessibility, I am referring to the accessibility of the language of these modern and progressive laws as well as accessibility to and of the structures, the advocates, officials and enforcers of these laws. Regarding ownership, as far as most people who these laws are supposed to serve and guide are concerned, these laws belong to the white people, the economic elite and politicians whereas customary laws and culture belong to “us” – the rest.

Having worked in the gender sector in South Africa for a few years, I have noticed that this disconnection between common law which represents the public space and customary law which essentially represents the personal spaces is not limited to the rural and/ or uneducated public. They also affect the role players and service providers, including some activists and legal professionals, as they too have personal realities influenced by the very same personal politics as their beneficiaries such as culture. Sylvia Chirawu, National Coordinator of Women and Law Southern Africa (WLSA) in her paper All that Glitters is Not Gold: Challenges Faced by Women in Implementation of Laws that Outlaw Harmful Cultural Practices in Zimbabwe highlights:

Anecdotal evidence shows that very few African women would marry under general law without lobola having been paid

Due to colonialism and its influence on indigenous traditional legal structures and the need by the colonised to assimilate, we see people living dual realities with many of us balancing our traditional customary identities with our modern, colonial and post-colonial and global identities. As a result we are CEDAW wielding, Simone de Beauvoir quoting warriors by day (in the public and political space) and culture preservationists by night (in the personal spaces) and we seem to be struggling as activists, professionals, service providers and experts ourselves to make the two aspects of our politics and our realities meet.In my opinion it has a lot to do with two facts and these are our need to preserve our autonomous cultural identities as empowered Afrikans as well as thewrong notion that our customs and their laws are inherently opposed to the realisation of human rights.

Our customs and laws are not inherently opposed to human sights

There is no such thing as a homogenous Afrikan culture/tradition but there are similarities and recurring themes across most, if not all, indigenous cultures and traditions and these include the preservation of the community and the protection of its individuals. Bearing that in mind, a many customary laws — even the ones that are being harmfully practiced today — were essentially designed to ensure this and not the opposite. The subsequent perversion of our cultures and laws can be attributed to the contamination by and influence of the cultures of the colonisers. Thus, a lot of things that we claim to be part of our culture or our tradition may not actually be ours to begin with and our communities were more inclusive and tolerant than we are led to believe.

We must remember that indigenous customs were not always essentially patriarchal or homophobic, for instance, and despite popular belief gender identity and gender relations in Afrika prior to colonisation were more egalitarian than has been alleged and certainly more egalitarian than European cultures were. If anything, it can be argued that colonialism introduced and facilitated the marginalisation of women and LGBTI people in our societies.Customary law is by its very nature an evolving system.  Instead of calling for the banishment of customary laws and cultural practices in a bid to ensure human rights and equality, we should facilitate this societal evolution ourselves.  Without interference from outsiders, we can create something context specific and workable that we can all call our own. This can start with understanding the authenticity and origins of a particular customary law or what necessitated it and what issues it intended to address and ultimately the relevance of the said law in the present society and/or whether modification or erasure is necessary and how this can be done. Justice Westhuizen, in the case of Shilubana and others vs. Nwamita and others, aptly pointed out:

The involvement was stagnant during the colonial and apartheid era but it should not continue and the free development by communities of their own laws to meet the needs of a rapidly changing society must be respected and facilitated.

Ultimately, I am of the opinion that there needs to be a realisation that regardless of one’s level of education, exposure or class there appears to be more of a connection, be it at internal or environmental and conscious or subconscious levels, between their personal and their cultural/ ethnic identity than there is between their political and the personal. I would like to posit that a connection between the political and the (evolved and evaluated) cultural be established and perhaps by doing so we may see the required and necessary integration of our political rights and bodily integrity into our homes and making those spaces safe for women and girls.

[1] In this post (and on this blog) Afrika is spelt with a ‘k’ in line with the author’s Afrikan activist affiliations. Most Afrocentrists use the letter ‘k’ instead of ‘c’ as way of acknowledging that ‘Africa’ is not the true name of the continent. When one speaks of Afrika, they’re bringing an Afrikan-centered view to the meaning.


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