GEO: On how culture shapes gender

The Gender Equity Office’s 2023 annual colloquium critically unpacked how the cultures we subscribe to reproduce harmful gender-based practices.  

The Wits Gender Equity Office (GEO) convened its second annual seminar, titled Gendering Culture, on July 26 and 27, a week before woman’s month, to promote dialogue and empowerment in gender equity. 

The two-day colloquium, through a series of workshops, delved into the theme of “gendering cultures”, which refers to the social expectation to play stereotypical gender roles. It also looks at how culture construct harmful gender roles and behaviours, which are passed from one generation to another.  

The seminars used dialogue, theatre performances and art installations to evoke strong feelings about how issues of safety, leadership, intimacy, power and success, are gendered.   

These conversations were part of the office’s intention to emphise their mandate of being a “thinking space” on issues of gender instead of only being a “police station”, said Thenjiwe Mswane the organisation’s education campaigns officer.  

The office, which was opened in 2013 has seen a significant increase in the last two years of reported cases, which Mswane attributes to the implementation of the advocacy office (that creates awareness of GBV related issues through different campaigns), and the increased visibility that it has created for the GEO. 

The opening session of the colloquium was an interactive Drama for Life performance, made up of six scenes, that demonstrated incidents of gendered experiences within particular social settings.  

Scene three which was titled Men’s Res, shows a fourth-year student during orientation week, instructing a first year to get him the cell phone numbers of two girls, or else there will be consequences. When the first-year student dares to ask why, he is asked “are you a man or are you a boy first year?”.  

Hamish Neill, project director at Drama for Life, explained that the theatrical performances were a good way to help audiences  understand what ‘gendering cultures’ look like “not in a static off the page way, where there is one person speaking of it, but by trying to get as close to it in action, in life, as it would be, in the phenomenon of itself”.   

The keynote speaker, Kholeka Shange, lecturer at the Wits anthropology department, discussed how institutions tend to write older black women out as “unproductive particularly in our labour-centric and profit orientated world”. She challenged that in fact older black women are repositories of a “survival wisdom, that we need to survive in this world that is often inhumane, oppressive and violent [to women].” 

The Deputy Vice Chancellor of people, development and culture, Garth Stevens, said that “there is great work to be done by offices like the GEO” especially in handling the rapid reproduction of harmful cultural practices that entrench gender-based harm.  

FEATURED IMAGE: Theatre producer Lebogang Tswelapele showed Hanging pieces of flesh at the GEO colloquium. The show is about the harmful cultural practice of forced female circumcision. Photo: Morongoa Masebe.


‘Welcome to Kwa Mai Mai’: A hub of unforgotten culture


Joburg’s oldest market showcases how migrant workers weaved their cultural practices into what is now known as CBD’s popular trade zone.  

Anthropologist and music guru, Dr Sipho Sithole and Bridge Books, a bookstore focusing on African literature in Marshalltown hosted a tour of Kwa Mai Mai – Johannesburg’s oldest traditional market — early this week.  

Kwa Mai-Mai, located in the CBD is an economic centre, where you can find traditional healers, clothes and medicine. The place is also popular for its food: phuthu which is a staple, traditional South African dish that is made from Mielie-Meal served with braai meat of your choice. Overall, Kwa Mai Mai is a place welcoming for everyone looking for relaxation, healing and traditional items for any purpose.  

The market was first established after 1929, as a camp for migrant workers coming to work in the mines. It has now become a home to many people, a community and an entry way to African spirituality.  

The tour was part of the marketing of Sithole’s book about Kwa Mai Mai, titled Maye  Maye! The history and heritage of the Kwa Mai Mai market. The book gives readers a historical view of market and the people who reside, sell and work in it.  

The tour began at Bridge Books in Commissioner Street where Sithole spoke about the inspiration behind the book followed by a trek on the busy roads down to Berea Road, where Kwa Mai Mai is located.  

Dr Sithole, who was leading the tour, first introduced the audience to the popular Shisanyama spot and then the Nazareth Baptist “Shembe” church and next to it, a compound where cultural goods are sold.  Dr Sithole said, many of those who visit the compound are surprised that the shops, which typically measure 3m x 6m, double up as living quarters for the traders. 

Sithole said the market consists of 218 stalls, including shelters, catering to more than 400 individuals and has more than 100 kids living in it with their parents. 

Walking into the traditional market. Photo: Mbalenhle Dlamini

Sithole, who holds a PhD in Anthropology from Wits University explained that “this book records my collective observations and interpretations from the ethnographic work that I conducted over a period of four years among Kwa Mai Mai traders and residents”. 

The market’s committee chairperson, Malibongwe Sithole said that: “Kwa Mai is an informal trading zone, but we want to formalise it so that it can be recognised and respected worldwide”. 

Street photographer Nonzuzo Gxekwa who attended the walkabout said: “[I am] fascinated by the fact that there are a lot of women that run this space, but I have never known the story behind it and going through the city with someone else’s insights is always refreshing, it gives me something to think about”. 

Bridge Books founder, Griffin Shea added that the book and the walkabout are a way of thinking about the CBD as “a massive trading space that is super valuable” that can receive the same level of support as places like Sandton get for small businesses to run effectively.  

When asked what he hopes the book will achieve, Sithole told Wits Vuzuzela that he hopes it will “redress the past, formalise that place and bring traffic of people to buy there because those people do nothing but sell their goods.” He also added that he wants it to bring awareness to young people so that they talk and write about the place.

FEATURED IMAGE: Dr Sipho Sithole speaking about the office at Kwa Mai Mai. Photo: Mbalenhle Dlamini


Uphethen’ Esandleni? – an infusion of poetry, music and inspiration 

Audience members were lost in translation from time to time but the appreciation for art trumped any temporary confusion. 

A rallying call to hold onto what you can be proud of, and a celebration of South African indigenous languages were central at the inaugural poetry concert – Uphethen’ Esandleni? 

The Wits SRC in collaboration with 2019/2020 former SRC member Samantha Mungwe hosted the concert at the Chris Seabrooke Music Hall at Wits University on the evening of Thursday, May 18. 

Samantha Mungwe is a two-time Wits Alumni, poet and actress. The concert was inspired by the reaction she received from a recital she posted on YouTube in 2021. Uphethen’ Esandleni? – meaning ‘what do you have in your hand?’ – was the question she was asked in her poem, as she held up a degree scroll in her hand.  

A duo of energetic MCs in SRC Legal Officer, Lesego Makinita and Wits student Simon waBatho kept the mood in the room jovial.  The first round of individual performances saw rapper Cashflow (stage name) and the singer Mercy illicit much head bobbing and foot tapping from the audience. 

Members of uThingo Lwamakhosazana aseWits doing their isiZulu reed dance onstage at the Chris Seabrooke Music Hall at Wits University on the evening of Thursday, May 18, 2023. Photo: Otsile Swaratlhe

Cultural clubs and societies took centre stage after those performances. Khomanani Vatsonga Student Society kicked things off with their traditional Xibelani dance, then followed by uThingo Lwamakhosazana aseWits with their isiZulu reed dance before the Wits Zulu Society closed the group performances with a combination of isiZulu reed dances.  

The group rounded off their performance with a rendition of Gqom producer, Dladla Mshunqisi’s hit Upheten’ Esandleni. This was met with much screaming and clapping from the visibly impressed crowd. 

The latter part of the programme ushered in the poets, the main act of the night. They walked onto stage in an orderly fashion and sat next to one another. After each recitation, poets ended off with the line “upheten’ esandleni?’ before passing the microphone to the next poet, a symbolic passing of the baton.  

Attendee, Njabulo Nxumalo (21) said that she found the concert spectacular.  “I think the diversity of it all: the different cultures, the different [use of] language and the mixture of poetry with music [lyrics]…I have to give it a ten out of ten,” Nxumalo said.  

Poet of the night and AFDA student, Tiisetso Maeane (21) told Wits Vuvuzela, “[In poetry] the main thing is to be relatable,” and apart from doing the poem in Sesotho, he achieved this by making his poem about abortion. He titled the poem, Pray after death and according to Maeane, “This poem is a resurrection of a baby that was aborted. I am the voice of the baby that was aborted.” This is where he called on to the youth to practise safe sex.  

Event organiser and main act, Samantha Mungwe (24) said that she just wanted to create something that would inspire other people and create a platform like this at Wits. “[My aims for this concert were] for students to be inspired, for concerts like these to continue happening and for people to love art.” 

FEATURED IMAGE: Members of the Wits Zulu Society dance on stage during their performance. Photo: Otsile Swaratlhe


REVIEW: Soweto Theatre showcases the Battle of Isandlwana

Africa Month ended on a high note with a fascinating lecture on Zulu history at the Soweto Theatre.   

The Soweto Theatre hosted award-winning, heritage masters student and artist Mbuso Khoza’s Battle of Isandlwana lecture accompanied by the Afrikan Heritage Ensemble. The lecture ran from the May 26  to May 30, and consisted of a deep narrative of historic events that took place in present day KwaZulu – Natal at the dawn of the conflict between natives and settlers.  

The lecture not only encouraged the pursuit of one’s heritage and pride in identity, it also incorporated traditional hymns called amaHubo, a popular dance style amongst rural folk called isiShameni, poetry storytelling, and a classical segment.   

Beyond being an academic exercise incorporating cultural elements of knowledge, the lecture entertained, creating an electric atmosphere in the famous township’s top theatre venue. One could tell from the loud ululations and participation of the audience in the song and dance. An integral part of South African culture and history was brought to the community in celebration of Africa Month.  

Khoza’s message was that it is important for South African artists to contribute to the arts and culture industry, as well as to influence cultural policy, so that the legacy of the country’s heritage can be kept alive. Khoza’s message on stage stemmed from the experience of being an artist and seeing what the arts have done for him and the artists he has worked with.  

The Afrikan Heritage Ensemble gave vibrant performances in between the lecture, captivating the audience with a bit of acting, dance and song. The performances were phenomenal, from their stage presence to their  emphatic movements.  

The theatrical pieces told a love story of two young people. The dancing was an emphatic interpretation of the resistance the people of KwaZulu-Natal waged as they fought for control over their daily lives and their identity.  

In all, the experience was a testimony to the power of narrating the past and moving forward. It gave a glimpse of what we can do to preserve our heritage, history and art.

FEATURED IMAGE: Mbuso Khoza and Afrikan Heritage Ensemble. Photo: Mhlontlo Geleba