SLICE OF LIFE: Whose body is it anyway?

I recently discovered a Facebook group called “I regret having children”. It’s a group where parents anonymously post about how they regret their (often unplanned) pregnancies and how much children have ruined their life. I had left the group absolutely certain that, at least for the next 10 years, I do not want to have children and began considering long term birth control like the Intrauterine Device (IUD). Yet, when I explained this, I was met with, “but how can you know? What if you meet someone in the next few years and they want kids?”

At the time I dismissed it, along with all the laughs I received from older people when I explained my stance. They gave me knowing winks, as if saying, “sure honey, wait a few years and then get back to me”, before asking what my hypothetical future husband would think. I then slowly began to realise how universal the attitude is.

The first realisation came when a family member described to me how she had gone to a government clinic for an IUD. She arrived only to be asked by a nurse what her future husband would think and got pressured into getting a Depo Provera injection because, according to the nurse, giving her an IUD would be a waste of government money as she would just come back to take it out in two to three years after she’d met a suitable husband.

The second came when in America, reproductive rights, which had seemed like a settled debate after Roe v Wade (1973), were thrust back into public discourse due to policy and legislative changes which threatens to roll back funding for clinics like Planned Parenthood. This has created a ripple effect felt by women in developing countries, where Donald Trump’s Global Gag Rule has led to non-profit organisations which provide women with reproductive services being defunded. As a result, millions of women have nowhere else to turn for reliable contraceptives and safe abortion services.

And to drive the matter home, just two weeks ago, medical doctor and reproductive rights activist, Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng, was left visibly frustrated as an interviewer on Afrovoices derailed a discussion about abortion access into a debate about whether or not it was the duty of black African women to birth African populations comparable to India and China.

Earlier this year, I attended a talk held at Wits Junction about access to abortion titled Whose body is it anyway? In many ways, this question has become only more relevant in 2018. To whom do women’s bodies belong? To lawmakers in faraway countries who can cut off access to reproductive services with the stroke of a pen? To future armies and workforces who need someone to provide them with young, healthy bodies? To governments who can pressure women into taking potentially harmful hormonal birth control for the sake of being economical? Or to hypothetical husbands whose feelings must be accounted for in our present day medical decisions?

What these questions point to is the invasive policing of our bodies. The societal pressure we face to have children, combined with the increasing restrictions women the world over face on reproductive healthcare, has created a suffocating scenario in which we are beginning to lose control over our own bodies. As some women resort to desperate methods like backstreet abortions to cling to that control, others deal with the devastating consequences of unwanted and unplanned pregnancies which, ironically, are often derided by the same people who oppose reproductive justice in the first place.

I believe it is impossible to envision women’s liberation without reproductive justice, because of the many ways that a lack of access to reliable contraceptives and safe abortion services directly harm the wellbeing of women. As we move into Women’s Month the central question we should be asking ourselves when it comes to reproductive issues, such access to abortions and contraceptives, should be “whose body is it anyway?”

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‘It is a huge responsibility and I am humbled’

Just two weeks ago the newest SRC president was elected at this year’s PYA Branch General Meeting. Nompendulo Mkatshwa (22), affectionately known as Ulo has been chosen to sit on the Wits throne that allows her the power to push student agenda’s and politics. 

AT THE HELM: Newly elected SRC president, Nompendulo Mkatshwa, met with Wits Vuvuzela to discuss her responsibilities, feminism and social issues. Photo: Reuven Blignault

AT THE HELM: Newly elected SRC president, Nompendulo Mkatshwa, met with Wits Vuvuzela to discuss her responsibilities, feminism and social issues.                                 Photo: Reuven Blignault

As the newest president, are you excited or are you nervous about your new appointment? 

It is a huge responsibility and I am humbled. Together with my collectives and the PYA. Remember we have a huge backing, there are four organisations that will back us up in anything that we do and we will deliver as the PYA and the SRC. Our prime being in this institution is to deliver to students, why else would we then have a PYA and SRC? We are the voice of students.

What is your first and most important concern as you enter the role of president of the SRC?

My term will officially begin in November, and I think by then one of the biggest challenges the campus will be faced with will be students writing their exams. To ensure that all students are supported in whatever manner they can, we are readily available to consult any student that needs to consult and [after the exams] when results have come out and students have written their exams, we will ensure that we are here as the PYA and we’ll be here during the holidays to ensure that we represent all students that the institution excludes from itself academically and financially.

In light of the EFF members who were subsequently suspended from the elections, do you think that in any way made PYA an obvious choice for students to vote for?

One may say that a PYA vote is a vote that can be shared with the EFF as well, however speaking as someone who was observing how elections were going, I still think the PYA was going to come out victorious as it did, because at the end of the day students have always had faith in the PYA and we are humbled by that; and it’s not because we are arrogant, it’s because we try our best and we are as authentic as we can be.

As a female president are you going to consciously adopt a feminist approach in pushing women agendas in how you discuss things?

As a gender activist I have my own reasons as to why I don’t want to be called a feminist, because I’ve been called a feminist over and over again and I’m fine with it really but, I refer to myself as a gender activist for various reasons around how there’s a lot of blurred lines around feminist terms, characterization of terminology, and I so want to be part of the revolution that will seek to consolidate all feminists through the best way possible. So, yes I am a gender activist, I believe in the emancipation of all genders in society.

Then what do you advocate for concerning gender related issues? 

I advocate for the engagement and deliberations of issues of LGBTQIA; strongly so because we also reduce the discussion of gender to man and women and that’s not where it is, we talking about everyone.

We are ‘coconuts’, but there’s levels ‘bru’

Katleho“I choose to appropriate the term ‘coconut’ and self-identify as one, because I believe it offers an opportunity for refusal, and this very refusal allows for radical anti-racist politics to emerge,” said Panashe Chigumadzi at the Ruth First Lecture this year.

Validation, resonance and irony in her humour is what I walked away with that evening. That said, I don’t know if she’ll accept my subsequent notion.

Of course I identify as a ‘coconut’, my whole upbringing dictates that I should; Model C schooling, occasional white best friends, ‘creamy-crack’ hair (see Chris Rocks Good Hair), hell, even smugness in sporting braces in Grade 6. But I like that I can now decide and accept that I am a coconut but still be able to refuse the assumed notion that I too am a benefactor of white privilege. There’s a kind of freedom in that.

But have you ever met some young black girl or guy and thought, damn, “you really are a coconut of the coconuts? Perhaps even the queen of coconuts?” You know, those whose speech is consistently punctuated with unnerving amounts of, “laarks” and “reeeallys”, or that “yah bru”

“The truth is hard to swallow when the belly’s full of lies.”

There are levels in life, I think one should know theirs and be comfortable with it. But more, one shouldn’t have to get defensive when another black person not quite on their level mimics you and things get all emotional and personal.

It’s understandable, that kind of outrage, seeing oneself through someone else’s eyes has rarely been funny. “The truth is hard to swallow when the belly’s full of lies,” said Jamie Foxx in Ali. And it’s not just in the tone of language, it’s the ‘hi-how-are-you?’ as you quickly walk by, not waiting for any response (then why did you ask?) Some coconuts don’t even have any speech impediments but just a denial that they are in fact Black. Others walk around calling themselves black feminists but laugh at the black rural girl who’s English isn’t that great. It’s a constant conflict.

“The ‘extreme coconut in denial’ skates close to the very whiteness that black people are constantly battling against.”

My fundamental concern with the ‘extreme coconut in denial’ is how it conducts itself with the older black security guard, domestic worker, gardener or ground staff in various environments, as if there’s a subliminal hierarchy at play. There’s a disrespect that has a likeness to when you’re discussing race with someone white; a not-listening, a defence mechanism, the kind of pose that says I’m just trying to get through my day, so I don’t have time to really acknowledge your presence.

The ‘extreme coconut in denial’ skates close to the very whiteness that black people are constantly battling against. I know that the black female waitress sometimes deliberately gives you bad service, but it’s nothing personal. She’s angry with a system that doesn’t recognize her as worthy and she hates her manager because she always has to pretend she’s busy even when she’s not. No, I’m not saying you deserve bad service, but tact and reverting to your mother tongue usually works.

Denying your coconutism is the very mechanism that allows some to perpetuate a free spirit, the candid race-doesn’t-matter-to-me attitude. Race matters and it’s an issue. Because being a coconut only means I’m Model-C schooled, black-taxed and sometimes free.

Q&A with Panashe Chigumadzi

NARRATIVES OF A YOUNG BLACK WOMAN: Editor and founder of Vanguard Magazine and Ruth First Fellow, Panashe  is shaping the African women’s narrative one step at a time. This Zimbabwean born recently explored   the concept of 'Coconuts, Consciousness & Cecil John Rhodes'. Photo: Reuven Blignault

NARRATIVES OF A YOUNG BLACK WOMAN: Editor and founder of Vanguard Magazine and Ruth First Fellow, Panashe Chigumadzi  is shaping the African women’s narrative one step at a time. The Zimbabwean born recently explored the concept of ‘Coconuts, Consciousness & Cecil John Rhodes’. Photo: Reuven Blignault

 

A young visionary from Zimbabwe, Panashe Chigumadzi is the founder and editor of Vanguard Magazine, a platform that aims to speak life to young black women. Chigumadzi is shaping the African women’s narrative one step at a time. The Ruth First fellow recently reflected on the dialogue around the theme: “Race: Lived Experiences and Contemporary Conversations” by exploring the concept of ‘coconuts’ in post-apartheid South Africa.

Vanguard has become a critical voice for many young black women. What was the inspiration behind it?

The inspiration was to not seeing myself represented in media, on the covers, on the mastheads, and on the way stories were told. If they were stories about black women they were often anthropological in the way in which we talk about things, the full nuance was never there. And if you find a black women represented it was either Lupita, Beyoncé or Bonang, so for us it was really to say we want a space where we can celebrate black womanhood in all of its manifestations. So we wanted to have a space where we can have our joy, our tears, fears and our anger everything there in a way where we don’t have to censor, italicise or explain ourselves.

You are part of the Feminist Stokvel. Why is the subject of hair important?

The subject of hair for me is a gateway to a whole range of issues within Black Consciousness, Womanisms and Intersectional Feminism because it speaks to the way which the black female body is ‘humanised/institutionalised’. In the way in which it is meant to conform to a very white supremacist and patriarchal view and the way we have an idea of straight shiny long hair and not hair in the way it grows out of our heads. That’s not just purely a self-esteem issue for black people, it’s specifically because the structures of the South African economy, the fact that we still don’t own spaces that we inhabit. It’s the institutions that we’re in, the schools that are still predominantly white run that will say ‘no Afro’s for example, no dreadlocks, and those are the schools code of conduct.

In the work space where you’ll see some women are forced to have a specific hairstyle because that is what is seen as presentable in those spaces so it’s not specifically I speak about hair, but as a way of making a commentary about just the way blackness is coerced in South Africa because we’re still so very white dominated in many of our institutions and that’s why I don’t like to victim blame and critique people who wear weaves. I am more interested in critiquing the structures that say women cannot have natural hair, that’s a very important part of the discussion that we have to be having, as opposed to having the silly Afro versus weave conversation.

What are some of the issues your radical approach to being a pro-black young woman brought you?

The first thing people say is by being ‘pro-black’ it automatically means being racist and people shy away from that, people will say that being pro-black is anti-white. I’m not interested in trying to make white people feel better about my politics because whiteness is premised on the expense of black people, it is built on the backs of black people and obviously you make a whole lot of people uncomfortable by saying that I want to have a full life as a black person and I don’t want to be apologetic. It makes a lot of people feel uncomfortable.

There are many people that will want to silence you, it’s important to continue to work on creating these spaces that we do. One of the spaces that we support the amazing initiative by ‘The Black Love Sessions’ which is done by an amazing young woman by the name of Sivu Siwisa. They have and event called For Black Girls Only and that’s specifically because they want to have a space where black women can find support and find creative ways to heal and create a movement around themselves but they get a lot of slack because you’re not allowed- in a very white society- to have black only spaces, we’re not allowed to have spaces where we are allowed to speak about our pain outside the gaze of whiteness. And if so people will continue to have problems with that it means that we are doing the right things if people are angry or upset with what we are doing.  It means we are really challenging the structures within- a way it hasn’t been challenged before.

Do you think radical feminists or radical feminism is celebrated in Africa?

I don’t want to make statements for the continent but what I can say is that there are many amazing African feminists that aren’t celebrated enough and there are so many just beyond individual feminisms, because there are different ways which people express and define their feminisms. But you have a lot of these great movements, for example the African Feminist Forum that is really great and we’ve also got HOLAA Africa, they are a great feminist organisation and. There are so many incredible feminist organisations there but we do not hear nearly enough but definitely there are women who are doing great things whether its writing, activism, sex workers drives, campaigns against female genital mutilation and speak about the experiences of black women.  It’s just a matter of they don’t get enough praise and spotlight they should be getting.

Do you see a danger in the glorification and fetishism of black feminists?  

There is a danger in individuals being celebrated. I think it’s important to highlight peoples work because I think people take a lot of risks, it’s difficult to put themselves out there but at the same time I think we have an individualistic culture, that’s also as a result of what we would call Neoliberalism, a sort of economic order. Making it to the top of the corporate ladder by yourself as opposed to speaking about how we create movements.

It is important for us to bring a movement otherwise we can decide that we praise Panashe today and we don’t like what she says we simply put her down but if we have an entire movement it doesn’t stop because of one person, the message continues and I think that’s really important. To create a movement as opposed to a culture of glorifying individuals. We need to find ways of creating a solidarity and that’s why I’m interested in Vanguard as being a space where we can create a movement of black writers and new black voices. We want to develop new voices within this space because there is a culture of wanting to individualise as opposed to creating a movement.

Mainstream media views black women as bodies of subjects of fetishism opposed to white women being paragons of virtue and desire. What are your thoughts about this? 

I almost don’t have anything to say because it’s tiring. That is why I am interested in how do we create spaces and reclaim spaces such that we can have agency to create ourselves in our image and see ourselves in our image, that’s where I am.  I just get tired of talking about it because we all know it’s a problem. I am interested in saying how do we create the new spaces and create those new images of black women because we are not a homogeneous body of people, there are so many different sexualities and body types. There are so many different ways of being as black people that’s why we want to create more spaces.

What would you say to young black women who are constantly told they are not enough?

I would want them to know that they are enough, they don’t need to embellish their story, you don’t need all kinds of things to make your story valid or your perspective valid and that’s the important lesson. It’s difficult in an anti-black, anti-woman, anti-poor world where your wounds are constantly needing to be legitimised all the time and constantly being silenced but I think that’s what we are trying to do. We want to let young black women know that they are enough and we are going to fight to create the spaces that are going to continue to affirm you.

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