Source: OSISA
We put it up front that we disagree with each other about whether it is appropriate for men to call themselves feminist. On the one hand, Mbuyiselo is convinced that it is not only conceivable for men to be feminist, but that it is courageous and ethically desirable, and that (African male) feminism is an elaboration of ubuntu/botho.

As Mbuyiselo has said, and Kopano fully agrees, ubuntu/botho is a negation of any form of oppression, and feminism is thus an articulation of this philosophy of non-oppressive relationality that 'I am because you are, and you are because I am'. "At the most simple level," Mbuyiselo has said, "to be a feminist male means to embrace values that seek gender justice for all." (Botha, 2012).

On the other hand, Kopano feels that, given the power of words, the use of the term feminist for men should be used with caution. For him the best term for men working with women on gender equality is pro-feminist. This disagreement over what to call ourselves – feminist, pro-feminist, anti-patriarchal or antisexist men – may be significant at one or other point in time, but it only represents a difference in tactics. Frankly, we cannot consider what men call themselves to be as fundamental as their active support for struggles against gender inequality, sexual and gender-based violence, or any other issue relevant to women's struggles against patriarchal domination. However, at the strategic objective level, it is important that men refrain from being opportunistic, hijacking or undermining the gains made by the women-led feminist movement.

Indeed, we are in agreement that the struggle should be fought side-by-side, with women leading the gender struggle. The same lesson about who must lead different struggles for social justice was learned during the national liberation of South Africa – namely that the liberation struggle would be led by African people.

It is important to underline that on several occasions we disagree with one another, and often enough challenge each other with love. This, we believe, is significant enough to make explicit.

The debates

Writing in the Introduction to the 1996 edition of Biko's collected essays on black consciousness, I write what I like, his comrades Malusi and Thoko Mpumlwana (1996, page xiii), argued: 'The struggle to re-order the attitudes and relationships of women themselves, between women and as fundamental as the struggle ever was for the re-ordering of race relations for blacks in South Africa and the world.' It was, of course. And it remains so to this day.

What this seeks to demonstrate is that even though many political activists and scholars have tended to privilege one struggle over another – whether class over race, race over gender, gender over sexual orientation, or vice versa – particularly African and black women have lived within the strangling sense of being pressed to keep some parts of their lives in the dark. For instance, a number of African and black women authors have articulated the experience of being almost compelled to consider racial liberation as more urgent than gender rights, or the converse. In a similar vein, it is self-evident at this moment in our history that for South African black lesbians, transgender individuals and gay men, equality on the basis of gender and race without specific attention to sexual identities and freedom can mean the difference between death and life – that right on the basis of race does not protect one from violent injury. For these individuals, obviously the struggle for recognition of their gendered sexualities continues.

For African and black women liberationists and feminists the world over – amongst whom there are, to be sure, important internal contestations – what the Mpumlwanas came to recognise goes without saying. Yet, if activists and critical writers also fail at times to see the forms of inequality as interlocking, it behoves us to talk more, teach better, protest more effectively, march longer and write more powerfully against race oppression (or gender, or other forms of oppression) to undermine the grid of injustice. In order to better perceive the nature and changing faces of inequality, men and women must come to see that the struggles against racialised inequality do not do away with the need to struggle against gender, sexual and economic inequalities and other forms of injustice.

Inequality structures the world. Power over others is attractive and systemic. Through various channels, patriarchal power and heterosexism, just like racist domination, are rendered psycho-socially enjoyable to many men and women. The same is true for other kinds of power, with power related to money perhaps the clearest embodiment of the enjoyment that people derive from power over others. Oppression, then, takes on various entrancing guises in different contexts. As such, women's and men's struggles are ultimately always against unjust power. It is not against symptomatic injustice that we ultimately struggle. Although it might be urgent at different points of history and in different contexts to mount resistance, it is not merely against isolated oppressive acts of racism, gender and sexual violence, economic exclusion, nationalism, culturally oppressive practices, or any other monistic view of oppression that we need to fight. For black women and men especially, it would appear that this view of struggle as more than simply against any single form of injustice would be obvious. Evidently, it is not. To be sure, all of us are given daily mis-education about how to think about the world and our own lives through various means (actually induced and estranged from thinking for ourselves) – with the media, formal education system and our social relationships being the most powerful vehicles in this process of alienation. Therefore, none of us can do without on-going critical political education or conscientisation.

The Mpumlwanas also noted that, while they shared Biko's passion for the liberation of black people from apartheid, they slowly came to admit the masculinist politics of Biko's emancipatory project. Their insight possibly provides the foundation for the transformation of (antiracist) black men's masculinities. The two activists observed that the experience of being oppressed because of one's sex is no less, and no more, than being subjugated because of one's skin colour. Even then, the two black consciousness activists would also state that the gender prejudices in Biko's work must be seen in the context of his historical period, and that Biko was a product of his time.

But this reads like a careful attempt not to say something negative about Biko. It comes across as a justification for the gender biases that characterised Biko's politics. The truth is that Biko was ahead of his time in many ways. He was a man who did not quietly accept what the apartheid government intended black people to be – docile, unquestioning and politically unaware. He stood up against the racial order that wanted to put him in his subservient black place. He questioned the world not only for himself. As part of the founders of a new progressive movement in South Africa, he led black people towards the on-going task of imagining themselves anew. In initiating projects informed by a self-belief in black abilities and beauty, he started the continuing endeavour to give a new content to blackness in South Africa. And Biko's inquiring attitude was not only directed at the racist system. He also questioned his would-be student fellow-travellers in the then dominant white-led student organisation, the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), and led a walkout from the organisation. He convincingly rejected the representations about black conditions from both the white and black media as contained in his 'Letter to SRC presidents' (Biko, 1996). And, publically, he cuttingly questioned the recognised black political leaders, including the leaders of the African National Congress (ANC), the Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania and the South African Communist Party, and stalwarts of the national liberation struggles – such as Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Robert Sobukwe, let alone people like Gatsha Buthelezi and other homeland leaders.

In brief, if Biko was a product of his patriarchal racist time, he was, thankfully, a bad factory design both for apartheid and the conservative black order. For his insubordination, his psycho-political acumen in relation to the workings of power, Biko is the best starting point for black conscious men committed to gender equality. The key point here is that we could make our lives easier and concern ourselves with the gender politics of another stalwart of the national liberation struggle, current president of the ANC and head of state of South Africa, Jacob Zuma (cf., Ratele 2006). Or we could delve deeper into the sexual politics of the expelled leader of the ANC Youth League, Julius Malema, for which Mbuyiselo Botha and Sonke Gender Justice Network took him to the Equality Court and won[1] (see Ratele, Shefer & Botha 2011). Or, because as we write this we are challenged by and could respond to the retrogressive discourse of gender represented by the businessman and television personality Kenny Kunene and his fifteen or more girlfriends who know each other and live in his house and are currently dominating the South Africa media space,[2] we could concern ourselves with that discourse of black masculinity. However, we cannot only take the seemingly easy cases. It is a belief that we hold dear that sometimes we must resist the urge to go along.

The fact is there are many reactionary discursive currents undermining the development of anti-patriarchal masculinities in South Africa that must be addressed. These include the hyper-visible pattern of masculinity, which tends to be most attractive to certain kinds of mass media that champions consumption as is represented by Kunene and other prominent men. It seems to us that Kunene and more generally masculinity (and gender) that revolves around capitalist consumption are attractive to the media for the very reason that they are an effective check against the real liberation of young black men and women from capitalist patriarchy: they send confusing messages about sexual relationships, money, masculinities and femininities.

Secondly, there is a resurgent traditionalist gender position that seeks to recreate tribalistic masculinities and femininities, represented by traditional and political leaders such as Chief Phatekile Holomisa[3] and the king of the Zulus, Goodwill Zwelithini.[4] President Zuma also sometimes employs a discourse based on Zulu culture and tradition to support his gender and sexual practices.[5] One of the main problems with gender traditionalism is its refusal to critically reflect on the contents of culture and tradition as prejudiced against women and supportive of an injurious patriarchy (Ratele 2013).

While cognisant of the differences within women's movement and gender activism, as well being aware of many feminists who work with men, there is, thirdly, a discourse that appropriates gender talk to argue that men cannot change. This discourse may also be tied to a view that is largely indifferent to men's lives except in connection to violence against women. bell hooks (2006) suggests that this type of reformist talk sees gender 'freedom as simply women having the right to be like powerful patriarchal men' (as opposed to being like 'poor and working class men'). Interestingly, this reactionary discourse mirrors the monist antiracist discourse (that we started with above), which understands black men's social condition as primarily a result of white racism, thus minimising black men's and women's oppression by (both white and black) patriarchy. It must be obvious that we regard both racism and patriarchy, among others, as imprisoning black men (and women) from living truly free lives.

Defining ourselves as black in the way Biko spoke of blackness is to learn to question the prevailing socio-political and economic order. To claim to be Biko's black (as opposed to non-white) is the beginning of the process of unlearning a still hegemonic view of what it means to be a black in the world.

Yet Biko's black subject needs a sex, a gender. He – although, as shown above, the subject at times is a she – needs a liberating sex/gender education. Liberated black manhood is about, in our view, a questioning attitude towards the patriarchal and sexual, not only the racial, order. Black manhood is a gender value, not only a racial attitude. Progressive black masculinity is a stance and a perspective on the patriarchal, heterosexist, white world – where all the terms carry equitable weight, although we are well aware that these are not exhaustive of all the terms in the struggle for justice and equality.

We are not aware of whether Malusi and Thoko Mpumlwana were gender and queer activists. However, what is clear from their Introduction is that to come to be part of struggles whose aim is to make wider society realise that we are not only black, men (and women) need a consciousness of women's liberation and feminist struggles. The transformation of black men into active supporters of gender and sexual equality demands engaging in deliberate education for social justice. It is only through a consciousness of women's liberation struggles and feminist insights that men come to appreciate that a racist injury is no worse than sexist traumatisation. It will not happen by itself that men (and women) comprehend the fact that sexual and gender-based violence is a systematic weapon of hetero-patriarchal masculinity. (Again, we admit, the picture is more complex, the violence more entwined). Conscientisation in feminism and women's liberation struggles is the surest route towards grasping the perversity of the patriarchal condition, where biological femaleness reduces a person to the status of a perpetual minor or second class citizen – and to voicelessness.

It might be obvious to many people, but it is important to state this: we are not only men. We are also well-employed, black, heterosexual subjects. While critical work with men and masculinities gives privileged focus to men as a gender, to the constitutive power of gender in relation to racial order, the converse is also vital to understand. In other words, we need to understand black men's gender construction from the location of race. If some men see their problem with gender equality as caused by the colonial destabilisation of their culture by western white traditions, we cannot afford to be dismissive of such views. We exist within orbits of hegemony and subordination. Therefore, to be successful, anti-patriarchal black projects on masculinity must grapple with not one issue – patriarchy only – but rather with all of the entangled roots of inequality.

Concluding reflections

Our disagreements notwithstanding, we are clear about what connects us. Above all, we are connected by the idea that for men like us both patriarchy and racism hurt our health. We are agreed that the aim of the project to liberate black masculinities is to challenge the twinned ideologies of male and white superiority (as well as other social injustices). We are opposed to sexual and gender-based violence and hetero-patriarchal racial power. We seek to reveal the deleterious effects of men's gender power over women. After the feminist insight by, for example, Chandra Talpade Mohanty (1988) – and significantly, other feminists from the global South or black American feminists – who showed that women are not an ahistorical, universal and fixed category, we are aware that men are not homogenous and that due to their economic, racial, political, cultural and sexual positions they have power over other men. We challenge the structural and episodic violence of, and on, men. We want to contribute to founding new forms of healthy manhood. Following bell hooks, we think our work in partnership to feminist women and gender activists is to show that 'patriarchal culture continues to control the hearts of men precisely because it socializes males to believe that without their role as patriarchs they will have no reason for being' (hooks, 2004, page 115).

This is, then, what we learned from the black consciousness movement and the struggle for national liberation more generally. We learned to love justice for all women and men. We learned to learn from women, to listen without fear, aggression, or prejudice. We learned to question power. We learned about what a critical black self-awareness as part of identities entails. We learned to love ourselves quietly again. We learned, therefore, that we would never be true to ourselves if we went back to an obedient, unreflective 'yes baas' kind of existence. A reflective, profeminist black view implies always approaching our condition and practices as heterosexual, married, men and black with a constructive questioning attitude. It entails always examining and 'doing' race, gender, sexuality and other categories within which we are socially positioned, and all men's and women's practices more generally, with a critical eye. Thus, whereas we learn from the anti-racist project of the black consciousness movement to love blackness and overcome the ideology of white superiority, from feminism we learn to reject male superiority and to create new self-definitions that liberate masculinities from patriarchal, homophobic and capitalist power.

Out of these lessons, we come to the conclusion that what we are doing in claiming the space of profeminist African masculinities is engaging in the process of contributing towards moulding a different social order that will allow out children to flourish. We are investing in the future where the boys and girls we are raising can live in a world where they can be anything they set their minds to be. There are times when we recognise that we might not get to such a world ourselves. Nonetheless, with Martin Luther King in mind, we see ourselves as fertilising the ground for a future where girls are educated for a feminist, confident, happier and healthier life, and black boys and white boys genuinely believe – in their hearts and not just their brains – in girls' and women's rights to their own views, goals, feelings, bodies, health and independent lives. In that future, boys are also empowered with a progressive education, which prepares them for an egalitarian, democratic, non-violent and healthier life.

[1] Julius Malema, ex-president of the African National Congress Youth League, told a meeting of students in January 2009 that '"when a woman didn't enjoy it, she leaves early in the morning. Those who had a nice time will wait until the sun comes out, request breakfast and ask for taxi money." Malema's comments were an oblique response to the woman who had taken ANC president and current head of the state Jacob Zuma to court for rape in 2006. Zuma was acquitted of the charge. At the time, the Young League leader appeared to be close to Jacob Zuma, the president of the mother body, the ANC. Malema has since been expelled from the ANC for behaviour unrelated to his sexism.

[2] See Charles Cilliers 7 April 2013. Inside the Sushi King's sexy Sandton harem. City Press. Retrieved 17 April 2013 from For feminist responses see, e.g., Lizl Morden April 15 2013 The case of Kenny Kunene and the 15 girlfriends. Retrieved 17 April 2013 from; Pumla Gqola 14 April 2013 Sushi King's monster's ball. City Press. Retrieved 17 April from

[3] Chief Phatekile Holomisa, Head of the Congress of Traditional Leaders and an ANC member of parliament, was reported to have said that "homosexuality was a condition that occurred when certain cultural rituals have not been performed." He also said that the National House of Traditional Leaders "wants to remove a clause from the Constitution which protects people on the grounds of sexual orientation." (Rossouw, 2012, p. 5).

[4] In 2012, the Zulu monarch was reported to have called people with same-sex desires 'rotten'. According to media reports, King Zwelithini said, "Traditionally, there were no people who engaged in same-sex relationships. There was nothing like that and if you do it, you must know that you are rotten. I don't care how you feel about it. If you do it, you must know that it is wrong and you are rotten. Same sex is not acceptable." The king was speaking during the 133rd commemoration of the Battle of Isandlwana at Nquthu in northern KwaZulu-Natal. (Mdletshe 2012, SAPA 2012)

[5] See Pillay, Verashni (22 Aug 2012). Zuma: Women must have children. Mail & Guardian Online. Retrieved 18 April from

Go to top