12 May 2022 | Story Nombulelo Shange | Photo Andre Damons
Nombulelo Shange is a lecturer in the department of sociology at UFS and Chairperson of the University of the Free State Womxn’s Forum.

Opinion article by Nombulelo Shange, Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of the Free State and Chairperson of the University of the Free State Women’s Forum.
If black men have faced the worst of fates, then black women have also placed their lives and bodies on the line. Black women have stood by black men, marched with them, nurtured, and guided them, only to be rejected and oppressed by them. Even while mired in racial-patriarchal oppression, black women still find ways to thrive. One of the places where we see this tragedy play itself out in the most vulgar of ways is within higher education in South Africa. 

The irony of this is that universities are supposedly spaces for knowledge production, acceptance, and collective engagement. The unspeakably painful irony of this is that universities have been spaces in which black men have made important strides in advancing democracy. Black men were, for example, leaders in the South African Students’ Organisation, which was rooted in Black Consciousness ideology. Today discourses on decoloniality often echo statements by luminaries such as Steve Biko. So it hurts that those black men have not learnt to value the contributions and leadership of black women at every step of the blood-stained march to freedom, even in the hallowed halls of universities.

At every turn black women in higher education have to navigate tremendous obstacles in order to make it to senior positions. Many move to other industries, hoping to find acceptance. Others reluctantly give up such ambitions and find meaning in junior roles. 

Black female leaders facing challenges 

It is worth thinking of this when remembering how, in 2014, Prof Nthabiseng Ogude was pushed out of office after only serving two years of her five-year contract as vice-chancellor of Tshwane University of Technology. She was portrayed as being aloof, not engaging with unions and not being close to students. 

The University of Cape Town’s Vice-Chancellor, Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng, has also been met with misogynistic attacks that included having her qualifications questioned. Few lauded her professorship, and fewer commented on the patriarchal obstacles she would have had to overcome to progress in the manner she has. Despite the questioning of her qualifications, Prof Phakeng has managed to cement UCT’s top ranking among universities on the continent. 

More recently, the University of South Africa’s first black woman leader, Prof Puleng LenkaBula, has been placed at the fore of the hit list of sexists at universities in this society that too often loves to see black women in pain. Just a little over a year ago, we celebrated her appointment as the first black female vice-chancellor. Her resilience led her to smash the patriarchy that has left black women out for almost 150 years. A little over a year later, there are calls for her to step down, based on issues that are not unique to her or her leadership. Amidst challenges arising from Unisa’s and higher education’s apartheid legacy of systemic exclusion, are problems related to NSFAS and student funding. 

I agree that we have to hold our leaders to high standards and those who promise to bring much-needed transformation should be held to even higher standards. But it is bizarre to me that people think a 150-year complex history of structural injustice and exclusion can be changed almost overnight now that a black woman is in leadership. These same unrealistic expectations are seldom placed on black men, at least not as quickly. 

A lot of the violence directed at Prof LenkaBula is coming from breathless black men who hurl innumerable slurs about her “menopause” and insults about the “slay queen” who they say must be removed from power. Yet, we know these strategies well. History is full of notes on men discrediting women by claiming they are irrational, fragile, emotional and incapable of making decisions because we are “so burdened by our menstrual cycle or menopause”. History is also full of injustices faced by beautiful and powerful women who are necklaced alive. Note this as we observe that the enduring resilience of Prof LenkaBula led to more hypersexualised vitriol, further illustrating how normal the sexual objectification of women is, even at our highest citadels of education, even from men who are her subordinates. 

Black men must account for their actions pushing women further to the margins

If it is hurtful that black men are prominent in these attacks. It is calamitous that black men use trade union structures to pull black women down. Their new kind of black-on-black violence is frightening, where black men take out their angst on black women in the workplace and other social spaces.

Even amidst all these attacks, Prof LenkaBula and her stalwart colleagues at Unisa have kept the academic ship sailing. She has captained the institution to winning the Excellence for Research Impact award at the 2022 Zairi International Awards hosted in Dubai. This makes me think it matters to honour this good woman leader’s achievements, here in her home.

But in the moments when we acknowledge the successes and excellence of black women, we should interrogate and rethink our societies. We must question why black women have to be so strong in the first place.

In particular, and sadly, black men must account for the ways their actions push us further to the margins so that we have to have superhuman strength to survive and succeed. This feels treacherous when one would think black men would show solidarity and support for black women, with whom they share a history of fighting against unjust systems. They must reflect on why they take a page out of their own oppression to marginalise and inflict trauma on black women. They must find and uproot the self-hate that leads them to refuse to recognise the excellence of black women. They must deworm themselves of the things that make them treat black women with such hate and disdain. 

I still dream that we can see all womanist leaders, such as Profs Ogude, LenkaBula and Phakeng, as the important symbols and changemakers they are. Perhaps then, they and all of us, will be met with more honesty and grace than we are giving them.   

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