However, there are other things that need to change, such as the patriarchy swathed in black consciousness I saw being manifested at Wits over the four-day strike.
On the day vice-chancellor Adam Habib finally came to hear the students’ demands, I experienced overt sexism – directly and indirectly. Incoming students’ representative council (SRC) president Nompendulo Mkhatshwa addressed the student crowd and asked that they sit so that there could be some kind of order. Some male protesters shouted: “We won’t be told by a woman!”
They refused to sit down, even though most people were pleading with them. I then asked two of them why they refused to sit and whether this had to do with the gender of the person instructing them. They said it didn’t, but they continued to say that “feminism must voetsek”.
As I tweeted about this – as I tweeted about everything I witnessed throughout the protest – I was repeatedly told that I shouldn’t try to “hijack” the protest and make it about what it was not. In other words, the sexism was not important to highlight because it did not threaten anyone’s “humanhood” (or “hu”manhood).
In a nonhierarchical structure such as this, it was not surprising to have more than one leader emerge at various times. But outgoing SRC president Shaeera Kalla and Mkhatshwa were continuously snubbed and silenced. Crowds would gravitate to former president Mcebo Dlamini and the Economic Freedom Fighters’ Vuyani Pambo at first glance. Just look at the photographs from the protest: they are inundated with men, with Dlamini and Pambo at the forefront. This is erasing the women who were putting in the hard work equally.
This sort of erasure by the media is nothing new. During the civil rights movement in the US, Dorothy Irene Height, who is dubbed the “godmother of the civil rights movement”, was cropped out of pictures with Martin Luther King Jr and other male leaders.
The blame for the brilliant and iconic photo ops of Dlamini and Pambo cannot be pinned on just the two individuals alone – other protesters and the media were complicit in the masculine representation that resulted, which almost succeeded in erasing Mkhatshwa and Kalla.
One protester said: “I don’t think this has anything to do with gender. I prefer to listen to Mcebo or Vuyani because they are more inspiring – they are strong leaders.” I wish it were that simple and we could leave gender out of this.
Dlamini and Pambo were considered “strong” because they fit into the existing narrative of political jargon, tone and linguistics, which on its own is hypermasculine. Mkhatshwa and Kalla will indeed fail to make up for this “strength”, but this has very little to do with them and their ability to articulate themselves. We, as listeners and observers, are captivated by the performance that comes with Dlamini and Pambo.
While I was streaming for The Daily Vox on Periscope, many comments were asking for Mkhatshwa and Kalla to speak more, and every time I panned the camera to either of them, even when they were not addressing the students, many viewers cheered.
I don’t know what is worse, experiencing overt sexism or just being systematically sidelined by the already patriarchal political environment. Either way, I think it is time that we seriously talk about the erasure and silencing of black women in this student movement and many others like it. Those who believe that black women will put their womanhood at the altar of sacrifice in the name of the “collective struggle” are blinded by their male privilege and will indeed feel like this is an attack on their person.
Black women calling out the patriarchy and misogyny within the movement is not an attack, it is a protection of their humanity – including their blackness and womanhood – in its entirety.
Pilane is a media studies student and a journalist at The Daily Vox