Disebo Gift Makau, ‘Teaching’ healthy manhood and the Importance of contesting masculinity in South Africa

Disebo Gift Makau, ‘Teaching’ healthy manhood and the Importance of contesting masculinity in South Africa

By: Gcobani Qambela*

The core of one’s being must love justice more than manhood – Refusing to Be a Man (cited in John Stoltenberg, The End of Manhood: parables of sex and selfhood).

 

I have been troubled deeply to read about the violent rape and murder of Disebo Gift Makau in what some term “South Africa’s most fashionable hate crime of the moment”, the “corrective rape” of (primarily black) lesbian women. Like many people, I harbour more questions than answers as to what causes so many South African men to wage this continuous war on the bodies of women, in particular black lesbian and LGBTIQ persons.

I have written time and time again about homophobia in Africa and why it is wrong. Lately as I have been thinking, in particular, about our theme on education, I wonder what different spheres of learning including the home, formal education and the social we can use to help train and encourage young men, black boys in particular, to harness more accepting, loving and caring attitudes toward others (across genders and sexualities) in a society like ours that thrives on giving homophobia, misogynoir so much airtime.

In the book Ubuntu: Curating the Archive (edited by Leonhard Praeg and Siphokazi Magadla), Siphokazi Magadla and Ezra Chitando in their chapter The Self Become God: Ubuntu and the ‘Scandal of Manhood’ raise the importance of (re)imagining meanings associated with being a ‘man’ and/or ‘woman’ in our post-colonial moment. They note that “Despite the relative peacefulness of [southern Africa] compared to other regions of the continent, such as the west and the Horn of Africa, countries in Southern Africa have alarmingly high levels of criminal violence and gender based violence.” Magadla and Chitando continue to caution that “Our understanding of the challenges posed by the transformation of the oppressive institutional culture of the colonial state after independence demonstrates that legislative transformation is but one aspect of [broader processes] of creating empowering postcolonial states.”

In this same tone, T. Mathe writes in their piece “How long will lesbians and gays be killed?”:

… The police will blame society. reverends [sic] will call for prayer, ward councillors will say they preach about Equality! JUST STOP!!!

How long will this happen?

How long will lesbians and gays be killed?

Stop coming with law and constitution! How long will they be killed?

What is to be done? …

 

I want to argue here like many of the authors above, that constitutional changes alone are not enough, and that the broader civil society has to come to the table in not only fighting misogynoir and homophobia, but in encouraging healthy manhood and calling out harmful masculinities whenever possible when we encounter it. I want to use an example from the popular press.

On the 24th of November 2013 City Press carried a concerning article by Percy Mabandu. The article, titled “Why give macho men such a hard time?” deals with the particular authors concern with the perceived inability “to celebrate masculinity in public” nowadays. The use of the word “masculinity” as opposed to masculinities by the author offers the first clue about the limited and problematic nature of Mabandu’s conceptualisation of masculinity and manhood. This approach by Mabandu assumes that there is one way to be a man and that anyone falling outside “being macho” is not a man.

In their 1995 book, Masculinities, Raewyn Connell talks about the concept of “hegemonic masculinity” which is useful here. Hegemonic masculinity is the masculinity that is regarded as the dominant form of masculinity in any given societal context. It is in this fashion that Robert Wyrod in his paper, Masculinity and the persistence of AIDS stigma, notes that hegemonic masculinity “is central to the reproduction of patriarchal power.”

Despite this, as Connell and Wyrod have shown, there are multiple forms of masculinities and this recognition allows us to see according to Wyrod that there are hierarchies of “masculine identities that naturalises not only the subordination of women to men but also the dominant position of some men over other men.”

In his article Mabandu, citing a number of violently homophobic, misogynistic and patriarchal American rappers, tries to make a case that “macho men” in South Africa have become emasculated. This emasculation is so frustrating for him that he wants to “launch a protest in response”. While he appears to recognise the violence women and children endure in South Africa, the overarching conclusion of Mabandu’s article is that macho-men are not allowed to be violent anymore even through sport and play because “brothers in pink shirts” have taken over.

In this view, “macho men” are seen by Mabandu as suffering a reverse oppression where they can no longer dominate the social production of masculinity, but rather have to contend with differing types of masculinities. By using masculinity, Mabandu is deliberately trying to avoid an interrogation of gender relations even amongst men by pushing a single heterosexual-patriarchal male version of dominant masculinity and relegating insignificant any other masculinities that challenge his idealised masculinity.

In conversation with Melissa Harris-Perry, bell hooks, noted that the problem is not masculinity per se, but rather its enactment through patriarchy. This is the problem that Mabandu does not seem to grasp. There are very good reasons as to why machoness is continuously challenged in public because it rests on the domination of not only women but also other men falling outside it.

Wyrod notes that this particular masculinity often relies on men’s notions of physical strength, toughness and emotional detachment. If we therefore for instance look at domestic violence, the war on the bodies of queer men and women, it is well documented in South Africa that men are often enacting Mabandu’s particular form of harmful masculinity that requires a violent physical enactment of masculine strength on the ‘feminine.’

This particular manhood is not only harmful to those who experience its application, but is also harmful the ‘macho man’ himself for this particular manhood leaves no space for men to be vulnerable and admit weaknesses and insecurities.

Emerging social science research in South Africa informs us that this is one of the reasons for example why so many men do not seek healthcare in the face of HIV/AIDS for this is often perceived as the ‘women’s domain’ by macho-men. This contributes to spreading the disease because the social script on macho men is that they are not supposed to take care of themselves, not be loving and remain emotionally unavailable (even to themselves).

This particular types of masculinity articulated by Mabandu needs to be continuously challenged, because the implications affect not only the men practicing this machoness, but also those on the receiving end of it. Kopano Ratele tells us in “Studying Men in Africa Critically” that we need to carefully examine the various deployments of masculinity in Africa. We cannot reach radical gender transformation if we just allow men like Mabandu to continue searching for this ‘lost key’ to violent patriarchy, while male power, hegemonic masculinities and gendered superiority remain unquestioned and unmoved.

We need to explore ways to integrate teaching of not only just tolerance, but also acceptance of difference to not only our school curriculums, but also the home and everyday interactions. Yet, I am less inclined to be optimistic about the future when men with public platforms like Mabandu for instance can put of articles like theirs in national newspaper encouraging ‘machoness’ while so many women (and men) are dying precisely because of it.

 

Gcobani Qambela is a regular Bokamoso contributor. You can read his short biography and previous articles here.

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