The personal is the political: love, sex and gender in the postcolony

By: Siphokazi Magadla*, Gcobani Qambela**, and Eden Almasude***

© Zanele Muholi (http://www.zanelemuholi.com/)

On a careful review of the debates that have shaped the Bokamoso Leadership Forum (BLF) blog over the years, one can discern that the central theme that preoccupies the passions of contributors has been how to make sense and ‘undo’ the consequences of the deep disappointments that characterize post-colonial life in Africa fifty years after its independence. Most of our discussions have been focused on how to ‘fix’ political institutions that have mostly contributed to state violence against their own people; how to deal with questions of justice and reconciliation in the aftermath of war; and how different sectors, especially education, health and new technologies, can help us offer ways in which the ‘everyday’ is no longer an ongoing site of violence. The reader of this blog has been treated to a generous engagement of how a restraining and violent public sphere punishes the choices of ordinary people beyond the questions of bread and butter, but it also constrains their ability to dream and live imaginative public and personal lives.

What has been curiously missing in these discussions however, is an equally generous engagement with post-colonial intimacy.  What are the bedroom politics of Africans today, and how do they shape and impact political life? Indeed, Nthabiseng Motsemme has posed the question in light of the hopelessness of daily life in the South African case, ‘what is it like to try to love in a time of hopelessness?’ [1].

The post-colonial project of ‘writing back’ to the former colonizers has  not only focused at disputing colonial claims of lack of civilization in Africa, but as evidenced in the important work of Cheikh Anta Diop, this process has also demonstrated the ways in which colonization violently interrupted and ruptured gender relations in Africa.  Oyèrónké Oyěwùmí in her classic text, ‘The invention of women: making an African sense of Western gender discourses’ (1997), argues that colonialism did not only produce a racialised African subject but that it also reconfigured the ways men and women related to one another by introducing a ‘European system of hierarchy of the sexes in which the female sex is always inferior and subordinate to the male sex.’ Oyěwùmí makes the case that:

We can discern two vital and intertwined processes inherent in European colonization of Africa. The first and more thoroughly documented of these processes was the racializing and attendant inferiorization of Africans as the colonized, the natives. The second process…was the inferiorization of females. These processes were inseparable, and both were embedded in the colonial situation. The process of inferiorizing the native, which was the essence of colonization, was bound up with the process of enthroning male hegemony.

Similarly, Ifi Amadiume, in another groundbreaking African feminist text, ‘Male daughters, female husbands: gender and sex in African society’ (1987)–an investigation of the Igbo gender system in Nigeria–argued that, ‘the fact that biological sex did not always correspond to ideological gender meant that women could play roles usually monopolized by men, or be classified as “males” in terms of power and authority over others. As such, roles were not rigidly masculinised or feminized; no stigma was attached to breaking gender rules.’ Of course, as Pumla Dineo Gqola (2009) argues, ‘under colonialism and apartheid, adult Africans were designated girls and boys’ [2], it should thus be unsurprising that an intrinsic aspect of liberation was a fight to reclaim ‘adult agency’ in the face of infantalising colonial regimes.

This work was a much-needed debunking of Western discourses that have portrayed the relationship between men and women in Africa as extremely aggressive–rendering African women without sexual agency at the presumed behest of violently dominant African men. The rewriting of gender has also been important in refuting claims that African women, like their female European counterparts, were ‘kept women’ in pre-colonial Africa, with no place in public life, and no resources in their private lives to celebrate and reprimand their lovers.  Importantly, the reflection on flexible gender systems in pre-colonial Africa also demonstrates that these arrangements were not merely economic: they also refute claims of an absence of homosexuality in pre-colonial times, as many same-sex arrangements involved magical intimacy and play.

As useful as this archiving of sex and gender discourses in Africa has been, it has not helped us to make sense of the violent patriarchal arrangement of post-colonial life that is evident not only in a public sphere that is highly misogynistic and homophobic, but also evident in the horrific statistics of gender based violence, sexual violence, and in the criminalization of homosexuality in most of Africa. Gqola has argued that often questions of gender-based violence and gender equity, more broadly, are framed as that which exists ‘outside’ of the ‘political’ and ‘urgent’ and therefore in competition with ‘real’ needs for transformation and economic survival.

Yet, in Southern Africa, sexuality has emerged as a dangerous flirtation with death due to the endemic nature of HIV/AIDS. The scandal of rapes of babies and young children in countries like South Africa has only elevated the association of sex with death (see the work of Deborah Posel). In other regions, in particular West and Central Africa, the use of rape as a ‘weapon of war’ in various civil wars saw the birth of generations of child soldiers and warlords who raped teenage girls, aunts, mothers as well as grandmothers at gun point. The picture drawn is that of a continent where sexuality is the ultimate instrument against pleasure, a direct flirtation with death that perhaps serves to confirm the inhumanity of Africans. The criminalisation of homosexual bodies in most countries in Africa, offers an extreme example on how African sexuality can be seen as anti-pleasure and an outright war on the body.

For the next quarter at BLF, we therefore invite both our regular contributors and guest contributors to ponder and engage these questions (not exhaustive list):

  • What is it like to try to love in a time of seeming hopelessness?
  • How do we account for the disjuncture between political rights premised on equality and bodily integrity and the ‘war at home’?
  • What are intimacy, pleasure and joy in sexuality in Africa today?
  • In what ways does hetereronormativity constrain Africans of both/all genders?
  • How do our sexual politics shape our public spheres and vice versa?
  • How are African bodies and queer sexualities criminalized in the post-colonial moment?
  • Does the paradigm of queer theory make sense to apply in African contexts?
  • How can we address anti-African, xenophobic, and racist sentiments in ‘mainstream’ LGBT discourse?
  • What should be the goals and discussions shaping queer activism on the continent?
  • How do we account for the silence of bystanders in gender-based violence and sexual violence?
  • How do we account for the silence of heterosexuals in the war against queer bodies?
  • Which bodies matter?
  • What is the role of youth leadership in eliminating intimate violence?

We look forward to all your contributions. Contact the Editorial Team at: bokamosoafricablog@gmail.com.

*Siphokazi Magadla is a regular Bokamoso Leadership Forum / BLF regular contributor. Read her short biography and previous articles here.

**Gcobani Qambela is a regular Bokamoso Leadership Forum / BLF regular contributor. Read his short biography and previous articles here.

***Eden Almasude is a regular Bokamoso Leadership Forum / BLF contributor. Read her short biography and previous articles here.


[1]   ‘Loving in a time of hopelessness’: on township women’s subjectivities in a time of HIV/AIDS’ (2007). Current Sociology, Vol  52, No 5, pp 909-932.

[2]   Pumla Dineo Gqola (2009). “The difficult task of narmalizing freedom”: Spectacular masculinities, Ndebele’s literary/cultural commentary and post-apartheid life. English in Africa 36, No. 1 pp. 61-76

Siphokazi Magadla

Siphokazi Magadla is a Lecturer and PhD student with the Department for Political and International Studies at Rhodes University, South Africa. She is a Fulbright scholar holding a Master’s degree in International Affairs from Ohio University, USA. She was previously named one of the Mail and Guardian’s Top 200 Young South Africans.

2 Responses to The personal is the political: love, sex and gender in the postcolony

  1. Great theme! As a queer Zambian trying to figure out what kind of activism is appropriate for my country, I look forward to learning from these discussions.

  2. Yes! Thank you Anna for this encouraging response to the new theme. As the different writers wrestle with the meaning of the theme, remember that you are also welcome to join the conversation with your own writing, so that we may all learn from each other. Should you wish to take this up at some point, you can email the Editorial Team at: bokamosoafricablog@gmail.com.

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