Showing up is activism too: Black men’s humaneness on death row

Showing up is activism too: Black men’s humaneness on death row

By: Gcobani Qambela*

Patriarchy defines humane qualities as feminine, [and] then tells boys masculinity is basically the opposite of femininity – Kashann Kilson.

I am drained. I spent the second half of this day (19 November) in a full court in Grahamstown, South Africa. In the first case, I sat and listened to a woman being legally chastised for bearing witness to her brother’s wife being raped in front of her. One early South African winter morning on their way to work (around 06:45), they met a man who would, in the next 30 minutes or so, hold them hostage at knife point instructing them to undress and then proceeding to rape one of the women. The women managed to escape because the rapist, after raping woman number one, took a break to go and urinate. The second case was more heart-breaking as it involved a young woman (who is a minor) who was gang-raped on her way from a night out by allegedly three (or more) young men that she knew closely. There was not enough DNA evidence to prosecute the men because the semen found in her did not match those of the one’s she identified.

I looked around the courtroom full with purple t-shirts worn by women and members of the LGBTIQA family in solidarity with the rape survivors. I took another look and was completely astonished when I counted the number of black men present in that courtroom who weren’t employees of the court, the perpetrators or the police. While the women and the LGBTIQA family came from across different racial groups, social class and sexual orientation, I could count on one hand the black men I saw who showed up in solidarity with the rape survivors.

It is no surprise that there were no white men in solidarity with raped black women for it is well documented that many white men pledge an allegiance to white supremacy more than an attachment to justice across race. I single out black men because as Thoko and I pointed out in our previous contribution, many black men occupy a position of privilege in the societies in which these violent crimes take place and are also often the perpetrators.

Our theme this last half of the year at the BLF has been on gender and sexuality in post-colonial Africa. This was an important theme to me because I have personally experienced the harmful nature of post-colonial black male violent patriarchy. Yet the reactions by my fellow black male regular contributors told and showed me that in many ways even in supposedly progressive spaces like the BLF, I am not safe as a man in Africa existing outside heteronormativity. Not everyone is an ally. What further emerged is that very few amongst us black BLF male contributors can stretch and engage in processes of unlearning the confines of homophobia, sexism and misogyny often accumulated through socialisation and constructed religious thought.

The thinking in BLF is still for the most part very masculinist. There’s almost a self-masturbatory pleasure we get in writing about the threat ‘out there’: the African Union must do this, leadership is this and that or South Africa should take this and that route; but the past theme showed how very few of us look at the ‘I’ part and hence we don’t see: ‘I am homophobic’, ‘I am a patriarch’ or ‘I am a misogynist’.

A ‘debate’ I had on my personal Facebook account with my fellow BLF contributor, Steve best demonstrated this. As African men we are always quick to point out the ways in which Africans are oppressed, and yet always uneasy when it comes to examining the ways in which we use the tools of colonialism and white oppression to further oppress women and members of the LGBTIQ community in Africa.

We can say, for example, homosexuality is ‘un-African’, use the Bible to justify that, and yet ignore that Christianity is not only a white male construction but also a product of western colonialism in Africa. Conveniently then this allows us to ignore our own historical data that shows homosexuality as not only present in pre-colonial Africa, but as an accepted practice. This allows us African men to further use the Bible to see women as being ‘created’ for men’s pleasure, while we ignore African data that shows women haven’t historically been subservient to men in Africa, but also had full agency and could be queens, could take multiple husbands and lead people decisively.

I am fucken drained by my fellow black African men for this apathy shown towards issues of gender and uprooting of patriarchy! This is not to proclaim that I get it right all the time, because even as I attach myself to a feminist love politik, I still for the most part retain male privilege. Just this year, my BLF fellow regular contributor, Siphokazi, called me out for addressing the editorial team as ‘guys’ while there are three women and one man in the team.

I am however willing to listen, learn and unlearn. This year taught me that ‘showing up is activism too’  to borrow words from Bose. I want to show up more in the next year. I want my life to expire in the midst of showing up for other people, especially women and the LGBTQA family.

 *Gcobani Qambela is a regular BLF contributor. Read his previous articles for the Bokamoso Leadership Forum here.

Gcobani Qambela

Gcobani Qambela is a Graduate Student in South Africa with an interest in African masculinities, HIV/AIDS research and public health in general.

2 Responses to Showing up is activism too: Black men’s humaneness on death row

  1. Hi Gcobani,

    I’m really glad this was your reflection piece. I had to reread to pick up the nuances. There are a number of themes and vital meta communication. You drive a very NB point about the false safety-net that we are all lulled into within the activist space. Ally(ship) is a complex and multilayered issue and often we get the surface value and think it will always show up in solidarity no matter what. It’s similarly NB to call out the dangers that the activism space can sometimes create, particularly on public platforms like Blf. We’ve discussed this at length and I leave it at that.

    I’m glad you always show up to for me and I appreciate you always showing up. As a black woman, it’s good to know that I have a brother who will consistently show up.

  2. Well done Gcobani!! Thank you so much for this honest reflection. I should say, it is a long and tough road, but I think the better part of it is always finding allies, being corrected and learning. We all should strive for that, and hope to see many of the issues you raised addressed as we move forward with BLF. The space can only be as progressive as the people that occupy it.

    Thank you and happy holidays!

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