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Can African Women Redefine Freedom for All?

Can African Women Redefine Freedom for All?

Dr. Ramphele’s address, reprinted here, was delivered at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies in September 2015.

> “Navigating a world in which we women fight to be free in thought, in speech, in action is thrilling as it is vexing. Yet, it is precisely this complex balance between deep hardships and intoxicating victories in becoming a woman that I‘m realizing is an extraordinary power. Through being made to feel threatened, I have come to realize that I am in fact extremely threatening. We women no longer know our place.” (17-year-old Kine Mokoena-Kessi, UCT Monday Monthly, August Woman’s Month 2015)

We live in a world in which the knowledge, systems, technology, tools and resources are available to address the major challenges we face as a global community, but we seem to lack the wisdom to govern our affairs for the benefit of all citizens.

“Dr. Ramphele at a WSI Board meeting”

My own country, South Africa, and the continent of Africa, are the poster children of the gap between the resources and opportunity to succeed, on one hand, and the lived reality of the indignity of poverty and hopelessness affecting most citizens, on the other. This gap reflects the cost of living with old minds and failing to adapt to the new world. South Africa’s Constitution is the envy of many in the world, but the lived reality of many of its people is still shaped by inequities and human indignities.

The triple burden of poverty, unemployment and inequality weighing heavily on the majority of South Africa’s people remains colour-coded and gendered. Just over 64% of women are unemployed, and of those employed, few make it to senior management and board positions. Pay parity remains unattained at many levels in both the public and private sectors. Only 25% of business owners and 42% of entrepreneurs are women. Black African women, the majority population in both South Africa and across the continent, bear the brunt of the triple burden of poverty, unemployment and inequality.

Africa is home to eight of the 10 countries in the world today with the youngest populations – the proportion of those below 25 years averages 67%. Ironically, Africa is also led by some of the oldest living heads of state, with Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe leading the pack. Their tenures in office average 10-35 years, placing them amongst the longest serving leaders in the world. The disjuncture of a youthful population that is majority women being led by old men speaks to the old mindsets that need to be challenged.

[[callout “Can African women redefine freedom for the benefit of all?”]]

The question I would like to explore in this talk is whether African women can redefine freedom for the benefit of all? If so, what would it take to redefine freedom? How different would such redefined freedom be, from the post-colonial and post-apartheid freedom Africa is experiencing now? What values, systems and practices would characterize “freedom for all” as a lived experience?

Why Focus on African Women as Change Agents?

History teaches us that change only comes when those who stand to benefit most stand up and make it happen. The redefinition of freedom is most likely to be done by those who suffer oppression most and are conscious of their agency to bring about change. The persistence of a narrative of freedom that excludes such change agents becomes the motivating force.

Slavery ended when slaves stood up and challenged their slave masters. Colonialism ended when subjugated people stood up and refused to be treated as second-class citizens in the land of their birth. Apartheid ended when black people, led by black young people, stood up and redefined themselves as free from the label of Non-Whites/Non-Europeans, declaring themselves Black and proud.

Post-colonial Africa is underperforming its potential to become a thriving inclusive economic democratic space leveraging its huge resource base: natural, mineral and human resources. This underperformance results from the failure to utilize the talents and capacities of all of Africa’s people – men and women.

Africa’s narrative of freedom is that of male liberation heroes claiming leadership of their independent countries as an entitlement and a reward for their contributions to the struggle for freedom. Many have failed to make the transition from liberation fighters, whose allegiance to their movements takes precedence over everything else. They have failed to become public servants accountable to all citizens and respectful of their human dignity.

It is no accident that these liberation heroes are all male, modeling themselves on male dominated power elites in the rest of the world. One needs only look at any gathering of global leaders. Global leaders are mostly men, with the notable exceptions of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany at the EU level, President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil at the BRICs level, and the singleton African woman President, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia, at the AU level. Constitutional guarantees of gender equality and the protection of human rights that grace many countries’ legal systems have yet to become the lived reality for most African citizens. Gender discrimination, gender-based violence and abuse conspire to undermine women and children in most countries.

The dominant narrative in Africa is that of liberation heroes and their parties being entitled to govern, or, more accurately, entitled to rule in perpetuity. This sense of entitlement justifies abuse of power, corruption, nepotism and failure of public accountability. Any criticism of governing parties is regarded as disloyalty to one’s liberators and is often heavily punished through socio-economic marginalization, threats and the reality of violence and intimidation.

The threat of punishment for disloyalty to ‘the ruling party’ strikes fear in the hearts of entrepreneurs, professionals and ordinary people alike. Compliance becomes seen as the only option for many of those who choose to remain in their home countries. Emigration has also come to be seen as the only option for the millions who can find greener pastures. Africa is deprived of the skills and creativity of millions of its citizens due to these marginalizing tendencies by African governments.

[[callout “African women are in a strong position to weave a new narrative.”]]

We live the stories we tell, and are told about ourselves. Africa will remain captive to unaccountable self-serving political leaders until and unless citizens weave and embrace a new narrative. African women are in a strong position to weave a new narrative. Women’s position as mothers, sisters, aunts, grandmothers and caregivers puts them in a strategic position to tell stories that shape the lives of the many people they touch. Women’s traditional storytelling roles have sustained generations of Africans and emboldened them through folk tales and praise songs. These stories tell of their greatness as a people with a rich heritage. It is time for African women to draw on this rich heritage.

It is time for African women to ask “the question with no name” that Betty Friedan asked in 1963 in her groundbreaking book, The Feminine Mystique. Friedan enabled women to ask what they had all along forbidden themselves to confront: Is this all? Friedan wove together threads of the many stories that American women had not given themselves permission to tell one another.

These woven stories helped end the captivity of silence. Women rediscovered the power within themselves to be shapers of their own futures, thereby transcending the then-dominant narrative. The birth of the second wave of American feminism took the courage of one woman, Betty Friedan, to mobilize others to break their silence and demand more of life.

African women are increasingly asking:
Is this all that freedom means for us?
Is this all that freedom means for our children and our children’s children?
Is this all that freedom means for African women and men?
Is this all that our sons, daughters, brothers, husbands, sisters, mothers and aunts sacrificed their lives for, in the struggles for liberation?

The answers to these questions are the threads of the new narratives African women are beginning to weave with growing urgency.

Black African women writers are “committed to historical intervention and national reinvention… situating (themselves) as new women of a new Africa, more assertive, more complex than their mothers, but still connected with the past, and situated within a family lineage of female storytellers.” (Boehmer, E., Stories of Women: Gender and Narrative in the Post-colonial Nation)

African women do not have the luxury of weaving exclusionary feminist narratives. Their circumstances demand that they weave an inclusive narrative. Theirs is a narrative that is framed by their womanhood, their humanity (Ubuntu), their citizenship, and their intergenerational responsibilities. Inclusive narratives of freedom affirm the truism that one cannot be free in an environment where others are un-free. An inclusive freedom narrative embraces the liberation of all from racism, sexism, ageism, poverty and the indignity of inequality.

What Would it Take to Redefine Freedom?

> “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to be so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion. ” ~ Albert Camus, 20th-century French philosopher

True freedom challenges the dominant masculinity narrative that has held the world and Africa captive for so long. Masculinity framed by an alpha male narrative celebrates dominance. The elements constituting this dominant masculinity are anchored on power and control. “Real men” have money and control over its use. They occupy leadership positions in public life, flaunt their sexual prowess, are hardy and boast intellectual superiority. This dominant masculinity model operates on a competitive winner-takes-all model of power.

Such an approach to gender relationships undermines those men who are defined as losers. The alpha male dominance model is sustained by undermining other males. Men who are unable to live up to the expectations of the alpha male narrative suffer from an inferiority complex. The sense of worthlessness drives many men caught up in this undermining system to aggression and substance abuse. The vicious cycle of low self-esteem, feeling disrespected and unable to communicate inner fears and hopes drives the epidemic of domestic violence and general violence against women and children.

How can African women be “absolutely free in such an un-free world?” How can they make their very existence acts of rebellion? Such absolute freedom can only come from drawing on the goddesses within the women themselves. The goddess within each woman is the expression of love for the self, love for those close to one, and love for humanity. The exercise of love in this manner unleashes a life force that leads us to a place closest to the source of our very being.

African women through their struggles in an unfree world are sustained by the all-embracing love as a life force. They draw their energy from narratives framed by Ubuntu (Humanism) that mirrors universally recognized feminine principles of: connectedness; humility; candour; patience; empathy; trustworthiness; openness and flexibility. These principles anchor the values that stand in contradiction to those of the currently dominant masculinity model. These transformative values frame the rebellion women wage in private and public spaces to challenge traditional conduct of relationships between women and men.

African women engaged in such acts of rebellion in an unfree world need to increasingly draw on the strengths of fellow women within supportive circles so they can succeed together. Such circles need to operate at the personal and domestic level, community level, within institutional and professional settings at work, at places of worship and in the wider society. Solidarity circles and networks of support woven across boundaries of race, class, age and culture are essential to the development and sustenance of a momentum for transformative action.

[[callout “How can African women be ‘absolutely free in such an unfree world?'”]]

In my work with colleagues in my home country in the Eastern Cape Province, we draw on the strengths and tools of the traditional African conversational circle to drive transformative change. These conversational circles enable participating communities of men and women to empower themselves and one another. Letsema (collaboration) Circle evokes the egalitarianism, the trust-building and the collaborative principles that traditional African societies affirm and practice in tackling socioeconomic challenges, sustaining and protecting themselves as well as future generations.

The symbolic power of circles of conversations enables individuals to look inside themselves, claim their space, find their voice and link with others. Our experience in this Letsema work confirms the importance of raising the consciousness of individuals of the power of the life force within themselves. They become their own liberators.

The life force within enables those involved to reach out to others to sustain acts of rebellion against forces that hold them captive. Women who are more attentive to that inner space where the life source pulsates are the main actors and leaders in Letsema Circle, both in the Team and in the communities where we work.

I was excited earlier this year to discover the work of Jean Shinoda Bolen that resonates with our work in Letsema Circle. “Women’s circles form one at a time,” writes Bolen, Jungian analyst and author, “Each circle expands the experience of being in one to more women. Each woman in every circle who is changed by it takes this experience into her world of relationships. Until, on one fine day, a new circle will form, and it will be the millionth circle — the one that tips the scales — and brings us into the post-patriarchal human era.” (Jean Shihoda Bolen, Crossing to Avalon and A Millionth Circle.)

Using experience gleaned from her participation in women’s circles since 1985, Bolen argues that these support groups, learning societies and agents of change can empower members. The author begins with casting a circle (who, what, when and where) and then moves on to centering the group with a common intention, energy, compassion and wisdom. Two criteria for keeping circles alive are: Practice Equality and Make Sure that Everyone Feels Safe. She concludes with an overview of the importance of rituals and celebrations in women’s circles. It is in the loving embrace of the circle that more and more women can and are living out their lives of rebellion and changing the world one step at a time.

What Would an Africa with Redefined Freedom Look Like?

We now know for sure that equality is good for anyone, rich and poor. The authors of The Spirit Level present a persuasive case that more equitable societies are healthier, have longer life expectancies, experience less crime and insecurity and reap the benefits of the talents and skills of their citizens to build prosperous futures. They state that: “we can think of trust as a marker of the ways in which greater material equality can help to create a cohesive, corporative community to the benefit of all.” (Ibid) Scandinavian countries and Japan lead the league of the most equal societies, although there is greater gender equality in Scandinavia.

We also know from recent analysis by Thomas Piketty (Capital in the Twenty First Century) that wealth accumulation has over the ages largely favoured property owners and inheritors of money. 21st-century technological advances and innovations are likely to create a mixed picture of new and old money, but for now, capital begets more accumulation capacity. The majority of inheritors of capital in the world are men.

What is clear is that societies that have succeeded in overcoming the triple burden of poverty, unemployment and inequality have focused on investing in the development of talent in all citizens. Instituting taxation systems that enlarge the common resource pool and equalize the benefits of development for all is essential.

There is a special case to be made for gender equality beyond economics. Gender equality questions lie at the heart of “The Personal being Political.” Gendered relationships, whilst being intensely and intimately personal, are heavily framed and governed by cultural values that reflect who exercises power in what spaces, how, and over whom? The exercise of power is a political process with political consequences beyond the space in which the micro-processes play out.

The transformation of gender relationships from the African, patriarchal, toxic “alpha male dominance” model, with its inherent violence, is essential to the redefined freedom of both men and women. Men, including the alpha male, who live in terror of losing control and dominance, have to sustain their status by whatever means available, including violence.

Such men, both the dominator and the dominated, cannot be fully the men they have the potential to become. They are too encumbered by the burden of maintaining dominance or surviving being dominated to experience the joy of absolute freedom and the enjoyment of relationships of mutual support and nurture that only true freedom brings.

African women, as storytellers, need to weave an empowering narrative of transformed gender relationship opportunities from the personal, professional and political spaces within which they operate. True freedom is experienced where power is regarded as an enabler. The more people are enabled to shape their own futures, the more energy would flow in society to unleash talent, creativity and innovation. Societies with greater freedom for all, especially women and girls, do much better than those characterized by the domination of men over women and the rich over the poor.

The new narrative being woven is putting Ubuntu – “the I am because you are” – as a governing principle in traditional African societies, as a powerful force from which all can draw strength. It is an anchor in interpersonal and community relationships in which one’s humanity is affirmed and confirmed through those relationships. One becomes a better person by being continually conscious of the nurturing and empowering affirmations of reciprocal relationships.

Ubuntu resonates with similar principles in other cultures, such as in the Japanese and Celtic traditions. The Celtic view is particularly powerful: “The human body is born complete in one moment, the human heart is never completely born. It is being birthed in every experience of your life. Everything that happens to you has the potential to deepen you.” (O’Donohue, John, Anam Cara – Spiritual Wisdom from the Celtic) One is only completed as fully human by experiences of life alongside other human beings.

African women need solidarity circles and networks to draw on in this ongoing birthing process towards becoming more fully human within relationships that are nourished by the life force of love for self and others. The difficult task of not only liberating themselves from the stranglehold of patriarchal systems and zero- sum game approaches to power, but also of liberating their men, can only be accomplished as acts of love for humanity.

Unfree fearful men are the main drivers of domestic violence, gender-based violence in our streets and villages, in the work place and in our national and continental politics. For as long as these men remain trapped in this toxic masculinity and patriarchal system, African politics and the development of Africa will be held captive.

Sindiwe Magona, an award-winning author in my country, a survivor of two failed marriages and the inequities of apartheid, is one of the committed transformative storytellers. She has decided to rewrite history from the lens of a Black South African woman, in order to “reshape selves, communities, and societies – when all categories of sense-making are open to re-definition.” (Chapman, Michael, “The Problem of Identity: South Africa, Story-telling and Literary History”) Magona’s elegant execution of this commitment finds poignant expression in her novel, Beauty’s Gift. This novel transforms an African woman dying of HIV/AIDs into “a self-governed and self-assured being, ascendant in her ability to freely locate herself in an environment of her creation.” (Shober Dianne, Climbing Higher: Sindiwe Magona)


I would like to end where I started – listening to the voices of women, younger women who are the leaders of today and who are actively redefining freedom:

> “My mother and her mother were amazing storytellers. From them I learned to tell happy stories that build a family, community and nation. I learned that for my life to be beautiful, I have to tell beautiful stories about it. I grew up watching them and drinking from their love, words and wisdom. …. I would like to see the upcoming generation of girls receive so much love in their formative years from their mothers, grandmothers and careers so they do not have to seek love and validation elsewhere, but be content with the love they carry within. I would like them not to have invisible ceilings placed in their life experiences and career paths by patriarchal systems, but to be able to flourish to their best ability.” (Lilian Mboyi, Property & Services, UCT).

Do you see why I am optimistic about our future?

Thank you.

Mamphela Ramphele
Active Citizen
Racliffe Institute for Advanced Studies

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