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Contradictions in Constructions of African Masculinities

Research and Capacity Building for the Promotion of Sexual Health and Well-Being in the West Africa Region
© Africa Focus


Rather than the yearned for comforts, the advent of a democratic dispensation in Southern Africa has thrown up many uncomfortable questions. Many people would agree, for example, that as the country has moved to establish a human rights culture, crime levels seem to have risen sharply and the police, courts and correctional services so far seem unable to cope adequately. Some people would commend the African National Congress government for succeeding in providing free health services for pregnant women, poor people and young children, but many more people are baffled by the indecipherable strategy or perhaps lack of will of the government to face up to strong indications that the spread of HIV is rampant and AIDS is plundering our communities. And while black economic empowerment has spawned a very small nouveau riche class, recent figures suggest that the poor are getting poorer, and the gap between the rich and the poor is increasing.

There is also one seemingly 'minor' question that some critical citizens have been trying to draw attention to because, they correctly point out, we imperil ourselves and our entire future as a country by paying insufficient mind to it. It may be that this minor fact is part of all the other contradictions South Africans are experiencing. This fact that seem to contradict our freedom can be found in official documents of the democratic government. For instance, we saw it in the latest census forms. To be sure, one will find an apology of sorts tucked away in a footnote where writers recognize it is a contradiction, or at least a discomforting question. But critical researchers and scholars have also been guilty of replaying the contradiction, even while they apologize. The apology usually runs along the lines that this is for statistical purposes only, or that the concerned researchers or scholars themselves do not need to use the category because of the history of South Africa. The question I am referring to of course is that of race and with that strike-through it could be argued that am sort of apologizing.

Racial Identities
What makes the acknowledgement of race a contradiction, it may be asked? What about race causes us to apologize? Why do I say that it could be part of all the other cultural, political, economic and psychological contradictions of the new as of the old society? I think it is a fact that race and its small-writ politics and large one have always been and continue to be the incubus of the South African drama. In one form or another race is the problem of black communities and individuals all over the racial aspect of our identities trumped all other forms of being. Racialised identities under pinned our everyday lives and politics. Our practices, our institutions, our histories and our politics, our relationships, prospects, needs for belonging, psychic investments and fantasies, all have always been indexed on the question of radicalized identity.

Of course (racialised) identity is not an original South African preoccupation. South Africa merely exacerbated it, precisely because South Africa believed it could solve the troubles of identity with it, even if it was to be at very great expense. Any kind of identity is inherently a puzzle with at least one piece always missing from the box. Identity is fundamentally a contradiction. And as has been said by many commentators, what we take to be identities are always changing. So is racialised identity.
I have been talking mostly in the past tense when talking of the race puzzle in South Africa. This may lead to a misunderstanding. I should correct it. Much of South Africa life is still predicted on race. That remains a social, economic, and political affair. We continue to believe very much in the idea of race, and this belief, to iterate, is what lies at the centre of the contradictions of our young democracy.

Identity Puzzle
What makes the question of identity a contradiction is not just that one is sometimes forced to respond with such lumpish things as Africa South African male when, for instance, filling a visa application. Yet this rheoretical awkwardness accentuates the ever-present contradictions of racial and other identities. It is important to keep this in mind especially when one is confronted with seamless, perfect 'names' or identities such as White South African, or African man. In other words, when there appear to be no 'lumps' such as 'African culture', which is another way of saying, when the identity 'sticks' that is precisely when we should be most suspicious.

Another form of the identity puzzle that could be taken up is that even in the new society the name African, for instance, does not seem to 'stick' on white South African bodies or white citizens of Zimbabwe. The puzzling aspect is that this is even when the owner of the body him- or herself wants to take the identity of African on.

Still another discussion is around what could be called 'travel of identities'. As one travels from one place to another, from home to elsewhere, from workplace to dentist's room or to theatre, from continent to continent, one has to produce an identity. The identity one leaves home with, is not exactly the same as the one, which is shown to a customs official, and not the same one returns home with. The example given about applying to enter another country can be used again. African people and black people generally must always travel with their race in addition to their nationality. This then begs the questions of when is or not racial identity more consequential than national identity, and when is or not one or the other of these more central to one's subjectivity. I could speculate and argue that those called African South Africans are generally only South Africans when traveling, and largely Africans when at home, among other South Africans.

Power and Contradictions of African Masculinities
All of this points to, re-writes, re-establishes, and plays out what goes into African masculinities, how to turn young boys into African men, and some of the contradictions involved. But the contradictions I want to concern myself with here are those that hides or shows power. I wish to posit that the emergence of a rich class among Africans should worry us enough to want to interrogate these African men - for most of these rich people are men- about power. We must interest ourselves about the lives of these African men not just as Africans but equally if not more urgently as men. Focusing on the sex/sexuality/gender of African males is a deliberate and productive move of disturbing the taken-for-granted nature of African-ness, and of such objects as ' African Culture', 'African masculinity', 'African womanhood' and 'African sexuality'. This move reveals the contradictions that inhere not only in African identities, but also the inherent contradictions of all identities.

The obvious contradiction of 'African masculinity' is that African males 'share' one part of the identities with African women and another part with white/European men. If African-ness is 'shared' between males and females then 'African masculinity' is defined not just by African males. In the same way, if 'the thing' that makes a man a man is something all men know or most know something about, then white/European males help in making African/men. Further, masculinity is not made by males only, and there are many more different 'types' of males than in the categories of African and white/European, and in fact, more than one type of masculinity; we should talk of identities rather than identity.

The less obvious contradiction is that African masculinities, just like other sorts of masculinities and all identities, are sets of practices that cling together around points of power. In speaking for or against a particular identity, for or against the notion of African masculinities, and in taking up or being forced to assume the identity of an African man- that is to say instead of father, physicist, footballer, lover, or chef- one is already implicated in a dialogical material world that is always structured by and around power. This means that in discussions about African masculinities certain voices carry more weight than others. This is in spite of the fact that several groups and individuals 'share' in the kind of man that ends up being built. It also means that one raises a (real) African man, as one raises a (real) white man- at least in South Africa- does not simply raise a scientist or an athlete. This is because the phrase 'just human' is an empty one, and rather than helping us, it avoids the contradictions.

Masculinities as socialized, embodied power
In speaking of showing the contradiction in constructions of masculinities I am tracing a shape of a practice, a configuration of socialized embodied power. The shape of this practice of being man is disposed to hide the contradictions. The more 'real' the man, the more certain the masculine practice, the bolder the figure, the harder the work that goes into it and the higher the orchestration of maintaining the original shape of the figure.

I think what Steven Mokwena's1 study on urban youth subculture showed was just this: that the divergent, contradictory forces that went into shaping African Masculinity were proving too onerous to hold together. The study reported high levels of violent practices along with survival-oriented identities or at least imaginations. The study was focused on the 1980s. But I think it is evident- from the violence and crime levels in South Africa- that we are still dealing with some of the things that informed that youth subculture. That study explained the violence by referring to the crisis of racist capitalism. The study argued that the crisis created material conditions that led to the marginalisation of great numbers of African youngsters. These youngsters grew up to (believe in) hustling and using violence to get what they could not get in other ways. When one gets to believe, one 'buys into' something, one internalizes, one embodies. What the young African men then may have bought into, internalized and embodied, is exactly the violence and hustling that was first only utilitarian.

Dominant constructions of masculinity then and now
Now and then one observes that the dominant construction of masculinity is still mainly of men as economic providers; these young men must have looked to their futures and their own sense of fulfilling their manly future roles with a sense of ever increasing desperation. Indeed there was no sense of looking to the future. There was none to look forward to. These conditions then could be said to be unhappy ones for arguing for engagement in things like a (re) negotiation of male identities and male power. When one is going hungry it looks somewhat insane for some intellectual to come around speaking about opening up and allowing for multiple understandings of what it means to be a man, to be African, to be a South African in the future. As a matter of fact, the predominant sentiment among males is that the concerns of African men cannot be around 'niceties' of gender and masculinity. Back then, if gender was ever broached and dominant masculinities shown to be a problem, the reasons given for dismissing the problem would be that African males had to deal with more important stuff, 'bread and butter issues' continuing the struggle. Now, if gender is broached and dominant African masculinities shown to be a problem, they are dismissed with laughter and arguments that African males have to deal with more important stuff, 'bread and butter issues', deepening democracy, building and running a country, making some money. African men, that is to say, back then and still today, do not have the luxury to forge new concepts of masculinity and new ways of relating.

'Nouveau riche' and violent cultures as two sides of the same coin
This kind of argument is oppressive and dangerous. Pulling apart our identities, practices and institutions and examining their constituent parts- especially those things we are convinced we cannot live without, our very own history and culture, our names and lives- is always urgent. It is of such importance that it is now insufficient to merely show the rhetoric above as tails-side of the same coin as the rhetoric that produces strong men as dominant, in charge, sexually-potent, BMW-driving, platinum MasterCard-carrying managers or owners of this and that company.

In other words, survivalist, violent, materialistic subcultures are parts of the same cloth as the capitalist greed that produces the African nouveaux arrives. The racist patriarchal social structure of apartheid, the masculine African youth subculture, and the small band of rich Africans derive from the vampirism of capitalism that feeds and feeds off the idea of what it is to be a man. It may be shown then- contrary to what may be common sense- that rather than being free of all the structures of apartheid, most of us are still caught up in, defined by and supporting oppressive discourses also supported by that racist patriarchal social structure.

I think the major point here is that refusing to admit how in raising a boy- child we are always implicated in power, is what imperils the future. In making an African man, and thus reproducing a particular, dominant identity, we must be aware that African manhood is made within a field of power struggles that includes such things as class, sex/sexuality/gender, and of course race, provides at best a lopsided view of the realities of individual African men. The worst of it though is proceeding on the assumption of an uncritical, uncontradictory view of a shared history of racial oppression, while glossing over class and sex/sexuality/gender hierarchies is part of the epistemic and material violence that goes into constructing African masculinities.

1 Mokwena, Steve, 'The era of the jackrollers: contextualising the rise of the youth gangs in Soweto'. Paper presented at Project for the Study of Violence Seminar, Wits University, Braamfontein, Guateng, 1991.

By Kopano Ratele, Ph.D. Dr. Ratele is a professor with the Psychology Department and Women and Gender Studies, University of Cape Town, South Africa. Article originally published in News from the Nordic Institute, Nordic Africa Institute, Uppsala, Sweden. Reprinted with permission.
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