Systemic oppressions function in a similar manner and intersect with one another. It is important that we combat these -isms collectively.

-Sabelo Mtsweni

This essay contains discussion of sexual violence, gendered violence, and mention of r/pe


by Sabelo Mtsweni

“khanda elixegaxegayo liyofulela abafazi; indoda iyindoda ngokuba umthetho wayo uhlonishwe ekhaya”

Loosely translated, this isiZulu idiom means that a man’s authority in a household forms his very essence as a man. Before I read it in Laurence Mabuya’s 1993 Anthology of Traditional Literature of Zulu, as he called it, I had never heard of this phrase.

At first sight, I rightfully saw it as an expression used by older men to assert patriarchal rule in a sanctioned way.

Another text phrased it in a different way: “indoda akufanele iphathe umuzi wayo nge ndluzula nje kuphela,” which prohibits of the use of violence to enforce such authority, although, unsurprisingly, in discretionary terms.

Nevertheless, the former was created to rationalise the hegemony of men in what was, in effect, a society built to erase women.

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The intricate history of Southern Africa is fraught with nuance. More especially, colonialism and the apartheid system, among other instruments of the rule which preceded our constitutional democracy, should be emphasised in that they largely shaped the formation of what has been detailed regarding African culture and its prevailing norms.

In brief, most of the legal provisions which were consequential to this generic conservatism were created during the time of white domination and were by large skewed in favour of patriarchal chieftaincy and traditional leadership. These was not only made absolute, but was also in collusion with the state in suppressing attempts of self-determination, repatriation, and the idea of indigenous laws.

What is frequent in the parlance of Black South African men today is no different from what was propounded by their forefathers who acted on the influence of white hegemony. On this understanding, it is not a reach to assert that whiteness does indeed form the essence of patriarchy.

The term “man”, as it pertains to young males, only implies the assuming of such authority over women (and the bodies of people seen as lesser through the prism of whiteness). From such a description, mothers are often the first victims of toxic masculinity; an issue which is further complicated by absent, if not equally patriarchal and misogynistic, fathers.

This deliberate attempt to create hegemony based on gender had an impact on the formation of masculinity within African culture and produced lasting effects. The influence of which can be ascertained by reading reports of sexual abuse: South Africa is affectionately known as one of the “Rape Capitals” of the world.

While patriarchy, sexism, misogyny, misogynoir, homophobia, and transantagonism were not “formed” through mere laws and doctrines, they have certainly been sustained and exacerbated by them all the more.

I believe words exist to strengthen beliefs and are subject to abuse, as history suggests. Just as decolonisation is required in current education, it is important that the patriarchy embedded in indigenous knowledge be treated with the same contempt as the whiteness in pedagogical applications, though the thoughtlessness of politics would dictate otherwise.

We must decolonise patriarchy, lest we find ourselves back to the point in which we started: looking outward.

Systemic oppressions function in a similar manner and intersect with one another. Therefore, it is important that we combat these -isms collectively.

Patriarchy within African literature is nothing unique, of course. It is important to me, specifically, because it was the first form of literature that I, and many other people who went to institutions which offered isiZulu, came across in primary school.

Similarly, in high school I found it unpalatable when Wanda’s coming-of-age novel, Kunjalo-Ke, the spread of HIV was centred around a high school student who was “immoral”a prevalent mea culpa attitude which erases patriarchy and queerantagonism.

This couldn’t be more further from reality and was a deliberate attempt to move men and their various instruments of power towards innocence. What I find most pitiful is that this novel was considered a seminal and the first attempt at “raising awareness” of the HIV epidemic in the Black community and particularly among the high school populace, where it is studied as compulsory reading for this purpose to this very day.

As critically important sex education is, it does not reach those among us who do not understand or speak English, since this nonsense is everyday preached to them.

Unfortunately, practices such as virginity testing for the purposes of prospective marriages are still a norm across African countries. It is also important to note that these marriages are mostly polygamous since customary law permits polygyny.

This has had perilous consequences for the young women involved in these types of marriages, both sexually and emotionally.

Recently, the eighth wife of Swaziland King Mswati III, who he married as part of his yearly custom of choosing teenaged women as his wives, committed suicide. It was discovered that one of his forms of punishment was preventing his wives from burying loved ones. This is a clear degradation of the right to equality, freedom, and security for these women.

Additionally, the death of a husband does not end a customary marriage. If a younger brother survived him, the wife is obligated to enter into a relationship with him so that an heir can be created. This, again, is a calculated and systematic proliferation of patriarchy and deliberately rejects the idea of women being self-determined.

In principle, women are brought up to be dependent upon marriage, which often puts them at risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections and abrogate their mental wellness.

How folks choose to ignore the relationship between these customs, sex work, and its rootspoverty, stigma and discrimination, exploitative gender roles, the sexualisation and demeaning of women, power structures, sexual violence, entitlement of men, lack of education and skills, ill-health and the epidemic of HIV and AIDS which continue to leave households headed by young womenis beyond me.

The patriarchal custom of “Ukwaluka” has attracted international media in the past, whereby young men undergo a secretive circumcision and initiation ceremony. It was recently featured in the South African film, Inxeba (The Wound), which includes a homosexual love interest. Protests ensued because of this, with the aim of denouncing the movie.

The secrecy of this custom lies in what is taught to these young men. It is inconceivable to perceive the existence of homosexual men in such a context because the ceremony vehemently condemns their existence and its concentration on masculinity specifically perpetuates violence against the LGBT+ community.

This queerphobic violence exists alongside the violence against women which is supported by the old idioms and belief systems which prop up patriarchy.

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I must be clear: I do not have any aversion to indigenous customs; they are community based and anti-capitalist both, and form the basis for our morality.

I do, however, have a problem with people who use them to further their hate, patriarchy, unfair sexism, abuse, homophobia, dehumanization of others, tyranny, and ignorance, amongst other awful things that the world does not need.

I will respect your right to believe what you choose, but if you use your belief systems to spread the aforementioned ills or other oppressions, then I will be compelled to wage an art and literature war against it.

Sabelo Mtsweni is an undergraduate law student at the University of Johannesburg with interest in the protection of human rights, governance and decolonization.