Black women in particular face a multitude of racist and gendered oppressions in South Africa. Danielle Hoffmeester, reflecting on the life and death of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, argues that anger from black women is not only expected, but necessary. She believes that women need to begin to acknowledge the validity of their anger and translate it into positive action in the service of a non-racist, gender-just South Africa.
As a woman of colour, I am familiar with silence. I know when to be quiet, and to speak when I am spoken to. I know how to refine and enunciate my words so that my message is more palatable to my audience. I have learnt how to adjust and contort myself to fit the context, and I move almost effortlessly between spaces that are antagonistic toward me.
As a woman of colour, I have memorised and enacted the social script enforced upon me at a young age, and that instructed me to be demure and accessible; to remain within the lane that was drawn centuries ago by [white] men who gazed upon my ancestors and interpreted their state as one in need of taming – cue racist imagery of Sarah Baartman.
Essentially, I know how to pander to whiteness and submit to patriarchal men. See, there is a false security within this culture of silence I submitted myself to: you maintained relationships, you retained your job and financial security, and you avoided the risk of being labelled a bitter black woman. For long, I suppressed my indignation for a negative peace that cost me my mental health. I internalised my rage and regurgitated it as sorrow. There is something noble and selfless, even beautiful, in a woman displaying melancholy, right? The male gaze dictates to us that displays of female anger are shameful, and misogynistic labels such as “bitch” and “nag” reinforce the unpalatability of our rage. Our anger is often turned against us, and the manifestation thereof reframed as a threat – we are not the ones who have been harmed, but the ones intent on harming.
Delve into her story and notice that no women’s rage is an island, but a by-product of personal and institutional evils – a perfectly visceral response to injustice. To critique the expression of our rage rather than engage with its content serves to shift the conversation from the unrelenting violence inflicted upon our bodies and personhood to the tone of our delivery. Audre Lorde once said, “If I speak to you in anger, at least I have spoken to you: I have not put a gun to your head and shot you down in the street”.
Anger is an appropriate reaction to misogynoir, as is fury when this special blend of racism and misogyny flexes its ill-gained power on our lives. The perverted ways in which misogyny and anti-blackness intertwine and inform one another is glaringly evident in the violent subjugation of black women and the policing of our anger.
Colonialism and apartheid – oppressive systems predicated primarily upon racial hierarchies – were passionately patriarchal projects that situated white male-heteronormativity at the apex of civilisation, and ranked black women as being the most inferior. Any expression of black rage at an unjust and dehumanising system was condemned and swiftly, violently quelled. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, whose anger fueled the liberation movement and mobilised South Africans toward democratic change – was regularly assailed and attacked for daring to voice her rage against the apartheid regime. Clad in military fatigues, with fist raised high in defiance, Mam’ Winnie was the antithesis of apartheid propaganda that portrayed black women as unintelligent, without agency and content in their own suffering. She was not demure or silent in the face of discrimination or inequality. She did not retreat when threatened. She did not adjust to injustice. She openly challenged the patriarchal script that tried to mould her into a more palatable black woman who remained within her place. Mam’ Winnie’s rejection of white male-heteronormativity was a direct threat to the defenders and enforcers of apartheid. Her criticism leveled against black liberation leaders was a renunciation of black patriarchs unconcerned with the plight of black women.
To inhabit an anti-black and patriarchal society is to have a well-stocked arsenal of anger that can be useful against oppression. To live in silence and self-censorship, contrarily, means to creep anxiously through spaces with unchanneled rage that rots and boils beneath a thin veneer of self-control, yet is ready to erupt instantaneously by the slightest slight.
We cannot allow our fear of anger to deflect us or seduce us into settling for an undignified existence or inhumane conditions. It is not our anger that will destroy us, but our silence in the face of violence and injustice. Black women are always being asked to stretch more – be less aggressive and to curate our tongues so that our oppressors do not feel threatened or undermined, or guilty. As posited by black feminist thought, we need to be still and listen to our anger – to its rhythms and frequencies – and tap into it as a source of empowerment. Black women face a multitude of racist and gendered oppressions in South Africa – our anger is necessary. We need to begin to acknowledge the validity of our anger and give it expression; then translate it into positive action in the service of a non-racist, gender-just South Africa.
Image: Sheree Zielke