Mbalenhle is an activist, researcher, and a project co-ordinator at Right2Protest.
What unique challenges do you think young women face today, compared to say, the challenges faced by your mother, aunts or grandmothers when they were young?
What makes my experience unique from the older generations is the fact that South Africa now has institutions in place, such as the Commission for Gender Equality and the Department of Women in the Presidency, that were meant to achieve gender equality in this lifetime. These changes happened because of my mother and grandmother’s generations, but unfortunately they paint a false image of my experience as a young woman because these laws, policies and institutions have not affected my reality. The recent #RememberKhwezi and #MenAreTrash protests show that we still live in a society that is at war with women’s bodies, but has laws that give us a false sense of security.
My reality as a young woman is full of fear and hope. I fear where we are right now, the present. I wake up to headlines and stories of femicide, rape, sexual assault and harassment where justice is nowhere in sight. At the same time, I hope one day that the country will unite to fight against patriarchy in all its forms, and we will achieve gender equality that understands gender in complex ways and does not leave anyone behind.
Tell our readers about the kind of work that you do and what you are involved in?
I describe myself as an activist before anything else. I am an independent researcher and writer for issues related to gender-based violence, agency, militarism and black women who lead, resist and change society towards a race-and gender-equal future. This future no longer has the face of poverty as the face of a black woman. My personal mission is to tell the stories that are untold and to use those stories to influence what the public think about society, to bring new knowledge that will make policies work for people and will, most importantly, change people’s behaviour.
At the same time, I am currently a project coordinator for the Right2Protest project that is housed at the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) at the University of the Witwatersrand. In this position in civil society and also in a university, I interact with youth activists from all around the country who have chosen to express their grievances using protest in order to challenge power, governance and decision-making in government and the private sector.
How did you get into this line of work?
If activism is my line of work, I would say it found me because I remember always being angered by injustice and wanting to do more and do better. As a high-school student, I was always talking about the change that women could bring to our society and at that time I didn’t even fully know what a feminist was. While I was at the University of Cape Town, I was introduced to feminism and I used what I learned in African Studies, Politics and Gender Studies, and the social movements such as the South African Young Feminist Activists (SAY-F), the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall movements. In all these movements, I contributed as a writer, as a researcher, as the co-editor of the student activism publications and as a thought leader in gender and race. My involvement and my personal mission to write myself and other black women into history has made it possible for me to get into this line of work and to continue to grow my expertise. I also recently chose to study again, and I will be doing my Masters to grow my expertise at the University of Oxford.
Do you feel that being women affects the kind of work that you do on a daily basis?
I hope to be alive the day I am able to say, no, being a woman does not affect my work. Unfortunately, it does affect the work that I do and the interactions I have with people. As an independent researcher and writer, my feminist thoughts are written off as being disconnected, a distraction from ‘real South African politics’. I think feminism is a place where women are able to write about the history, the present and the future of the continent for themselves and other women. At the moment, feminist writers are fighting a society that is only beginning to appreciate women thinkers and academic experts.
In my position as the Project Coordinator of the Right2Protest project, I experience being a woman in this line of work as having to constantly demand to be respected and listened to, and challenge a working environment where sexual comments or advances from men in police stations, municipal offices or in the communities we assist are quite common. I face these challenges head on because women can no longer be viewed as bodies or territory – it is not normal and we should never accept it as normal that we are because a patriarchal society is an unhealthy society.
Where do you think women are at in South Africa at the moment? How far do we still have to go as a country and what needs to be done?
Young women and the youth in general are losing patience with the pace of change when it comes to race, gender and sexuality in this country. I think a national feminist movement is needed to fulfil the mission of this generation of feminist thinkers, activists, leaders, social entrepreneurs and policy makers. This movement needs to involve every single person, but it must lead by black women who will address race, gender, class and sexuality.
I also think with the work that must be done in society, there also needs to be deep reflection on the self and our personal blind spots. Without this reflection, this movement will not reflect what youth feminist scholars and activists call the liberation of ‘womxn’. ‘Womxn’ is an identity that includes all people that identify and experience all the social, political, economic, gendered and cultural challenges associated with being a woman. At the same time, being ‘womxn’ looks at what it means to be women without using the man as a reference or as the direct opposite as patriarchy does. Young women have used this new way of naming themselves and their identity as a way to be inclusive, but also to not have their power compared, simplified and attached to what the body looks like or should physically look like.
What do you see in South Africa’s future, where issues surrounding gender, race, class and sexuality are concerned?
I see a future where gender, race, class and sexuality are no longer the reasons behind the marginalisation and oppression of people in South Africa. Practically, this would mean that everyone would feel safe, dignified and free to express their identities and live in the country without the fears of being alienated, excluded, impoverished or harmed. The future is one where difference does not mean either having power or being disempowered, but rather it should form part of being human and accepting other people and their differences as part of a healthy environment or society.
2017 marks 41 years since the Soweto Uprising. Why do you think it is still relevant to commemorate this historic period of our history?
The Soweto Uprising is an important historical period to commemorate, to draw inspiration from and to understand the vital role that youth have and continue to play in South African politics. It was also a time where the youth were unapologetic about their black pride, love and unity, and there was also a sense of urgency to imagine a new South Africa. This sense of urgency still exists now, where the youth is influencing political changes in the country and helping inform the public on how to understand education and South Africa’s inequalities.
The ’70s was also a time when the youth was leading conversations about Black Consciousness, gender and education under apartheid. This period has personally given me a way of understanding myself, why I matter and what I am capable of doing for myself, my community and my country – this is my activism.