Give a woman a fish

By Christi Kruger

In his book, Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New ‘Politics of Distribution’ (2015), James Ferguson discusses the politics surrounding social grants in the Global South at length.

He argues that the big “development story” of the last twenty years is not, as many scholars would argue, the story of microfinance but rather of “the rise and rise of social protection,” (Roelen and Devereux, 2013:1 as quoted in Ferguson, 2015). In countries across Southern Africa, the last two decades have seen the “creation and expansion of extensive social welfare programs targeting the poor anchored in schemes that directly transfer small amounts of cash to large numbers of low-income people” (Ferguson, 2015: 1). South Africa has been on the forefront of this expansion with more than 17 million social assistance grants transferred on a monthly basis. The South African government’s move to implement economic relief measures through the already existing social assistance system during the Covid-19 pandemic was therefore not unexpected and followed calls by many to distribute cash to poor citizens in this way.

For some South Africans the additional cash they receive through their social grants will bring a small sense of economic relief during this time. In the case of many others though, the small top-up offered will simply not suffice. Recent news footage visually demonstrated the extent of extreme poverty, which is bound to only increase over the coming weeks and months. Aerial photos showed a queue, of more than 3 kilometres, of people waiting to receive food parcels in the informal settlements of Mooiplaas and Spruit in Centurion (Njilo, 2020). A few days later, similar images surfaced; this time in Olievenhoutbosch, where some people waited in line for several days to access food parcels (Seleka, 2020).

These two reported instances almost surely mirror scenes across South Africa. After a five-week lockdown, which saw the South African economy screech to a halt, the country’s already extraordinarily high poverty levels have been exacerbated, leading to increased calls for urgent interventions to address food poverty.

I’ve written previously on the ways in which we attempt to make sense of the economic collapse intensified by the Covid-19 virus.[1] The notion of poverty, I argued, is often tied closely to our ideas of who qualifies as the deserving poor (and is thus entitled to help) and those who make up the category of the undeserving poor. Women and children are often counted among the deserving poor, while younger men mostly count as the undeserving poor. These notions are easily picked out in most debates around welfare and social assistance, which have always been steeped in assumptions about poverty, meritocracy, and dependency due to the demands of capital for a moralising lens that can sift those who truly cannot engage in paid labour from those who must offer up their labour at any cost.

One would assume that a global pandemic, such as Covid-19, would disrupt these moral categories. It is difficult to maintain the categories of deserving-undeserving poor when “laziness” and “irresponsibility” cannot be used to explain the fact that large portions of populations across the globe are unable to work and earn an income. Yet, these ideas persist in various ways and continue to guide, albeit subtly and perhaps unintentionally, the way in which social assistance in South Africa is being structured during the various levels of lockdown.

In this piece, I further investigate the implications of the current socio-economic conditions for those citizens often collectively referred to as “the poor” by specifically reading the forthcoming forms of state social assistance through a gender-lens. I outline the various forms of social assistance, as announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa on 21 April 2020, but pay particular attention to the way in which the child support grant is being utilised to distribute additional cash to primary caretakers. Using this grant as an example, I argue that we ought to take seriously the ways in which gender-conceptualisation is mediated by, and through, child support grants. Women, mediated via this gender-conceptualisation, are imagined as responsible mothering figures who are worthy of additional support and are expected to embody tropes of female stoicism and selfless care. This expression of femininity, while establishing women as worthy of social assistance, serves to push aside individual women’s life histories and projects onto women their supposed “natural” role as caretakers.

An obvious point of critique to note is that the child support grant is not gendered in and of itself; it is therefore perfectly plausible for a man to receive a child support grant if he is his children’s or grandchildren’s primary carer. In reality, however, only two percent of child support grants are paid to male caregivers (Khan, 2018). The majority of these men, Khan (2018: 219) shows, are single fathers who are aware of the fact that they construct forms of masculinity that counter the more dominant forms of masculinity in South Africa. More important is the fact that, in the minds of many South Africans, the child support grant is aimed at women.

The Development of State Social Assistance

The child support grant is one of several offered as cash transfers in South Africa. In terms of the rise of social protection in the Global South, South Africa leads the way with state social assistance and cash transfers. While the beginnings of state social assistance in South Africa can be traced back to the rise of Afrikaner nationalism and growing fears surrounding white poverty in the late 1920s, it was the deracialisation (in 1993) shortly before the official democratisation of South Africa that truly marked the start of state assistance (Seekings, 2006: 30). Today, state social assistance in South Africa is unconditional and non-contributory. This means that any South African citizen, permanent resident, or refugee may apply for and receive social assistance providing that their annual income does not exceed the means test that is linked to social grants (South African Social Security Agency, 2015).

Since 1996 the state has expanded the social assistance system to reach almost a third of the population by 2015 (Ferguson, 2015: 5). In July 2015, approximately 16.7 million monthly social grants were distributed, a considerable rise from the estimated 3 million recipients in 1994 (Seekings, 2008: 31; South African Social Security Agency, 2015). This large increase is largely due to the introduction of the child support grant (CSG) in 1998, an unconditional monthly transfer of R100 for all qualifying children between from birth to age seven.  Eligibility was extended to the age of fourteen in 2005, and to the age of eighteen in 2009 (Neves et al, 2009; Schreiber, 2014: 268). In addition to child support grants, the bulk of social grants are paid to the elderly in the form of state old age grants, care dependency grants aimed at caregivers who permanently care for a child with severe and permanent disability, and disability grants for those persons who are permanently unable to work (South African Social Security Agency, 2015).

For the purposes of this discussion it is important to pay attention to the changing composition of what is now known as the child support grant. The child support grant was first introduced in 1998. Prior to this, poor mothers were paid a monthly grant consisting, by July 1996, of a R430 parent allowance and a R135 child support grant. Research showed that very few of these grants reached African families with the majority of grants being paid to Coloured and Indian families. Attempts to extend this form of support to more families, and make it more racially equitable, resulted in an increasing number of parents accessing grants combined with a significant decline in the monthly amount paid per family (Hassim, 2005). The notion of the parent allowance was scrapped when the child support grant was introduced and the monthly amount made significantly smaller.

Women and Covid-19 relief measures

The wide reach of the child support grant made it an obvious tool for distributing cash to those in financial need during the lockdown. While some other measures were also introduced, most prominently a slight increase in old age pensions and the introduction of a temporary relief grant of R350 for unemployed persons, we can assume that it is the increased child support grant that will offer relief to the largest number of households. To an extent the economic relief measures that are set to be implemented from May 2020 reflect something of the pre-1998 model of parental support as primary caregivers once again receive a small amount over and above their monthly child support grant. In his 21 April address, explaining the social and economic relief measures being rolled out, Ramaphosa (2020) set out the following:

“This means that child support grant beneficiaries will receive an extra R300 in May and from June to October they will receive an additional R500 each month. All other grant beneficiaries will receive an extra R250 per month for the next six months. In addition, a special Covid-19 Social Relief of Distress grant of R350 a month for the next 6 months will be paid to individuals who are currently unemployed and do not receive any other form of social grant or UIF payment.”

Ramaphosa’s announcement was initially met by some confusion. Many assumed that the R300 and R500, respectively, would be added to every single child included in support grants, as is the case with all other grants to be topped up. Government officials soon clarified, however, that the extra amount would be paid per adult beneficiary and not per qualifying child. It would therefore make no difference whether one has one child or six children in one’s care: the single amount of R300, and later R500, would be paid to the primary carer. An important difference is thus introduced between the child support grant and other grants. While it is obvious that most child support grants are received and administered by a child’s primary caregiver, the assumption is that the grant is used to care for the child. For many women across the country the cash that is transferred through child support grants is their sole source of income. We can therefore safely assume that many child support grants are used to provide for entire families rather than being restricted to children.

The issue here is not the fact that child support grants are used to support family members other than children. In a context where nuclear family structures are minimal and poverty levels high, it is almost a given that child support grants, along with old age pensions, are often stretched to support extended family networks. The problem however, is the twofold way that many of the stereotypes upholding gender inequality is perpetuated.

The first problem is that the top up of the grants is limited to one per caretaker rather than one per child. Most likely this was done as a way to give at least some extra support to all qualifying families instead of devising a whole new system to provide relief to households. In doing this, however, plenty is assumed about what South African families look like. In reality, nuclear families are in the minority here and grandparents, for example, often serve as primary caretakers to their grandchildren. A grandmother who is the primary carer for six of her grandchildren would, in terms of this mode of distribution, receive the same added income as a mother looking after only one child. While perhaps not explicitly intending to do so, this way of distributing relief grants has a moral undertone which suggests that women with more children ought to be implicitly punished in some or other way.

Debates about whether child support grants act as an incentive to have children have been around for as long as the grant itself has, and despite research showing it to be untrue, it is a narrative that recurs frequently. In the minds of many, a majority of young women have children as a means to access child support grants. A quick search on Twitter after the Covid-19 relief measures were announced showed a similar rhetoric being widely shared by social media users: young women were once again being rewarded for having children it was alleged. In a similar vein, shortly after the increase in grants was announced, the MEC for Social Development in Mpumalanga, Thandi Shongwe, was quoted saying: “We are calling on our people, especially young mothers, to make sure that they use the money announced by the president to buy food for their children, not any other things. You must not buy weaves or makeups, because we are on lockdown and we are comfortable with the way we look,” (Khoza, 2020). Shongwe’s statement not only displays a shockingly poor grasp of the socio-economic position of many women during this time, but also plays into stereotypical assumptions about women, particularly working class African women and the idea that women, firstly, are likely to spend any increase on themselves but, secondly, ought to not want to invest in themselves in any way.

The second problem with the way in which grants are being topped up is closely interwoven with the first. The idea that especially younger women will waste any extra money means that women are placed in a position where they have to display a certain kind of femininity before they even received any money. Especially in the instance of younger women, women have to prove that they are mothers – not only in a biological sense but in a socio-cultural sense. Ann Oakley (1980) described the “myth of motherhood” as resting on three beliefs: “that all women need to be mothers, that all mothers need their children and that all children need their mothers.” What is implied by what we might call motherhood ideology is that all women ought to be (potential) mothers and that a real mother will find ways to care for her family. It also implies the erasure of much of a women’s identity beyond that of “mother”; that is, the overarching idea becomes that motherhood ought to be the single focus in a women’s life. To spend money on oneself, however little it may be, is to confirm that one fails at being a real mother.

Motherhood ideologies are of course underpinned by patriarchy yet upheld and reproduced by both men and women, as can be seen with the current (insufficient) grant top-ups for women-as-mothers. On the one hand, it excludes men to a large extent. It has been made clear in no uncertain terms to men that they cannot be trusted to provide for their families. On social media, in newspapers, and in commentaries it was said that it was a good idea to channel the extra cash to women. Men, and especially unemployed black men, are considered too unfaithful to entrust with cash transfers. They would, it is believed by many, waste it on alcohol, cigarettes, and sex workers. Of course, there are many families where men would have access to child support grants, either through equal access to cash or by taking it forcefully, but that is not necessarily relevant here as much as prevailing social perceptions are. On the other hand, women are expected to confirm their social position as being the binary opposite of men. They are simultaneously perceived as natural carers who will make the most of the little money they have and as possibly irresponsible “girls” who will fall pregnant as a means to enrich themselves while passing on the burden of motherhood to grandmothers, aunts and older siblings.

These women have been set up to fail though. Although an extra R350 or R500 is sure to cover some of their families’ needs, there is no possible way that this money could be stretched to make a significant difference in the lives of a household of eight or 10 people. Added to this is the fact that qualifying women cannot apply for the Temporary Relief of Distress grant if they already receive a child support grant – the government has thus reduced the entirety of their lives to the role of mother. What we are doing, therefore, is to give women a false sense of agency. Social grants in the forms of cash transfers are often praised for having increased its recipients’ autonomy and agency. Cash, instead of vouchers or food items, provides them with the agency to decide and prioritise how they want to spend their money.

This argument only holds true if the cash that people receive is enough to cover their basic needs. For many South African women during the time of Covid-19, the idea that they have agency in terms of social grants is bound to be a flight of fantasy. They are set up to fail because the grants they receive in the first place are not enough to cover their own and their families’ basic needs. The motherhood gender ideology, however, compels many to believe that a real mother, a true women¸ should be able to magically stretch available funds to ensure that her family is fed and healthy. The choice is stark: suffer silently and stoically to be perceived as a good woman, or speak-up and demand more and be perceived as self-interested.


Ferguson, James. 2015. Give a Man a Fish: Reflections of the New Politics of Distribution. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Hassim, S. 2005. Gender, Welfare and the Developmental State in South Africa. Geneva: United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.

Khan, Z. 2018. “Men and the Child Support Grant: Gender, Care and Child Welfare.” Unpublished PhD thesis. Johannesburg: University of Johannesburg. Available at [Accessed on 23 April 2020].

Khosa, M. 2020. “Do not buy weaves, make-up with increased social relief grant,” MEC urges young moms. 23 April 2020. [Accessed 25 April 2020].

Ramaphosa, C. 2020. President Cyril Ramaphosa: Additional Coronavirus Covid-19 Economic and Social Relief Measures. 21 April 2020. [Accessed 28 April 2020].

Seleka, N. 2020. Thousands Cue for Food Parcels in Olievenhoutbosch, Centurion. 2 May 2020. Available at [Accessed on 5 May 2020].

South African Social Security Agency, 2013. “You and your New SASSA Payment Card”. Accessed on 12 August 2015.

South African Social Security Agency, 2014. “Annual Report 2013/14”, SASSA, Pretoria.

South African Social Security Agency, 2015. “You and your grants 2013/2014”. Accessed on 12 August 2016.



Ubuntu and solidarity in times of Covid-19: Challenges and contradictions as communities grapple with ways of being and doing during a pandemic

by Vuyisa Mamanzi

Vuyisa: Hello, mother sukuvulela’mntu apho endlini, icorona iyabulala…(Hello, mother, do not allow any visitors in the house, corona kills).

Mother: Ewe, bahambile. uDade kapriest ebesithi undigqibele kudala, ngoku ke ebezondi bona, uvelela namanye amalungu.  (Yes, they have left. It was the priest’s wife, she came to see me because she had not seen me in a while. She is checking up on other congregants as well).

The above quotation is from a phone conversation between my mother and myself after hearing that there were visitors at home.

This is after we spoke at length the previous night about not allowing any visitors in the house and the need to adhere to social distancing rules. Meaning she needed to be strict and firm in turning people away, as difficult as that may be, a regrettably new normal. My mother is a people’s person, I knew and understood the difficulty she was now confronted with in having to turn anyone away. It went against her beliefs and sense of Ubuntu. As challenging and difficult as it was, it had to be done, especially after receiving news that two people known to the family had passed away from Covid-19. If the threat at any point felt distant, it was now real and personal, it was at our doorstep. One of the individuals who succumbed to Covid-19 lived in Gugulethu, she was a neighbour and a friend. I handed over the phone to my sister, I listened as she pleaded with our mother not to let anyone in the house, the risk of contraction was just too high, and we couldn’t afford to take any chances.

Not so long ago there were reports of at least seven people residing at New Rest Gugulethu, not far away from our home, who tested positive and were roaming the streets; refusing to self-isolate or self-quarantine. There was growing fear in the community and a community leader expressed that “Our concern as residents is that people are not taken into quarantine. People who have tested positive are living among us”. The provincial health department, the police, as well as community leaders were now going to work together, to force positive people to isolate in their houses. Safe and comfortable facilities were going to be provided for those unable to self-isolate in their homes[1].

Fear of contracting Covid-19 runs rampant throughout South Africa.  A study conducted by Ask Africa has reported high levels of social distress and low levels of optimism among South Africans. Interestingly, the same study reported that participants older than 65 were comfortable and were less likely to experience depression. That the highest levels of fear, depression and discouragement were among young people (Grobler, 2020). Maybe my sister and I were projecting our fears onto our mother. Subsequent phone conversations have revealed her continued sense of contentment, as she lives her life close to normalcy as possible. Perhaps age has brought her some calmness, wisdom and acceptance.

Be that as it may, because daily activities that put bread on the table, like going to work or the shops, now pose a threat of contracting the virus, many South Africans are fearful of the risk faced by family members. And many people miss social interaction and long for engagement with friends and family (Grobler, 2020).

A Google search on Covid-19 precautionary and prevention measures, will take you directly to the World Health Organisation’s public service announcement, which reads STAY HOME. SAVE LIVES. Help stop coronavirus. Keep a safe distance, wash hands, cover your cough and seek medical attention, if you have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing. Many will argue that South Africa, similar to countries like Norway in enforcing strict measures (including quarantines for international travellers and the closure of educational institutions), acted swiftly to contain Covid-19. However, only with time and reflection will it be possible to ascertain whether the strategy has been successful (Eriksen, 2020).

Many experts have noted that Covid-19 presents enormous and unique challenges. Among them Paul Farmer, a Medical Anthropologist and physician, who works to strengthen health-care systems in Haiti, Malawi, Rwanda and other low and middle-income countries: “we do not know, we have experience yes, but we do not know the specifics”.

What does this mean for a country like South Africa?

I agree with Fiona Ross (2020) that we face Covid-19 with skepticism, faith and a lot of history, I will shed light on these further on in the essay. But I am not entirely certain if we have learned from the horrible mistakes during the height of the HIV pandemic, as she suggests. If South Africa had learned anything, we should have focused on improving the quality of health care and learned that, when we fail to do this, we drive people away or make them mistrust the medical system (Farmer, 2020).

South Africa is confronted with rising numbers of health care workers who are dying of Covid-19 complications (Fokazi, 2020). There is growing fear and lack of trust in the medical system among some communities. The Western Cape provincial health department recently reported that there are some people who gave incorrect information when they went to test, in an attempt to avoid being tracked and taken into self-isolation or quarantine. I watched a video circulating on social media of a woman in Dutywa, a town in the Eastern Cape, telling health care workers who were conducting screening in the community that she was afraid of them. This was after news reports of a positive Covid-19 case at the same clinic where these nurses work. These health care workers can be seen and heard on the video saying that they have been tested but are waiting for their results. The woman now sees these health care workers as potential carriers of Covid-19 and a threat, exposing herself and her family to risk of infection. She politely refuses to be screened by them and tells the nurses that she will not take herself to hell (referring to the clinic in Dutywa).

What this highlights is just an aspect of complex and nuanced explanations for the lack of community trust in, or fear of, our health care system. We saw this when Ebola treatment units [ETUs] in Sierra Leone were seen as death-traps, bringers of Ebola, and people fled them (Farmer, 2020).

The current Covid-19 crisis reminds me of James Baldwin’s words when he said: “All of us are living through some kind of turmoil which endangers all of our relationships. This turmoil is historical and it is personal. The aims of a society are and always must be, to inculcate in its citizens a certain level of security” (Baldwin, 2017, 7:45-7:58).

I wonder to what extent the state has inculcated a level of security and trust in its citizens, as we face this turmoil called Covid-19.

The cohesiveness of societies in crises is often tested, based on trust or fear. In societies that are confronted with constant crises and have huge inequalities; generalised trust is generally low (Eriksen, 2020). However, in South Africa, the response to Covid-19 has seen people across all sectors coming together on a large scale to mitigate the harm through relief funds for businesses, the setting up of shelters and food parcel schemes, as well as an increase in existing social grant provisions (Ndebele & Sikuza, 2020).  In addition, new forms of quick response have emerged; social media has been used as a platform and enabled networks of people to come together and mobilise assistance and care, alongside older institutions of care such as family, religious organisations, charities, stokvels (rotating credit associations) and burial associations. All of these are critical in everyday survival strategies (Ross, 2020). There has been a call for the acknowledgement of social action of this nature and to encourage us to realise that as South Africans, despite our differences, in unity and solidarity we can achieve significant impact (Ndebele & Sikuza, 2020).

So I argue that in South Africa the Covid-19 pandemic has seen the revitalisation of the values-based philosophy of African humanism, Ubuntu. Broadly defined as an ‘African worldview’ that places communal interests above those of the individual, and where human existence is dependent upon interaction with others, Ubuntu has a long tradition on the continent  (McDonald, 2010: 139).

Similar actions have been seen In Norway, in reference to the dugnad, which refers to unpaid, collective, and cooperative work where every member of a community is expected to participate, regardless of their social position. To Norwegians, the dugnad, is a symbol of egalitarianism and the kind of solidarity mythically associated with rural communities. Politicians have repeatedly invoked the term dugnad to mobilise their constituencies, in order to get out of the crisis (Eriksen, 2020). Njabulo Ndebele and Judy Sikuza (2020) reminds us that Covid-19 does not respect the borders of countries, and the wealthy and influential are not immune. Regardless of race, religion, class, or nationality, people across the world are gravely ill.

However, the revitalisation of Ubuntu in South Africa has not been without challenges, argues David McDonald. He suggests that to convince South Africans that market reforms are democratic and egalitarian, the South African state and capital must revitalise Ubuntu theory and language to defuse opposition to underlying neoliberal change. This observation is made in a context where the very poor are disproportionately at risk of contracting Covid-19 due to crowded living conditions, insufficient public sanitation amenities, and a burden of existing disease (Ndebele & Sikuza, 2020).  This is in part, some of the skepticism, faith and history with which many South Africans face Covid-19 (Ross, 2020). There are strong sentiments that from housing to health care, there has been a downloading of the fiscal and physical responsibility of post-apartheid work on the backs of low-income households in the name of ‘community’. “Meaning that the language and practice of contemporary Ubuntu is too compromised by market ideology and discourse to be revived for a socialist agenda” (MacDonald, 2010: 146).

In a period of crisis and upheaval, trust is paramount. Whether it be on the state or among the people with whom you share a space (Eriksen, 2020).  In this essay, I have narrated ways in which trust has been lost among neighbours, where people have had to depend on the government to protect them against suspicious people with whom they share a social space. The inverse has also been demonstrated, where people have lost trust in the government to provide them with adequate health care systems and provisions during this crisis. In a documentary titled ‘Whispering truth to power’ Thuli Madonsela reminds us that with enormous power comes enormous responsibility. It is important to remember that the idea of shared responsibility and the degree to which we share this responsibility is related to how much influence and power we have.

In conclusion, in the same way that there is a tension between my sister and I and our mother – for her Ubuntu overrides safety considerations – there is tension between citizen and state – contestations around trust, cynicism about motive, yet a desire to join hands, even temporarily, to defeat a common threat. Do we see the state as the concerned priest’s wife, or the unwanted intruder at the door?

‘It is in your our hands’


ENCA (2020). Western Cape police to track COVID-19 cases.

Baldwin, J. (2017). Baldwin Speech: Living and growing in a white world.

Eriksen, T. H (2020). Norway’s response to Covid-19 and the Janus face of Nordic trust.

Fokazi, S (2020). Two more nurses die of Covid-19 in the Western Cape.

Grobler, R (2020). Lockdown: One in three adults in SA goes to bed hungry, according to latest research.

McDonald, D. A (2010). Ubuntu bashing: the marketisation of ‘African values’ in South Africa. Review of African Political Economy, 37:124, 139-152, DOI: 10.1080/03056244.2010.483902

Ndebele, N.S & Sikuza, J (2020). African foreign nationals are being ignored in the fight against Covid-19: where is our Ubuntu?

Ross, F.C (2020). Of soap and dignity in South Africa’s lockdown.

Silver, M (2020). ‘The Dread of Responsibility’ — Paul Farmer On The Pandemic And Poor Countries.




CSA&G statement on attacks directed at Prof Glenda Gray

The Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender is very concerned about the attacks that have been directed at Prof. Glenda Gray, head of the MRC. Prof. Gray was fearless in her fight for AIDS treatments, as well as her rejection of Virodene as a cure for AIDS. She should be respected in her views and opinions and able to exercise her right to freedom of speech. Attempts to discipline and silence her, and to call her character into question are the antithesis of a society underpinned by ethical conduct and a commitment to an informed and questioning response to the crises it confronts.

The Unwarranted, Unneeded and Unprovoked Side Effects of Covid-19 on the Black Community

By Relebohile Naledi Sekese

When initial reports of the newly discovered coronavirus, aka Covid-19, became public, I, like many others, was intrigued, almost fascinated.

Turning on various news channels and observing how one of China’s busiest cities suddenly becoming a ‘ghost town’ due to this supposed outbreak of Covid-19, was something completely foreign to me. A sickness likened to the common cold or ‘flu, holding thousands hostage and killing hundreds more, was a completely extraordinary occurrence, almost too hard to believe. Nonetheless, none of my business I thought, after all I wasn’t the one eating bats or exotic snakes right (courtesy of President Donald Trump’s declarations at various press briefings and national addresses)? Wrong. Covid-19 quickly became my business, it became everyone’s business, overnight.

On 23 March 2020 the leader of the Republic of South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa, announced that our beloved country would be entering a 21-day lockdown as of immediately. Life as we knew it was about to change forever. Within a matter of days of the commencement of the lockdown, it became disgustingly clear just how divided and unequal our nation is, as if we needed any reminder.

Twenty-five years into democracy and the rainbow nation dream of our late Nelson Mandela, the ever so stark contrast between white and black has not faded. One would assume we would’ve managed to uphold the principle of Ubuntu (togetherness) far greater than the sad reality we face today in this country. The various ways in which both black and white people are regarded whether by media, educational systems, or even the handling of criminal behaviour, could not be more different.

It is no secret that historically, our black and brown community has a sour and poor relationship with our police and defence forces. Several videos and images of our people being degraded, humiliated and beaten, or should I rather say, subjected to ‘skop n donner’, quickly circulated in social media. Witnessing large drones of army vehicles parading around townships while screaming at civilians to return to their houses became a new reality. Sadly, once again, black and brown communities were being made ridiculous examples of by authoritative powers such as news stations and police members, over something they had no part in creating or spreading. The virus originated offshore and was sadly brought in by members of a travel group who had contracted it in Italy. The group thereby unknowingly spread the virus to multiple people within their proximity, which resulted in the alarming situation we now face today.

Entrepreneurs, ranging from street vendors selling apples and onions, to hair salons operating on a walk-in basis, all quickly had to come to terms with the new world order. Thousands applying for unemployment, grants and credit extensions while more affluent communities being afforded the luxury of cleaning out shelves and stores to selfishly hoard essential items, was a heart-breaking actuality. One could liken it to watching a sick and twisted episode of Black Mirror.

The consequences of Covid-19 will long be felt, most especially by the already disenfranchised and marginalized. Factors like poverty, inequality, access to quality education and so forth have a larger influence over a person’s health status and health outcome, rather than individual habits. Housing, employment and basic healthcare are all areas which have been alarmingly put in the spotlight in the last few weeks. Before this pandemic most of us did not truly realize the importance of frontline workers such as cashiers, nurses etc.

We do know however, that structural racism is a key driving force of those social determinants mentioned earlier. The community you come from, your birth name and your educational background are examples of factors that can dramatically tip the scale regarding the luxuries and privileges you can be afforded in life. Our communities are in crisis and will require explicit and intentional effort to address these factors, long term and short term. Testing, support to community-based organizations, access to PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) for essential workers and added financial support are just a small number of factors that need to be handled in order to get through the worst of this pandemic.

Of course, with that being said, these are just superficial efforts that will grant temporary ease or aid. The core of issues surrounding disenfranchised and poor groups goes far beyond a few masks or grants. A complete restructuring of governmental departments, employment systems and wealth distribution will need to be reanalysed by the necessary authoritative parties. This most certainly won’t be a simple or quick task, but extremely necessary if underprivileged groups are to stand a chance of surviving this phase of life.

Can we get through this (Covid-19)? Yes we can. A little battered and bruised might I say, but nonetheless, we will overcome. We are a resilient nation after all, so racially and socio-economically diverse. And as the pitori (common lingo or language spoken by residents of Pretoria) proverb goes, “We fall, we phakam, we move”, meaning we never stay down for long, we dust ourselves off and always keep going.

About the author

I am currently studying BCom Economics in my final year. I joined the CSA&G’s Just Leaders programme in 2019 out of interest after I had seen some marketing campaigns on campus and haven’t left since. I am part of the Befriender, Research and Community Engagement programmes. I was moved to write this piece as a way to communicate my feelings and thoughts regarding our current global situation

Gender equality and chores under Lockdown

By Monyana Thusi*

Trying to be a feminist and a champion for gender equality in an African Christian home is wearisome work, with no pay, especially if you are not male, and you don’t pay the bond, and you are just another child to the powers that be.

Feminism is a movement that advocates for women’s rights and the equality of the sexes. Gender equality refers to a state in which access to rights, privileges, benefits or opportunities and the distribution of duties, obligations or responsibilities are unaffected by or not based on gender – at all. Most days I want to go get Bab’Credo Mutwa and Dr Maimela, my African customary law lecturer, to come and explain to my family that African cultures are not inherently patriarchal, that in the olden days men did not sit around and wait for the women to bring them a tray of food, or did they? Am I being unfair for wanting to share chores equally at home between the adults that work and the children that don’t work but go to school (and take school very seriously for that matter), and between the males and the females of the house?

I thought the struggle for gender equality with the chores would be something to work on during this Lockdown. When the president (of the Republic of South Africa) announced the Lockdown I was very interested in how the chores would be redistributed here at home, and how it would all work out during this holiday with my family, since we were all going to be home all day, every day. I must admit I had dreams: I thought we’d all have an opportunity to contribute equally since no one is going to work and no one is doing any extraordinary work to pay the bills. I was expecting to see the men work a little more than usual at home chores. I thought they would take this time to learn how to cook: they don’t cook because they don’t know how to cook. I had dreams. I must say, there’s no real reason why we can’t share chores in this house but the reality is that we women are not only expected to cook but we place the burden of cooking and feeding other human beings on ourselves, simply because we are women, and the children wash the dishes simply because they are children.

I live with my sister, the husband and their three children. They are a relatively typical black African Christian family. They are relaxed with their values so I’m not really sure if patriarchy is sourced from the faith or culture since we’re not very strict adherents of either way of life. But you know patriarchy does not need solid statutes to assert itself. Patriarchy is a social system in which men hold positions of authority and dominant position over women and children. It doesn’t creep up on you, it walks right up to you and asks you for tea simply because you are a woman. It is the ideology behind the notion that the man is the head of the house.

Some days I want to sit everyone down and conduct a gender equality lesson and say “listen, besides the idea that this could be our culture and that it was passed down to you, what exactly about this system makes sense to you?” A minute later, on those same days, it occurs to me that I could be overreacting: it’s just dishes, cooking and cleaning, and the dishes aren’t even that many, there’s only six of us – calm down.

So this is how the patriarchy operates in our lives: the women cook, my sister, myself and her oldest daughter; we are responsible for making the pots happen. We could say that the men, being my sister’s husband and the 14-year-old son, don’t cook because they can’t cook.  In the case of the son, he can’t cook because he does not want to cook, he has never had to cook, no one expects him to cook and no one will make the effort to teach him how to cook. I’ve tried teaching him how to make pancakes and suggesting that he be responsible for making it easier to prepare meals. Well, no one heard me. The dishes are washed by the children, so it’s me, the 19-year-old daughter and the 14 year-old son (at least he washes the dishes). The cleaning is done by myself, my sister, the 19-year-old daughter and the 14-year-old son. Additionally, my sister only washes her clothes, her husband’s clothes and the 4 year-old child’s clothes.

Now, also interestingly, the arrangement and allocation of chores does not come from the head of the family, my sister’s husband, but from my sister. Under her system of governance the chore or the required labour always either falls to the females or to the children, unless it is washing the cars or fixing something that requires a mechanical skill (although under normal circumstances the husband will always go hire someone to do it).

This is what typically happens at the dinner table: my sister’s husband will want water or a spoon or some salt. He never gets up to go get anything himself. He always finishes eating first and even in those cases where he is done eating and wants something, my sister will get up while she is still eating to go get whatever he has requested or he will send the son instead. It has never made sense to me and every day I shake my head when I see it. But I have learned to respect my sister’s household and shut my big mouth, to respect her family, their values and the system that they have chosen to raise their children under. As long as they respect that I will not be making my sister’s husband tea, or fetching him water or participating in any of the unnecessary labour that falls on us, either because we are women or because we are children. The funny thing is, I don’t think my sister’s husband has ever said he does not want to cook or clean or get his own water.

I do not know why I thought things would work differently during this Lockdown period. I have come to accept that my sister and her husband come from a different world to mine, where it is undisputed that the man is the head of the house and his roles are non-negotiable and that this is not going to be easily changed or challenged. Theirs is a world where the man is the head of the house, the woman is the neck or heart (depending on who is speaking) and the children are, well, the children.

A “good wife” is expected to care for, cook for and look after her husband – no one needs to explain that. The husband is expected to provide or build the house, or whatever, just as long as it’s clear from whatever he does that he is the head of the house – sometimes doing nothing fits the job description. The irony of it all is that my sister’s husband is an activist for workers’ rights where he works.

I have asked my friends how their families were working out the chores. One said that his sisters do all the work and that he helps out whenever he feels like it. How nice would it be if I had the liberty to decide when I wanted to cook? I’m happy for my friends who say that in their homes they share chores almost equally, and I’m even happier for those who say there are no men in their current home circumstances – those ones are living my real life. Otherwise, I have resolved that I’m growing a beard at the end of this Lockdown.

PS: I hope I’m not going to be homeless after this!

*Pseudonym (author is a Just Leaders volunteer)

“Change is Coming, Whether You Like it or Not”: Greta Thunberg as a Threat to the Stability of Capitalist and Patriarchal Systems

By Gabriela Pinheiro


Environmental scientists have presented a compelling case for urgent action to be taken in the fight against climate change. A robust and substantial body of scientific evidence (e.g. Reidmiller et al., 2018) highlights that global, catastrophic impacts will be witnessed in coming decades if people fail to make significant changes to their lifestyles in a collective effort to curb rapid rates of global warming. In order to survive the current ecological crisis, new ways of living must be imagined, including major shifts from mainstream high-energy, hyper-instrumental and high-consumption ways-of-being that abound in the “global north”[1] (Plumwood, 2007). A key facet of reworking and adapting our existences involves an alertness and critical sensitivity to the connections between climate change and identity vectors such as gender.

Whilst an increase in attention to the gendered dimensions of climate change has materialised in contemporary environmental research, the majority of this work frequently conflates “gender” with “women” and depicts women (particularly women who live in “developing” nations in the “global south”) as homogenous, inevitable and impoverished victims of the ecological crisis (Moosa & Tuana, 2014). Critical environmental feminists (e.g. Arora-Jonsson, 2011) caution that this “primary victim” discourse depicts women as vulnerable and passive. It also places unjust responsibility on certain groups of women to tackle the impacts of climate change at local levels, with top-down solutions such as “empowerment”, “adaptation” and “resilience” proving essentialising, re-victimising and ultimately, ineffective.

Popular gendered framings of climate change also deflect attention away from the structural inequalities, ideological conflicts and unequal power relations (including patriarchy) that must be held accountable for the current ecological disaster (Kinnvall & Rydstrom, 2019). For these reasons, it may not be sufficient merely to include women in climate change work. Equity, equality and ecological survival are not likely to be achieved through the mere inclusion of marginalized groups in policymaking and reporting, for these are generally superficial, individualistic and tokenistic gestures that fail to critique the norms underpinning climate change problems and solutions (Arora-Jonsson, 2011). It is instead necessary to move beyond discourses of risk and vulnerability, towards critical and nuanced conversations around the position of gender within the ecological crisis.

Groundbreaking work by Rachel Masika (2002) was among the first to examine previously-ignored, gendered dimensions of climate change with a more critical stance. In this seminal research, Masika (2002) proposed that a social justice approach is required in order to address issues of climate change effectively. One of her key arguments suggested that modern scientific interventions must be complemented by humanitarian strategies that are mindful of the plural and interwoven axes of people’s identities, which she considered indivisible from climate change. Where climate change had previously been constructed as an environmental, technical and scientific issue, a focus on the inherent sociopolitical dimensions of the problem introduced a critical lens through which to understand the ways in which climate change affects people differentially. When one analyses the ecological crisis through this lens, the role and impact of vectors including geographical location, race, class, age and gender are made visible, and notions of power and ideology are focalised (Kaijser & Kronsell, 2014).

A critical approach to climate change action threatens the legitimacy and values espoused by hegemonic ideologies including neoliberalism, arguing that economic growth can no longer be sought through the infliction of ecological and patriarchal violences against nature, women and other otherised beings (Anshelm & Hultman, 2014; Pulé & Hultman, 2019). At the core of the politicised, anti-climate change movement lies an explicit prioritisation of human and other natural life forms, and a correspondent devaluing of corporate elitism, excess and greed. Such an anti-climate change movement also stands in solidarity against the often taken-for-granted connections between patriarchal and ecological violences, and against the twinned exploitation of women and the natural environment (see, e.g. Adams, 2015; Merchant, 1990; Ortner, 1974). A socio-politically-informed reframing of gender within climate change thus also demands a critique of particular modern masculinities; such a critique also augments the threat that climate change action poses to the naturalised order of the contemporary world, which is supported chiefly by the pillars of capitalism and patriarchy (Brough, Wilkie, Ma, Isaac, & Gal, 2016).

Particularly in recent years, a climate change activist named Greta Thunberg has become somewhat of an emblem in the fight against climate change and for social justice in a greener world. As a young woman from Sweden, Thunberg started the “Fridays for Future” school strikes against climate change in 2018, and her central mission has thus far been to challenge the systems that are responsible for the ecological crisis. Thunberg mainly targets capitalist politicians and corporate industrial elites (the majority of whom are conservative white men with histories at the forefront of modern industrialism and climate change skepticism) with demands for widespread, systemic-level and urgent action to be taken towards the preservation of the natural environment[2].

Unsurprisingly, Thunberg’s message and actions have been met with considerable resistance from several of these men, who have attacked her personal character, her gender and her work with ferocity and fervor. Men such as Arron Banks[3], for example, have even posted death threats to Thunberg on Twitter, warning that “freak yachting accidents do happen”[4]. In this piece, I explore how the personal attacks that have been levelled against Thunberg can be understood as one symptom of a broader set of systemic configurations that (re)produces particular identity politics and socio-political power dynamics. The attacks offer important insights into climate change politics, but also reveal some pertinent truths about our current gendered climate (Gelin, 2019).

Because she calls for ideological critique, structural accountability and change in the ways that particular kinds of men treat women and the natural environment, Thunberg is perceived by capitalist patriarchs as a threat to the stability of a world order that continues to privilege power, status and money over people and nature (Vertigan & Nelson, 2019). The increased visibility of young people and women in environmental politics and activism (aside from Thunberg, think: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Vanessa Nakate, Oladosu Adenike and Marinel Ubaldo, amongst others) is also being mainstreamed in ways that have not been witnessed before, which augments this threat (Gelin, 2019). To facilitate the discussion, I refer to a series of 20 quotations (collected from various open sources including social media and online news platforms) from different members of Thunberg’s opposition, illustrating their links with macro-level discourses around capitalism, patriarchy and climate change denialism.

Capitalism, Patriarchy and the Mutual Subjugation of Women and Nature

A useful starting point in understanding certain men’s reactions to Thunberg lies in an exploration of the connections between capitalism, patriarchy and the exploitation of nature. These connections are rooted in historical ideas that originated during the Scientific Revolution and subsequent Enlightenment Era and Industrial Revolution, where the early modern period propelled “Western” societies towards large-scale machination, economic growth, scientific proliferation, rapid technological advancements and capitalist, market-based ways of understanding the world. The relationship between human beings and nature was altered permanently, characterised by economical and profit-geared imperatives that catalysed widespread and mass extraction of natural resources (Merchant, 1990; Ortner, 1974).

Concurrently, the means of production was supplied chiefly by white, industrial masculinities and capitalist ideologies became an extension of preceding (and enduring) colonial strategies: “Western” territories were expanded and wealth was accumulated through trade, the usurpation of indigenous land and the exploitation of natural resources and colonised peoples. Industrial work was men’s work, reflecting broader patriarchal patterns that governed the ways in which people lived their everyday lives. In intellectual and academic domains, the modernisation process was also controlled mostly by male scholars of “Western” and European descent. Positivist Science, with its emphasis on ‘masculine’ values such as rationalism, assertiveness, decisiveness, logic and reason, became the central organising pillar of industrialisation, with the most prominent figures from the period including men such as Galileo, Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, William Harvey and Copernicus. Within the historical context of early modernisation, scholarship and production formed playgrounds for male primacy, and clear dichotomies were established along gendered axes: masculinity was associated with science and industry, whilst nature was feminised so that women were widely perceived as innately closer to the natural world. These gendered politics established a socio-political climate that condoned the mutual exploitation of women and nature (Anshelm & Hultman, 2014; Pulé & Hultman, 2019).

For decades, the work of feminist and eco-feminist scholars and activists has exposed the negative implications related to the feminisation of nature. Sherry Ortner (1974), for example, noted that the perception of women as closer to nature creates possibilities for their subordination, which is in many ways parallel to the enslavement and devaluing of nature for profit and industry. Similarly, in The Death of Nature, Carol Merchant (1990) observed that in patriarchal contexts, women’s labour and reproductive capacities had been freely-accessible and exploited for thousands of years prior to the industrialisation period, meaning that the continued association of women with nature comprised a tacit acceptance of their mutual subjugation and destruction.

Evidence for the conflation of women’s reproductive and generative capacities with those of the natural environment can be identified in the language and ideas that were – and are still – used to discuss natural phenomena. The terms “Mother Nature” and “Mother Earth” reinforce the notion that both women and nature are innate providers of resources to be harvested by those around them: just as the archetypal human ‘mother’ is endowed with breasts that nourish and sustain human children, so too is nature equipped with seemingly-abundant natural resources that provide sustenance to the ever-growing machine of modern man. In other examples, farmers often speak of “fertile soil”, “barren land” and “virgin earth”. These feminised descriptions of natural elements rely on a discursive strategy which Carol J. Adams (2015), in The Sexual Politics of Meat, referred to as “absent referents”. Constructions of nature as feminine and reproductive are dialectical; they are (re)produced through metaphorical meanings and patriarchal ideas of women that reflect broader gendered hierarchies in which men are privileged. In the feminised constructions of soil, land and earth, women can be identified as the absent referents that become objects of male consumption when compared to nature in this (un)named way (Adams, 2015).

Lingual tactics such as those outlined above are also evident in the coverage of extreme weather events, such as major storms and natural disasters. From approximately 1953 to 1979, for example, American hurricanes and tropical storms were named exclusively with women’s names, possibly following maritime traditions that referred to the ocean as a woman. Once storms were allocated female names, weathermen began to describe them as if they were women personified: noting how they were ‘temperamental’, and possibly ‘teasing’ or ‘flirting with’ a coastline. A feminist dissenter from Florida, Roxcy Bolton, played a key role in persuading American national weather forecasters that storms should not be named only with women’s names, stating that she and other women of her time “deeply resent[ed] being arbitrarily associated with disaster”. Bolton, however, seemed to miss the fact that the comparisons between women and storms were not arbitrary, but a product of omnipresent and codified gender configurations that had formed part of the status quo for centuries: storms were named after women because they were mercurial, defying the ‘masculine’ laws of rationality, reason and logic; thus, highly threatening and dangerous in their inherent tempestuousness, unpredictability and uncontrollability (Booth, 2015).

These examples also illustrate the masculine bias that tends to underpin positivist science and economics, which has been modelled largely on the construct of a scientist who is “imagined as autonomous, rational, interested in ‘hard’ knowledge and male” (Nelson, 2007, p. 443). In the sphere of climate change research, these gendered biases also persist where activism and climate change science are coded as feminine, soft, non-scientific and of lesser value by men in positions of power. Feminist economics (e.g. Nelson, 2007) and critical masculinities work (e.g. Pulé & Hultman, 2019) has offered insight into a phenomenon known as “climate change denialism”, which is informed by the gender binaries described above (man-science; woman-nature) and which functions to maintain capitalism, patriarchy, ecological devastation and the connections between them.

Climate Change Denialism and Industrial/Breadwinner Masculinities

“Climate change denialism” questions the legitimacy of evidence-based claims that global temperatures are increasing rapidly, and argues that anthropogenic climate change is merely a myth. Denialists argue that global temperatures are rising as part of a natural and cyclical process that would occur regardless of human intervention. Research (e.g. Reidmiller et al., 2018) has demonstrated that climate change denialism is especially common in highly “developed”, industrialised and “Western” contexts; particularly in the United States of America (U.S.), and that it is perpetuated mostly by males (Brough et al., 2016).

This geographical reasoning suggests that in the international marketplace, “global northern” countries have gained considerable economic power, largely through industrialisation, capitalist hegemony and the exploitation of other people and resources. Soper (2008) noted that as a general phenomenon, norms for what constitutes a “good life” have been modelled almost exclusively on the practices and ideologies that characterise the unsustainable lifestyles of a relatively small group of wealthy people; mostly white men in “Western” countries. In this context, climate change denialism can be understood as a collective defence mechanism that protects white (conservative; capitalist) male supremacists from a complete overhaul of the modern ideological hierarchies that continue to privilege their identities (Pulé & Hultman, 2019).

Industrial elite masculinities

Predominantly, it is white, patriarchal men (and patriarchal women, though they tend to be far fewer in number in these circles) who own the means of production and can be identified as the key beneficiaries of industrialisation. They are fossil fuel and mining executives, financial managers and bankers, corporate middle and senior level managers and administrators whose identity politics fit within hyper-masculine corporations and matrices, and who have deep connections with economic/industrial power. In Sweden, for example, upper-level beneficiaries of capitalism perpetuate climate change scepticism through ‘business-as-usual’ approaches to global environmental and social problems, even though there is general consensus amongst Swedish politicians and scientists that the greenhouse effect is real. There, the principal controllers of corporate capitalism use arguments that are invented in liberal think tanks comprising groups of white men (with the exception of just one female member) who are well-connected to associations where representatives of business, science and technology meet, including the Royal Academy of Engineering Sciences (Pulé & Hultman, 2019).

Industrial elites generally have little background in environmental science, social issues and politics, but they bolster an elite-driven discourse that counters the efforts of both environmental and social movements, collectively speaking for hyper-masculinised systems that have protected their hegemonies at the expense of nature and (otherised) human life for centuries. A prominent member of the Danish industrial elite is a climate denialist and right-wing political “scientist” named Bjørn Lomborg. Since as early as 2007, Lomborg has used scapegoating rhetoric, typical of patriarchal perceptions that industrial elites possess the knowledge required to “care for” the under-educated, working-class people in “developing nations”. In order to deflect accountability for climate change away from Danish corporations, Lomborg has cautioned that a focus on climate change, and the allocation of funds towards costly measures to combat the climate crisis, would in turn reduce efforts to tackle other world welfare problems including HIV/AIDS, Malaria, Tuberculosis and malnutrition, whilst also harming global trade to the extent that the world’s poor would suffer further. Similarly, the Swedish Stockholm Initiative has stated that: “Millions of people are starving, lack access to clean water and are suffering from contagious diseases. An ill-conceived political climate action has hardly any effect on the climate. However, it can dramatically worsen the current problems” (Pulé & Hultman, 2019).

In this line of argument, there is an implicit failure of industrial elites and scientists to accept the links between capitalism, global structural inequalities and environmental degradation. There is also a covert denial of the possibility that acute crises in poor countries should be solved simultaneously with the tackling of climate change, despite overwhelming evidence (e.g. Reidmiller et al., 2018) to suggest that climate change is an intersectional and planetary-scale problem that will have the most pronounced, disproportionate effects on poorer people in “global southern” territories who have not only been least culpable in creating the greenhouse phenomenon, but who are also the least equipped to deal with the considerable harm that will be inflicted through ecological disaster (Kaijser & Kronsell, 2014). The truth is concealed, and there is a repeated denial of the linkages between sexism, racism, speciesism, colonialism, mechanism and capitalism in the appropriation of particular types of people, animals and land (Adams, 2015). There is thus an urgent need to expose climate change denial for what it is: a strategy that is (re)produced mainly by white “Western” men to (re)assert and maintain multiple, intersecting power structures that interact to protect the objectification and instrumentalization of nature and the associated abuse and exploitation of women and other otherised beings (Kaijser & Kronsell, 2014).

The paternalistic rhetoric that is frequently touted by industrial elites is patriarchal precisely because it assumes that wealthy, privileged, educated white men from the “global north” have the answers when it comes to caring for people that they have oppressed and exploited for centuries, and from whose collective suffering they have benefitted most profoundly. These are the very same scientists, industrialists, politicians and public relations firms within an elite cadre of climate change denialists who have manipulated climate data in order to maintain self-preserving agendas; guilty of misrepresentational crimes against humanity, and against Planet Earth (Pulé & Hultman, 2019).

However, it seems useless to dismiss climate change denialists within the industrial elite as ignorant and/or lazy. Rather, if industrial climate sceptics are understood in terms of their histories and subject positions, the debate concerning environmental and identity politics is broadened: these are men whose dominance over nature, instrumentality, economic prosperity and linear, exponential economic success has featured hegemonically in the modern era (Merchant, 1990). Climate science policies and activism are therefore understood as obstacles to their welfare systems, to the development of poor nations and to “proper” (economically-oriented) solutions to global environmental problems.

Breadwinner masculinities

As a complement to industrial elite masculinities, “breadwinner” masculinities comprise a group of men who are commonly located at the coal-face of extractive practices. Like their industrial masculine counterparts, breadwinner masculinities are generally addicted to industrial growth and corporate capitalism, but these are white men responsible for working in mines, on manufacturing assembly lines, with swing hammers and on commercial farms. In this industrial/breadwinner dyad, both masculine typologies are dependent on resource extraction, and share a tendency to produce a “white male effect” that is related dialectically to climate change denialism: each requires the other to survive and sustain power (Pulé & Hultman, 2019).

Within the industrial/breadwinner complex, however, there are power differentials that sometimes lead to political and ideological conflict. Breadwinner men, for example, tend to represent a constrained group (economically, socially and politically). Capitalism is itself a fragmented system, where class-based differentials are divisive, creating particular problems that only breadwinner masculinities are likely to experience: on the one hand, these foot-soldiers of modern capitalism are conditioned to be motivated, assertive, protective and generative with the promise of gaining rewards (wealth, success, social and economic status and power) along the way. In a growth-addicted society, breadwinner masculinities are pushed to achieve the kinds of success that are exemplified by their elite and wealthy industrial superiors, but hegemony requires some constraints on their success within the confines of such a system: not all men can be equally-powerful (Anshelm & Hultman, 2014; Pulé & Hultman, 2019).

Consequently, it seems that many breadwinner men are left feeling empty, angry, hurt and oppressed as they struggle to attain the promised dividends of capitalism and white male domination, and these tensions contribute considerably to intersecting climate change denialism, alt-right conservativism and anti-feminist axes. In a system that advantages so few, the fracturing of global capitalism means that other people and issues are scapegoated as a way of assigning blame for the lack of success of people like breadwinner men, instead of directing frustration at the failures of capitalism to distribute wealth and wellness more fairly and equally. These divisions offer some explanation as to the success of self-professed billionaire, Donald Trump, in the 2016 American Presidential Election. As an emblem of the industrial elite, Trump’s extreme wealth and patriarchal machismo/bravado offer a sense of security in the context of growing frustrations for those breadwinner men who still believe in the promises of capitalism, and who will look to a paternal figure to “Make America Great Again” (Anshelm & Hultman, 2014; Pulé & Hultman, 2019).

Climate change denialism and gender in Trump’s America

In Trump’s America, climate change is denied and environmental activism is (re)feminised, leading to many men’s reluctance to engage in “green behaviours” (Brough et al., 2016).  In comparison to other groups and genders, American white males are likely to be less knowledgeable and informed about climate change, and/or to support pro-environmental beliefs, suggesting that the ‘white male effect’ is likely caused by an irresponsible distrust of climate science (Pulé & Hultman, 2019). In the U.S., conservative political discourse endorses the white male effect because it appeals to those who identify with the ideals epitomised by industrial modernisation and capitalism. In neoliberal societies, such as Trump’s America, greenhouse gas pollution is thus understood not as an ecological imbalance, but as a security issue and a scientific problem to be addressed with autocratic, ‘masculine’ technologies and economic strategies like geoengineering or market-based responses.

In order to “Make America (economically) Great Again”, Trump has encouraged the two constituencies of the industrial/breadwinner typology to join forces and (re)assert the privileges afforded by masculine dominance, thereby wedding the owners of production with the means of production in the pursuit of industrial growth and corporate capitalism, noting that each requires the other to thrive. The exposure of these political strategies highlights the links between conservativism, patriarchy and climate change denialism in countries such as the U.S. It also reiterates that the status quo will likely remain the same until industrial elites are called to account for their exploitation of people both within their own system, and outside of it. The latter is highly unlikely, however, given that industrial/breadwinner masculinities have the most to lose from a total overhaul of global systematics towards a truly sustainable future that places all life (and all species) on equal footing (Pulé & Hultman, 2019).

The Attack on Greta Thunberg: Climate Activism in a Patriarchal Gendered Climate

In the final section of this paper, I offer brief analytic insights into 20 statements made by various members of Thunberg’s opposition in the fight against climate change. Details are provided for the speakers of each of the statements (name, affiliation and date), in order to show that Thunberg’s antagonists are almost always white men with conservative political leanings and affiliations with industrial powerhouses in “Western” societies.

The discussion is organised thematically into three distinct sections, and each of these sections explores different characteristics of the relationship between climate change denialism and gender. For each theme, the relevant statements are provided and then explored below. Ultimately, the analysis speaks to the connections between capitalism, patriarchy and climate denialism, illustrating how several of Thunberg’s personal features are scapegoated in the name of safeguarding the industrial/breadwinner masculinities complex and broader identity/ideology configurations (white patriarchy and capitalism).

Infantilisation, mental illness and the politics of affect


“Freakishly influential with many mental health disorders; chronically anxious and disturbed” (Andrew Bolt[5], 2019)

“Hysterical teenager” (Chris Kenny[6], 2019)

I can’t tell if Greta needs a spanking or a psychological intervention…probably both (John Ocasio-Nolte[7], 2019)

She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see! (Donald Trump[8], 2019)

So ridiculous. Greta must work on her Anger Management problem, then go to a good old-fashioned movie with a friend! Chill Greta, Chill! (Donald Trump, 2019)

Thunberg is articulate, but she is very young, and she seems very overemotional (Piers Morgan[9], 2019)

A vulnerable young drama queen who should go back to school (Piers Morgan, 2019)

You’re just a sweet little child (Bjørn Lomborg[10], 2019)

Full-on adolescent meltdown. And no. You cannot stay out past 10. And you cannot go out in a skirt that short (Jeremy Clarkson[11], 2019)

Analytic commentary

In this first theme, Thunberg is infantilised. Words such as “teenager”, “girl”, “young”, “little” “school” and “child” are employed to convey the idea that she is a “vulnerable” girl child and in need of protection. “Spanking” and “going to a good old-fashioned movie with a friend” are proposed as possible interventions that might help Thunberg to live as a “normal” young woman should live (according to the values and gendered codes espoused in “Western” patriarchal circles). Spanking exemplifies a punishing intervention that a parent would typically use to discourage a child’s misbehaviour, whilst going to see a film with friends is an activity that a parent may recommend either in order to reward a child for good behaviour, or to assist in calming the child’s emotional state.

The use of the infantilising strategy by these particular men against Thunberg (who is an adolescent woman) establishes a specific power dynamic that is underpinned by paternalistic and misogynistic discourses. The paternalistic overtones are nowhere more explicit than in the statement made by Jeremy Clarkson, where he reprimands Thunberg as if he is were addressing his own daughter: she “cannot stay out past 10” and she “cannot go out in a skirt that short”. A problematic feature of most “Western” patriarchal cultures is the worship and eroticism of feminine innocence and youth, which abounds in mainstream advertising and other media. There is an inherent paradox to this trend: in these societies, disgust is expressed towards paedophilia, but simultaneously, adult women are routinely infantilised with tropes such as the “sexy, innocent schoolgirl”, which is packaged as an appropriate erotic fantasy for male consumption (especially in pornography, where levels of child and teen porn consumption are ever-increasing)[12]. Mainstream media and popular culture seem to have accustomed their consumers to images of sexy young women who blur the boundaries between “child” and “adult”, meaning that we are living in a world where it is acceptable for certain men to address women with such blatant and unabashed sexism (Love, 2019).

In the context of climate change denialism, it is possible that the infantilising tactic thus serves multiple purposes: Firstly, it has the ability to put Thunberg, and other female dissenters, in their place by reminding them that they should do as other girl children do; keeping quiet and leaving the ‘serious business’ (climate science and change) to their paternal figures. It also functions to belittle Thunberg’s maturity, intelligence and reasoning about the fact that climate change has to be tackled at systems level. By diminishing her child status, these men are able to render her less threatening to their collective sense of identity and to preserve their own power.

Thunberg’s mental state and emotionality are also targeted in this theme. The men state that she is “freakish”, “mentally ill”, “chronically anxious”, “disturbed”, “hysterical”, “vulnerable” and a “drama queen” needing “psychological intervention” for her “mental health disorders” and “anger management problem”. Each of these critiques implies that Thunberg displays the qualities of a person who is struggling with their mental health, or who might be “crazy”, “insane” or “mad”. The attack on Thunberg’s mental health is achieved through the use of discourses around gender and mental illness that have been used to oppress and control certain women for centuries: from the Middle Ages, where women were murdered because they were considered ‘witches’ in the eyes of man-made law, through to the nineteenth-century phenomenon of the ‘hysterical woman’ who was considered nothing more than an asylum-bound lunatic who needed to have her feet bound and (better yet) a clitoridectomy to correct her psyche (Ussher, 1992).

Like many women before her, Thunberg’s reasoning and the feelings (including anger, disbelief, concern and passion) that she expresses towards the issue of climate change are dismissed as nothing more than the emotional cries of a mad woman. Despite the fact that there is an abundance of rigorous, scientific research to support her claims and pleas for change, she is constructed as another overly-emotional woman who needs a good spanking from her father to set her straight. Thunberg is warned that she must “chill” and that she needs to be “sweet” and “happy” because she has a “bright future” ahead of her. These statements reveal the patriarchal tendency for particular kinds of men to silence women who speak out against the ills of a patriarchal world order.

This silencing is achieved through the relegation of Thunberg’s affectual expression to the realm of insanity, which is located (in patriarchal terms) on the peripheries of masculine logic, rationality, neutrality, objectivism and reason. Discourses of climate change denialism are explicit in the construction of her “bright future”: in reality, Thunberg knows (and environmental scientists know) that the future of our species is going to be anything but bright if ecological devastation is allowed to continue. In The Cultural Politics of Emotion, feminist author Sarah Ahmed (2014) explores the political and cultural economies of emotion, noting how the expression of emotions such as anger and rage by women is not validated, or considered legitimate by patriarchal men. These discourses illuminate the idea that, in many “Western” patriarchal societies, women must be seen but not heard, and that they are allowed to have opinions, so long as they are not expressed too loudly and so long as they do not threaten the hegemony of certain masculinities.

Where climate change is concerned, the gendered politics of affect condone an emotional silencing of women who try to expose the damage that has been (and continues to be) perpetrated by particular systems (capitalism; patriarchy) against the natural environment and particular groups of otherised people. By portraying Thunberg as a hysterical woman, these men are able to deflect attention away from her mission and to create a scapegoated hype around her supposed insanity; this means that they are again allowed to refuse responsibility for ecological and patriarchal violences in the name of sustained economic prosperity.

Sexuality and the body


Greta doesn’t match the sexy Swedish girls of my youth (Bernard Pivot[13], 2019)

She has the body of a cyborg (Michel Onfray[14], 2019)

Her face is scary (Pascal Bruckner[15], 2019)

Analytic commentary

This theme exposes some of the ways in which patriarchal discourse objectifies women (and their bodies) in order to ensure the dominance of certain men in hegemonic gendered hierarchies. In the above statements, Thunberg’s antagonists criticise her body and face. To say that her body resembles that of a “cyborg” implies that it is not warm and human, but frigid, non-anthropoid and biomechatronic. These ideas are echoed in the constructions of her face and physical appearance as “scary” and “unsexy”. For these men (all of whom are popular white, French intellectuals and philosophers), Thunberg cannot be sexualised and this is clearly experienced as foreign, unintelligible, threatening and uncomfortable (“scary”): her face does not smile and flutter its eyelashes in the way that the faces of “sexy girls” ought to do. Hence, a physical “mismatch” is experienced by men like Bernard Pivot, for example, between Thunberg and “sexy Swedish girls” (“normal” girls).

Thunberg’s performance of gender does not conform to mainstream conventions that prescribe how adolescent women should present themselves. She typically wears minimalist and plain clothing, styles her hair in simple braids and does not wear makeup. These aesthetic choices and practices seem to be reflective of her politics (anti-capitalist; anti-patriarchy; environmentalist). It is widely known that the beauty and fashion industries inflict multiple violences against the natural environment and certain groups of people, particularly in terms of the resources that these trades consume, the people that they exploit for cheap (and often dangerous) labour and the amount of waste that they produce (see, e.g. Collins & Rothe, 2019).

However, the central message behind Thunberg’s gender presentation choices is not decipherable to patriarchal men, who are not accustomed to seeing young women represented in ways that are non-sexualised. One male Twitter user even went so far as to tweet, in response to one of Thunberg’s speeches, that “no one wants to take advice from ugly girls” (Mason, 2019). This gendered dynamic constitutes a clear indication of how the sexualisation of women in popular culture has proliferated. It also serves as a testament to the complicity of both the fashion and beauty industries in the commodification and objectification of women’s bodies, as well as a complete erasure of their intelligence, opinions and characters (Love, 2019).

Scholars such as Rodrigues and Przybylo (2018) have explored the politics of “ugliness”, noting that, in contemporary gendered and aesthetic economies, ugliness represents much more than just a random property of an individual’s physical appearance. It functions as a distinct social category that demarcates one’s capital and access to particular social, cultural and political spaces and resources. The objectification of Thunberg’s body, and the focus on her constructed “ugliness” by this cadre of men, illustrates that in dominant gender configurations, it is not uncommon for women to be deemed unsightly if they deviate from patriarchal gendered norms. In this case, the depiction of Thunberg as a monstrous, deformed woman is a strategy to silence her, making sure that she has no legitimacy in the realm of climate change science and politics. There is no denying that her message is unsettling to climate change sceptics, who must resort to playground politics and a perverse focus on her physical appearance in order to make sure that she keeps quiet and does not continue to misbehave; lest their greed and ongoing indifference to the suffering of other species be exposed.

The trial and execution of Joan of Arc provides a historical reference which echoes particular elements characterising the personal attack against Thunberg, showing how gender has featured as a scapegoat in periods where certain women have rebelled against patriarchal systems. According to Grigat and Carrier (2007), Joan’s case is an effective representation of how the persecution of women manifests as a reaction to some men’s anxieties around the destabilisation of systems that privilege particular masculinities. As a young woman who refused to conform to gendered conventions, Joan provoked a system in which power revolved around noble birth, extensive theological training and the fact of being male. Historians have noted that Joan’s appearance resembled that of a male knight; that she wore white armour, cut her hair very short and rode a white horse. Her gendered and sexual transgressions were equated, by her English and Anglo-Burgundian enemies, to a force that endangered English patriarchal authority, at the fault line between gender and politics: her behaviours, and her gender presentation in particular, meant that she was largely unintelligible to her enemies and to the men who would judge her during her trial (Warren, 2005).

The notion of her unintelligibility is reinforced in the trial transcriptions, in which there is evidence to suggest an explicit focus on her gender performance. Her attire “left nothing about her to indicate the female sex, except what nature gave to her to distinguish her sex” (Warren, 2005, pp. 159-160). Joan could not be sexualised, and her defiance of gendered and sexual conventions was totally incomprehensible to her male antagonists and jurors. Also evident in the trial transcripts are gendered and sexual tropes, such as that of the seductress, the witch, the virgin and the holy transvestite: Joan was labelled with various French slurs, including La Pucelle (the virgin) because of her abstinence from sexual intercourse with men, and Hommase (man-woman) because of her physical presentation. Had Joan lived, she would have been made ruler of France, but this fact destabilised the privileges afforded to men at the intersections of gender, religion, class and politics.

Hence, Joan was seen as embodying a heretic force that was “essentially that of mounting effective political opposition to those with political power” (Brown, 2000, p. 302). In order to detract attention from the problems with this system of hierarchical gender power, Joan’s gendered performance was scapegoated as grounds for heresy and violent, public execution on charges of “wearing men’s clothing” and “witchcraft”. Trial transcripts have revealed that Joan, herself, was aware of these power dynamics, and she communicated this by saying: “Oh, you write the things which are against me, but not the things which are in my favour” (Grigat & Carrier, 2007, p. 13). Because she called for change at broad political levels, fighting against unfair land occupation and considerable violence and animosity, Joan’s actions were deemed intolerable and she was burned at the stake as a witch.

Like Joan of Arc, Thunberg is a female activist whose message and reality are denied repeatedly, in the name of protecting particular systems that privilege the voices and power of patriarchal men who are also largely responsible for the current ecological crisis. By scapegoating women’s physicalities, gendered identities and sexualities, these men detract focus away from the harm and violence that their systems inflict, thereby attempting to make invisible the potential for women to take up space and power in socio-political milieus where change might be catalysed. Such strategies are not random, static or ahistorical; rather, they are located within histories of excessive greed, consumption, commodification and objectification at the hands of certain masculine identities and they continue to be (re)produced when women speak out against their tyranny.

Politics, intellect, education and science (man) versus faith and the supernatural (woman)


Medieval witchcraft (Marc Morano[16], 2019)

If the climate action movement were about science, it would be led by scientists rather than by a mentally-ill Swedish child who is being exploited by her parents and by the international left (Michael Knowles[17], 2019)

Greta the Climate Puppet (Steve Milloy[18], 2019)

This poor young woman increasingly looks and sounds like a cult member. The monotone voice. The look of apocalyptic dread in her eyes. The explicit talk of the coming great ‘fire’ that will punish us for our eco-sins (Brendan O’Neill[19], 2019)

There is something chilling and positively pre-modern about Ms Thunberg (Brendan O’Neill, 2019)

Patron Saint of the Age of Stupid (James Delingpole[20], 2019)

We gave you mobile phones and laptops and the internet. We created the social media you use every day and we run the banks that pay for it all. How dare you stand there and lecture us, you spoiled brat (Jeremy Clarkson, 2019)

It’s a joke. After she goes and studies economics in college she can come back and explain that to us (Steve Mnuchin[21], 2018)

Analytic commentary

In the third and final theme, dichotomies are established between politics, intellect, education and science versus faith and the supernatural. The statements made by Thunberg’s antagonists construct these polarisations in gendered terms and establish a particular power dynamic between men (hardworking scientists) and women (witchy dissenters with no intellectual footing). Using “us versus them” discourse, Thunberg’s antagonists construct themselves as the guardians of science, intellect, economic prosperity and technological advancement, whilst simultaneously constructing the anti-climate change movement as a “cult”. Their suggestion is that the anti-climate change movement comprises a group of fanatical, uneducated, leftist people whose message can be whittled down to nothing more than fear mongering.

The gendered dimensions of climate change denialism are also at play in this theme: Thunberg is constructed as a “stupid”, uneducated woman who should “go and study economics at college” before attempting to match the scientific knowledge and prowess that her male antagonists possess. Hence, these climate sceptics position themselves as the guardians of intellect, science and economics; things about which Thunberg (and other young women who speak out) could not possibly know anything (for she is nothing more than a “poor young woman”). By establishing these polarities, climate change denialists are able to devalue the core message of the anti-climate change movement, decreasing the likelihood that people like Thunberg will be taken seriously; this, in turn, allows white, conservative patriarchal men to retain status, power and privilege.

From these statements, it is evident that climate change denialists are defensive of their histories at the forefront of modern industrialisation and development. They construct the ecological crisis as an issue that is purely economic, technical and scientific, which gives them greater legitimacy in controlling how the problem will be solved; they are free to invent renewed (and even grander) economic schemes that hold the key to resolving all of the world’s ills. If they are to defend their territory (which is also the territory of the men who came generations before them), and to avoid taking accountability for their culpability, climate change denialists cannot afford to allow for the environmental crisis to be exposed for what it is: an intersectional, planetary-scale catastrophe that is as much about science as it is about humanity, people, injustices and inequalities. Because they invented “mobile phones and laptops and the internet [and] social media” and because they “run the banks that pay for it all”, these men view it as their responsibility to protect economic prosperity from the “pre-modern witchcraft” of the anti-climate change movement.


Climate change denialism poses a major threat to environmental preservation because it denies the possibilities for counter-discourses to be levelled against mainstream assumptions about “the good life”, economic growth, prosperity and development. In the name of “science”, the continued exploitation of nature and women by capitalist, patriarchal regimes is facilitated by particular cadres of men who will stop at nothing to defend their positions as the guardians of “good living”. In this piece, I explored how the personal attacks that have been levelled against Thunberg can be understood as one symptom of a broader set of systemic configurations that (re)produces particular identity politics and socio-political power dynamics. The attacks offer important insights into climate change politics, but also reveal some pertinent truths about our current gendered climate. Unless we can mainstream critical analyses of gendered dimensions within climate change and development rhetoric, it is unlikely that climate change denialism will cease. With the increased visibility of activists such as Greta Thunberg, who challenges the stability of climate change sceptics with a critical, impassioned and unrelenting determination, we may yet witness change at structural levels and an easing of the multiple violences that occur at the hands of powerful, white men.


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About the author

Gabriela Pinheiro is a critical social and psychological researcher. Gabriela joined the CSA&G in 2020 where she manages the Gender Justice Project in collaboration with the Irish Embassy and is also involved with other ongoing work in the CSA&G. She completed her Master’s in Research Psychology at the University of the Witwatersrand and interned at the UNISA Institute for Social and Health Sciences. Her research background includes work in the South African Higher Education sector and community engagement. She has particular interest in the study of critical social psychologies, genders and sexualities, and student health/wellbeing.


[1] Throughout this paper, terms such as “global north”, “global south”, “Western”, “developing” and “developed” are placed in inverted commas to show that they are not fixed or stable; they have been widely contested and critiqued. A rehashing of these critiques is not within the scope of this paper, but can be explored with reference to sources such as Toshkov, 2016. However, it should be noted that I use the terms as they feature in popular development rhetoric, with the aim of critiquing their popularity and the “essential” and “homogenous” groups of people that they claim to capture and represent.

[2] For more information, visit:

[3] Banks is a prominent right-wing, British businessman and previously one of the largest donors to the United Kingdom Independence Party. He tweeted this statement in late 2019.

[4] At this time, Thunberg was embarking on a two-week, zero-carbon yachting expedition across the North Atlantic.

[5] Bolt is a conservative social and political commentator for Sky News, Australia.

[6] Kenny is a political commentator and adviser who has his own segment on Sky News, Australia. He belongs to the Liberal Party of Australia (conservative; centre-right).

[7] Ocasio-Nolte is a right-wing journalist for American news platform “Breitbart”.

[8] The current U.S. President; member of the American Republican Party.

[9] Morgan is a conservative British journalist and presenter on “Good Morning, Britain!”

[10] Lomborg is a staunch climate change denialist; Danish author and President of his think tank, Copenhagen Consensus Center. He is also the former director of the Danish government’s Environmental Assessment Institute in Copenhagen.

[11] Clarkson is an English broadcaster, journalist and writer who specialises in motoring. He is best known for co-presenting the motoring programmes Top Gear, from 2002 until 2015, and The Grand Tour alongside Richard Hammond and James May. Whilst he positions himself as apolitical, the views expressed in his books and shows are largely right-wing.

[12] See, e.g. for more information and statistics.

[13] Pivot is a French producer and writer. He is 85-years-old.

[14] Onfray is a popular French writer and philosopher. He claims to be left-wing, but frequently expresses controversial, right-wing opinions.

[15] Bruckner is a French writer and philosopher. He is 71-years-old. He is a conservative.

[16] Morano is a republican political aide. founded and runs the website ClimateDepot is a project of the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, a Washington, D.C. non-profit that promotes climate change denial.

[17] Knowles is is an American conservative political commentator, podcaster, and author.

[18] Milloy is a lawyer, lobbyist, author and Fox News commentator. He describes himself as a libertarian and his close financial and organizational ties to tobacco and oil companies. He is also the founder and publisher of, and an environmental and public health consultant.

[19] O’Neill is a British columnist. has opposed the tackling of global warming through reductions in carbon emissions and instead advocates for “technological progress” to deal with the damage done by climate change.

[20] Delingpole is a conservative British writer and renowned climate change sceptic.

[21] Mnuchin is an American investment banker is serving as the 77th U.S. Secretary of the Treasury as part of the Cabinet of Donald Trump.

Press Statement: CSA&G and SHR, University of Pretoria, Recognise, Support and Commemorate International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia (IDAHOBIT) 2020

The Centre for Human Rights and the Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender (CSA&G), recognise, support, and commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia (IDAHOBIT). This annual event, observed on May 17, is marked internationally for the recognition of LGBTIQ+ rights. In particular, it is used to raise awareness and educate the public on issues of violence, discrimination, repression, and also to call attention to the health challenges that detract from the progress and wellbeing of the LGBTIQ+ community all over the world.

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IDAHOBIT also provides the space and opportunity for dialogue and education for the community without succumbing to the gaps and divisions often created by religious, cultural, racial, and class differences. Nevertheless, it is also understood that, within the LGBTIQ+ community itself, there are often divisions between different identifying sub-communities, the kinds of challenges they confront, and the needs most pertinent to them, which inevitably create further differentiation between facets of identity.

The theme for IDAHOBIT 2020 is ‘Breaking the silence’. Across Africa, there is still an active criminalisation and discrimination agenda by state and non-state actors that continues to silence and repress LGBTIQ+ persons, and often resulting in violence, extortion, and displacement. Even in non-criminalised contexts like South Africa, there is still a real and constant social pressure on many LGBTIQ+ persons to conform to heteronormative and cis-gendered standards in order to fit into their family, learning environments, workplaces, and other social structures. LGBTIQ+ persons in Africa face unique challenges through the impact of colonial, military, and apartheid legacies that policed, silenced and attempted to erase queer LGBTIQ+ minorities in their societies.

By facilitating discussion amongst community members and allies, we can contribute to the promotion of the rights and welfare of LGBTIQ+ persons in Africa.

As part of IDAHOBIT 2020, the Centre for Human Rights and the Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender organised and co-hosted a webinar event to commemorate the day. The webinar contributed to the discussion of this year’s theme with a focus on the unique challenges faced by LBQ women, transgender people, and gender-nonconforming persons in Africa. It featured panellists Rudo Chigudu, Lara Oriye, and Sylvester Kazibwe who are doctoral and master’s candidates at the Centre for Human Rights. Amongst other issues, panelists considered the ‘absence’ of certain conversations in the queer community and the impact of these. In this vein, themes of intimate partner violence in the community and internalised homophobia were explored. The panelists also recognised that activism is constrained by lockdowns currently in place in response to COVID-19 as human rights defenders cannot travel to defend those accused and arrested due to lockdown restrictions, access to health services and psychosocial support services has been disrupted, and mental health challenges are exacerbated for LGBTIQ+ people during this time. The audience also had the opportunity to contribute comments and ask questions.

About CSA&G

The Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender (CSA&G) was established in 1999 as the Centre for the Study of AIDS (CSA) initially as a standalone centre to help guide and shape the University of Pretoria’s (UP) HIV response, its engagement with communities from which staff and students are drawn and implement both service and research programmes. Hence, the CSA&G has always been able to, and continues to situate its work in both theory and practice. Since that time, the CSA&G has found an intellectual home within UP’s Faculty of Humanities but works across all nine UP faculties, support services and its Executive. The CSA&G uses an intersectional approach to sexualities, HIV and gender, promoting human rights and social justice.

About the Centre for Human Rights

The Centre for Human Rights is an academic department of the Faculty of Law at the University of Pretoria, South Africa. It doubles as a non-governmental organisation (NGO). As such, the Centre functions as a teaching and research department while also running project activities as an NGO, aimed at training, advocacy, and capacity building.  This duality makes the Centre well-placed to deal with topics that may be perceived as contentious or politically charged, such as issues around sexual orientation, gender identity, expression and sex characteristics. The Centre’s reach is within South Africa and beyond, particularly on the African continent. The Centre specialises in human rights law and human rights issues on the African continent while linking these to global human rights knowledge streams and discourses from other regions of the world.

For more information, please contact: 

Pierre Brouard
Deputy Director
Centre for Sexualitiues, AIDS and Gender (CSA&G)
University of Pretoria 

Ayodele Sogunro
Manager: SOGIESC Unit
Centre for Human Rights
University of Pretoria

Food, symbolism and gendered identities in Zimbabwean Politics: Mama Grace’s ice cream and the 2017 Zanu-Pf leadership change

Introduction: Food, an inquiry

I seek to provoke deeper inquiries into the centrality of food, food substances, food and the spectacular, and ways of and the sub-texts of serving and consuming food, as well as the ways of imagining food in Zimbabwean politics. Globally, food has become an increasingly contested site for re/thinking about power, imagi/nations, re/distribution, access and agency. This work focuses on the symbolic, cultural and political significance of the ice cream served by Mama Grace Mugabe, (Zimbabwe’s former First Lady) during rallies. The acceptances and rejections of the ice cream, and Mama’s love, care, visibility and naturalized role in the nation graphically reflected the emergent factions within Zanu-Pf and also helped to widen them. To this extent, food, and specifically, the ice cream, acted as an agent of change leading to the ‘new dispensation’ led by Emmerson Mnangagwa. In addition, the ice cream or food serving in general, sprung as an agent of gendered identities as well as their re/production.

Food and the everyday

In Zimbabwe and elsewhere, food emanates as central to the socio, religious, economic and political aesthetics of groups. Food, consumption habits and culinary rituals are rooted in and exhibit social symbolisms and meanings related to kinships, friendships, political relations and class (Edwin 2008). In Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, there are “various meanings that food, eating, and hunger acquire in the portrayal of Okonkwo” (Olufunwa 2000:1). The late Zimbabwean controversial writer, Dambudzo Marechera, in most of his works, especially The House of Hunger, focuses on the centrality of food in households and the emanating disorder and violence that results in the absence of food, or its unhealthy and unappetising state. Marechera shows the vulnerability and vulgarity of those who are weak, poor and feminized through food distribution and food disorders. As the narrator says “I couldn’t have stayed on in that House of Hunger where every morsel of sanity was snatched from you the way some kinds of bird snatch food from the very mouths of babes” (Marechera 1978:1). He goes on to show the politics of food even playing out in the imagery of violent gastral outlets and how that relates to the socio-economic, political and religious facets and a human di/satisfaction that goes beyond the physical. Among other works, Coming of the Dry Season (1972) and Waiting for the Rain (1981) by Charles Mungoshi imagine the importance of food through an imagination of droughts or dry seasons, poverty and deprivations. However, an analysis of the central themes in the above works reveal the concepts of hunger and food as going beyond just the physiological as hunger and deprivations relate to identity politics and issues of lack of freedoms and disempowerments. As Lewis (2016:6) argues, “Since eating is perceived to fill the place of some other desire, hunger is seen to result not only from food deprivation, but from other denied or withheld yearnings.”

Apart from being a means of life sustenance, food is also a system of communication, a body of images, a decorum of usages, situations and behaviour (Barthes 1975). In the African pre-colonial period, food was important to traditional events and meetings. In the Ibgo society in Nigeria and elsewhere, a kola nut is used by a host as a ritual for welcoming guests into his home. This is a powerful symbol of mutual respect, hospitality, friendship and community (Edwin 2008). This view is supported by Kammampoal and Laar (2019) who posit that the Ibgo consider the kola nut as very important in formal and informal gatherings and has enormous cultural capital in satisfying socio-religious functions. It is used as a token of friendship, benevolence, and honor, and is given to a visitor as a sign of hospitality, personality and civility, making it central to Igbo livelihood. The renowned writer and critique, Chinua Achebe makes the kola nut ritual central to his writings by evoking that, ‘He who brings kola brings life.’ Relatedly, Achebe notes; “A man who calls his kinsmen to a feast does not do so to save them from starving. They all have food in their own homes. When we gather together in the moonlit village ground it is not because of the moon. Every man can see it from his own compound” (Achebe 1994:166-7). Though the language is patriarchal and centred on a man’s world, these proverbs are very powerful in revealing that food, food rituals and gatherings have social, religious, economic and political meanings and relevance. In South Africa, research on food reveals there are gendered implications of access to food and gendered labour manipulations in food production and preparation (Lewis 2016). In Zimbabwe, the Shona proverb, Ukama igasva hwunosadziswa nokudya (relationships remain incomplete until you partake of a meal) reveals the importance of food during gatherings and how the serving of food is important to kinship, friendship, loyalty and harmony. Food is central in, among others, traditional ceremonies, family gatherings, funerals and weddings. This links to Freud (1938)’s and Madeira (1989)’s sentiments that eating and drinking with someone symbolically confirms social community and mutual obligations and that food performs social interaction, status and acts both positive and negative social relationships. In the same sense, I see Grace Mugabe’s serving of ice cream at rallies as a political and gender aesthetic.

Food and Zanu-Pf’s politics of the spectacular 

Historically, Zanu-Pf has used food to entice, especially the disadvantaged and impoverished people to vote for it rather than voting for opposition parties. Banking on its ability to provide food, Zanu-Pf situated itself as the mother-provider making sure that children in her nest do not starve, or do not have feelings of starvation and negligence. Those children seen as rebels or refusing to embrace Zanu-Pf are denied food provisions and considered worth dying in a way that evokes Mamdani (1996)’s notion of citizen and subject where state sovereignty use biopolitics to create some kind of ‘death worlds’ for those termed non-citizens. The politicization of food in the context of climate-change induced drought as seen through Zanu-Pf’s selective distribution of food along party lines can be used to exemplify this. Opposition supporters are denied access; they are deemed undeserving by virtue of their political identity – they deserve to die. Food politics is therefore part of the manipulation, electoral malpractices and bribery prevalent in Zimbabwean politics.

More interesting, however, is that food has also featured in Zanu-Pf internal politics, particularly its 2017 factional politics, especially in the context where Grace Mugabe (a member of the G40 Zanu-Pf faction), assumed the role of mother-provider in her contest for power and authority with the Lacoste faction headed by Emmerson Mnangagwa. The 2017 Zanu-Pf factional fights therefore, mirror the symbolism and cultural politics of food in Zimbabwean politics and Zanu-Pf politics in particular. Thus, food was instrumental as the basis for surveillance, for getting to know the loyal and disloyal. As Grace Mugabe served ice cream at rallies and other events, many expressed gratitude towards Mama’s generosity and made public spectacles of gratitude, satisfaction and loyalty to Mama’s love, care and visibility. However, emphasis on eating Mama’s provisions belittled many in the process who then became fed up with Mama and rebelled. This became a performance of refusal and rejection to toe the line, a reflection of oppositional voices and dissent and has therefore been a metaphor for change.

Apart from food being used for rallying people behind particular parties, groups and individuals, food has been used as a show of power, a demonstration of gendered and sexual identities. This complex has occurred in a context where the Zimbabwean ‘national family’ has been seen as “an imaginative construct of power relations” (Hunt 1992:196). It is sensible to argue that food has discursive underpinnings in patriarchy and issues of power and resource re/distribution. For some time, Grace Mugabe found agency and political manoeuvring within Zanu-Pf politics by re/producing and performing her gendered role of feeding and caring. However, considering Grace’s fall from grace, challenging simplistic ideas about agency forces us to question the entrapment in patriarchal networks of food sources, food re/production and food re/distribution that link with abilities to control food access and be active political agents.

It is therefore imperative to focus on the discursive underpinnings of food. The ice cream narrative reflects how a naturalized and normalized order of mother provisions, which itself is anchored on patriarchy, is used in the contest for power and authority in Zimbabwe. Food, and in this case, ice cream is packed with massive symbolic and cultural politics associated with Zanu-Pf’s politics of the spectacular and Zimbabwean nationhood. There is therefore a close relationship between food and speech (Olufunwa 2000), hence food and food ways constitute discourse and discursive subjects.

Ice cream and mother/ing the nation

Considering that nations are recurrently figured out through the iconography of familial and domestic spaces (Mawere 2019, 2016; McClintock 1993; Yuval-Davies 1997), Grace Mugabe was imagined as the mother of the Zimbabwean nation by virtue of being the First Lady. Motherhood in the Zimbabwean cultural context is associated with many positive attributes. The worthiness of a mother is framed within the mother’s ability to care for and feed her children. Grace’s distribution of food visualizes and memorializes motherhood and mother-child intimacy.

Grace owns a huge dairy farm in Mazowe, Mashonaland Central. At this farm, other dairy products such as yoghurt, and ice cream are produced. It is important to locate Grace Mugabe’s power and influence within Zanu-Pf and the nation in her innovative projects such as food production and processing at her farm. To some extent, Grace’s efforts speaks to food sovereignty as it relates to women appropriation of food, the value of women’s contributions and the recognition of their contribution to production (Sachs 2013). At the peak of Zanu-Pf’s factional battles, Grace Mugabe addressed many ‘meet the people rallies’ around the country and considering her role as the mother of the nation, the ‘meet the people rallies’ were avenues where the mother met her children and distinguished between the loyal and the disloyal. Zanu-Pf leadership was expected to attend these rallies and participate accordingly. Failure to attend was seen as a sign of insubordination and not supporting the mother’s efforts to assemble, watch over, nurture and take care of the children and one could be labelled a saboteur of the national project.

When Grace Mugabe fed people at rallies with ice cream, itself a by-product of milk, she attained the symbolic role of a mother feeding and caring for her children and a national mother feeding and caring for the Zimbabwean nation. Breast feeding is considered as a physical, psychological, economical and symbolic presence of a mother. Motherhood is associated with love, care, compassion and sustenance which allow individuals and nations to grow. To this extent, negative motherhood is associated with individual and national death. The ice cream given at rallies came from the Mugabes’ Gushungo Dairy farm, which however is more associated with Grace to underwrite, naturalize and normalize her gendered role as a mother caring for and feeding her children as well as a mother in touch with the soil and therefore with positive femininities. The meanings of land (the Gushungo farm) and the re/productive body of women (Grace) as the source of food and national sustenance is spectacularly demonstrated by Grace Mugabe’s distribution of ice cream from the Gushungo farm, giving women’s labour in general and Grace in particular, some agentive power. Through the distribution of the ice cream made at her farm, Grace shows her industrious, entrepreneurial and innovative skills and therefore, her ability to perform her naturalized role as a mother who takes care and feeds the nation.

One is forced to re/imagine the Gushungo farm as Grace Mugabe’s extended breasts from where the nation gains sustenance and livelihood, again buttressing the dominant gender categories in the re/constructions of nationhood but also subversively re/imagining the power of women in their marginalized identities. The ice cream both symbolically stands for breast milk and also as a symbol of modernity. Although this links well with Grace’s acquired identity as a modern woman associated with flamboyance, it also positions her as a powerful and innovative woman who moves beyond traditional food ways.

Anyone who fed on the ice cream was symbolically feeding on Grace Mugabe’s breasts, an act which reflected the recognition of her motherhood and her role as the mother of the nation. Since Grace Mugabe was associated with negative motherhood (Mawere 2019), this performance of her children’s loyalty, contentment and happiness helped to dispel negative images. In providing and feeding her children, Grace managed to “create sustaining relational bonds, generating a sense of security, wellbeing and contentment” (Lewis 2016:3) for herself and those whom she fed. Through the control of food distribution, which basically is a feminine and undermined role, Grace attained power and authority over Zanu-Pf and Zimbabwe, she because a central point of both life and death in Zimbabwean and Zanu-Pf politics. To some extent, this speaks to “how productive freedoms [and power] are embedded in socially neglected practices” (Lewis 2016:2-3) that are associated with the domestic space. Within the domestic space, Grace Mugabe acquired some agentive powers that made her central to both Zanu-Pf and Zimbabwean politics. Thus, by performing her socially expected role as a mother, Grace attained power and authority and managed to perform surveillance on the nation which for some time, enabled her to secure and protect her power and ambitions.

However, “Unhealthy eating habits can be seen as a form of ‘hunger’, an embodied ‘emptiness’ that results from eating food that is disconnected from relationships of responsiveness, care and intimacy (Lewis 2016). Following this argument, poisoned or contaminated food substances such as is alleged by the Lacoste faction on Grace Mugabe’s ice cream are characteristic of the hunger and the emptiness of Zimbabwean nationalism as they are indicative of self-centredness, extractive and impersonal tendencies rather than mutuality, unity and communal. Refusing Grace’s ice-cream was a performance of the rejection of a poisoned motherhood and a poisoned nationalism.

The Ice cream, Lacoste victimhood and poisoned nationhood

Positioning themselves as victims of ice cream poisoning, and a poisoned motherhood, Mnangagwa and the Zanu-Pf Lacoste faction did not see Grace’s poisoning as only physical on targeted bodies, but also as symbolic of national poisoning and destruction caused by a woman who had broken boundaries. The poisoned ice cream or food offered by the mother of the nation alludes to national food insecurity, which would negate national growth, especially within the narratives of Zimbabwean nationalism where food and re/production is central to nationhood. Thus, the absence of positive connections between the mother and the nation is mirrored through the poisoned ice cream. The poisoning or imagined poisoning of Mnangagwa’s body is characteristic of the poisoning of the national body by Grace Mugabe. Due to her alliances with the G40, who were considered undesirable elements, Grace Mugabe had become contaminated (Mawere 2019) and as a mother of the nation, her breast milk (and ice cream) was now poisoning and destroying the nation. What is more interesting is that ice cream poisoning situates Grace and women into the dominant discourses that characterize women as witches and witchcraft as a feminine characteristic (Mawere 2019; Gaidzanwa 1985).

As a response to the poisoning, immediate action (such as done to Mnangagwa to detox and save him) was supposed to be taken to detox and save the Zimbabwean nation, hence the coup d’état framed on Operation Restore Legacy which took the nation by surprise was swiftly carried out by the military junta. Even though Mnangagwa might not have been poisoned by Grace or poisoned through the ice cream, and even if his illness was just some drama, the poisonous ice cream became a metaphor for rejecting Grace’s love and care, and Grace as a mother of the nation. For the Lacoste faction, Grace’s breast was poisonous and produced poisonous milk which if the nation had continued to drink, it could have been fatally contaminated. This discourse is made reasonable through Grace Mugabe’s association with the G40, group which had been virtually homosexualized, dislocated from the Chimurenga ethic and ultimately regarded national pollutants (Mawere 2019, 2016). Thus, the same source and driver of Grace’s power, which is food distribution, was altered through a discourse of poison which sensitized that the seemingly source of life was the source of death, that the nation was drinking from a poisoned breast.

In addition to the allegations of Grace poisoning both Mugabe and Mnangagwa as fitting in with witchcraft troupes, there is also a ‘femme fatale’ idea (often depicted in film noir), that is associated with Grace. This idea positions women as tempting seductresses and their offerings as ‘toxic’ to men, as they offer a ‘dangerous sexuality’, causing powerful men to fall (Sathyamurthy 2016). The femme fatale relates to the Shona proverb, mukadzi munaku akasaroya anoba (if a beautiful woman is not a witch, she is a thief), which basically associates beauty and seduction with danger. This is interesting in relation to Grace allegedly seducing Mugabe and possibly ‘leading him astray’. Characterized as a loose, urban and flamboyant woman and nicknamed marujata or Gucci Grace, before and in her marriage to Mugabe, and postured as an adulteress (Mawere 2019), Grace Mugabe is associated with a poisonous sexuality that enables her to dominate and control men. Defying dominant feminine sexualities which are posited as private, pure and loyal provides reason for the ‘poisonous’ label given to Grace and provides justification for her rejection as mother of the nation. A revelation of female eroticism is out of touch with nation-craft as seen through various attempts to control the bodies of women and to keep women in specific spaces (Mawere 2019, 2016). It is in this sense that Operation Restore Legacy was also an operation to ‘cleanse’ womanhood and restore women to their ‘proper’ places. The refusal of Grace Mugabe’s offering or dish by the Lacoste faction can therefore be read as a refusal to be trapped by Grace’s ‘poisonous’ sexualities and an effort to decontaminate national motherhood, which is the source of national livelihood and survival.

Conclusion: The paradox

It is essential “to make food and the politics of food visible…as a way to tackle directly issues of patriarchy, capitalism, the ecological crisis, power and agency in our own spaces, and to truly decolonise food” (Andrews and Lewis 2017:7). Grace Mugabe fell into the trap of dominant discourses that provide binary spaces for men and women, and that locate the joys of motherhood in domestic spaces such as caring for and loving children. It is crucial to know that it is this effort to submit herself to the expectations of motherhood and the dictates of patriarchy that contributes to and trigger narratives that disqualify her motherhood. By trying to impress and perform the gendered role of providing as expected of motherhood, Grace’s efforts suffer a backlash as the same expectation which she had fulfilled and marked her as a mother and powerful woman became instrumental to her enemies. The same food, or ice cream which she provided to the children became a weapon in the hands of the Lacoste faction as narratives that Mnangagwa was given poisoned ice cream circulated. This meant that the nation’s motherhood was poisonous and therefore dangerous to the nation’s being. The same ice cream which Grace used to claim and perform motherhood and attain power became a metaphor for her failure as a mother, leading to the collapse of her power, that of her husband, Robert Mugabe, setting the pace for Mnangagwa’s new dispensation.

This article was first published on Gender Justice, a CSA&G project.


Achebe, C. 1994. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor Books.

Andrews, D. & Lewis, D. 2017. “Decolonising Food Systems and Sowing Seeds of Resistance: Disentangling knowledges about seed”, The African Centre for Biodiversity.

Barthes, R. 1975. “Towards a psychosociology of contemporary food consumption.” In Elborg Foster & Robert Forster (eds.), European diet from Pre-industrial to modern times. New York, 47-59.

Edwin, S. 2008. Subverting Social Customs: The Representation of Food in Three West African Francophone Novels. Research in African Literatures, 39(3),39-50.

Freud, S. 1938. Totem and Taboo. New York: The Modern Library.

Gaidzanwa, R. 1985. Images of Women in Zimbabwean Literature. Harare: College Press.

Hunt, L. 1992. The Family Romance of the French Revolution. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kammampoal, B. and Suuk Laar, S. 2019. The kola nut: Its symbolic significance in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, International Journal on Studies in English Language and Literature (IJSELL),7(8), 26-40.

Lewis, D. 2016. Bodies, matter and feminist freedoms: Revisiting the politics of food. Agenda, 30(4),6-16.

Madeira, K. 1989. “Cultural meaning and use of food: A selective bibliography (1973-987).” In Mary-Anne Schofield (ed.), Cooking by the book: Food in Literature and culture. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State, 207-15.

Mamdani, M. 2018. Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the legacy of late colonialism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Marechera, D. 1978. The House of Hunger. London: Heinemann.

Mawere, T. 2019. Gendered and Sexual Imagi(nations): the 2018 Zimbabwean E(r)ections and the Aftermath, Pretoria: CSA&G Press.

Mawere, T. 2016. Decentering nationalism: representing and contesting Chimurenga in Zimbabwean popular culture, PhD dissertation. Cape Town: University of the Western Cape.

McClintock, A. 1993. Family feuds: Gender, nationalism and the family. Feminist Review, 61-80.

Mungoshi, C. 1981. Waiting for the rain. Harare: Zimbabwe Publishing House.

Mungoshi, C. 1972. Coming of the dry season. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Olufunwa, H.O. 2000. Eating With Kings: Food and Ambition in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Proteus: A Journal of Ideas, 17(1), 69-71.

Sachs, C. 2013. “Feminist Food Sovereignty: Crafting a New Vision”, Paper Presented at Conference on Food Sovereignty: A Critical Dialogue. Yale University, 14-15 September. (Available at, accessed 10 March 2020).

Sathyamurthy, K. 2016. “Femme Fatale: Tropes of deviant sexuality and empowerment” (Available at , accessed 20 April 2020).

Yuval-Davis, N. 1997. Gender and Nation. London: Sage Publications.


Reflecting on my time at the CSA&G – Chris Joubert

by Chris Joubert

Chris JoubertBack in 2014 when my friend told me about the CSA&G volunteer training he was doing, I saw it as a pointless distraction.

A few weeks later, we both had a large gap between our classes, and he had to attend a catch-up session at the Centre. I went with him to this session in order to kill some time and it was incredible.

My friend had joined the Future Leaders at Work volunteer programme of the CSA&G to find something to put on his CV and not just “be a student”. I did not really see the point of this because I had never considered that I would have to do more than just get my degree.

Both my parents never finished school and to them if their kids went to university, they would have better lives. When I got into UP it was sort of a surprise to most of my family members because I was not the type of person who excelled at school. A few of my teachers told my parents that I might have a problem “paying attention and staying on topic”.

They were not wrong. I got into a disagreement with a teacher about why a certain “nude” colour was considered “mens kleur” (the default colour of “humans”). In short, I was “that kid”, who always had a smart answer or had to be difficult. My sister called it an “obedience disorder”. In her view I had an impulse to disobey authority figures. I needed to learn to listen and follow orders, “because that is how it is”, she said.

Arguments like these have always annoyed me. The fact that something is “that way”, just because it is what it is, was never a good enough answer for me. Going to Tuks was, however, a great opportunity and I did not want to disappoint the people who gave it to me. So, I knew I would focus on my studies and not get distracted with anything other than what I had registered for.

During that first 2-hour session at the CSA&G, I learned that the Centre was the type of place that asked difficult questions. The type of questions most people I knew would answer with “that’s how things are”.  During my second year I formally joined the Future Leaders at Work (now called Just Leaders) training and a few societies.  I looked forward to these sessions mostly because it was one of the few places that encouraged me to imagine what the world could be like, rather than asking me to assimilate to how the world is.

By the end of the year I signed up for the Befriender programme, which provides pre and post test counselling for people who want to test for HIV, as well as the rapid test itself. The training taught me a lot about lay counselling, but it forced me to do a lot of self-evaluation and come to terms with some personal things I did not like dealing with.

After that I ended up spending a lot of my time at the Centre. I only had to volunteer 2 hours a week for the programme, but I ended up spending most of my day there. I absolutely loved counselling. I loved being able to help people and in some small way being able to make a difference. By the end of 2016 I graduated from Tuks and thought I would have to leave the Centre but fortunately I still managed to volunteer there. In 2017 I started volunteering for about 20 hours a week and before the end of that semester they offered me a position.

Working at the Centre is great and is something I would literally have done for free. In a way the Centre changed for me. This change presented me with an opportunity: as a volunteer I was mostly using the Befriender skills and my job description was clear; as a staff member I was giving a chance to do whatever I wanted to support and promote the Befriender programme.

Not being given a narrow job description seemed frightening at first. Soon I learned that it was quite freeing. I got a chance to be involved in what I was interested in. I started by co-facilitating the training and supervising of new Befrienders.  The Befriender training runs for 7 straight days, roughly 8 hours a day. By now I have facilitated a number of Befriender trainings and it is so amazing to see how much a person can change in one week.

Each group of volunteers I have been a part of training is so unique. Training and working with these volunteers is one of the most enriching and at times extremely challenging things I have ever done.

While the Befriender programme takes up most of my time at the Centre, I also started getting involved in other activities, like doing talks at TuksRes. From time to time TuksRes approaches the CSA&G to give talks to their students, often around sex, sexualities, gender identity and GBV.

Even though these talks mostly happen in the evenings, and in some cases I have shown up a bit tired to some of them, I get a surge of energy speaking with these students. I sometimes take the safe CSA&G space for granted and forget that it is still not very easy for people to talk about some things. Creating a safe space and allowing people to speak more freely really empowers everyone.

Beyond the work I do with students at the CSA&G, it has been a true honour working and learning from the staff members of the Centre. We never have a single dull moment. Considering the diversity of the people who I have met at the Centre, there is always a fantastic blend of intriguing perspectives, new information, and of course, humour.

With the nationwide lockdown in affect and no clear sign of when it will end, most of the type of work I am used to, has essentially stopped. Frustrating as that may be, I suppose like most of my time at the CSA&G, this challenge brings a new opportunity to try new approaches to our work.

An important part of the CSA&G is the environment it creates. During this lockdown, a lot of people are left feeling vulnerable. A safe space is one of the things people really do need right now.  How do we continue to provide that safe space?

SOCIAL DIS – EASE: A reflection

Excerpt from a forthcoming CSA&G monograph

by Mary Crewe

Folks, we either have a country or we don’t[1]

Earlier in 2020, Paul Simon recorded from isolation, American Tune for Til Further Notice 03/19/2020:

I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered

I don’t know a friend who feels at ease

I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered

or driven to its knees[2]


In her book, Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag (2003:5) makes the point that after WW1, there was the realisation of the ruin Europe had brought on itself. That is what we need to reflect about when we think about COVID-19, the lockdown, the destruction of the economy and surely the fracturing of society.[3] While the virus was a random event and circled the world very rapidly – the response – the shutting down of society and the economic and social consequences that will follow, were entirely the decision of our own and other governments, backed up by the hysteria and anxiety generated by WHO and the pandemic of panic that was created by the media. The early responses late 2019, set the scene for what was to follow. Mainstream media revelled in crisis and drama and rising hysteria and the South African media has largely followed suit. One notable exception is the news updated regularly by the Swiss Propaganda research group ( offering fully referenced facts about COVID-19, provided by experts in the field, to help readers make a realistic risk assessment.

We are in the nightmare of a random control trial of one. There is no control group, just the experiment. No placebo, just the untried drug.  The state is now invested and locked into lockdown orthodoxy. If it works and the epidemic is contained, those who imposed this will be heroes, if not they will be able to claim that they were acting on the best evidence available at the time. The bio medics and the epidemiologists will win either way.

The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) exhorts us to “play your part”’ in the fight against #COVID19.Follow the rules, and cooperate with healthcare professionals,” so too the politicians who will also have a greater arsenal of weapons for social control and further action.[4]  A phrase much-beloved of politicians is that they are “following the science”. Mostly however, this is being used “far more as a blame-deflecting tactic than as an acceptance of the disagreements, hypotheses, uncertainties, and traditions of rigorous questioning of actual science.”[5] The National Security Agency whistle blower Edward Snowden warned that governments are using the coronavirus to build an “architecture of oppression”.[6]

The world, said Edward Said is full of, “not so much intellectuals, but experts and professionals – and there is a great pressure on them to commodify their skills and expertise in a given field. And by virtue of that they then belong to a community of experts whose whole role is selling the wares to the establishment. That the principle goal in mind is not to tell the truth, or to say what the alternative to the present is, but rather to maintain the status quo, to satisfy the customer – to represent the ideas of power that rule the world in which we live.”[7]

What we have seen, are seeing with COVID-19 is the array of experts on our TV screens telling us what we ought to know, what we ought to do and how we ought to behave. The public health crisis has hastened the transition to autocracy, and there are serious doubts about the capacity of countries to effect a course correction once the threat from the virus abates. S. Y. Quraishi, the former Chief Election Commissioner of India, writes that, “Joseph Cannataci, the UN special rapporteur on right to privacy, has rightly observed, ‘Dictatorship often starts in the face of a threat.’ Earlier it was the invisible and distant threat of terrorism that demanded obedience, now it is the threat of pandemic – a fear closer to home – that is pushing people to give away their rights.”[8] The question is for how long?

The imposition of any kind of emergency, formal or informal, without an expiry date, should be cause for deep anxiety – as is the case with the current Lockdown 4 where there is no sense of a time frame – just the implicit threat that one way or another it will depend on how we all behave.

This is political science, in other words, as opposed to empirical science.[9] As Lionel Shriver wrote, when this is all over we deserve an enquiry – conducted by independent scientists who’ve not attached reputations to any policy or prediction.[10] In years to come, we too will see that this was a plot against ourselves, or as in the world of sport the disastrous own goal.

Of course attempts to curtail epidemics raise – in the guise of public health – the most enduring political dilemma: how to reconcile the individual’s claim to autonomy and liberty with the community’s concern with safety.[11] How does the polity treat the patient who is both a citizen and a disease carrier? When does the citizen become merely a subject? And in the end what is most important, the rights of the infected or of the uninfected? Sometimes, as Sontag wrote, a disease is just a disease.[12] But, such is the power of fear, of the unknown, of infection, of epidemics, that diseases become powerful metaphors for social issues beyond the death and the pain that they cause.

From the earliest times to the present, epidemics have affected human history in myriad ways: demographically, culturally, politically, financially, and biologically. Humans have never known a time in history when epidemics did not loom large. This is as true today as it ever was. And, despite claims that we would defeat it we are still living with HIV, with the shadow of cholera, with TB, with the memories of Listeriosis. All of these it was claimed would change the world as we knew it. In the end, though, we have learned to live with them rather than be controlled by them.

In this way we, too have forgotten about them.

In 2018, a total of 63 000 people died of TB in South Africa and the WHO estimates that around 301 000 people fell ill. There is, however significant uncertainty about this estimate since there is a 95% chance that the real number lies between 215 000 and 400 000.[13] AVERT estimates that South Africa has the biggest and most high-profile HIV epidemic in the world, with an estimated 7.7 million people living with HIV in 2018. South Africa accounts for a third of all new HIV infections in Southern Africa. In 2018, there were 240,000 new HIV infections and 71,000 South Africans died from AIDS-related illnesses.[14] And let’s not forget that South Africa, in 2017, had the worst outbreak of Listeriosis in global history.

There are no daily mention of AIDS and TB in the news, no condolences to their families, no flags being flown at half mast, no saluting of the health care workers, and no social panic about drug resistant TB.[15] All these diseases have available treatments and yet, these figures are astoundingly high.

Bambi in the Headlights

It’s astounding how various Ministers can, without shame or irony, say that COVID-19 has shown us the inequalities in this country. The lack of water, of power, of roads and transport. How could they not know this intimately? Why have they not acted before with water tanks and mobile support units? It’s not as if we have a shortage of labour – far too many people available for such work. But it’s part of finding an external agent to blame. This is the result of Apartheid – correct – but that’s not a new insight. Close your eyes and you would think that you were back in Apartheid South Africa, ponderous ministers having interminable press conferences surrounded by compliant bureaucrats, and brooking no questions or dissent.

Growing up under Apartheid you were schooled on the irrationality of power. On the capriciousness of Ministers and politicians making things up on the hoof, deciding what was good for you and what was not. We listened to Apartheid Ministers saying why Black people should not have access to alcohol or good housing or education. We hear it again. Apartheid, of course set the pattern for how we live, but what is actually happening to change this?  In 25 years, many kilometres of piped water can be laid, many flushing toilets can be built at schools, many points of power can be connected, many panes of glass can be fixed in schools and chalkboards replaced. The fact that there have been gains in these things does not make the absence right, it makes the insult of poverty worse.

It cannot be that these terrible social inequalities are only now being exposed by COVID-19.

Hierarchies:  Necessary and essential?

How are the lockdown decisions made? There is the fiction of the collective but that is disingenuous. This is a modern Cabinet working in a modern, constitutional democracy. It is not an NGO governed by the collective. Who determines, during this time, what is necessary? Who decides that it is possible to buy a winter duvet but not a cotton duvet cover? That expensive bubble bath can be bought, but not short-sleeved shirts?  We have debated the cigarettes and alcohol and hot chicken endlessly and there are reasons that transcend public health at play. Smoking will not add to your risk of the virus (it is possible it may be protective) nor will alcohol.[16] The lockdown started as necessary to contain the virus and then morphed into moralising, irrationality, seeming indifference and a lack of care.

As they (and we) regard the pain of others the various politicians claim to care – but they don’t, not really. No, “we” should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain. The failure of these politicians is one of imagination, of empathy – we do not hold the lived reality of people in mind.[17] Compassion, is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action or it withers.[18]

If they cared, they would take and use the money from the “sin” taxes, they would clarify and simplify the lockdown conditions, they would allow exercise all day and they would admit to failures of government.

This is why the rhetoric of “our only interest is our people’s health” feels no longer avuncular but tinged with something more sinister.[19] In the same way that Sontag asks who the “we” is – who is the “our” in this? In far too many of the comments made by people in power there is a sense of power, of patronage or patriarchy and the sense that the populace – we the people – have to be controlled, brought into line and shown the folly of our ways. Were there a real understanding of ‘our people’s health’ then there would be no ban on cigarettes, alcohol or hot food. The moralising that comes from some of the medical commentators about the costs of emergency services, and of the health benefits of not smoking or drinking, are simply fatuous in relation to COVID-19.

In addition, the threats and bullying made by some of the decision makers are simply markers of a profound disrespect for “our people”.

“For Minister Cele to treat the public as errant schoolchildren – if one of you misbehaves, none of you can play outside – is behaviour that is way beyond the scope of the [Disaster Management] Act. Indeed, it has no place in a constitutional democracy. To be sure, in an authoritarian state, or sadly the USA of President Trump, collective punishment is employed. But in a constitutional democracy, such threats should have no place.”[20]  People who deliver threats of this kind have no place in senior political positions. Listening to this kind of menacing paternalism are we really surprised at the levels of sexual and gender-based violence in our country?  What is our nation’s beleaguered identity in times of crisis?[21]

What is necessary?

By the same reason, what or who is essential? We are allegedly all equal but some are more “essential” than others, we have a new hierarchy. Those that are now regarded as “essential” are also those that society tends in “normal times” to neglect and abuse. Teachers, nurses, refuse removal workers, store cashiers and many, many more are now “essential”. We have never considered them that before – if we did we would have paid them “essential” wages. We would make sure that the disparity between the earnings of doctors and nurses was not so vast, or between civil servants and the people employed in the local and provincial authorities who actually do the work.

It’s easy to understand the cynicism. Please don’t blow the vuvuzelas at 7pm, clap on Thursdays, cite us in speeches when at all other times the people now regarded as “essential” rank very low in the employment hierarchy – and whose professions are dismissed with disdain by many middle-class people and so called “captains of industry”. It is also easy to understand their fear. Never respected, before but now you’re placed in the frontline as essential to the response.

Who is essential?

We have been here before

“In September 2005, Dr Nabarro, the WHO’s public health expert coordinating the response to avian influenza, told the Associated Press that a global avian influenza pandemic could kill 150 million people worldwide.”[22] “The overall human death toll was low — in the hundreds — but scientists and government officials feared that the virus could ignite a human pandemic reminiscent of the catastrophic 1918 Spanish flu. Emergency plans were drafted, experimental H5N1 vaccines were created and tested, antiviral drugs were stockpiled. And then … nothing happened.”[23]

In 2020, in his COVID-19 narratives, Nabarro claimed we would see explosive outbreaks in just 2-3 weeks, a pandemic that doubles in around 2-5 days, which means an 8-fold increase in a week, a 250-fold increase in three weeks and a 1000-fold increase in 4 weeks – the WHO was projecting terrifying levels of world deaths.[24] Bill Gates made the point that, “this is a nightmare scenario because human-to-human transmittal respiratory viruses can grow exponentially … [and] … that curve would never bend until you had the majority of the people infected and then a massive number seeking hospital care and lots of lots of deaths.”[25]

So who do we believe? Increasingly the bio medics – the “expert” virologists and epidemiologists are telling us that there is a great deal about this virus that we do not know or understand. That does not stop them, confidently, from speaking with authority. If they got it so wrong with avian flu, is there the possibility that they could be so wrong again. Dissenters are seldom listened to, and no one seems to be anxious that the Imperial College study (not peer reviewed and later admitted to be flawed) was the one that set the tone.[26]

At the start of the HIV and AIDS epidemics we were faced with similar reactions. There was social and political panic. There were calls for isolation and quarantine. In our country we faced calls for the criminalisation of infection, for AIDS to be a notifiable illness and for people not to consume alcohol as this would lead to a lowering of inhibitions, unsafe sex and infections. Early on there was the anxiety and fake news about touching, kissing, saliva, and sharing utensils. AIDS, we heard, would change the world as we knew it, destroy the country, the region. It would cripple industry and the bureaucracies. There were dreadful images of marauding bands of young people threatening our security and many apocryphal stories of deliberate HIV infections or horrifying acts that required prompt action.[27]   None of this came to be. The wild projections of the numbers that would be infected and die were wrong, over dramatised and in the end we live with AIDS.  Indeed we forget now about the daily toll that AIDS takes on the society.

People are now saying that we need to “learn” to live with this virus and not to be controlled by it. We need to understand it and manage it. This message is not the one that the stages of lockdown give us – that message is that we are controlled by and at the mercy of this virus.

This has led to discomforting “war talk”. Boris Johnson referred to COVID-19 as an “invisible mugger”.[28] President Ramaphosa has said that we will need to think “post war”.[29] Essential people are regarded as being on the frontlines, fighting “the war” in the trenches. The economy was “destroyed” by COVID-19, as if this virus has declared war on the economy.  In fact, being controlled by the virus rather than controlling it – a clear and rational decision was made that “we” would destroy the various economies of the world by shutting both them and populations down. Along with the war talk we have the exaggerated use of language.

We have seen all this before – James Baldwin may have been right when he claimed people are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.[30]

Being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country (or even one’s own) is a quintessential modern experience: “the cumulative offering of more than a century and a half’s worth of those professional, specialised tourists, known as journalists. These journalists come together now with a new powerful force of bio medics and politicians.”[31]

In the end – a peasant that Inspector Salvo Montalbano met in the pursuit of solving a case said, “I don’t think, Mr ‘Nspecter. I don’t wanns think no more. The world’s become too evil.”[32]

It has, but if we are to try and understand the calamity that has taken place in our country – we need to remember that there must be criticism: “there must be a powerful critical consciousness if there are issues, problems, values – even lives – to be fought for.”[33]


[1] Osnos, Evan. How Greenwich Republicans Learned to Love Trump, 2020 [Accessed 5 May 2020]

[2] Thurschwell, Pamela. American Tunes for Coronaviral Times: Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and John Prime, 2020 [Accessed 5 May 2020].

[3] Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. (New York: Picador, 2003), p5.

[4] This quote is the slogan being used by the NICD in reference to Covid-19.

[5] Cowper Andy. “Slippery Language and Defensive Politics Try to Hide the Real Problems,” The BMJ Opinion, 30 April2020. [Accessed 4 May 2020].

[6] Swiss Research Propaganda. “Facts about Covid-19,” Swiss Propaganda Research, 2020. [Accessed 2 May 2020]

[7] Tariq Ali. Conversations with Edward Said.  (Seagull: New York, 2006), pp.110.

[8] Quraishi, S. Y. Across the World, the Coronavirus Pandemic Has Become an Invitation to Autocracy, 2020. [Accessed 5 May 2020].

[9]Cowper Andy. “Slippery Language and Defensive Politics Try to Hide the Real Problems,” The BMJ Opinion, 2020. [Accessed 4 May 2020].

[10]Shriver, L. I have Herd Immunity, 2020. [Accessed 5 May 2020].

[11] Baldwin, Peter. Disease and Democracy. (Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005).p 3

[12] Sontag, Susan. AIDS and its Metaphors. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York, 1989), p10.

[13]Louw, Marcus. 63 000 TB Deaths in SA in 2018, 2019. [Accessed 3 May 2020].

[14]Avert. HIV and AIDS in South Africa, 2020. [Accessed 5 May 2020].

[15]The Western Cape premier suggested that flags should fly at half-mast in honour of people who have died from COVID 19.

[16] The Economist. Smokers Seem Less Likely Than Non-Smokers to Fall Ill with Covid-19, 2020.  [Accessed 3 May 2020].

[17] Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. (New York: Picador, 2003), p7.

[18] Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. (New York: Picador, 2003), p101.

[19] Singh, Kaveel. Tobacco Ban: Our Only Interest is Our People’s Health, Says Ramaphosa, 5 May 2020. [Accessed 5 May 2020].

[20] Professor Balthazar. Is This Truly Necessary? 5 May 2020. [Accessed 5 May 2020].

[21]Hattersley, Giles. The Judi Dench Interview: “Retirement? Wash Out Your Mouth” 4 May 2020. [Accessed 5 May 2020].

[22]Bonneux, Luc and Van Damme, Wim. “An Iatrogenic Pandemic of Panic,” BMJ, 332:786 (2006).

[23]Branswell, Helen. What Happened to Bird Flu? How a Major Threat to Human Health Faded From View. 13 February 2019. [Accessed 4 May 2020].

[24] Nabarro, David. Get Ahead of Covid-19 NOW! 22 March 2020. [Accessed 4 May 2020].

[25]Wayland, Michael. Bill Gates Calls Coronavirus Pandemic a “Nightmare Scenario,” But Predicts Lower Death Toll Than Trump. 5 April 2020. [Accessed 5 May 2020].

[26]Medical Brief: Africa’s Medical Media Digest. Debates Rage Over “Severely Flawed Imperial Study Sparked UK Lockdown. 1 April 2020. That [Accessed 3 May 2020].

[27]Crewe, Mary. “AIDS, Democracy and the University,” Unpublished address. (Pretoria: University of Pretoria, 2004).

[28] Sharaitmadari, David.“Invisible Mugger”: How Boris Johnson’s Language Hints at His Thinking. 27 April 2020. [Accessed 5 May 2020].

[29] Erasmus, Des. Radical Economic Transformation Best for SA Post-Covid-19, Says Ramaphosa. 6 May 2020. [Accessed 6 May 2020].

[30]Crewe, Mary. AIDS, Democracy and the University. 2006. Unpublished address.

[31]Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. (New York: Picador, 2003), p18.

[32]Camilleri, Andrea. Rounding the Mark. (London: Picador, 2006), p.111.

[33]Said, Edward. The World, the Text and the Critic. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), p. 28.