Old Ways, New Times

by Shalate Belinda Pakati

Women need to understand that it’s okay for a married man to be in a sexual relationship with more than one woman” …

Hearing a woman say this on a radio show recently made me feel very angry. I was also confused about what she was suggesting with these words…I found it difficult to understand why a woman, in this day and age of gender oppression and the fight for gender justice, could have said such a thing.

In fact, I was enraged by what I was hearing. Radio is supposed to be a medium of communication to people who need accurate, day-to-day information, and I felt that the audience was getting misinformation on such a sensitive issue. Why is this issue sensitive, and why did I experience such a strong reaction to it? In this short piece, I offer some personal reflections on the clashes that I have observed between issues of generationality, “culture” and gender, specifically in relation to marriage and its long-standing traditions.

In essence, I felt like the woman on the radio was promoting and encouraging reckless behaviour and infidelity. It is oppressive to expect women to conform to a culture that says “Monna kemokopunaba”. This saying means that it’s okay for a husband to spread himself around like pumpkin branches. Or the saying “Monna le selepewaadimisana”: He is an axe, it’s ok for other woman to borrow him to cut wood. Because they are male, and because “culture” allows this norm, many married men are unfaithful.

These behaviours and sayings show some of the ways that many gendered practices (such as having multiple sexual partners, despite being in a monogamous relationship) are normalised in the context of broader patriarchal cultures. Patriarchal dominance is something that justifies disloyalty to one’s partner, and these acts are often excused as “boys being boys”. Men are often made out to have unsatisfiable sexual needs, that have to be fulfilled whatever the cost.

My opinion about the norms that allow for married men to have multiple sexual partners is that: we are no longer living in the times of our great grandfathers and great grandmothers. Then, things were done with respect and dignity, and polygamy was discussed, allowed and introduced in the “right” way. Back then, “cheating” (or perhaps I should say, a man having a sexual partner outside of a monogamous relationship) was done for specific reasons; reasons which were culturally accepted and understood.

For example, if an elder uncle in the family was married to a wife, and after some time the parents realised that the wife was not getting pregnant, they would secretly consult a traditional healer (the Inyanga) to get advice on whether there was fertile Imbewu (sperm) or not. If the traditional healer said that the man could not produce children, the parents would not tell him, but would arrange for their younger son, or the wife’s father-in-law, to assist without the elder son’s awareness. They arranged, for example, that the father-in-law or the younger son occasionally slept with the older son’s wife until she fell pregnant. Because the wife would still be having sex with her husband, he would not be surprised when she fell pregnant.

Or, in a different scenario, if a woman’s husband was to leave his family temporarily, to work in another country or region, for example, he would ask his trusted friend to look after his family, basically asking him also to satisfy his wife sexually. The woman would be made aware of the situation and would accept the arrangement. It is possible that some women did not like or accept these arrangements, but it may not have been easy to challenge this. Back then, women did not have a voice and/or an opinion, and they were not even given an opportunity to speak an express their feelings. These practices became embedded because of cultural beliefs that said women needed to be a certain way.

In a way, these situations “worked” because the “system” was “accepted” by all and the arrangements were meant to uphold the family system. But today, many men feel entitled to sleep with any other women because they say it is “cultural”, and their wives are no longer protected by the family and community system. And in fact, many women today are often abused or harmed, killed even, if they challenge their partners or show some independence.

Also, during the dowry (Lobola) process, older women would advise and teach women how to conduct themselves in a marriage. They would be told that “Monnakeselepewaadimisana” and Monna kemokopuwanaba” and they should not have any problems with him doing that. And if he did not come home, a woman could not ask her husband where he had been and why he had not slept at home. “Bogadibakgothleleloa”: you had to have perseverance in marriage. The idea of ‘perseverance’ is often gendered, too. An example of this can be identified in the novel “So Long a Letter”, by Mariama Bâ, where the author documents (through a series of letters exchanged between two best friends) a Senegalese woman’s struggles to reconcile cultural expectations for her to mourn the recent death of her husband, and the fact that he wanted nothing to do with her in the years of their marriage before he passed. The woman relates to her best friend, in these letters, how she struggled during the last years of her marriage to make things work, and this includes a critique of the idea that it is the woman who should persevere when she is unhappy.

Despite high levels of violence against women, we have to keep working towards gender equality and remain hopeful that times are changing. More and more, many women are no longer expected to stay at home, raise children and let men be the sole providers for the family. Many more women can go to school than before, which means that they can obtain a quality education and get better jobs to be able to raise their children effectively.

Many women now also have a choice about whether they want to be part of traditional norms that we might now see as oppressive. Technology (invitro fertilization, sperm donors) can minimise the conflict that might arise between the modern woman and man caught up in cultural norms that no longer benefit their marriage or relationship. More and more families reject that idea that women are to blame for not falling pregnant.

Many women are educated and liberated to not stay in abusive relationships, and for some women, financial independence means that they can escape abusive situations and support themselves. Some of them even find the voice, with support from others, to challenge societal ideas that they will be seen as failures, a disgrace to the family, weak for not making their marriages work, to stay in a toxic marriage even when it hurts to stay.

However, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done around gender-based violence, femicide, destructive intergenerational relationships, and the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women. For many women (especially those who are economically disenfranchised, for example), the option and/or choice to leave an abusive relationship is simply not available. For a start, activists and gender scholars have long called on state and social institutions to acknowledge that gender-based violence is very serious and to advocate for the relevant measures to be put in place to act against it.

How serious is South Africa’s government?

“In October 2019 after the rape and murder of Uyinene Mrwetyana, during the State of the nation address (SONA), there was a promise that the government will spend money on GBVF. Instead of action, there has been a report by the Emergency Response Action Plan (ERAP) that the government failed to act on the items they promised to act on and never explained what happened to the funding provided for these items.” Duma Qubule, an Economist.

Not serious enough, it seems. Cultures are shifting along with our modern times, so when is the government going to shift its priorities and show it is serious about GBV? I was very angry at what the woman said in the Radio, because of her expectation for another woman to accept infidelity and persevere in a toxic relationship. It is unfair for women to be expected to accept the cultural practises that oppress and degrade them; this kind of behaviour is unacceptable in the new times.

A bitter makoti

by Belinda Pakati

A large body of women simply abandoned the notion of sisterhood. Individual women who had once critiqued and challenged patriarchy re-aligned with sexist men. Radical women who felt betrayed by the negative competition between women often simply retreated. And at this point, feminist movement which was aimed at positively transforming the lives of all females, became more stratified. The vision of sisterhood that had been the rallying cry of the movement seemed to many women to no longer matter.

Feminism Is For Everybody, Passionate Politics. bell hooks (2000)

A woman supporting another woman should be natural, but very few women support other women, instead they exacerbate violence and shame towards other women.

It was on a Saturday morning when I entered the house of a friend’s mother. The mother did not even pretend to be happy about what was about to happen that day. Her face was unpleasant and unfriendly. I noticed from the ash tray that she had smoked more than ten draws to maintain composure.

My friend had arranged for his Uncle and Aunt to negotiate for him to pay lobola[1] for his girlfriend. They had one child and had been together for three and half years. But my friend’s mother had never accepted their relationship, even though there was a child. She did not seem to like the fact that her son had made his own choice for a partner.

It has become clear that the mother will never accept the girlfriend as her makoti[2].

The girlfriend and her parents had come over to the boyfriend’s house to announce that she was pregnant and to request that the boyfriend acknowledged the pregnancy. But before the boyfriend could say anything, his mother told the girlfriend’s family that she could not accept and acknowledge the matter they came to address. She said her son already had a partner and she would never accept anyone else.

An altercation ensued and the girlfriend got very angry, burst into tears, and accused her boyfriend’s mother of ill treatment, telling her that it was not up to her to acknowledge the relationship. She also mentioned that the alleged “other woman” was no longer a part of the son’s life and that he had told this woman he had found someone else.

Seeing how angry his girlfriend was, the boyfriend eventually intervened and told his girlfriend’s family that he was indeed responsible for her pregnancy.

I was perplexed by the time it took for my friend to respond to his mother. I found it annoying that he just sat there and said nothing while his mother rejected the partner he had chosen for himself and, in a way, the baby too. It took the woman’s tears and pain for him to speak up.

I also felt helpless because I was not allowed to say anything, even though I could see that the mother was being unfair. It takes two people to make a baby, and the focus was on the girlfriend, not the boyfriend who had impregnated someone unknown to his family.

My helplessness surfaced because I knew the truth, I knew how their relationship started and I could see how attached they were to one another.

And I had also seen the mother would never accept the younger woman as the daughter-in-law of the family.

I recalled how my friend’s mother and siblings (especially the female sibling to be precise) used to say that the new girlfriend had given my friend some sort of a manipulative potion. They even took my friend to an umfundisi[3]to pray for him to leave the new girlfriend. “She comes from a poor family and her mother is a drunkard, her mother needs money”, they said.

A year passed, the lobola was paid and my friend and his now wife were blessed with their second child. Then my friend lost his job and soon after his wife discovered that she was expecting another child. The mother-in-law was not pleased to hear there was a third child coming.

My friend’s mother again said bad things about the makoti, that she was irresponsible, filthy and lazy, that what she knew best was to make babies, that if she thought she would get anything from her son, she would get it over her dead body.

As a woman it pained me to hear what was said about my friend’s wife by another woman. I felt she should help and guide her as her own child, especially as she was married to her son. She should have given her an opportunity to grow into the family, to feel confident to speak for herself, to get along with everyone.

It was difficult to hear her being judged because of her poor family background, to watch her having to defend herself during the process of announcing the pregnancy, because culturally she was expected to keep quiet.

The way my friend acted felt like it was not right. Sometimes he would side with his wife but because he could not provide for both families, he would get stressed. Then he would be angry at his children and swear at his wife, telling her how uneducated she was, that she would not inherit the house. She would also be reminded her about her drunkard mother who failed to find a home for her. I saw how he repeated his mother’s abuse of his wife.

The situation now, five years and three children later, is that my friend’s mother still does not acknowledge the makoti. And the makoti has grown into the habit of being emotionally, verbally and physically abused. She does not seem to care anymore. She has lost respect for her husband and has no respect for her in-laws. She does not conform to cultural norms. If her mother-in-law says something that does not sit well with her, she will not hesitate to answer back, she will look directly into her eyes to make it clear to her that she means what she is saying. She is now a disrespectful and bitter makoti.

At some point the mother-in-law tried to mend ways but the makoti did not want anything to do with her. “Mestige a tshollogile a tshollogileokase a olle, Lentswegeletswile le tswile gale bowe go tshwane le seatla”, she said. What is said cannot be erased or reversed, when water has been spilled it cannot be fetched.

Reflecting on this story I have some questions.

Do parents turn their children (like the son in this story) into perpetrators, thinking they are protecting them from women who want to use them?

Do elders misuse culture to oppress others?

Do some woman perpetuate violence against other woman?

Instead of working together in solidarity do women sometimes create the conditions for gender-based violence to thrive?

Are we all part of the system that creates a bitter makoti?


Shalate Belinda Pakati is a senior project manager who coordinates student outreach and community engagement programmes within CSA&G. She is also responsible for the HIV testing and counselling work and ongoing student support. She has a background in Human Resource Management. She is passionate about working with and giving back to the community


[1]the practice of paying a bride price

[2] a term which can mean a bride, a newly-wed woman, a daughter-in-law, often used by a woman’s husband’s family to refer to her

[3] A priest

A hard life in a hard Lockdown

by Belinda Pakati

Growing up with my friends, we used to play games just to keep ourselves outdoors and enjoy the school holidays.

One of the games we used to play is Statue. One person shouted “statue” and everyone would stand still. No movement was allowed until the very same person who shouted “statue” …. shouted “go” … then everyone could move as they wished.

When the hard Lockdown was announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africans were prohibited from unnecessary movement to curb the spread of the Corona virus. Many things had to be put on hold, shops became structures just standing still, taxis had to operate at a given time, people had to stand in long queues to enter grocery stores to buy essentials, the was no movement in the streets. I was taken back to those childhood years of playing Statue, but this is not fun, this is not a game, this is reality.

The reality of Lockdown is that we are always moving between “Statue” and “Go”.

This is a country that has child-headed families and orphanages that depend on donations and funding. This is a country that has issues of unemployment; people in my area survive financially by selling tomatoes on street corners and they do piece jobs to put food on the table. But now these people are prohibited from the means to survive, so that they can be safe. They have to stay at home and adhere to the rules of social distancing. For such people life under normal circumstances is difficult, during this unprecedented time they are finding it more difficult to survive.

I found myself in a situation where I had to buy a bag of 10kg Maize Meal, a pack of 5kg chicken feet and a bag of potatoes, because a family that survives by selling vegetables had run out of food and they had to ask for help. I knew the young woman from that family from when I was recruiting people to participate in data collection for research purposes.

“MmaNkati kogae agon adijo le mabone, mabanererobetsikatlala. Mogogoogola next week and Mmamogolo waka yena wa struggler since Lockdown di customer gaditeng,” she said. [“At home we do not have Maize Meal and electricity has run out. Yesterday we had nothing to eat. My grandmother is getting her social grant next week and my aunt is struggling because customers are not available due to Lockdown. Can you please help?”]

As a parent I felt helpless about this. I imagined how it could have been if my children were in a similar situation. My heart pounded with fear. I asked myself how many families out there are going through the same ordeal, who do they turn to in order to get assisted, how many people like me are able to help? This made me feel fearful of how the pandemic has forced people to change the way they survive in life. How am I going to be able to provide for my immediate family, and my extended family and friends who are sometimes dependent on me for some little help, even under normal circumstances?

This brought back memories about how young people who are unemployed (girls in particular) got involved in a lot of different things just so that they could survive a day, a month and a year of their lives. I also wondered how are they now during the lockdown maintaining their needs, how are they able to source money from their Blessers without first satisfying the Blesser’s needs (sex in an exchange for money in this instance) since their everyday lives have been channelled in a way that they do not have much freedom of movement.

Another young woman approached me recently. She was once a participant in an HIV/AIDS workshop I had facilitated back in the day, when HIV was still new to underprivileged communities, where young people were unemployed, where myths and perceptions about that pandemic had to be clarified. She asked questions regarding COVID-19 – she felt it was the same thing as HIV, and wondered if  I would be running a workshop, “because it’s a virus too”.

This made me realize that people aren’t really aware of what COVID-19 is. How do I even help them? Am I even allowed to give out information that might end up being deemed as false, ignorant or not constructive?

People have to learn how to deal with this pandemic, and I realize that I am seeing what I have seen during the years of HIV. People had to learn about it and people who were on ARV’s were given social grants in order to buy healthy food to boost their immune systems. In the time of Corona, people are still learning and still relying on grants.

There are two other things I have seen that are similar. In the early years, people who were HIV positive were isolated just like people who test positive for COVID-19 are separated from others. HIV positive people were placed in separate wards at hospitals and clinics, and some families used to put them in backrooms and hide them from people when they wanted to visit. This was driven by stigma, lack of information, misinformation and uncertainty.

A friend of a friend stopped taking their ARVs because they were tired of taking their medication in secret, so people did not ask questions. This person also said it was hard to explain to a man who was interested in a love affair that they were HIV positive. They feared rejection, they become isolated from the rest of the world, they did not socialise. They become a “statue”.

It’s the same with Covid-19: the infected person starts to panic, fear takes over their lives and they go into self-isolation or get quarantined. Although this is only for a short time, and is necessary, it is still very lonely, and the stigma around Covid is real.

Finally, people don’t always easily stick to the rules. The don’t like to self-isolate, wear masks, sanitise or give up their social lives to prevent COVID-19; and in the same way people don’t like being told about abstinence, sticking to one partner and having safer sex to prevent HIV.

I have learned that people don’t like being turned into “statues”, not then and not now.