Digital advocacy on GBV during COVID-19

The University of Pretoria’s Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender invites you to a web-based partner forum series on digital advocacy towards gender and social justice. The sessions will be facilitated by Adebayo Okeowo and the platform will allow you to engage on a range of key digital activism issues like: the shifting shape of advocacy against gender-based violence during COVID-19; and ethical and political implications of taking our work into online spaces. Adebayo is an experienced lawyer and visual campaigner who is passionate about using technology and digital media to promote human rights.

Members of the public are invited to join us in these conversations, with three available sessions:

Session 1: Tuesday, 23rd June 2020 from 14.00-16.00, or
Session 2: Thursday, 25th June 2020 from 14.00-16.00, or
Session 3: Friday, 26th June 2020 from 14.00-16.00

Please RSVP to: with your preferred session(s) to receive the Zoom meeting information and link(s).

digital activism GBV

Publication launch: Just Leaders – sharing their reflections on social justice

Just Leaders and social justice

The Just Leaders project was launched in 2018 as a flagship programme of the Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender at the University of Pretoria. Just Leaders draws on the student body and “endeavours to build a movement of active citizen student leaders that promote social justice, critical consciousness and inclusive practices at the University of Pretoria and supporting similar movements at partner universities in the region,” (CSA&G, 2020). Through its focus on student-led and informed research, advocacy and support of intersectional social justice, the Just Leaders programme develops justice-driven leadership that works to improve and sustain inclusive tertiary environments.

The collection of designs that follow in this publication flows from one such Just Leaders initiative. Together with artist and activist Brenton Maart, the Just Leaders research cohort of 2019 gave expression to their own understandings, interpretations and critiques of the notion of “social justice”. Over the course of a year the students engaged in a series of workshops around themes of social justice, political citizenship, activism, agency and intersectionality. Along with the theoretical components of these workshops, the students, under Maart’s guidance, also acquired skills and methods including photovoice and visual literacy.

The outcome of the project challenges its audience to engage with young leaders, not through mediated or second-hand accounts of their experiences and perceptions of social justice, but in their own words. The photos used were taken by the students themselves – self-portraits capturing what appear to be everyday moments – and the text that accompanies the pictures stems from conversations with the students. Together these designs ask of us to rethink not only the supposed limits of student research, but also challenges us to engage in intimate ways with the thinking of the CSA&G’s Just Leaders.

“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.

Reflections on what I do at the CSA&G – Vuyisa Mamanzi

By Vuyisa Mamanzi

My background

Vuyisa MamanziI grew up in Gugulethu, a township located just outside Cape Town. I obtained my undergraduate and postgraduate education at the University of the Western Cape. I completed my honours degree in Anthropology and my research project looked at unemployment and its impact on being a ‘real man’: A study investigating coping strategies utilized by men living in Gugulethu. In 2015, I worked as a research assistant at the School of Public Health/Management Studies at the University of Cape Town, part-time. My work involved transcription, data analysis and conducting in-depth interviews on a project that focused on “Childbearing, family planning and the relationships among women living with HIV in Gugulethu”. I am completing my master’s degree, through UWC; and the research is an ethnographic study on power relations between black employers and black employees in the Nyanga mini-bus taxi industry.

I joined the Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender (CSA&G) team in January 2018 as a project manager and researcher. My responsibilities included organising and overseeing the day to day logistics of the Just Leaders project. The project is a CSA&G volunteer and leadership development programme. It endeavours to build a movement of active citizen student leaders that promote social justice, critical consciousness and inclusive practices at the University of Pretoria. Our work on this project is greatly influenced by the ideology of the Brazilian educator and writer Paulo Freire, who states that “for liberation you need education that inspires you to think critically, education that frees the mind instead of numbing it”. One of the achievements that I am most proud of currently, is leading a team of three researchers in developing the Just Leaders curriculum for our 9-week entry-level course. The course looks at a range of topics such as structural violence, stigma, sexual and reproductive health and rights, social justice, access to quality education, activism and social movements, democracy and political citizenship, and leadership for change. The course is aimed at registered UP students and it has been well received. An amazing aspect of the Just Leaders programme is that it provides our student volunteers with skills and an opportunity to be drivers and agents for change. Upon invitation, we also conduct and facilitate race, sexualities and gender awareness talks/workshops on and off campus.

What I enjoy about our awareness raising and prevention work, is our pedagogical approach. Our work takes on a more intersectional approach to dynamics such as sexualities, race, class and gender which inform student experiences. The Just Leaders theory of change states:

“Through promoting social justice, critical consciousness and inclusive practices, we will co-create university environments that are responsive and transformed by just leaders.

Just Leaders

Whether facilitating dialogues, workshops or giving a presentation for lecturers and students, our focus is situating knowledge from the students’ lived experiences by developing communities of practice where learning is contextual and meaningful. We create conducive environments for learning by removing power hierarchies and employing teachers as learners and learners as teachers philosophy.  What we see happening when this philosophy is applied is that students question! We enter into conversations, where we begin to question our own privilege, power and positionality. We start confronting the uncomfortable truths about ourselves. An exploration of ‘contradiction’ takes place because we are all living in a space of contradiction. I am reminded of a lecturer, who, after one of our sessions shared that: students have the ability to intellectually grasp theories and articulate them well but struggle to practice what they learn in their daily interactions.

We also often hear these issues from students:

  • There’s a lack of understanding about our backgrounds and history.
  • In class, there is a fear of saying the ‘wrong’ thing to each other.
  • I grew up as a black person in the suburbs and thought racism was over.
  • “I’m ghetto and a cheese girl” (blackness as a layered and multifaceted phenomenon, it also includes questions of class)
  • “I’m white and I don’t feel I have privilege, I don’t quite get it, as I’m from a poor family”
  • “Black peers positioned as angry and attacking”
  • “Being around white people, I have had to sacrifice/compromise”
  • “Was bizarre to see racism at UP when I came (as white person) from a multi-racial school”

What these utterances shed light on, is the reality that we do not always get practice right. There are pitfalls, habits and places where we go to, when we are in fear; directing us, silencing us, or making us loud. Work that challenges taken for granted knowledge that has been naturalised over time through socialisation is challenging. Often time, some people are comfortable with the status quo. Our work greatly involves getting people to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, and this is not always easy. For example, work around race, class, gender, sexualities is difficult. Often, when you have any form of privilege you want to hold on to it and fear of losing that privilege often makes people defensive and not open to challenging beliefs that may be harmful to others.

One of the most challenging subjects that I have had to discuss and deal with is sexual and gender-based violence. As a woman and particularly working at an institution of higher learning, it has become evident that those who are mostly at risk of gendered and sexual violence, are young women and specifically students.

In South Africa gender-based violence (GBV) has overwhelmed the country and the Post-School Education and Training System (PSET). Amidst protest action in 2016 on our campuses, institutions stressed the need for the PSET to actively address GBV on campuses (DHET, 2019). As a result, policy and programming became a vital course of action. The University of Pretoria (UP) recently reviewed and developed its Anti-Discrimination Policy, an all-encompassing policy that tackles issues around all forms of discrimination.

In alignment with above mentioned, my work at the CSA&G, also involves being part of a team that facilitates anti-sexual harassment training workshops for both students and staff members, to familiarise the campus community with the anti- sexual harassment policy, as well as to raise awareness and prevention around sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). This includes working closely with the Transformation Office, tasked with driving anti-discrimination work at UP, and the #SpeakOut Office. The latter is staffed by trained and mentored student volunteers who have been capacitated to listen, support, provide relevant information as requested, and refer accordingly. Peer support allows for an informal space to unpack an experience, where one will be listened to and supported, enabling a student to make an informed decision. Rape and sexual assault may require urgent and immediate intervention and volunteers are trained to refer all students to the relevant support services at UP.

Studies have shown that a large proportion of abuse and violence that students experience is perpetrated outside the institution’s premises, often time by intimate partners, family members, friends, neighbours, acquaintances and those unknown to the complainant (Vetten, 2014). Bearing this in mind, even though cases of this nature fall beyond the jurisdiction of institutions, this does not stop us from providing information, guidance, assistance and support to students who have experienced SGBV. Given the nature our work, providing student friendly services (including HIV testing and counselling), and our visibility and the rapport we have established with students; more often than not students prefer to access our offices for information, assistance and support with regards to SGBV that may have occurred on or off campus. This proximity to students has enabled me to have first-hand knowledge of the lived experiences of students and their struggles in accessing justice through the criminal justice system.

The South African government is increasingly passing legislation to combat GBV as seen in the establishment of the police’s Family Violence Child Protection and Sexual Offences service (FCS), the Thuthuzela Care Centres based in health facilities, and the reintroduction of sexual offences courts. In spite of these progressive policies, we continue to experience a drastic increase of SGBV. These causes include socio-cultural drivers, a weak response by the criminal justice system and lack of proper implementation of these policies. This has fuelled distrust and disappointment in the criminal justice system; therefore, discouraging reporting and further silencing survivors of SGBV. This was evident while supporting students who had fallen victim to SGBV and chose to seek justice through the criminal justice system. Two separate incidents were reported at different police stations but the outcome was the same. Our criminal justice system failed these students and justice was denied. Both students expressed feelings of disappointment, frustration and discouragement.

I observed:

  1. The failure of the investigation officer to follow up and contact the complainant after statements were taken.
  2. Re-traumatisation as a result of having to give a second statement because a new detective was now assigned to the case.
  3. The incorrect recording of the initial statement and inappropriate behaviour by a warrant officer who was tasked with taking down a statement.

I understand and share some of frustration experienced by the students. I witnessed the inappropriate conduct of a warrant officer when I accompanied someone when she gave a statement about her GBV experience. The warrant officer who was taking down the statement alluded to the complainant’s attractiveness as a possible reason for her experience; and used inappropriate sexual language to describe the actions of the accused. Hearing I was an isiXhosa speaker, the warrant officer also spoke to me in isiXhosa, effectively excluding the complainant from our conversation. Not only was this disrespectful to her, I saw it as an attempt to set up an intimacy between us. This played out in two ways: the warrant officer effectively asked me out on a date and, in a subsequent text message, suggested that, between us, the complainant’s story seemed improbable.

The above narrative is not an isolated incident but an experience shared by many survivors who have tried to seek justice through the South African criminal justice system. Ross (1993) correctly identified that even though police investigators receive instructions to be ‘sympathetic’, they still hold onto myths surrounding rape, such as, women are prone to lay false complaints of rape. This is evident in the manner in which police handle women who lodge complaints. Often time, women are treated with suspicion and find themselves having to prove that they have been raped.

Myths and stereotypes about rape and rape victims worsen the plight of victims of sexual offences. They trivialise the harm of sexual victimisation and blame victims for its occurrence. The consequences of these ideas may be unsympathetic, disbelieving and inappropriate responses to victims by society in general.  Our work at the CSA&G pays particular attention to the social context of violence and the ways in which this violence manifests within patterns of gender, sexism and individual institutions. In addressing GBV we look at the complex interplay of different genders, sexualities and forms of masculinities. And we focus on dismantling harmful behaviours and promoting understanding of social justice and GBV that is transformative for the world we live in (Crewe, 2017).

Another project that I had the pleasure of working on is the Gender Justice project, which focuses on strengthening gender equality and social justice. Here we provide a platform for our partners in the region (Zimbabwe and South Africa); to critically and collectively reflect on the challenges in their practice and engage with new forms of evidence and trends. The aim is to develop new avenues and means through which our partners are able to work toward the attainment of more open and inclusive societies. Often time in the work we do, people with disabilities (PWD’s) and children are silenced and invisible. This became evident when some of our partners reflected on their challenges in working with PWD’s. Some of the identified challenges included difficulty in communicating with people who had speech impairments, and information that was not accessible to people who are visually impaired. It was also highlighted that PWD’s face social exclusion and they are also invisible at the family level. In our continued efforts to strengthen practice and maximise impact in working towards achieving social justice, once again it became evident that children were the most vulnerable. In relation to the SGBV cases presented during discussion by the different partners, all the survivors/victims were children. Hamida Ismail-Mauto, who works for SRHR Africa Trust (SAT) Zimbabwe, highlighted that gender inequalities at population level contribute towards extreme vulnerability of women and young girls with disabilities as they suffer rape and sexual disempowerment, mostly by family and community members who are supposed to protect them.

What has become evident in my line of work is that many of us walk and live in spaces of risk, but others disproportionally bear most of the burden of risk. We are also reminded that we all collude with patriarchy. So, in working towards dismantling any system; we need to have the will to be compassionate towards people as they are going through transformations. Often time people are challenged by something that rocks them to the core. I personally, like bell hooks, am mindful of how I confront power. Especially when one does not realise what they are participating in, is an exploitation, an oppression or hurting someone. Bell hooks exhorts us to confront and be confronted in ways that are not re-wounding or re-traumatising. Again, social justice allows communities and citizens to revitalise social belief in the alternatives to social oppression and marginalisation (Crewe,, 2017).

Finally, Francis Nyamjoh while delivering the Archie Mafeje Memorial Lecture, urged us to accept that one’s independence will always be thwarted by one’s dependency on others; reminding us to see debt and indebtedness as a normal way of being human, through relationships with others. 


Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender. 2017. Policy Brief Social Justice and gender Inequity. Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender, University of Pretoria

Crewe, M., Burns, C, Kruger, C. & Maritz, J. 2017. Gender-based Justice: Reflections on social justice and social change. Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender, University of Pretoria

DHET, 2019. Policy Framework to address Gender Based Violence in the Post-School Education and Training System.

Freire, P.1974. Education for critical consciousness. New York: Seabury.

Ross, K. 1993. Women, rape and violence in South Africa. Community Law Centre, University of the Western Cape.

Vetten, L. 2014. Policy brief 72 Rape and other forms of sexual violence in South Africa. Institute for Security Studies.

New publication: Gendered and Sexual Imagi(nations), the 2018 Zimbabwean E(r)ections and the Aftermath.

The CSA&G is proud to announce the publication of our latest monograph: Gendered and Sexual Imagi(nations), the 2018 Zimbabwean E(r)ections and the Aftermath from the Gender Justice project.

Gendered and Sexual Imagi(nations) attempts to answer questions that have been central to scholarship within the humanities. Drawing on the concepts which Schneider refers to as the basic building blocks of society, i.e. “the quartet of kinship, economics, politics, and religion”, Mawere explores, on the one hand, the historiography of the Zimbabwean state, specifically the Mugabe era, and the particular ways in which it has been underpinned by a deeply rooted system of patriarchal values. On the other hand, this text asks questions which most authors have shied away from asking. Rather than constructing a perspective which imagines leaders of ZANU-PF and the MDC in natural opposition and fundamentally different because of divergent political visions, Gendered and Sexual Imagi(nations) asks its readers to take note of the commonalities shared by male leaders of these parties, and, in fact, held by most male politicians.

In the first part of this monograph, Mawere tells the story of three women – Joice Mujuru, Grace Mugabe and Thokozani Khupe – and how ultimately these women were deemed unfit to occupy the political sphere because of their gender. The text highlights that it was because of their gender, rather than owing to their actions, that they were regarded as undesirable in the political terrain. Through a discursive analysis of the 2018 presidential campaigns, Gendered and Sexual Imagi(nations) draws attention to the misogynism that characterised both Chamisa’s and Mnangagwa’s performances. Throughout their campaigns these men drew explicitly on notions of hegemonic masculinity, naturalised gender roles and their own sexual (in)abilities.

Mawere compels us to take a step back and to ask whether social justice is possible while women continue to be marginalised, vilified and objectified. The ways in which we imagine possible futures are crucial for those of us who work within the space of social and gender justice. Gendered and Sexual Imagi(nations) reminds us, however, that we need to do more than imagine futures in which the men at the top change while the fabric of society remains the same. Instead, it asks us to imagine a society that appears, thinks, and acts in radically different ways to the ones that we know. We need to ask whether and how we can imagine a society in which women are not relegated to the domestic sphere, and where women who challenge the status quo are not labelled immoral, irresponsible and irrational. However, this would require dismantling of the patriarchal ideologies that prevail as yet another generation of young men flex their muscles, calling for the strongest rooster to step forward.

Mawere cover

In my opinion: Decolonise Men and Masculinity Studies to end Gender-Based Violence

By Sakhumzi Mfecane

As gender scholars in South Africa specialising in Men and Masculinities research, we seem to have reached an impasse in theorising the high rates of gender-based violence and killings of women by men in our country. Existing theories are increasingly rendered obsolete by the complex – and I should add, brutal – nature of these crimes; yet we still defer to them when analysing these social problems in the media and academic platforms. This requires us to critically reflect on how we produce knowledge about men and masculinities and how we can make our scholarship more relevant and responsive to current needs of our communities.

In most global academic settings –including South Africa – there have been growing calls and efforts to decolonise knowledge by foregrounding knowledge systems and epistemologies from the Global South, as a way of fighting the current dominance of Global North scholarship in the academy (Mbembe 2016; Ndlovu-Gatsheni 2018). In some parts of Latin America, for example, some decolonial scholars have forged partnerships with grassroots organisations and ordinary people to co-create new forms of knowledge and teaching methods informed by philosophies and histories of the indigenous populations (e.g. Mignolo & Walsh, 2018). The impetus for these partnerships is that knowledge production is not restricted to academic contexts, but also exists in daily practices of the ordinary people. So, researchers must be familiar with the realities of ordinary people to ensure that they (co) produce knowledges and theories that are relevant and reflective of their belief systems and lived experiences.

In the sub-field of Men and Masculinities in South Africa, knowledge decolonisation is lacking and we are mostly dependent on theories and concepts developed by scholars living in Europe and North America to analyse problematic social conduct of men, like the use of violence against women (Ratele 2017; Mfecane 2018a). Many analysts for example, have been saying that gender-based violence and killings of women and children by men are caused by “toxic masculinities” and “hegemonic masculinities”. These concepts originated from the Global North and cannot be directly translated to most South African indigenous languages. Also, the concepts have been subjects of intense scholarly debates in the North as some scholars feel that they are vague and muddled and can be detrimental to the feminist fight against patriarchy if we apply them uncritically in research and policy interventions (e.g. Schwalbe 2014). Raenwyn Connell (2014; 2016) as a well-known gender theorist has also questioned the usefulness of the western gender concepts in non-western settings and urged Global South scholars to work toward developing theories and concepts informed by local conditions and histories.

Yet in South Africa most scholars and analysts seem to apply these concepts with vigour and also invoke them in media and public platforms to explain our social ills. During a recent televised funeral, for example, a prominent South African academic said the underlying cause of gender-based violence and femicide is “toxic masculinities”. She could not explain the meaning of this concept to a predominantly Xhosa-speaking group of mourners and non- English-speaking audience following the funeral proceeds on various media channels.

This speaks of the urgent need to decolonise our research by centering it on African ontologies and epistemologies, to make sure that it reflect the realities and lived experiences of the majority of African populations. Gender analysts must refrain from simply imposing ready-made concepts from the Global North when analysing our complex social problems and instead seek to develop grounded explanatory frameworks. I suggest that gender-based violence in South Africa is caused by deeper societal issues than the contested notion of “toxic masculinities” which has gained public popularity in recent times. We need to find local expressions for these social ills (e.g Mfecane 2018b). We can then develop policy interventions and gender transformation programmes that are aligned with local understandings of masculinities and gender-based violence, and also partner with indigenous populations to educate those working in black African communities – researchers, policy-makers, students, media, and activists – about African cultures and epistemologies to ensure that they have common understanding of the issues and dynamics at play. This will result in accurate reporting and analysis of our social issues and furthermore give ordinary people a voice in the academy, media, and policy development platforms.

To achieve these ideals we need to train young black researchers to become co-producers of African-centred knowledge on boys and men. Currently most black youth are employed by research organisations as research assistants, translators, data gatherers and data capturers. This limits their abilities to make significant contributions to knowledge creation and dissemination (e.g. data analysis and authoring research reports and journal articles). We need African-centred scholarship on men and masculinities, produced by local researchers, as way of contributing to the fight against gender-based violence and decolonisation of knowledge in South Africa.

This opinion piece was first published on the CSA&G’s Gender Justice website.


Connell, R. 2016. Masculinities in global perspective: Hegemony, contestation and changing structures of power. Theory and Society, 45(4), 303–318.

Connell, R.W. 2014. “Margin becoming centre: for a world-centred rethinking of masculinity.” Norma: International Journal for Masculinity Studies 9 (4): 217–231.

Ratele, K. 2017. Liberating Masculinities. Cape Town, HSRC Press.

Mbembe, A. J. 2016. Decolonizing the university: New directions. Arts & Humanities in Higher Education, 15(1): 29–45.

Mignolo, W.; & Walsh, C. 2018. On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, Praxis. Durham & London, Duke University Press.

Mfecane, S. 2018. Towards African-centred theories of masculinity. Social Dynamics: A Journal of African Studies, pp1-15. DOI: 10.1080/02533952.2018.1481683.

Mfecane, S. 2018b. Unknowing Men: Africanising gender justice programmes for men in South Africa. Pretoria: CSA & G Press, Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender, University of Pretoria.

Ndlovu-Gatsheni, S. (2018). Revisiting Trajectories of Epistemological Decolonisation in Africa. Codersria Bulletin, No 1: 11-17

Schwalbe, M. 2014. Manhood Acts: Gender and the Practices of Domination. London, Paradigm Publishers.

Sakhumzi Mfecane

Associate Professor, Anthropology Department, University of the Western Cape

In Conversation with: Prof Deidre Byrne

The CSA&G’s Gender Justice Partnership has published the second episode of its ‘In Conversation with…’ series. In this episode they are in conversation with Prof Deidre Byrne from Unisa’s Institute for Gender Studies.


Women in the Context of Justice: Continuities and Discontinuities in Southern Africa (2018)

Women in the Context of Justice: Continuities and Discontinuities in Southern Africa.

(Un)knowing MEN: Africanising gender justice programmes for men in South Africa (2018)

In (Un)knowing Men Sakhumzi Mfecane shares his critical reflections on research on men and masculinities in South Africa. In South Africa, he argues, there seems to be an impasse in scholarly accounts of men and masculinities. Old theories do not provide new answers; violence against women, homicide, rape of women and children, and homophobia persist despite heavy financial investments by the government and international NGOs in research, education and activism that seek to end all forms of gender inequality in South Africa. Research and interventions, Mfecane points out, centre on the same goal of subverting patriarchy without putting patriarchy in proper social and historical context.

Gender-based Justice: Reflections on social justice and social change

CREWE, M., BURNS, C., KRUGER, C. & MARITZ, J. 2017. Gender-based Justice: Reflections on social justice and
social change. Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender, University of Pretoria. Pretoria.