Fighting for Pure Lands: Land Purity, Polluting Figures, Male Power and Violence in Zimbabwe

by Tinashe Mawere

Introduction: Contextualizing the Zimbabwean land question

In Zimbabwe, land became a prominent political and ideological issue after colonisation in 1890; catalysed by the ‘invading’ masculine British South Africa Company (BSAC) and its violent ‘penetration’ and appropriation of land. The physical and symbolic violence that can be associated with land ‘invasion’ is gendered through the figure of Charwe, a female spirit medium housing and personifying the spirit of Nehanda, Zimbabwe’s most revered ancestral spirit. The ‘purification’ of the colonial-polluted land thus relied predominantly on the reproductive and generative capacities of Nehanda, whose bones would “rise again.”

The land ‘invasion’ led to armed struggles, primarily over land, and chimurenga became the code for each of these wars, but also a pedestal for national masculinisation and violence, as the notion of chimurenga is associated with grand masculinities and a war ethic (Mawere 2019; Vambe 2004). The First Chimurenga was waged in 1895-6 and is associated with popular ancestral figures like Nehanda, whilst the Second Chimurenga of 1964-1980 (Ranger 1967; Bhebhe 1989) is associated with the current war veterans in Zimbabwe, whose narrative has been appropriated and monopolised by the ruling Zanu-PF party. The Second Chimurenga brought independence through protracted battles between the Rhodesian Forces and the Patriotic Front armed groups, i.e. the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) and the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA).

ZIPRA was the military wing of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), while ZANLA was the armed wing of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). In 1987, the ZAPU and ZANU merged into one party (ZANU-PF), through a Unity Accord (Bhebhe 1989). Based on the prophecy of mapfupa angu achamuka (my bones shall arise), which is ascribed to the spirit of Nehanda, the Second Chimurenga fighters have positioned themselves as the rising bones of Nehanda, or as Nehanda’s sons (Mawere 2016; Shoko 2006). This positioning imagines and entangles Zimbabwean struggles and Zimbabwean nationalism in the politics of regeneration and re/production. Those without the reproductive and generative capacities and those falling out of amadoda sibili (real men able to purify the land and restore the lost reproductive and generative capacities) (Mawere 2019, 2016; Muwati etal; Mugabe 2001), had their citizenships erased and violence authorised against them.  At the same time, fighting for the invaded land has been synonymous with fighting to restore the imagined dignity and respectability of Nehanda’s ‘raped’ womanhood, as well as to restore the masculinities and honour of national men.

Zanu-PF’s greatest challenge to power came from the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which was formed in the late 1990s. This strong opposition party brought about competing masculinities that challenged Zanu-PF dominance. The formation and impact of the MDC gave rise to the Third Chimurenga, led by war veterans and Zanu-PF, which is associated with the violent repossession and occupation of white-owned land. The politics of re/production that personified and gendered land became instrumental to the discourses used by the State and by Zanu-PF. I posit that land has garnered a great deal of symbolic significance, with political aesthetics playing out in physical, social, psychological, political and economic everyday spaces.

Land and the g(j)endered metaphors of re/production

In Zimbabwe, connections to land are figured profoundly in terms of gendered, biological re/production and the fecundity of the female body. In light of this strongly gendered imagining, contests over land could not be reduced to a struggle over a physical place, but a special, almost mystical affiliation to a space that inhabits history, identity and livelihood and ensures survival. Patriarchal fabrications locate land as a key marker of identity and this is why Zimbabweans are referred to as vana vevhu (children of the soil). This suggests that Zimbabweans gain complete identity by being in touch with their source, the motherland, vindicating the government’s efforts to repossess land and get rid of national pollutants. In this logic, land symbolises statehood and nationhood, whilst its absence signifies the absence of both. In discourses of land, there is a re-telling, re/production and repeated performance of naturalised power configurations, gender and sexualities that propels belonging and citizenship. Beyond the materiality of land, deeper and affective symbolic discourses ensuring the survival of patriarchy are capitalised.

Just like nationalism, the land question, which is core to Zimbabwean nationalism, “has sprung from masculinised memory, masculinised humiliation and masculinised hope” (Enloe 1989:44). It is in this sense that land is tied to both “gendered” and “jendered”[1] metaphors of re/production. “Gendered” refers to the associations of land with hierarchical differences in and performances of masculinity and femininity, while “jendered” refers to the use of the testicles, which implies the forceful and violent enactment of masculine power and patriarchy (Mawere 2019, 2016). The appropriation of land, and the language of appropriation by the state and Zanu-PF, echoes a patriarchal enforcement of gendered and sexual categories. Talking of land in nationalist terms implicitly communicates naturalised gender and sexual meanings and behaviours that are acceptable to the state. Land, which traditionally provides space for sustenance, also manifests as a space for the performance of power, and a space for struggles around citizenship and gender.

The re/construction of the Zimbabwean nation, as founded on the land question, provides a space for the institutionalisation and naturalisation of sexual categories and gendered differences, and the naturalisation of knowledge around productivity, re/distribution and survival. The Zimbabwean land question is thus imagined in terms of g(j)endered metaphors of re/production that oscillate around conventions within heterosexual-familial space, where male power and patriarchal violence are tied to land re/productivity. This has sensualised permissible and natural sexualities and has given rise to particular g(j)endered hierarchies where those that are feminised and perceived as without testicles are marginalised. In a bid to maintain what is permissible and natural, “jendered” male power is instrumentalised to rid the land of polluting figures and thereby restore land purity.  Thus, the identity of land as a political signifier and a space where violence is performed has been, to a great extent, acted out through gendered and sexualised national bodies. Thus, the discourse around land, and land and re/production perform surveillance and discipline on the genders, sexualities and power of national bodies.

In dominant ‘nationalist’ texts, there is a symbiotic relationship akin to marriage, where land acquires a feminine identity associated with fecundity and national re/production. Articulated in these texts is a naturalised connection between land and the people, but also between Zanu-PF, the custodian of the land, and the people, who are both fathered by Zanu-PF and also identified as children of the soil (vana vevhu). At the same time, Zimbabwean citizens embody a national purity which runs according to Zanu-PF’s patriarchal imaginations and dissenting voices are thus imagined as pollutants and consequently denied citizenship.

Polluting figures and g(j)endered power

The opposition party MDC has been positioned as a pollutant, a threat to the purity and the re/productive and generative capacities of the Zimbabwean nation. A discourse of protection over feminised land aligned with Zanu-PF, against the incursion of the MDC, emerged in the post-2000 period. However, it is a resurgence and recirculation of historic discourses constructing feminised land, first established by British imperial imaginings of the colonised territories as feminised sites ready for British men’s conquest. Zimbabwean anti-colonial fiction, for example, Feso and Pfumoreropa by Solomon Mutswairo and Patrick Chakaipa respectively, is replete with portraits of land as female subject needing protection by valiant sons of the soil against the white intruder. So, the shift here is the notion of some indigenous sons as traitors and unworthy of the land; in the tensions between MDC and Zanu-PF, which were either prefigured in the Nkomo-Mugabe or ZANLA-ZIPRA conflicts that resulted in the Gukurahundi, where an estimated 20 000 civilians in Zimbabwe’s Matabeleland and Midlands provinces were killed by the state.

Tagging Zimbabwe with familial notions, the feminization of land and the ‘jambanja’ (violence) associated with land takeover as Third Chimurenga gives moral justification to Zanu-PF in its fight against national penetration, allegedly aided by the polluted oppositional voices like the MDC. As in war situations and family defense, enemies have to be vanquished. The attacks on pollutants are performed through the techno-politics of some Zanu-PF jingles such as ‘Tinoda kudeleta Machinja ose’ (We want to wipe off all MDC members). [2] The grotesquely technical term ‘delete’ used in the jingle conjures visual images of violent annihilation of people refusing to conform to Zanu-PF nationhood and those supporting the MDC, as one can relate ‘delete’ to how one gets rid of unwanted texts from the popular mobile cell phones (Mawere 2016). As dissent has been feminised in a nation requiring amadoda sibili and sexualised outside heteronormativity in a nation focused on reproduction and regeneration, violence against oppositional figures is authorised. I concur with Manganga (2011) that in a new millennium Zimbabwe, Zanu-PF perceive male respectability and responsibility as instrumental in the surveillance of bodies and protection of ‘national interests’ by any means necessary, and it would mean eliminating enemies. This echoes earlier sentiments by Muchemwa and Muponde (2007:2) that in the post-2000 epoch, “…outside the war ethic, driven by an excess of masculinity, individuals whose gender does not contribute to the war economy are under threat.” This is because they do not serve the projected image of the Zimbabwean nation, which needs masculine figures.

The state and Zanu-PF have thus feminised certain men who cannot perform the expected male roles and whose characters fail to act “manly”, hence their re/invention as homosexuals in a hetero-normative nation whose thrust is centred around and towards purity, fertility, re/production and regeneration (Mawere 2019, 2016). The construction of oppositional voices as homosexuals is symbolic of how some men are perceived as failing to tally with the national project of regeneration and reproduction. The conflict between Zanu-PF and the MDC thus reflects a longer history in Zimbabwe and Southern African politics; a history characterised by male-led political parties where the national project becomes a phallocratic contest between men over a feminised national citizenry, and by extension, over land.


Although most literature discusses land as a physical, historical and economic space, I posit that land has garnered a significant deal of symbolic significance and political aesthetics, playing out in physical, social, psychological, political and economic everyday spaces. Land, in its feminised discursive nature, is constructed as a pure source for male satisfaction and requiring strong/masculine security. The land, once taken over by white-male British settlers, was ‘bastardised’ and the wars of liberation were, therefore, an attempt to reconfigure the ‘purity’ and sanctity of land, now as a re/productive figure and also ‘our mother’. Similarly, the hegemonic nature of the Zimbabwean state has relied on re/constructing the white settlers, and ‘now’ local opposition political figures, as polluting figures whose agenda was to poison the ‘land’ and dispossess it of its food, re/production and ‘motherly nurturing’ roles.


Bhebe, N. 1989. “The Nationalist Struggle, 1957-1962”, in C. Banana, ed. Turmoil and Tenacity: Zimbabwe, 1890-1990, Harare: The College Press:50-115.

Chakaipa, P. 1961. Pfumoreropa. Harare: Longman.

Enloe, C. 1989. Bananas, beaches and bases: Making feminist sense of international politics. Berkeley and London: University of California Press.

Manganga, K. 2011, Masculinity (dodaism), gender and nationalism: The case of the Salisbury bus boycott, September 1956. In Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni & James Muzondidya (eds.), Redemptive or grotesque nationalism? Rethinking contemporary politics in Zimbabwe, Oxford: Peter Lang, pp. 133-134.

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

Mawere, T. 2016. Decentering Nationalism: Representing and Contesting Chimurenga in Zimbabwean Popular Culture. Thesis (PhD). University of the Western Cape.

Mutswairo, S. 1982. Feso. Harare: Longman

Muwati, I., Mheta, G. & Gambahaya, Z. 2010, Contesting ‘patriotic history’: Zimbabwe’s liberation war history and the democratization agenda, South African Journal of African Languages, vol. 30, no. 2, pp. 170-179.

Ranger, T. 1967. Revolt in Southern Rhodesia: A Study in African Resistance. London: Heinemann.

Shoko, T. 2006. ““My bones shall rise again”: War veterans, spirits and land reform in Zimbabwe.” African Studies Centre, 68.

Vambe, M.T. 2004, Versions and sub-versions: Trends in Chimurenga musical discourses of post-independence Zimbabwe, African study monographs, vol. 25, no. 4, pp 167-193.


[1] After Morgan Tsvangirai of the MDC got more votes than Robert Mugabe of Zanu-PF in Zimbabwe’s 2008 elections, one Zanu-PF youth who was leading a pro-Mugabe campaign team of more than 200 Zanu-PF supporters ahead of the run-off election bulldozed into a bar where I was among some patrons. Wielding a big Okapi knife, the youth declared “Mugabe panyanga zvejende!!” Panyanga is a Shona word literally meaning, at the horns. In the Zimbabwean everyday language, it means being at the top/helm. The Shona word for testicle is jende and zvejende literally means using testicles, but in the Zimbabwean everyday language, it means use of brute and masculine force to demonstrate one’s manhood (Mawere 2016).

[2] Watch

The J(g)endered nation: Zimbabwe’s heroic and macho-currencies

by Tinashe Mawere

Introduction: Heroism and national masculinities

Contestations around national heroism have been rampant in Southern Africa in general and in Zimbabwe in particular (Mawere 2016; Becker 2011; Willems 2010; Goredema & Chigora 2009; Kriger 1995). In Zimbabwe, apart from being buried at national monuments, being commemorated on specific days and having structures and institutions named after them, heroic figures have featured in national (his)tories and artistic compositions such as songs, poems, plays and novels (Mawere 2016; Chitando 2005; Mugabe 2001). A number of scholars have reflected on the contested identities of heroes and subversions of heroism and heroic acts (Mawere 2019, 2016; Ndlovu-Gatsheni & Willems 2009; Goredema & Chigora 2009).

Clear enough is that globally, national heroism has been attached to nation-craft, but in Zimbabwe, this has been very much pronounced. The connotations of heroism have been attached to notions of struggles or chimurenga[1] which is foundational to Zimbabwean nationhood (Mawere 2019, 2016; Vambe 2004). The conflation of nationhood with chimurenga, which is re/imagined as violent reactions to national attacks that are acted out by the nation’s amadoda sibili/varume chaivo chaivo (real men) is problematic in relation to the ways in which masculinities are re/imagined in Zimbabwe and elsewhere. Due to its association with heroism and violent nationhood, rather than being associated with attributes and qualities that boys and men have or do not have, masculinity has landed as a field of discursive inquiry, connected to broader issues of knowledge re/production that are associated with socio-economic and political issues of dominance, oppression, inequalities and violence.

Apart from formal narratives imbibing or contesting Zimbabwean heroism and its performance and re/production of state-craft, in the face of hyper-inflation, Zimbabwe’s currency regime has performed and re/produced how Zimbabwean heroism and nationalism are re/imagined. In this work, by analysing the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ)’s 2006 initiative, ‘Zero to Hero’, I show an unfolding spectacle of Zimbabwean heroism and masculinity. I demonstrate how Zimbabwe’s currency and its ‘chimurenga’ or struggle against the ‘targeted’ crushing and loss of its value-mirror manliness, militarism and notions of masculinities that are foundational to Zimbabwe’s imagi(nation). This ultimately adds to the configuration of Zimbabwe as a j(g)endered nation – a nation founded, performed and re/produced through ‘politics dzejende’ (the politics of the balls/violence) and the politics of gender (Mawere 2019, 2016).

‘From Zero to Hero’: Re/reading the Zimbabwean currency inside the chimurenga

From the 2000s, Zimbabwe saw unprecedented and world-record-breaking levels of inflation (Kangira 2007; Muzondidya 2009). As part of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ)’s 2006 intervention to curb hyper-inflation, which then was at over 1000%, Gideon Gono, the RBZ governor, established and implemented some programs for curbing inflation and strengthening the Zimbabwean currency, popularly known as the Zim dollar. Some of these measures have continued to be applied to a corpus of Zimbabwe’s pseudo-currencies such as bearer cheques, bond notes and the RTGS (Real-Time Gross Settlement).

On 31 July 2006, the state, through the RBZ governor, Gono, announced a Monetary Policy Review Statement branded ‘Sunrise: A New Beginning/Zuva Rabuda (Shona)/Ilanga Seliphumile (Ndebele)’, which was also known as ‘Operation Sunrise’.[2] “Gono gave the impression that the Monetary Statement was a panacea to all the economic woes bedeviling Zimbabwe” (Kangira 2007:23). I posit that ‘sunrise’ framed Zimbabwe within the nationalist discourse of a new nation coming out of the dark tunnel of ‘foreign’ manipulation and naming it an ‘operation’, a war strategy, sensualised militarisation of the ‘sunrise’. The victorious currency announced by Gono was therefore some symbolic imagi(nation) of a new Zimbabwe that had militantly redeemed itself from ‘Western’ control. This spectacle was synonymous to the popular Hero’s Day Celebrations which also marked Zimbabwe as a ‘new beginning’ coming out of the heroic chimurenga struggles.

Gono popularised the ‘Zero to Hero’ (Mawere 2016; Kangira 2007) advertising campaign, which was meant to restore the value of the Zimbabwean currency and therefore masculinise and ‘empower’ it. This meant the slashing of three zeros from the Zimbabwean dollar denominations, where $1000 became $1 but still maintained its value. This was done “to make people believe that once the three zeros were removed from the currency, all economic problems would be a thing of the past” (Kangira 2007:23). Kangira used rhetoric analysis to show the state’s and Gono’s attempt to create a ‘common ownership of the economic crisis’ and a common bond among people to fight the crisis through his analysis of ‘together words’, buzzwords and an emotive call. He reads ‘Zero to Hero’ as a failed attempt to envision a strong and stable Zimbabwean currency.

I go beyond Kangira (2007)’s rhetoric analysis by reading the monetary re/vision as an ideological base re/producing and performing Zimbabwean masculinities and militarism, which are the hallmarks of Zimbabwean nationhood, especially in times of crises and alleged adversaries (Mugabe 2001). This reading confirms the state’s view that the apparent weakness or feminisation of the currency, which also translates to the weakening and emasculation of Zimbabwe, was a result of ‘foreign’ attacks on the Zimbabwean nation. The removal of zeros was therefore symbolic of and dramatised amadoda sibili’s politics dzejende (necessary masculine aggression) against the emasculation of the nation. Thus, the masculinisation and militarisation of the currency was a call to masculinise and militarise the nation to dispel ‘foreign’ aggression and the feminisation of the nation since a weak nation can easily be ‘penetrated’ by others. This is very sensitive in the context where being ‘penetrated’ is synonymous with being controlled.

The campaign was massive and it featured on television, radio and newspaper advertisements (Mawere 2016). The timing of this campaign was therefore not accidental, but well appropriate within the expected and intended discourse of nationhood. The new denominations took effect on the first of August 2006, in the obvious knowledge that in Zimbabwe, the month of August is regarded as the month of heroes since the Heroes Day is on the 11th of August. The struggle, rising, militancy and victory of the currency (which had been ‘imprisoned’ and puppeteered by ‘foreign’ nations) was a semblance of the heroic Zimbabwean nation which was founded on militancy nationalism (chimurenga).

It is also crucial to problematise Gono’s choice of the hero terminology. The notion of “Zero to Hero” is as controversial as the notion of heroism in Zimbabwean state-craft and which has been associated with national masculinities, ‘amadoda sibili’ and militarism, since the Zimbabwean hero is broadly re/imagined as militant (Mawere 2019; Vambe 2004). When unpacking masculinities, it is crucial to focus on how they are perceived and how they are performed and re/produced. I argue that Zimbabwean masculinities are re/presented in symbols and objects through a discursive analysis of heroism as a symbol of masculinity and the resistance, struggle and victory of the Zimbabwean currency regime as performances of heroism and therefore, of national masculinities.

The RBZ initiative therefore, was not related only to the masculinisation or strengthening of the currency, but also to a re/production of masculinities that perform Zimbabwean nationalism. Restoring the value of money became an affective and insidious reorientation on the ‘value’ of masculinity and militarism in Zimbabwe, since the ‘victorious’ currency was equated to the nation’s heroic and militant history, symbols and figures. Threats by ‘outside forces’ to the currency’s value were positioned as a manifestation of ‘foreign’ threats on national masculinities and therefore, a disruption of nationhood. Zimbabwe’s re/invention of macho-currencies amidst a ‘struggle’ against the allegedly ‘foreign’ engineered devaluation and economic lapse falls in line with Zimbabwe’s j(g)endered nationalism: a national identity that thrives on the politics of the balls and militarism. Zimbabwe’s currency regime, especially in the post-2000 era is, therefore, a spectacle of Zimbabwean militant masculinities which are foundational to Zimbabwean nationhood. Performances of heroism and nationhood (such as the masculinisation and militarisation of the Zimbabwean currency regime) help to illustrate how citizenship, gender, and sexual scripts; and cultures and knowledges of dominance, entitlement and violence are re/produced and performed.

Re/Valuing hegemonic and violent masculinities

In Zimbabwe and many other nations, men and particular performances of masculinity are given more value than women and femininity and this explains why betrayal and weakness are often associated with women and femininity (Mawere 2019, Sithole 1970). Proverbs such as uyo murume chaiye (that one is a man), which is used to praise both men and women who would have proven to the ‘society’ that they are extra-ordinary, are part of the everyday in Zimbabwe. These help to prove the different values that are associated with men and women as well as masculinity and femininity. The feminisation and homosexualisation of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and its leaders in Zimbabwe, the historical feminisation of the nationalist, Joshua Nkomo by fabricating stories that he escaped the government of Robert Mugabe while dressed in a petticoat (Mawere 2020, 2019, 2016; Nkomo 2001) exemplify metaphors of weakness and the hierarchical positioning of masculinity and femininity in Zimbabwe.

The performance of the masculinities of the Zimbabwean currency regime centralises male domination and masculine violence in nation-craft. Adding and violently-enforcing value to the Zimbabwean currency regime is an act of naturalising and normalising hegemonic and violent masculinities in Zimbabwean nation-craft. This aestheticisation of Zimbabwe’s state-craft invokes Ranciere (2006)’s ‘distribution of the sensible’, which is “…the system of divisions and boundaries that define, among other things, what is visible and audible within a particular aesthetic-political regime” (Ranciere 2006:1) and therefore makes politics performative. The cultural promotion of masculinities naturalises the subjugation of women and the feminisation of others in Zimbabwe’s game of power and discourses of development. The militarisation of the Zimbabwean currency, in line with the nation’s militarisation of heroes, extends militarism and Zimbabwe’s war ethic to the economic zone, turning livelihoods into real war zones. Vulnerable groups are drawn into war without consent, without being prepared and without the necessary resources to maneuver in situations of combat and conflict. Much literature has reflected, for example, on how women are abused, victimised, mis/represented and dishonored during wars and nation-building projects (Manganga 2011; Charumbira 2008; Chung 2006; Lewis 2004; Chadya 2003; Nhongo-Simbanegavi 2000; Anthias & Yuval-Davis 1989; Cock 1989). Understanding the Zimbabwean economy as a war zone (as shown by the militant and masculine Zimbabwean currency) thus enables us to re/think the position of women and other disempowered populations in the struggle for livelihoods.

Subverting national masculinities

There have been subversive voices contesting the state narrative of heroism, leading to a rejection of some of the people iconised by the state such as Chenjerai Hunzvi, Border Gezi and others (Mawere 2016). This counter narrative has also produced alternative heroes. Ibhetshu LikaZulu, a subversive group in Bulawayo attempted to celebrate Gwasela and Gayigusvu, ‘state dissidents’, as heroes during the National Heroes Holidays in 2009. Some MDC members allegedly ‘assassinated’ by security agents such as Tonderai Ndira (nicknamed Commander/Serge/Sergeant) have also been identified as heroes by the MDC. This demonstrates the complex ways in which people receive the hero status and reflects that people do not just accept dominant meanings that make no sense in their lives (Mawere 2016; Wilkins, 2012). The state-driven representations and performances of heroism and masculinities are ridiculed in the popular mockery of Gideon Gono’s intervention measure to fight inflation in Zimbabwe.

Gideon Gono was satirically called Giden Gn, after removing the three Os (the likeness of zeroes) in his names (Mawere 2016). This iconoclastic humour, analogous to Bakhtin (1994)’s Rabelaisian laughter visualises how ordinary people contest dominant heroism and the glaring vulgarity, simplicity, fictitious and irrationality of its masculinities. The laughter has continued throughout the years as the Zimbabwean government fictitiously gave value to bearer’s cheques, bonds, RTGs that it has used as currency or legal tender, with at one point in time, the 1 bond being at par with 1 US dollar. The fictitious nature and instability of the Zimbabwean currencies, is ironically reflected by the fiction and instability of the hero identity. This is shown by the state’s controversial inclusions of the likes of Joseph Chinotimba, Chenjerai Hunzvi and Border Gezi as heroes and the undressing of people like Joice Mujuru and former president Robert Mugabe as befitting heroes as a result of ugly factional fights within Zanu-Pf (Mawere 2019, 2016; Mugabe 2001).

In the context of the hardships that have been experienced by ordinary Zimbabweans especially from the 2000s, even to the extent of laughing at the folly of those who considered themselves technocrats like Gono, and the state which considered itself powerful, masculine and invincible, ordinary people have emerged as survivors. Willems (2010) discusses how a joke that was circulated at the eve of year 2007 contested the narrow definition of struggle and heroism, by reflecting how ordinary people were the real heroes, since they managed to survive economic and other livelihood challenges despite unfavorable odds. This invites us to problematise notions of heroism and masculinity in Zimbabwe and the kind of nationhood they re/produce and perform. The heroism and masculinity of Zimbabwe’s currency has proved to be fictitious and simplistic as reflected by gross economic instabilities. This also ruptures notions of heroism and masculinity that are at the center of Zimbabwe’s national construction.

Conclusion: Many ways to kill a cat

Zimbabwean masculinities are re/presented and re/produced in the popular, in symbols and objects that are part of the everyday. Heroism has broadly been coined with Zimbabwean nationhood and masculinities. I have argued that Zimbabwe’s currency regime has been turned into a war zone where the nation expresses or performs and re/produces its masculinities and nationhood, naturalising and performing hierarchical and gendered identities. In many ways, these masculinities have been re/imagined in silos of violence and have violated the livelihoods of ordinary people, especially women who are culturally given liminal spaces in a nation where violent masculinities are normalised and central for livelihoods. The masculinisation of Zimbabwe’s currency regime is therefore an ideological warfare to its actual dispute with the West (foreign powers), but also a performance and naturalisation of its gendered script in nation re/construction. In the midst of state performances of heroism and masculinity, however, it is possible to rupture dominant knowledges and to re/think subversive and dissenting, bottom-up heroism and masculinities that offer positions of refusal and give agentive power to those that are dominated and at the mercy of state manipulation. The failure of the state’s and Gono’s monetary strategy, ‘Zero to Hero’ is laughable and undresses state pretentions. This failure urges us to re/think masculinities and militarism as foundational to society and central to state-craft.


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[1] This is a veneration of military masculinities in Zimbabwe and originates in the Shona ancestor, Murenga Sororenzou, who was a hunter, great warrior, war genius, war-song composer and nation-builder (Vambe 2004).


Framing Poverty and African Men: thoughts on the South African socio-economic response to Covid-19

by Christi Kruger

Something of an opportunity appeared to show up for President Cyril Ramaphosa and his government amidst the crisis of Covid-19. Being the president of any country during a global pandemic is certainly not an enviable position; yet for Ramaphosa, the moment might have presented an opportunity to truly assert and entrench his power. Ramaphosa stepped into the role of president following what has arguably been the most tumultuous of the post-apartheid years under the presidency of Jacob Zuma. From the onset Ramaphosa appeared to position himself as a force of calm and reason in opposition to the stormy Zuma-era characterised by a certain type of anti-intellectualism, large-scale corruption and so-called “state capture”. More than two years after he first took up the position of president however, the initial optimism that marked the start of Ramaphosa’s presidency started to fade. As unemployment grew and the South African economy slipped into a recession at the start of 2020, it seemed that little would come of the new dawn that Ramaphosa had promised (Statistics South Africa, 2020).

The crisis created by Covid-19 therefore provided Ramaphosa with a moment in which he could display efficient leadership. Indeed, as the crisis surrounding the virus began to unfold in March 2020, many duly praised his decisive and immediate actions. While world leaders such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson met warnings regarding the virus with scepticism and disregard, Ramaphosa was commended by, among others, the director-general of the World Health Organisation for placing the lives of citizens before the economy (Harding, 2020; Maromo, 2020). In addition, and again in stark contrast to the anti-intellectualism demonstrated by Trump and Johnson, Ramaphosa was also commended for his willingness to listen to medical, scientific and epidemiological counsel.

In spite of this initial optimism serious questions ought to be asked about the ways in which the South African government has handled this crisis. One of the questions that stands out to me is that of the government’s treatment of South Africans living in poverty. The past month has shown that the South African state continues to imagine “the poor” in moralist terms. In this short piece, I focus, in particular, on the idea of moralising poverty and scapegoating certain citizens as belonging to the category of “the undeserving poor”. Black African men have furthermore been specifically imagined as such belonging to the category of underserving poor over the last couple of weeks, further entrenching a moralising aspect carried over from the past. I argue that the government’s – witting or unwitting – implicit stereotyping of black African men as “the problem” has impeded the state’s ability to engage with the pressing economic crisis facing the real majority of South Africans.

The Poverty Dichotomy

Serena Romano (2018: 1) argues that poverty is often conceptualised within the dichotomous framework of deserving/undeserving. This means that we tend to imagine people as either “worthy poor”, those thought vulnerable and worthy of compassion and assistance; or, we tend to imagine people as being responsible for their own poverty and therefore “unworthy” of compassion and assistance. The former tends to include groups such as widows, disabled persons and orphans, while the latter consists of people perceived by society as able-bodied enough to be able to find their own way out of poverty.

While Romano points out that there have been attempts to do away with this type of dichotomous thinking over the last century, the stigma that surrounds poverty lingers. Even in a country such as South Africa where more than half of the population is officially classified as living below the upper-bound poverty line, the idea that poor citizens are responsible for their own material position is persistent. It rightly seems absurd to think of such a large number of people being complicit in their own dire material circumstances, but the power of the idea of “an undeserving poor” often remains because of its use in upholding the political status quo.

Romano (2018: 3-4) outlines three ways in which the idea of “an undeserving poor” remains useful to those in power. It is, firstly, useful when governments are faced with limited social assistance budgets. Having a notion of the undeserving poor means, for such governments, that they are able to direct social assistance only to those who prove themselves “worthy” of assistance. The second is that the idea of the underserving poor serves as a means of social control over others in society as a whole. The exclusion of a portion of the population from, for example social assistance, reminds and encourages others to follow the implicit rules that have been set by society and the mechanism of the state. The undeserving poor, thirdly, “perform an action of ideological legitimization” of political agendas. In other words, this category is used as a scapegoat-category onto which all negative stereotypes and representations can be projected to validate certain political agendas.

There is something uncanny in reading through Romano’s description of the poverty dichotomy at the present time. As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to spread across the globe, and with a significant number of countries having entered lockdowns, the world economy appears to be in a freefall that is bound to last several years. The International Monetary Fund has already predicted, at the beginning of April, that the global economy will likely shrink by at least 3% by the end of 2020 with up to 170 countries to see a decline in its GDP per capita (Islam, 2020). In the United States, generally considered to be the world’s largest economy, more than 22 million citizens applied to receive unemployment benefits in the month of April (Ghoneim, 2020).

The state of the South African State

On the surface, it seems that the South African case contradicts many of Romano’s points as outlined above and that poverty would therefore be thought about differently here. Unlike many other countries, South Africa’s system of social assistance is unconditional and non-contributory. Any South African citizen, permanent resident, or refugee may apply for and receive social assistance providing that their annual income does not exceed the means test that is attached to social grants (South African Social Security Agency, 2015). Further to this, poverty is generally accepted to be one of the legacies of the colonial and apartheid regimes, thus moving the poverty discourse away from individual agency and toward larger systems of oppression. It could therefore be reasonably assumed that poverty has become less moralised in South Africa than elsewhere; and, especially so in a period where the state is willingly shutting down the majority of economic activities. Still I argue, in this piece, that the moralisation of poverty continues to be upheld and entrenched not only by those citizens who find themselves outside of the poverty dichotomy altogether, but by the state itself.

Before I continue to unpack how the moralisation of poverty has unfolded during the South African lockdown, it is important to grasp fully the extent of poverty in the country. In 2019, 25.2% of South Africans were unable to afford the most basic nutritional requirements and 40% of could not afford both food and non-food items; and 55.5% of South African citizens able to afford both food and non-food items still fell under the widest definition of poverty, subsisting on an average income of less than R1227 per month (Statistics South Africa, 2019).[1] More than half of all South Africans, I would like to repeat, survive on less than R1227 per month.

Even before the added pressure from the Covid-19 pandemic, the country’s official unemployment rate was 29%. Of this number, black African men below the age of 35 make up the largest unemployed demographic. The unemployment rate refers, however, to the ‘narrow’ definition of unemployment only: it considers only the unemployed who are actively searching for employment. When taking into account the ‘broad’ definition of unemployment, namely including the unemployed who are willing to work but are not actively searching, the number is significantly higher (Le Cordeur, 2015; Klasen & Woolard, 2008).

On the whole, this is a very dark picture indeed of state failure. In the almost three decades since the official end of apartheid, the state has failed to put in place measures that would ensure that its citizens have access to employment, housing, and other social benefits. In addition to the high levels of poverty and unemployment, Statistics South Africa’s 2018 Household Survey indicates that nearly 40% of South African households do not have access to a flushing toilet that is connecting to a public sewage system or septic tank; 12% of people’s only source of clean water was a communal or public tap; and 15% of South Africans had no access to electricity, to mention a few examples of the structural inequalities that many live with (Statistics South Africa, 2019). It is therefore surprising that it is the state itself that has put in place mechanisms which perpetuate the moralisation of poverty, simply reproducing the idea that some citizens are more deserving of assistance than others.

When he announced that South Africa would enter an official lockdown, President Ramaphosa set out several measure that would be put in place to assist and support those who would be affected by the lockdown period. The most pertinent and detailed of these measures was the establishment of a Solidarity Fund to which small businesses could apply for loans and the utilisation of the UIF-system to process payment from a Temporary Employer-Employee Relief Scheme (Ramaphosa, 2020). Although Ramaphosa mentioned that a safety net was being developed to support those working in the informal sector, it remains, to a large extent, unclear how and where this safety net will be deployed. As I am writing here, we are well into the third week of the lockdown and still there is little sign of any concrete help for citizens outside the formal economy.

In the weeks that followed the start of the lockdown, an interesting contradiction developed. One the one hand, the government’s attempts at financial support remained largely aimed at the formal sector, thereby excluding the one in six South Africans active in the informal sector. One the other hand however, Covid-19 screening and testing measures were scaled up in informal settlements, dense townships and other poverty-stricken communities. Even without any further discursive developments or concrete interventions, these two interlinked developments already begin to set the stage for the moralisation of poverty. The close linkage between poverty, illness (in both the metaphorical and physical sense) and immorality is, after all, an old one. These two events may seem unrelated, and it was almost certainly not consciously set up by the state in manner that speaks directly to the way I have set up here. Yet, it displays a particular type of thinking on the part of the South African state. It shows who the state imagines as worthy of assistance and who it imagines as the problem and as a potential obstacle.

Historically, the ANC has maintained an explicitly socialist approach to its policy development despite the various neo-liberalist turns the ANC-led government has taken from the late 1990s onward. Testament to this approach is South Africa’s impressive social assistance network: from 1996 onward it was expanded to reach almost a third of the population by 2015 (Ferguson, 2015: 5). In July 2015 approximately 16.7 million recipients received monthly social grants, a considerable rise from the estimated 3 million recipients in 1994 (South African Social Security Agency, 2015). Instead of utilising the existing systems of social support however, the South African state chose to pursue a neo-liberal approach. Economic support was made available to those who are part of the formal economy and are therefore, by default, needed to “rebuild” the economy after the Covid-19 pandemic, while the support for the poor was in actual fact left in the hands of non-state actors such as NGOs and private charity organisations.

Lockdowns, as implemented across the world at the moment, rest on a number of assumptions about citizens’ material positions. It assumes that one has access, in a structural sense, to everything one would need to survive at home for several weeks. It also seems to understand homes in a fairly individualised, Western sense: homes are assumed to be inhabited by nuclear families where parents are able to simultaneously work from home and provide childcare. Boundaries between households are also implicitly assumed in the idea that every single household has definite boundaries separating it from the next. In South Africa, generational poverty together with the spatial layout of the country during the apartheid era has led to high-density townships and informal settlements that tend to be far away from commercial centres. The houses in these spaces were not designed for, nor are they capable of, housing inhabits indoors for weeks on end. As I have pointed out above, many people who live in these areas have no running water, share toilets with neighbours, and have to use public transport to reach supermarkets. By default, therefore, more than half of the South African population were effectively set up to become dissidents before the period of lockdown had even started.

The Undeserving African Man

In this way, a cycle of undeserving/deserving poverty was put in motion. Soon after the lockdown started images of those who did not adhere to the restrictions started circulating. In line with the notion that women and children are counted as among the “deserving poor”, black African men quickly emerged as the most underserving among the poor. We saw images in news articles and on social media of young, black African men roaming the streets or inside illegally operated taverns; homeless men were shown to be unwilling to cooperate with local officials who were trying to take them to shelters; and mobs of mostly men were seen raiding liquor stores.

A very particular form of masculinity emerges here, in these images, as a representation of a social “problem”: the caricatured masculinity of black South African men. In his monograph, (Un)knowing Men: Africanising Gender Justice Programmes for Men in South Africa, Sakhumzi Mfecane notes that there has been a lack of theoretical engagement with African masculinities. We know, however, that African masculinity, conceptualised in its singular form, has historically often been used to connote a problematic identity. This has been deeply entwined with racialized constructs of African men as brutal and oversexualised (see, for example, McClintock, 1995). I should note, of course, that criticism of the ways in which African masculinities have been portrayed does not exempt actual men from the problems that have been caused by hegemonic masculinities. Mfecane (2018: 7) points out that “many of the most social problems created by men for themselves and women, like gender-based violence, rape, crime, alcoholism, and ill-health, are rooted in these hegemonic constructions of masculinity.” One should be cautious, however, of imagining all black men as a part of a homogenous group who all inhabit the same problematic identity.

It appears to me that such imaging is exactly what Ramaphosa and his government have inadvertently brought about. Black African men have been framed as the undeserving poor through current depictions of them. The particular way in which the lockdown has been implemented, together with the socio-economic conditions of many African men, has meant that these men are being portrayed not as poor, hungry and desperate, but as delinquents who put others as risk through their refusal to cooperate with the state. This presents a rather stark contrast to the kind of masculinity that Ramaphosa himself has presented since the start of this crisis. Whereas generic Black men have been portrayed as unengaged with current social issues and unwilling to work with the state, Ramaphosa has presented himself – and is, in turn, presented – as a calm, competent and rational statesman who has compassion for his country. He displays all of the qualities that have traditionally been expected of men: decisiveness, knowledge of global economies, empathy and the ability to make tough choices to protect “his” people. A father to the South African nation.

The South African father clearly expected his sons to misbehave however. The deployment of the South African Defence Force, for example, signals the kind of violence that Ramaphosa anticipated during the lockdown. The military, a force that carries with it a very particular kind of identity entwined with necessarily violent warfare, was called up not to fight the corona virus, but to restrain and subdue South African citizens who are then, by definition, cast into the role of enemies. Several news outlets have reported instances where poorer citizens – mostly those without access to private vehicles – have been stopped by military and/or police officials while legally walking to grocery stores. This presents black African men with a particular problem. As infantilised adults they can chose to cooperate with officials and subject themselves to being humiliated in front of others by doing squats, push-ups or other forms of nonsensical “punishments” for their perceived illegal behaviour. Or, they can resist and risk being arrested, injured or, as has happened several times now, killed. On Twitter one man shared how deeply the images of adult men being taunted by the army touched him as it reminded him of scenes that played out in front of him during the apartheid years. Other users too shared memories of fathers, uncles and brothers being humiliated and tortured by police and how the present moment echoes these collective experiences of trauma. One could argue that none of this is related to race or gender, but I have heard of no instances where white South Africans have been subjected to the SANDF’s “corrective measure”, and while there have been a few instances reported involving black women these remain in the minority. While there have been countless reports of illegal alcohol and tobacco trading in wealthier suburbs, black African men continue to be imagined as the ones illegally seeking alcohol and reacting violently to the lack thereof. In this way, black African men are not only deemed unworthy of assistance but also racially stereotyped in particularly harmful and unjust ways.

It is true, of course, that some men are violent alcoholics and that, as countless reports have shown, gender-based violence has soared worldwide in the advent of myriad forms of lockdowns instituted across the globe. This does not mean, however, that men are not worthy of assistance – and we ought to protect boy children from internalising the idea that they do not deserve the same support as girls and women. In fact, it calls for a thoughtful social and economic response to the social problems that are bound to continue during and after the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead of using this moment as one in which to affirm a post-apartheid government that has truly broken away from its colonial and apartheid roots, Ramaphosa’s government continues to demonstrate how firmly South African society remains saddled with the baggage of apartheid ideology.

This article was first published on Gender Justice, a project of the CSA&G and supported by the Irish Embassy in Pretoria.


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Klasen, Stephan & Woolard, Ingrid. 2008. “Surviving Unemployment without State Support: Unemployment and Household Formation in South Africa”. Journal of African Economies, 18 (1), pp. 1-51.

Le Cordeur, M. 2015. “SA’s Unemployment Rate Hits 12-Year High”. Fin24, 26 May. Accessed on 5 August 2015.

Makhulu, A. 2015. Making Freedom: Apartheid, Squatter Politics, and the Struggle for Home. Durham: Duke University Press.

McClintoc, A. 1995. Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest. London: Routledge.

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Romano, S. 2018. Moralising Poverty: The ‘Undeserving’ Poor in the Public Gaze. New York: Routledge.  

Sills, B & Lombrana, LM. 2020. “Spanish doctors are forces to choose who to let die.” Available online at Accessed on 14 April 2020.

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

Statistics South Africa. 2019. “General Household Survey 2018.” Available online at Accessed on 8 April 2020.

Statistics South Africa. 2020. “Economy slips into a recession.” Available online at Accessed on 15 April 2020.


[1] These three levels correlate to the three different national poverty lines: the upper-bound poverty line, the lower-bound poverty line, and the food poverty line. In 2019, the rand value attached to these lines was, respectively, R1227, R810, and R561 per capita per month (Statistics South Africa, 2019:3).

#MenAreTrash vs. #NotAllMen

by Martin Mushomba

I am studying for a Masters in Medicinal Plant Sciences at the University of Pretoria. I joined the Just Leaders programme at the Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender mainly because I wanted to learn more about social justice. I am part of the student research cohort. And, I wrote this opinion piece because it got me thinking about my role in the greater social justice project.

For a long time, Gender-based Violence (GBV) has been a serious problem in South Africa. The last two years have seen an increase in social justice activism against GBV moving from the streets to social media platforms. In 2018, the hashtag #MenAreTrash emerged as social justice activists spoke out against the ignorance and lack of awareness of endemic GBV in South African society.

The hashtag exploded on South African Twitter bringing a social issue which was often raised by activists and street protests to everyone’s lips – or fingertips in this case. The hashtag #MenAreTrash resurfaced once more in 2019 following the brutal rape and murder of UCT student Uyinenne Mrwetyana, along with other hashtags like #AmINext.

What has been common whenever #MenAreTrash was brought up regarding GBV was the knee-jerk response #NotAllMen. The latter hashtag represented those (often men) who objected to the branding of “all men” which they perceived as being grossly unfair. The #NotAllMen camp positioned themselves against #MenAreTrash by taking offense at being labelled as “trash”, while others pointed to equally horrendous actions carried out by women in an attempt to show that there’s enough blame to go around. Many women also took up the #NotAllMen tag by telling stories of men who have supported and carried them through their lives, and of how the men in their lives valued and cared for them. A number of women also expressed their disapproval of the #MenAreTrash as being demonising and offensive towards men, thus making men victims of online gender-based abuse.

Despite #MenAreTrash being a response to the violence against women and children (and society’s ignorance of it) the attempt to attain justice for the oppressed and vulnerable was suddenly being misconstrued as an attack against good and seemingly blameless men. Internationally, feminist movements both in public and online have been met with a stern disapproval from those on the opposing side of the political spectrum. An example of this clash is the rise of Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs) who have previously risen up to challenge campaigns about women’s rights. MRAs strive to raise awareness that men are also victims of gender-based oppression. More radical MRAs argue that in a world that is accustomed to seeing only women & children as victims, men today have become the worst victims of gender-based forms of oppression.

An interesting documentary illustrated the clash between feminist anti-GBV and pro-men activism. In 2016, American feminist and film maker Cassie Jaye endeavoured to create a documentary film about Men’s Rights Activism. She called it The Red Pill. During her making of the documentary, she kept a video journal of her thoughts during the course of the interviews and filming. Her original intention behind making the documentary was to expose Men’s Rights Activism as a hateful bigoted movement and to dismiss the notion that men are real victims of gender-based oppression. During the course of making the documentary, Cassie is confronted by a problem she had vehemently refused to acknowledge. This had a significant impact on her worldview and by the end of the documentary, she came to admit that men can also be victims of numerous forms of gender-based violence.

Many on the anti-feminist side or the #NotAllMen camp may count The Red Pill as a big win in this cultural war, having a “die-hard feminist” admit men are also victims of gender-based oppression. However, it’s important to remember that The Red Pill was never made to dismiss GBV against women, neither did the film-maker ever change her stance on the need to fight against GBV against women. If it was a matter of camps, then she never really changed camps. If she had been in the #MenAreTrash camp before (which she probably was) then I don’t think the making of The Red Pill turned her to the #NotAllMen camp either. Rather, I think it got her to realise that along with all the suffering women face daily, men also experience suffering and this needs to be acknowledged.

Sadly, the battle for the recognition of gender-based oppression in the online space is seemingly becoming a new battle of the sexes. MRAs are becoming an emotional reactionary response to movements like #MenAreTrash for boldly calling society to change and focus on women’s oppression. While there is a great need to highlight men’s issues, MRAs tends to be mired with unpleasant individuals, bigots, misogynists, chauvinists and people who are more against women’s empowerment than being against the abuse of men. This often serves to extinguish the chance for constructive dialogue between the camps.

I personally believe that it is possible to promote awareness on GBV against women while simultaneously recognising the need for MRAs. In doing so, it should be noted that #MenAreTrash forms part of an important movement for bringing awareness to a very serious problem in society, the vulnerability of women and children to abuse as well as their lack of having a voice in patriarchal systems. Women are still more vulnerable to many forms of abuse in South African as they still remain economically & socially disenfranchised. The hashtags used when reacting to gender-based oppression should not be used to attack individuals, they should be used to initiate dialogue on these pressing issues.

Just as #MenAreTrash should be used to open an important dialogue on GBV, a hashtag like #NotAllMen could be used to highlight that while men can also be victims of GBV, there are differences between the types of violence (emotional, institutional, psychological), especially when power dynamics are at play. It’s useful to note that the #NotAllMen response to GBV could spark conversations on how hard it is for many women to challenge patriarchal oppression. Whenever a woman or child in many communities, families or organisations attempts to report sexual or physical abuse by a man, the first response is often to defend the man, especially when the man is in a position of social, political or economic authority. #NotAllMen is the kind of excuse given when an important man in a family or community is allegedly accused of rape. One could also use this hashtag to raise the problems of many women who’ve falsely accused innocent men for abuse.

The conversations spawning from these hashtags can shine invaluable light on why GBV is made harder by societal patriarchal biases that are often in place. Having brought millions of people online to discussing these contentious issues, these hashtags offer us an opportunity to start a conversation on GBV. The ultimate purpose of activism is to bring about public awareness which can then turn into actions discussions and finally result in a positive change. So rather than seeing this as a new frontier of war, it should be seen as a great opportunity to educate and facilitate dialogue between millions of people in matters of women’s empowerment, GBV and gender-based abuse against both men and women.

Uniting against the common enemy: Covid-19 and South Africa’s militarised nationhood

By Tinashe Mawere

The “Thuma Mina moment”: A nation ready for war

The discourse of war – national unity, resistance, defence and victory have characterised President Cyril Ramaphosa’s public speeches in the wake of the fast spreading and deadly global pandemic, Corona virus, Covid-19. Coming late on the basis of wide consultations, invitation of various players including oppositional political parties, reflections on the history of South Africa and the notion of resilience, the presidential use of military regalia, use of military language and resources – all created a sombre and serious atmosphere and a sense of a nation in danger and posed for a great war.

On 15 March 2020, in his first address to the nation around the Corona virus, Covid-19, Ramaphosa used the vernacular “thuma mina” (send me) to call upon individual South Africans to stand up and in various and distinct ways, offer themselves for the services of the nation, an act showing a great degree of patriotism and nationhood. This was elaborated by his statement on 23 March 2020 that, “Many have had to make difficult choices and sacrifices, but all have been determined that these choices and sacrifices are absolutely necessary if our country is to emerge stronger from this disaster.”  It is this patriotism and sense of nationhood that is “most definitive” for the survival of the nation since the country was “confronted with such a severe situation” never witnessed since the advent of South Africa’s democracy. This call by Ramaphosa set the tone for the declaration of ‘war’ against Covid-19, which is threatening South Africa as he posits, “as we marshal our every resource and our every energy to fight this epidemic…our resolve, our resourcefulness and our unity as a nation will be tested as never before.”

In the three State of the Nation Addresses (SONA) on 15, 23 and 30 March, Ramaphosa’s speeches offer a description of the South African challenge in medical terms as he employs terms such as epidemic, spreading, infections, disease and so on as well as in economic terms as he articulates the economic impacts of the pandemic. He then reflects on various ways the state has devised to manage the pandemic and mitigate its effects on people, livelihood and the South African economy in general.

When Ramaphosa appeals to the sensibilities of South Africans, he makes use of the affective language of unity, nationalism, history and past resilience such as “We are responding as a united nation to a common threat” and “if we act together, if we act now, and if we act decisively, we will overcome it.” He then announces the formation of the National Command Council chaired by the president to lead in curbing the virus.

However, as concerns about Covid-19’s ‘threat’ to the nation grew, there is a clear trajectory where Ramaphosa’s language and approaches move from medical interventions and management, national welfarism, and economic cushioning, to military and combatant language and approaches. This culminated in the announcement of a 21 days nationwide ‘lockdown’ on 23 March 2020. It is very spectacular that instead of calling it a ‘stay at home’ the more forceful and militant term ‘lockdown’ has gained popularity. Ramaphosa’s militant language and approaches reached a peak when he addressed the South African National Defence Forces (SANDF) on 26 March 2020, ahead of their deployment to ‘fight’ and ‘defeat’ the virus.

Covid-19 and the invasion of the South African space

The Corona virus, Covid-19 is regarded as some ugly and fatal violence that has overwhelmed the whole world. In President Ramaphosa’s speeches, Covid-19 is personified and seen as an ‘enemy’ of the nation which should be resisted and defeated by a united South Africa, hence the nation’s response to ‘wage war’ against it. As the President says while addressing SANDF on 26 March 2020, “We will wage war against the invisible enemy, coronavirus. You are expected, as soldiers of the RSA, to defend our people against this virus. Your mission is to save lives.” Stressing on the role of soldiers, Ramaphosa commands, “Go out and wage the war” since a “load rests on your shoulders, as soldiers of our country you took an oath, an oath that you will be faithful to the Republic of South Africa and that you will defend the people of South Africa.” In nations, the military is tasked with the role of national defence and protection. Considering that males are the most visible in the military, and that the military’s role is to defend and protect the nation, agentive power is naturalised and normalised on men (Mawere 2019; Simon and Hoyt 2008). It is important to re/think of the visibility of military men on the South African streets, the kind of knowledge that is communicated and internalised and the kind of knowledges and world order that would be passed from generation to generation. Butler (1988) argues that gendered meanings are made practical and visible through performances of the nation. I regard South Africa response to Covid-19 as a performance of the nation.

The spreading of Covid-19 into South Africa is reduced to an undesirable enemy invasion of the South African space by a foreign body, hence the call for everyone to be vigilant to ensure national victory and national survival. There is a call for national unity to ‘fight’ against this intrusion. This call for unity is acted out on the first address when Ramaphosa gathered different stake holders for his national address. Thus, the threat posed by the virus on the nation required all horses to be gathered and weapons to be combined to fight this common ‘enemy,’ with the military specifically given the life-saving mission to resist and crush the national threat in a manner approximating the super-heroism of the Rambo and James Bond film stables.

The national efforts to curb and stop the virus is clearly thought of in terms of war, and the virus had to be personified by the term ‘enemy’ to make the language of war and South Africa’s militarised responses sensible. Subtly, however, in this process, war is naturalised as South Africa’s most appropriate response to challenges since stopping the virus needed the materiality and physical presence of war.

 “We will defeat the virus”: Militarised nationhood

The spreading of Corona virus, Covid-19 into South Africa provoked national sentiments that caused the national leadership to blow the war trumpet. This war trumpet was blown on the background that South Africa had fought wars before and through unity and resilience, the country had emerged victorious. Drawing this past history was important to instil confidence and show the country’s potential in protecting its citizens. The historical trajectory of resistance was also meant masculinise the nation and give it hope and confidence. As President Ramaphosa pronounces during SONA on 30 March, “Even as our country faces deep and pressing challenges on several fronts, there is no doubt in my mind that we will prevail. That is because South Africans have come together like never before to wage this struggle against the virus.” This is emphasised by his sentiments that, “I am convinced that we will succeed, because we will take this coronavirus threat seriously, we will adapt as a society, and we will all act responsibly. If we work together…we will beat this disease. I have no doubt that we shall overcome.” Following such sentiments from the president, the South African nation is given an assurance of national security.

The conceptualisation of Covid-19 as an intruder and foreign body on the South African space provoked the militarisation of the South African nation so as to wage war against the virus. Imagining stopping the spreading of Covid-19 as a real war was meant to show the nation how destructive the virus is and how serious the nation was in curbing the virus. To buttress the war situation, during his address to SANDF on 26 March 2020, just before their deployment, Ramaphosa appeared dressed in military regalia, symbolising how he was ready to, and the nation’s readiness to wage war against this intruder threatening the survival of the nation. For the South African President, dressing “in your uniform as your commander-in-chief [is] to signify my support and solidarity…as you embark on this most important mission in the history of our country.” Ramaphosa is the first president in the history of South Africa to put on an SANDF uniform. He makes it clear that this act is symbolic of his support and solidarity of SANDF.

However, apart from demonstrating that he is a hands-on president as well as performing support and solidarity, there is also much deeper symbolism that graphically illuminates from this wearing of military outfit. By putting on military uniform, one is made to see, feel, taste, smell and hear the South African nation in the hands of gigantic military masculinities ready to defend and protect lives. It is clear that the intensity of South Africa’s medical response to the Covid-19 pandemic is sensualised by evoking a battle-scape, hence this warfare is visualised through the President’s military outfit. Since militarism is linked to masculinity, what we see is a veneration and glorification of military masculinities (Mawere 2019, 2016; Vambe 2012). In Zimbabwe’s 2018 national elections, both the Zanu-Pf and MDC presidential candidates, Emmerson Mnangagwa and Nelson Chamisa respectively, in various and interesting ways, positioned themselves as militants to demonstrate their masculinities, virilities and capacities for national presidency (Mawere 2019). President Ramaphosa’s military regalia is therefore a dramatization, ritualisation and masculinisation of his own power and South Africa’s power.

President Ramaphosa is confident of the national army as he postulates, “You are strong, capable and able to undertake this mission. Execute it with great success.” This does not only show the military mightiness of South Africa, but also that a nation’s mightiness is measured through its military and militarism. The words ‘mission’ and ‘execute’ are highly martial terms that imply accomplishing a given duty, winning a given battle and tactical and careful application of military methods. This language produces visual and aural imageries of a nation in a battle for survival. However, subversively, militarism and battles are also re/produced and characterised as normal and necessary for survival in our everyday lives.

The war imagery demonstrated by Ramaphosa’s military regalia was made real when the military was deployed on the streets to enforce lockdown regulations. South Africa’s combat imagery is further buttressed through the circulation of videos on social media, showing soldiers imposing martial punishment on people who failed to comply with the ‘command’ to stay at home. Such punishment includes the offenders being forced to do press-ups, frog-jumps and rolling on the ground and rarely the skop ‘n donner, skiet and donner which Ramaphosa said should generally be avoided.

Normalising militancy and military victories as nationhood

Ramaphosa admitted that South Africans would be fearful of seeing soldiers patrol the streets with their guns. He however argued that the deployment would restore trust and confidence, implying that militarism gives some sense of security. It is interesting to think of how a gun-wielding culture restores people’s trust and confidence and the impacts of re/producing such a culture in South African communities. Adorations of military masculinities lead to war being valued and legitimised in a manner that naturalises violence as a solution to conflict, and makes militarism a foundation of society (Mawere 2019; Cock 1989). Such a militarist culture accounts for much of the violence in South Africa (Cock 2004).

It is therefore important to problematise Ramaphosa’s argument and how it might encourage individuals and groups to find comfort in possessing weapons such as guns, and what effects this has on South Africa’s challenges of violence against the weak as well as gang violence where guns and killing are used in the initiation of gang members. This is more frightening in the sense that guns are phallic objects and symbols of masculinity (Mawere 2019; Suttner 2009) and in the presence of literature that relates militarism to rape. One is made to think of Zimbabwe’s ‘Operation restore legacy’ where military excesses and macho nationalism were justified in the name of the nation (Mawere 2019).

Given the language characterising Ramaphosa’s address to the nation, it is therefore very significant to ask; As the nation attempts to stop the spreading of the corona virus, what other sub-text are stopped from spreading and what sub-texts are allowed to spread? Narratives around curbing and stopping the spreading of the Corona virus, Covid-19 have spectacularly taken; and have been driven by a military language rather than a medical language. The virus itself has been seen as an intruder into South Africa and its possible spreading in South Africa has been imaged as an invasion of the South African space. Considering the national call to fight the virus and the gathering of military warfare to ensure a South African victory, we should ask ourselves if we are not creating sub-texts that normalise fighting and violence as the ultimate solutions to disputes and aggression.

South Africa is a country facing a lot of challenges around violence and any act to normalise warfare in South Africa should make us think really deep. Considering that violence is re/produced through discourse and that discourse performs violence, it is important to re/think the effects of a language of warfare and its attachment to notions of nationhood and national survival especially in a country like South Africa which has a history and current challenge of violent crime and gangsterism.

In addition, Covid-19 has been regarded as foreign, and only forcing its way into South Africa to destroy the nation. Since it has been established as common-sensical that any foreign body has to be met with violent force and warfare, one can imagine what this means in a country with a thick history of xenophobic violence. This becomes a serious issue considering how ‘hygiene’ and ‘distancing’ are offered as primary to flattening the virus and how ‘foreigners’ are considered national pollutants and the presence to foreigners is sensitised as unhygienic and precarious for the nation.

A lot of literature has demonstrated how gender related disempowerments, crimes, eliminations and exclusions increase as states get more militarised and as militarised nationhood is intensified (Mawere 2019, 2016). Above that, militarised nationhood banks on gendered and sexualised scripts that privilege patriarchal cultures.

Mediating South African identities in the context of Covid-19

While South Africa’s efforts to stop the spreading of the Corona virus, Covid-19 needs to be applauded, it is important to reflect on how the language and methods used re/produce and perform dominant knowledges around nationalism, militarism and gender. Equally important is a reflection on how this re/production and performance of nationalism, militarism and gendered identities naturalises certain behaviours and actions which end up re/producing and acting out scripts that are based on power hierarchies, masochism and violence. In South Africa’s dealing with Covid-19, I see militant masculinities as central to the national project, trapping people into an everyday life of militarism, vigilantism, masculinity and violence. As we deal with the Corona virus, Covid-19, we should all pose and reflect on what discourses we are re/producing and performing as the normal and the kind of South Africa that we re/imagine. It is important to problematise the place and space of gender and power in the nation’s militarised struggle against Covid-19. 



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

Ramaphosa, C. 2020. ‘‘The most definitive Thuma Mina moment’ for SA: Ramaphosa’s plan for Covid-19’. (Available at, accessed 03 April 2020).

Ramaphosa, C. 2020. ‘Escalation of measures to combat Coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic’(Available at, accessed 03 April 2020).

Ramaphosa, C. 2020. ‘Message by President Cyril Ramaphosa on COVID-19 pandemic’ (Available at, accessed 03 April 2020).

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Suttner, R. 2014. Nelson Mandela’s masculinities. African Identities, 12(3-4): 342-356.

Vambe, M.T. 2012, Zimbabwe genocide: voices and perceptions from ordinary people in Matabeleland and the Midlands provinces, 30 years on, African Identities, vol. 10, no. 3, pp. 281-300.

The Covid-19 pandemic: Re/making common knowledges and common spaces

Text by Tinashe Mawere

Banter(ing) the Lockdown and gender scripts

Gender scripts and gendered identities are always evident in the everyday. Butler (1988) argues that gendered meanings are made practical and visible through performances of the everyday. Rather than re/locating gender discourses as abstract and located in a world farfetched, it is important that we get realistic and focus on our everyday lives by reflecting on the current Coronavirus, Covid-19-induced lockdown. A quick and random survey of WhatsApp media related to the call to stay at home, circulating in groups that have Zimbabweans living in South Africa, reveals some performances of gender and ways in which toxic knowledges and practices about gender are re/produced and transported. The unrolling lockdown period to stop the spreading of Covid-19 in South Africa and Zimbabwe illustrates how a number of banters or jokes have imagined masculinities as struggling within the domestic space. Simultaneously, the female figure, whose position in domestic spaces has been normalised, has been depicted as having no issues with staying at home. This polarisation buttresses dominant and naturalised knowledge that positions particular spaces or locations as suitable for men and others as suitable for women, making gender and social hierarchies sensible.

Homes, masculinities and femininities

In addition to a clear depiction of the family and homes in heterosexual normativity as prescribed by global dominant knowledges (Peterson 2000), the current Coronavirus, Covid-19 lockdown banters also invite us to unpack the notion of home and the complexities of space and gendered identities. The historical and cultural privileging and naturalization of male power is implicated and acted out through notions of family and the distinctions between domestic/private and public/political spaces (Mawere 2019, 2016; Nyambi 2012; Lewis 2002; McClintock 1993). In narrating the situation at home during the lockdown, most banters position the family in the traditional and dominant sense of heterosexuality, with the wife and husband belonging to clearly-opposite sexual categories. This presentation silences non-heterosexual sexualities and supposes a hierarchy of sexualities where heteronormative sexualities are normalized while non-heteronormative sexualities are unspeakable. In the current national lockdown, it is important to problematize the effects of positioning only heteronormative families where multiple sexualities and sexual relations exist and are acknowledged especially in a ‘democracy’ like South Africa. In many ways, therefore, the lockdown is a microcosm of what happens daily in gendered South Africa. In addition to that, this particular familial notion brings in the complex issue of space and location, where space is polarized as domestic/private and public, and associated with distinct sexualities. This continues the existing discourse of specific roles for each named gender (Mawere 2016; Eisenstein 2000; Peterson 2000; McClintock 1993).

While women are portrayed as nurtured to, natural to and fitting neatly within the ‘imprisonment’ of the home, banters related to the national lockdown portray men as misfits in the domestic space and therefore excuse them from what are regarded as marginal spaces, occupations and identities. Men are shown struggling to survive inside the home – in confinement, implying and naturalizing the public and unbound as the space for men. This links to images of men as active, assertive, wild, agentive and dominant in public spaces. Where men are shown to be adapting to some of the characteristics of the domestic space (like child care, kitchen chores and having limited freedom), they are positioned as caricatures of an inverse and unnatural order of the world.

Confining men to the domestic space is tantamount to reducing them to mere boys; and emasculating them since real men cannot be boxed. This is why some of the circulating jokes during the lockdown show men playing with toys and also playing children’s games. While this locates care in femininity, it also locates care and femininity as marginal, since men are involved only because they have nothing else to do after their removal from their ‘serious’ occupations and spaces. In addition, the home is shown as marginal through its association with care and femininity, hence naturalizing and normalizing male power and locating it outside of domesticity.

Media, real or dramatized, that show men defying the lockdown should be understood in the context of men seeking to escape the emasculating aspects of space; and attempts to gain and prove their manhood. At the same time, the press-ups, frog-jumps, ground-rolling and skop ‘n donner, skiet and donner meted on the men who escape by the military is to censor such masculinities that are now challenging the state, the presidency and putting the nation in danger. President Ramaphosa said, “Staying at home, avoiding public places and cancelling all social activities is the preferred best defence against the virus.” This reveals how epidemics like Covid-19 triggered the surveillance of citizens and how self-surveillance and self-discipling of bodies have become markers of good and responsible citizenship.

No images of struggling women have dominated social media, reinforcing the normalcy and naturalness of their location in the domestic space, hence confirming women’s gendered role of nurturing and care. Thus, limiting women to domestic spaces becomes sensible, hence the circulating media related to the lockdown is re/producing the sensible. In many ways, this “normalises the inferior status of women, and asserts the superiority of men and the necessity for control” (Mawere 2019:34).

Historically, women have been denied space in public arenas, with their activity limited to the traditional private and domestic spheres. The collusion of African traditional leaders with the colonial administration during colonialism to curb the movement of African women in urban spaces (Barnes 1992) is important evidence to support this. In Zimbabwe, this is evidenced by the 1980s random raids of women stigmatised as prostitutes and vagrants in what the government called ‘Operation Clean-up’ (Ranchod-Nilsson 2006).

In Zimbabwe, South Africa and elsewhere, women who have attempted to go beyond their domestic spaces or acceptable limitations have been monitored by patriarchal spectacles, and framed as unreasonable. Moreover, efforts have been made to normalize them or to humiliate and crush them. Women in the entertainment industries, like Bev Sibanda and Chiwoniso Maraire (Zimbabwe), and those in politics like Joice Mujuru, Grace Mugabe and Thokozani Khupe (Zimbabwe), Winnie Mandela, Nkosazana Zuma (South Africa) and Joyce Banda (Malawi), in various ways, attempted to break the boundaries of domesticity which made them conflict with the patriarchal order (Mawere 2019, 2016).

The perceived absurdity of women’s occupation of the public space is a global phenomenon, as shown by the 1997 presentation of British women parliamentarians as Prime Minister Tony Blair’s ‘babes’ rather than as serious and independent deployees and the aggressive sexualisation of Sarah Palin, in the 2008 US Presidential elections (O’Neill et al. 2016, Perks & Johnson 2014, Harmer & Wring 2013) and the demonisation of Hillary Clinton in 2016 US elections (Ritchie 2013). During Zimbabwe’s national elections in 2018, after criticising wives of Zanu-PF politicians for breaking their boundaries and sneaking into public spaces through politics, Nelson Chamisa, the MDC presidential candidate, asserted his power, authority and competency for national presidency. He bragged about “his ability to keep his wife in the right space, i.e. in the domestic sphere. For him, failure to understand properly roles and responsibilities and to act accordingly accounted for Zimbabwe’s failure to grow and flourish” (Mawere 2019:63-64).

In many ways, the home is marginalised and this consequently naturalises social hierarchies based on women’s subordination (Mawere 2016; Yuval-Davies, 1997). Through the silencing of women’s experiences during the lockdown, the home is regarded as commonplace for femininities. Where women characters are shown, they are rather portrayed in a jovial mood since they are made extensions of the environment or as satirising the ‘locked down’ or captured men or rather making men’s lives unbearable by giving them ‘domestic’ chores like cleaning and laughing at them for being locked down. This speaks to what Gaidzanwa (1985) describes as the depiction of women as witches, which is characteristic of many literary texts. These negative images position women as vindictive and evil, substantiating the evil-woman motif which has largely been used as the basis for women elimination and exclusion from particular spheres of life that are deemed essential.

This is also supported by the Madonna-Whore complex where women either saint or sinner, but not both. Literature has shown that women are eliminated and excluded because of the negative images used to characterise them (Mawere 2019; Gaidzanwa 1985). Naturalising and normalising home as a space for women is a way of trivialising women and deterring them from participating in the public or in what are naturalised and normalised as male spaces (O’Neill, Savigny and Cann 2016). This accounts for the lack of cultural, structural and ideological support for women to occupy public spaces and provides reason for the policing of women’s bodies by patriarchy.

The home is associated with the private and is never thought of as the place for men. Addressing the nation, Ramaphosa directed, “From midnight on Thursday 26 March until midnight on Thursday 16 April, all South Africans will have to stay at home.” Staying at home metaphorically implies the emasculation of men. Most men who defied the lockdown did so to subvert their feminisation by the disease, by the threat of a foreigner, an intruder (especially in the context where the Coronavirus, Covid-19 has been associated with foreignness and whiteness, as articulated by Zimbabwe’s defence minister, Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri who publicly said that coronavirus is God’s punishment for Western countries[1]). Breaking the imposed boundaries and going into the public and expansive spaces is therefore a reassertion of masculinities.

A number of videos trending on social media show men disobeying the presidential directive to stay at home, marking disobedience as manly and obedience as cowardice and unmanly. Because of the association of cowardice with femininity, a lot of men have taken risks in life in order to prove their manhood. Disobeying the lockdown directive, especially through an irrational occupation of public spaces was a performance of manhood, which however, challenged the masculinities of the state.

Flattening the curve: Responsible masculinities and responsible citizenship

The South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa situates national defence and the nation’s survival in the imperatives of national unity, singleness of purpose, obedience and responsible citizenship. To ensure that this is done, through the use of the war metaphor, the state embarks on authoritarian nationalism as it brings the military on the streets to survey citizens and enforce the lockdown. In his speech, Ramaphosa articulates that those fighting to defeat the virus, and therefore to save the nation of South Africa from the threat of extinction should be responsible and actively participate to break the virus. This responsibility lies in flattening the curve of the virus or stopping its spread by staying at home. In this case, the defence of the nation, or the war front is located in one’s personal responsibility in stopping the spreading of the virus.

The home therefore, which has been marginalised in dominant literature and associated with femininities becomes central to the survival of the nation of South Africa. As a nation with both sick and healthy citizens and with the sick having to be cared for and healed and the healthy protected, the home is central. The care for the sick and protection for the healthy is located within home/private and within families rather than public spaces. It is therefore important to re/think our dominant perceptions of home, of our notions of defending nations, of masculinities and of nationhood. While the industrial, technological, mechanical and economical world has given us ‘comfort’ and a false sense that we can live and survival away from home and humanity, Covid-19 has forced us back to re/negotiate genders, masculinities, nationhood and citizenship.

Re/thinking home and nationhood

Banters associated with the lockdown and men’s non-compliance with presidential directives are spectacles, performances and re/productions of patriarchal cultures. At the same time, the lockdown measures that centralise South Africa’s defence and national survival at home offer a subversive text that urges us to re/think the notion of home and nationhood. It has taken a pandemic to teach us that there is an important space called home where toxic viruses, genders and lives are ‘flattened’. Subversively, Covid-19 has challenged us to re/think ‘marginal’ spaces and their potential to be spaces of life and our survival.


This article was first published by the CSA&G’s Gender Justice Project.

Tinashe Mawere is currently a researcher at CSA&G. He is working in the Gender Justice Project (Irish Aid) based at the University of Pretoria



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Butler, J. 1988. Performative acts and gender constitution: An essay in phenomenology and feminist theory. Theatre Journal: 519-531.

Eisenstein, Z. 2000. Writing bodies on the nation for the globe. In S. Rancho-Nilsson & A.M. Tétreault (eds.), Women, States and Nationalism: At Home in the Nation, 35-53.

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

Harmer, E. & Wring, D. 2013. Julie and the cybermums: marketing and women voters in the 2010 elections. Journal of Political Marketing, 12(2-3): 262-273.

Lewis, D. 2002. Self-representation and reconstructions of Southern African pasts. Deep hiStories: Gender and Colonialism in Southern Africa, 57: 267-281.

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

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

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

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Perks, L.G. & Johnson, K.A. 2014. Electile dysfunction. Feminist Media Studies, 14(5): 775-790.

Peterson, V.S. 2000. Sexing political identities/nationalism as heterosexism. In S. Ranchod-Nilsson & M.A. Tétreault (eds.), Women, State and Nationalism: At Home in the Nation? London and New York: Routledge, 54-80.

Ranchod-Nilsson, S. 2006. Gender politics and the pendulum of political and social transformation in Zimbabwe. Journal of Southern African Studies, 32(1): 49-67.

Ritchie, J. 2013. Creating a monster. Feminist Medea Studies, 13: 102-119.

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

Ramaphosa, C. 2020. ‘‘The most definitive Thuma Mina moment’ for SA: Ramaphosa’s plan for Covid-19’. (Available at, accessed 03 April 2020).

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[1] Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri says coronavirus is God’s punishment

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.


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Sakhumzi Mfecane

Associate Professor, Anthropology Department, University of the Western Cape


(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.