In a highly unequal society where sexual and gender violence is a daily experience and a high number of black men die in the prime of the lives, what does a man teach his son to prepare for manhood? Many more South African black men just fail, or get failed, dying on their feet. Adding to the ever-growing global numbers of the walking dead, too many black males get lost by the race to alcohol, drugs, and purposelessness of a life without gainful employment in a society that doesn’t care about, or know what to do with, men who fail the test of stereotypically succesful masculinity.
Make no mistake, whatever you read about the rainbow miracle, with all of the warm talk of botho/ubuntu, when all is said and done, South Africa is not doing a great job of looking out for those who are at the beastly, bloody end of the pact of the capitalist and political elites – its weakest members, the ill, hungry, orphaned, and poor. Zwelinzima Vavi famously said South Africa is becoming predator society ‘where a powerful, corrupt and demagogic elite of political hyenas are increasingly using the state to get rich’.
In a society such ours, where hopes of true equality – the income kind and the sexual one – recedes each day, the question of what to teach one’s child is even more important.
Many things trigger that question. Some of the evocative events are big, like stories of swagerring, corrupt politicians and the newly rich, or the president’s famous promiscuity. And other times, the though is brought to surface by more mundane stories, such as comes when reading of the well-intentioned projects on girls such as the South Africa mobile company Cell C’s ‘Take a Girl Child to Work’, now in its 10th year, or the more international ‘Because I am a Girl’ reports, a yearly assessment of the state of girls around the world that first appeared in 2007.
True, I have thought of the question also because of my scholarly interest in boys and masculinities.
Now, though, even if I am convinced that there is nothing as practical as a good elegant theory, the question has become more personal. We are raising a boy.
We hope to raise this boy black, rudely beautiful, and feminist-minded, sort of an experimental admixture between the Youth League Nelson Mandela, Mario Balotelli, and Toni Morrison.
First, though, let me tell you thought some of what I experienced when my wife was pregnant and we elected not to know the sex of the baby. That meant living for months with the terrible excitement of guessing. My emotions swung wildly every time I would listen to the baby kicking, see pregnant women, or see other parents with their little ones.
One day I would want a boy, fantasise of all the stuff I would teach him. Then I would think about the elevated risks to injury death that they would face as males and pray that it wasn’t a black boy. Even though my relationship with prayer is complicated, this is South Africa where fatal injuries have been declared one of the four epidemics, and one is almost compelled to believe in some supernatural deity and not only randomness.
With that in mind, the next time around the fantasy would be how great it would be if we were to get a girl and all the cute clothes we would dress her up in. I know it isn’t a very feminist thing to say because, well, clothing and girlyness is a feminist problematic. But, please, have you seen how ugly and uninteresting much of boys’ clothes are? How limited the space given to boys’ clothing it at clothing department stores? How ridiculously full of merchandising?
Then again, I would think of the sexual violence, harassment and discrimination that she would face, and shudder. As the several studies in South Africa and from around the world show research girls confronted unjust discrimination on the grounds of age and gender on a daily basis.
In fact, the latest ‘Because I am a Girl’ report, which interestingly is focussed on boys, notes that in many societies around the world girls tend to get pulled out of school more often than boys, get less education, married early, more likely to be subject to violence, and enjoy less freedom in practice.
These gender-biased practices are shortsighted in that they undermine the full potential that girls embody for the socio-economic future of those countries that discriminate against females. Sex and gender-based inequality of opportunity and access to quality education, health service, and in the workforce impedes girls from developing into leaders, inventors and active citizens.
All that said, however, reports and campaigns such as those I have referred to miss the complexity of the local dynamics. For instances, in some countries girls are doing increasingly educationally outperforming boys. The racial and economic facets of educational performance make for very interesting or sad reading, depending on your point of view.
Statistics South Africa has shown, as an example, that female participation in schooling equals that of males for the age groups 7-13. For the ages 14-18, females have surpassed male participation.
The statistics body notes that although a smaller proportion of women over the age of 20 years compared to men have completed secondary school, females under the age of 20 years are doing better than male peers. 38% of males and 23% of females have not achieved Grade 9 by the time they turn 17 years old. The body has remarked the gender-bias in our society as reflected by the fact that a significantly higher proportion of females than males dropped out of school for family related reasons, but also that a significant number of boys who drop out of secondary school dismiss education as ‘not useful’.
Let me underline the point I wish to be drawn from this. Of course we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that the education system in post-apartheid South Africa is failing great numbers of poor children. Still, the government and the rest of us shouldn’t be shy to admit that the majority of those failed by the education are black and poor. We can’t be hesitant to own up to the fact that within that failing majority males are doing worse than their female peers.
The bottom line is that poor black boys are losing the race. Or perhaps, the truth is, the race is losing them.
The failure of poor black boys needs to be given some attention as it has implications beyond the fact that the future appears to be white and female. These implications include that fact that these numbers of failed boys may become failed men. And you don’t want many failed men around your neighbourhood.
Black school boys fail for many reasons. Even then, when a few of them don’t do well at school we can look for reasons in their work ethic and personal circumstances. Are they working hard enough? However, when hundreds of thousands of them are failing we have to look at ourselves as a society, race, or community. Are we failing to do what must be done to change things?
We have to take another look at ourselves because among the reasons for the failure of boys is the failure of dominant forms of black manhood to adapt to the imperatives of gender and sexual equality. The old forms of dominant forms of black manhood, and so of what is taught black boys, are beyond their expiry date.
We have to rethink what we teach black boys because the maladaptation of the prevalent stylisation of black masculinity to constitutional democracy and the vicissitudes of the neoliberal economy has effects beyond male educational underachievement.
The unsoundness of the hitherto ruling ideas of black manhood is what makes the too high a number of boys who drop out of school believe education is useless.
Maladaptive sexual and gender practices are connected to an inability to appreciate the importance of a society and families to empower girls and women. In fact, a maladaptive manhood is a health hazard to the man himself, to other men, to women, and to children. Something has got to give.
From all this then, it doesn’t seem to be a good idea to be born a black boy in South Africa today. But what of tomorrow? What are the things one needs to teach black boys for healthier, adaptive forms of manhood? What are the thing we need to do as a society to make a better life for all black boys and girls, if a better life for all is more than a mere vote-catching a slogan to be hauled out and burnished again in 2014?
We need to double our efforts of making poor black girls’ lives better by providing them with good quality education, certainly.
But I think for a brighter tomorrow we must also offer boys the kind of quality, black, feminist education that makes them more equal to girls’ powerful dreams and achievements.
Girl’s lives will be enabled by an education that will form boys into men who understand that sexual and physical violence against girls and women makes you not right but instead a bully and criminal. To realise their right to equality and a flourishing life, girls must look forward to a future where men understand that nurturing children, interrupted education, cleaning houses, and badly paid jobs are not inevitable female destinies.
We need to models for poor black boys what life in an egalitarian, developing society can look like if you are the kind of man who doesn’t experience black women’s voices and independence as a threat.
Of course we need to teach our sons to work hard and make heaps of money. But all the hard work will not necessarily bring you wealth, and no amount of money on its own will make you happy or a good person. So, of course, we need to make them into generous beings too, tell them about the importance of purpose and love and fun, of sharing and empathy, of being good friends and feeling at home in the world.
But, for now, we would have done a great job if we are succesfully educate boys for capacious, kinder, confident and peaceful forms of masculinities.
We need to teach boys for a future where it will be taken-for-granted that Nkosazana Zuma-Dlamini can be the best president for South Africa: that is, a highly educated, proud, black feminist manhood.
A version of this piece first appeared on TimesLive on 22 June, 2012.