Africa / African / Blacks / Masculinity / Men

Extract From a Conversation between Gabi Ngcobo and Kopano Ratele


This is an extract from an old interview between Gabi Ncgobo and Kopano Ratele. While somewhat dated now, I find it to be fresh still. And since most readers of the blog will not know of it, it will be of may be of interest.

Gabi Ncgobo

Introduction of the interview by Gabi Ncgobo:

Thando Mama, Nicholas Hlobo and Churchill Madikida have several things in common. All three artists are male. They all come from Xhosa cultural backgrounds. And all explore their male identities within a transitional South Africa where masculinities are, without any doubt, a crisis of some sort.

According to Thando Mama,

The history of an African man is that of forced silence, of confinement to an impossible space, he struggles to fight for self-determination. These impossible spaces created by this history are visible, each day the African man lives, breathes and believes in them. They haunt and terrify him. (Mama)


On his work titled Intente Nicholas Hlobo says:

Intente looks at military camps, which signify protection, destruction and display of power. When in trouble soldiers would drop their tents to send a signal to their friends alerting them of an invasion by the enemy. This is where the work Intente plays its part. It is inspired by the idea of a tent as something that gives shelter and is also a symbol of power and masculinity. Young Xhosa men at times refer to someone having an erection as “umis’iintente”, meaning “he’s got his tents up”. (Hlobo)

Nicholas Hlobo's Intente

Nicholas Hlobo’s Intente


And in his turn, in his recent exhibition, Like father like son?, Churchill Madikida provides an insight into his struggle with understanding how his growing up without his biological father might have shaped his sense of being, his relationships and his perception of the world. ‘In this exhibition’, he says,

I am trying to share my struggles in trying to understand and overcome growing up without a biological father. For me this process includes dealing with and acknowledging shortcomings and wrongs of the past and mostly offering forgiveness and moving forward. (Madikida)

From the exhibition, "Like father like son?" by Churchill Madikida

From the exhibition, “Like father like son?” by Churchill Madikida

In most of my work within the visual arts field I am often concerned and explore issues pertaining to black women, including myself, in trying to dispute set convictions about our femininities. I try to explore reasons for our silences and invisibilities especially within the visual arts sector in South Africa. I have noticed that as much as black women are othered by whiteness in general much of the problems also lie in their relationship with black men but most importantly black men’s relationship with themselves. Recently there has been a lot of work done to engage with masculinities in South Africa where it became apparent that masculinities are indeed in crisis. One example is a public symposium held at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research in September 2004. Titled Masculinity and Manhood: Struggles with Change, the symposium brought out a number of questions around masculinity such as those posed by the Cameroonian-born scholar Achille Mbembe which effectively ask: Why is there so much interest in masculinity of late? Is there a crisis in masculinity? What are its manifestations? What are does it mean to femininity?

To explore these question and others, I had a focused conversation with Kopano Ratele, a scholar of masculinity who holds a professorship at the University of South Africa, a choice determined by the lack of in-depth engagement with the language of the visual image and its histories outside of the art world, and visa-versa. Nevertheless, Kopano Ratele has done great deal of work on African and black masculinities, their histories, their formations in contemporary cultures, the contradictions around their constructions, and the dissolution of black manhood, making him an interesting contributor for what I would regard as an introduction to a dialogue transfusing the current crisis facing masculinities, articulated by the artists cited above with the feminine predicaments I grapple with.

In this conversation I also draw on two other works: the novels The Quiet Violence of Dreams, by K. Sello Duiker, who died recently at the age of 31, and Mandela’s Ego, the latest work by Lewis Nkosi, who is turning 70 later this year.

In Mandela’s Ego Lewis Nkosi explores what he feels was left out of Nelson Mandela’s Biography, A Long Walk to Freedom: Mandela’s sexuality. Nkosi does this through the character of a young man coming of age in KwaZulu Natal during Mandela’s hiding from the apartheid officials. David Artwell has described Nkosi’s novel as “a provocative account of masculine sexuality in the struggle.” Artwell declares that

Nkosi’s allegory compels us to read political clout in terms of sexual potency and oppression in terms of emasculation; in this way Nkosi links the phallus with the nation (as opposed to the female body as is often the case) and by doing so reverses and unsettles the gender stereotypes. He seems to be saying that the current debate about masculinity has a longer history than we care to think about.

Artwell then asks, “Was there a worm in that proud past, which has now grown into a monster?” (emphasis mine) (David Artwell, Sex and the struggle, 07 July 2006, ZA@PLAY, Mail and Guardian Online.

In The Quiet Violence of Dreams, through Tshepo, the main character, Sello Duiker presents an unexpected and with unusual audacity, a masculinity which expresses close identification with a violated woman, thereby blurring the boundaries of sexual violation and orientation. In this way Duiker substitutes the female victim with a male one, inverting the accepted picture of gender violence and showing how violation knows no boundaries, as Tshepo is womanised – the ultimate and quintessential fear of the heterosexual male.

Both books are, in a way, rite of passage novels: one set at the height of the apartheid era (Mandela’s Ego) and the other set in the transitional period of a post-apartheid South Africa (The Silent Violence of Dreams).

Gabi Ngcobo

On the question of the crises of (black) masculinities and based on the examples I have read to you, what in your opinion does it all mean for contemporary (black) femininities?


Kopano Ratele

To begin with the crisis, the crises, of black masculinities: If you had asked me the question about whether or not there is such a thing two or three years ago, I would not have answered in the way I am going to answer. Things have changed, and keep changing. In the circumstance one’s thinking must transform, be mobile, incorporate the changes. I now see that, as a group, black men are in the middle of a crisis of sorts; a deep, multiple and peculiar crisis. Why?

Kopano Ratele

Kopano Ratele


Although the crisis of African masculinity in South Africa does have overlapping features with other masculine crises experienced by different societies around the world (for there is talk in many parts of the world about boys in trouble, masculinity in crisis, women emasculating men), per definition it is a South African crisis, local trouble, in that it possesses specific features that are found here but not everywhere else where there are men and women. In other words, the crisis of black masculinity in this society is historico-racial, for one thing. Hence it is not of the same kind as a crisis that might be experienced by white male in Russia or even white South African males.

Second, being unlike a crisis that may be experienced by men in Zimbabwe close by, or men in North Africa, the crisis of African masculinity in South Africa is nationally bounded.

As it is dissimilar to a crisis under which middle-class males in the United States of America or in Germany may find themselves, it is regional and economic. It is a crisis of a different type to that which economically better-off males in the developed world might or might not be experiencing.

Next, the crisis is class cultural, no doubt. It blows up out of the subterranean movements underlying questions around cultural groupings, practices, habits, and identity.  Around that question of who we are? And what is African this or black that? What is truly Xhosa or 100% Zulu? And so forth.

Last, there are matters of sex and sexuality. If it was not very clear up till this point, the sexual aspects of the crisis of masculinity bring us abreast with your question, what does it all mean for black femininities? The crisis of masculinity is, in other words, a crisis that implicates heterosexual relations, domination and submission, relations men fantasise about, plan to have, or fail to actualise with real women in ordinary life. Not images of proper femininity, not fantasies. It is crisis that can be opened up and it will show what men wish they can do with women, if only they are allowed. Of the fantasy girl a man has. It spins around unfulfilled, unfulfillable, carnal longings of men about women. Ultimately it is about the sexualisation of power, and powerlessness, of males.

Speaking of powerlessness and power, from another direction, it has been observed that somewhere around the mid-30s, we start losing black men in this country. Males start to die when they get into their middle 30s. This is an interesting because statistics show that it is mostly women who are HIV-infected. And, in objective gender power terms, it is also known that most women are at the mercy of men. Masculinity rules over femininity with question. And males kill females. But then somehow it is found that more men who are dying, far more males than females. It is a fantastically complicated thing happening right there. This complication is an echo of the relation of masculinity with femininities, obviously. The many crises just outlined are bursting the dam walls of society, sweeping away the bodies of young girls, women, and then males, leaving corpses, twisted lives, traumatised cultures, and broken homes in their wake.

The question you could ask is, where are the men going? First, it is known that life expectancy of South African males at birth is currently estimated at approximately 49 years while for females it is 53 years. But there are other intriguing aspects to the dearth of males? From the mid-year estimates of the population of South Africa in 2005, on average there are more men than women up until the age of about 34, with differences existing in each cohort. But then men start vanishing. When you take the whole population there are over 700 000 fewer males in South Africa than females. A difference of more than 700 000! And if one sharpens the focus on Africans, there are close on half-million more black females than black males.

The same picture is evident for the 2006 figures. There are about 730 000 more females than females in South Africa today. And of this difference over 540 000 is in the African group.

All of this cannot but makes one wonder what the hell is happening. Where to are these men disappearing and what are some of the implications? A very specific example: in the 40s categories we start talking of a 200 000 more black women than black men. That is mind-boggling. Male in their prime, tripping and falling off the face of the earth; heterosexual black women, alone and wondering what in Nandi’s name is going down. So, if you’re a fine, independent, straight African woman, having postponed commitment, but maybe thinking you may come to entertain getting hitched up with a good black man around your late 30s-early 40s, you have another think coming: because there just are enough African males of similar age. As we say, crisis! Men are dying – murdering each other and killing themselves.  In addition to the gendercide, what I have not said outright is what many a woman know without being told: men can be dead while walking, while living n the same house. Men are dying socially because they can’t quite figure out what is to be their relation with women, with older men, with younger men. And if you’re black, of course you have to factor into your identity white men, whiteness in general, but white men in particular. That too has been known to put down black males.

There is more. Let me point out one, something to do with what you said about Nkosi. It runs something like this. In reflecting on the lives of older men and masculinities as explored by Lewis Nkosi against the numbers I just quoted, one comes to understand that if the old men are not there, there cannot be a the necessary handing over, as it were, from an older generation of black men to the younger generation. No older men around means that a younger man will struggle even more than usual to make his own identity, for, without any bearings the environment, without history or map, one tends to flail and flounder all over. As a growing man, it is always good for a boy to have somebody who either he is going to follow or otherwise work against. If nothing else it marks the field of play. It makes things clear to know what one is working against or, clearly, what one is aspiring to. If there’s nothing where there should be something, if there is emptiness where there ought to be a form of masculinity, the one will feel like he is spinning in a masculinity vacuum, not quite knowing which way is up and which way down.

Before moving on, one other thing. In some of the images of the work of the artists you are showing me, there’s a serious, exciting, incredible experiments about the society and self, both women and men experimenting about identities, sexualities, social and sexual relations. At the same time, it is an experimentation without, as it were, a history, even if there may be a future. It’s so contemporary in the best but also the worst kind of way, you know. It is here, now. It says ‘this is what is happening’. Without knowing which way is before and beyond the contemporary, one does not quite know where they are heading, does not know their backside from their front. In yet another sense then, masculinities are in a crisis, and put femininities in danger, precisely because males, live in the now and here, and such lives, without learning about nurturing each another, puts us all, black women and men in real danger.

One thought on “Extract From a Conversation between Gabi Ngcobo and Kopano Ratele

  1. Pingback: I Can’t Stand Jacquel Rassenworth! ~ by CountOmen (written on October 20, 2011) | The Jacquel Rassenworth Blog

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