University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff
|Of the West African Tigers|
For K, my Ghanaian addressee, women of his Akan peoples who will resist, perhaps not polygamy all the time, but disorderly polygamy, who will resist economic suppression and spousal irresponsibility among other patriarchal or gendered abuses, were the 'tigers'. And before we go any further, shall we pause to say that ecologically there are no tigers in West Africa or in Africa, for that matter? Many Africans translate "leopards" into "tigers" so that the malapropism recurs in Africanese English. Moreover, many other peoples, white, black, green or purple remain ignorant of world fauna and where they inhabit. So tigers are supposed to exist in jungles in Africa! Now while we are at it, we might well say here too that there are no jungles in Africa. Africa has forests. Jungles, beautiful as they are and full of innumerable healing and life saving plants and denizens are to be found in Asia and South America. Africa possesses, not tigers but, among other four-legged friends, leopards and lions, which do not live in jungles but in the savannah (grasslands).
To return to our main narrative, however, our K in South Africa rejoices that he is freed from the West African tigers. The qualifier "West Africa" is important and necessary. More than in any other part of Africa, or arguably the world, South Africa is one place that makes an informed African more aware of regional differences (and similarities) of cultures in Africa. The presence of immigrants from the world over encourages this. Furthermore, South Africa herself is such a divided nation, with its indigeous cultures so distorted by apartheid, that one becomes more aware than usual of issues of culture and difference. Being in South Africa often forces one to think about cultural indigeneity and diversity in Africa. It also makes one ponder the varieties of regional colonial malformations as heritage that exist and thrive on the continent.
|Northern or Tropical Africans|
Black South Africans in concert with the rest of their society often refer to other Africans from beyond the SADC (Southern African Development Community) countries as Northern or Tropical Africans. Africans from SADC countries are familiar figures in South Africa as part of the expansive migrant labor system. On the contrary, Northern or Tropical Africans are unfamiliar, considered wild, and strangers to modernity, cannibals in grass skirts according to the notions fed to South Africans by the provincializing cultural diet of apartheid propaganda.
An attitude that Northern and Tropical Africans are inferior permeates the lower classes, untravelled and uninformed as they have been rendered. In fact, most at-home South Africans are characterized by a striking ignorance of the world outside. Many of my students, like many of their other compatriots, thought that South Africa was a province of England. Others could not show you the boundaries of South Africa on a map of Africa. When requested to do so in an African literature class as background work, they proudly and roundly declared that they were not in a geography class. Still others did not know the countries surrounding South Africa, much less the countries of East or West Africa. Yet I do not (and we should not) blame the victims of a system that consciously and effectively constructed ignorance, xenophobia and self-hatred. Rather we need to know the problems as we rejoice over the change from, not the demise of, legal apartheid (and only legal apartheid), so that we can make more useful intellectual and social contributions, if we wish and can.
When I told a good British colleague of mine about the widespread xenophobia in South Africa, particularly towards Black Africans and Black peoples of the African diaspora, he was quick to mention the acceptance and success of the writer and professor, Kole Omotoso, in South Africa. But despite his popularity in South Africa for advertising a cell-phone brand, he still had to defend Nigerians and other Africans against negative stereotyping on Felicia, the South African equivalent of the Oprah Winfrey Show. Provincialism and xenophobia, particularly against other Blacks are alive and well in the "New South Africa", a term that in itself needs interrogation. It is ironical that the World Conference Against Racism was recently held in South Africa. It is to be hoped that the internal forms of racism and prejudice were also raised and thoroughly discussed.
Simultaneously resentment exists in all classes against the presence of middle and working class Northern and Tropical Africans for various reasons. They are resented for possessing skills of which apartheid deprived their South African counterparts. It is amazing how basic skills such as carpentry, tire vulcanizing or welding are unknown by nationals; amazing how a people can be truly reduced to the cliché: "hewers of wood and drawers of water." Accused of taking jobs by their competitors, as often happens in social situations of scarcity and unemployment, emigré Africans face other kinds of social stresses.
Apropos sex and gender, immigrant West Africans find themselves in the context of South Africa's apartheid patriarchal constructions. Apartheid pyramidal society placed White men at the top, followed by White women. Then come Colored men and women above Asian men and women, and finally Black men and women at the base of the pyramid. (What is new?). Black women were therefore at the lowest level, at the bottom of the heap where they were inferior even to boys. Black men and boys were superior to all women, including their own mothers over whom they had proprietary rights and authority. Ellen Kuzwayo writes poignantly about this seemingly unearthly predicament in her Call Me Woman (1985). For a son to have authority over his own mother would, in all probability, be mind-boggling in most parts of West Africa. It would be an "abomination," to use Achebe's word from Things Fall Apart (1958). Traditional cultures such as those of the Xhosa, the Zulu and other ethnic groups were restructured under apartheid to create a simplistic male supremacy over all women in all circumstances and conditions: perhaps a more Teutonic rather than an African conception of sex and gender relations.
Now in this brave new world, Northern and Tropical Africans find themselves with new and unheard-of privileges, rights and freedoms, and many of them love the situation. For instance, I recall the son of a Ugandan friend of mine who hated going back to Uganda on holidays. While he is there he affects a superior attitude, just as many South African men and boys have been socialized to do. His mother told me how he shuts up his peer group in Uganda with the attitudinizing phrase: "Look here, I am a South African boy." Being a boy or man in South Africa is very resonant.
The brain drain is creating many such "South African boys and men." Sex and gender privileges to which one is unaccustomed can be inebriating: they go to the head. Many of the brain-drain Africans are very happy in South Africa while a sizeable proportion do not plan to return home or leave South Africa. It is known that some West African men loved to live in South Africa, even in the days of apartheid, especially the economic refugees. Of such refugees, millions enjoyed living under the inhuman construct and blaming the victims, the South Africans. The sources of the happiness of the Northern Tropical Africans, however, did not exclude the better working and living conditions (for middle and upper-class West Africans who had lived better at home before their countries became decrepit) and the negligible taxation under apartheid. Quite a number of such apolitical refugees bemoaned the end of legal apartheid and longed for the return of that monstrosity. Such attitudes in Northern and Tropical Africans often, and justifiably, led to hostility from South Africans, though some frustrated South Africans, themselves disappointed by what they see as the performance of the ANC, have been known to wish apartheid were back.
|Sex and Gender Relations in the "New South Africa"|
In this society, financially easier for the Northern and Tropical Africans, and built around apartheid patriarchy and migrant labor, the men and women find themselves in new gender conditions and surroundings while the men discover new freedoms to dominate and abuse women in sex and gender relations. Domestic violence is rife and uncontrolled as legal battle continues against it in the public realm of government. West African kinship controls of spousal behavior are not always available any longer though some groups initiated cultural and ethnic associations that try to reproduce the sociology and associational roles of their home cultures. Nonetheless, these ethnic and kinship constraints and controls are easier to break, flout or defy in a foreign setting.
Under apartheid and especially in the working classes, most South African men had found it difficult to fulfil their roles as head of the household despite the dominant power given them, especially through the Afrikaner reconstruction of Black African ethnic kinship relations. By this strategy, male supremacy was enthroned at all levels of interaction. Consequently sex and gender relations suffered horribly. Among the migrant groups which inherited the aftermath and vestiges of apartheid patriarchy, some Nigerian men could more remorselessly beat their wives without the usual social repercussions of their Nigerian societies. Our K from Ghana could ignore his family in Ghana, get another woman with child in South Africa, live with her in a common-law marriage without a care about his wife's reactions, have girlfriends publicly as well as engage in a very active sexual life with incidental women. Other Northern and Tropical Africans force their wives to live with local women to whom they are not legally married or give their wives ultimata to live in such careless or capricious polygyny. As they would say in the Old Oyo Yoruba Empire in its 18th century days of social disintegration, Tani yoo mu mi? (Who will stop me?). What is different in the South African situation from what usually occurs in West Africa is the absence of guilt in the actors or sanctions from anywhere at all.
Stories abound regarding the behavior of emigré men. Our 'escapee' K, fleeing the West African 'tigers' and having children by a Xhosa woman is but one of the many cases one could use to illustrate this social problem. A sizeable number of West African men abandoned their families in West Africa; others abandoned their families or their womenfolk after arriving in South Africa. Still others imposed incredible living conditions on their wives, such as being held hostage in their own homes by local women who were already esconsed in the family home and were also armed. Possession (for the local woman) is, after all, the first law of ownership. Moreover, West African women may be aggressive or tigers, but they are not yet versed in the arts of firearms! Such West African women, finding themselves threatened in, or expelled from, their homes and nearer the South Pole than their own countries, discover that they have to start new lives in a strange country. Some may also lose their children to their husbands without the checks and balances of their home country. The women find that they now have to fall back on those same "tigerish" qualities feared by some of the men in order to survive; namely, their West African assertiveness, their ability to do, their commercial ingenuity, and social intelligence. These qualities are marshaled in order to live in a powerfully anti-woman culture that South Africa is, in all her color-coded strata.
Unfortunately this anti-woman culture is indirectly promoting the brain-drain from the rest of Africa. South Africa, for all her problems, offers an employment haven that betters the economic conditions in several Northern and Tropical African countries. Many of these countries are also ridden with corruption and shattered by structural adjustments as well as coups d'etat in fragile and turbulent would-be democracies. For some immigrants, physical living conditions in some areas of South Africa are not as weather-beaten or decrepit as they have now become in West Africa where, sad to say, the academic classes had lived better than they do in South Africa today. But post-IMF Africa is another story, alas! [Stop press: the rand has slumped since I started this chapter].
Paradoxically in sex and gender relations, South African women, White, Black, or Colored, (I am not so certain about Asian women who seem more racially inward and excluding), find West African male immigrants attractive, for never have many of them seen Black men so highly educated and skilled, self-possessed and well-spoken, intelligent and stylish in contrast to local men produced under the siege of the apartheid system. On the one hand, the quality of the brain-drain Northern Africans proves attractive; on the other, the myths of apartheid propaganda keep some of the South African women scornful of the immigrant men, convinced as the women have been of the inferiority of Black peoples to the North of them. After all, these people from the North are disguised cannibals in grass skirts.
The two college girls in the car with us tried to restrain the driver as they nonetheless giggled themselves silly, casting knowing glances at me. Earlier the same girls had been trying to proposition the male professor together. Sexuality is more liberated and expressed in South Africa (perhaps a little too liberated or unstructured) in contrast to Nigeria's conventions and hypocrisies. Sexual attitudes towards Northern and Tropical Africans are also complex though often amusing yet politically problematic, serious, and profound, as things human frequently are.
South Africa will continue to be a place of choice for Northern and Tropical Africans going into exile for as long as the men continue to feel realized in a gendered way in that country. They will want to live in South Africa as long as they can express their most basic and regressive sexual and gender tendencies and socializations without sanctions and compunctions. My concern is that living in South Africa produces the worst traits in Northern and Tropical Africans while it reduces them in their sexual and gender development. Activists involved with gender democracy in our societies certainly will not wish to see these Northern and Tropical Africans return to their home countries to poison them with negative pre- and post-apartheid sex and gender mores.
South Africa is reputed to have a uniquely progressive constitution regarding gender because it is the only one of such documents globally to centralize and directly inculcate gender in detail. It is possible that émigrés of the brain-drain to patriarchal South Africa will be influenced by the progressive gender terms of that constitution. If the advanced vision of that national document on gender relations and democracy and its resultant national social mobilization going on in South Africa today influence positively brain-drain Northern and Tropical Africans, living and working in South Africa could ultimately be historically and socially beneficial to them beyond economics.
|"Escaping the West African 'Tigers': Sex and Gender Relations in the 'New South Africa'" is an excerpt from the forthcoming book by Molara Ogundipe entitled: Don't Kill the Messenger: Narratives of the New South Africa.|
Abraham, R. C. Dictionary of Modern Yoruba. London: University of London Press, 1958.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. London: Heinemann, 1958.
Kuzwayo, Ellen. Call Me Woman. London: Women's Press, 1985.
|Molara Ogundipe is Professor of English, Africana and Gender Studies. She lived and traveled in South Africa between 1996 and 1998. She now teaches in the Department of English, Theatre and Mass Communications at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, USA. As a pioneering feminist in Nigeria and internationally, Professor Ogundipe has been Director of Women's Studies at Indiana-Purdue University, USA and Occupant of the Endowed Laurie New Jersey Chair in Women's Studies at Rutgers University. A much anthologized poet, Molara Ogundipe is also the author of numerous articles, popular essays and several books including her very well-received and much cited book on African women, used in many colleges and universities globally as a teaching tool: Recreating Ourselves : African Women and Critical Transformations (Africa World Press, 1994).|