Defending Shabangu: On the Strength/ening and Weakness/ing of Black Women

*Philile Ntuli

Last week the Minister of Women evoked many sensitivities by stating that ‘whilst Karabo came across as very strong, but internally she was weak. She was weak and hence she became a victim of abuse’. When asked to respond to increased criticism, Minister Shabangu emphasized that ‘Karabo was in a relationship where she thought it would work for her but it led to unfortunately the death of her’.

There is a discussion yet to be abstracted from the Minister’s conversation. The absence of which, perhaps endangered by its own potential to unite a people conditioned to not, serves to maintain our social angst against the Department’s incompetencies.

Until we can accept that there is a ‘form of weakness’ that held Karabo together with her boyfriend and prevented her from leaving, we cannot interrogate what kind of weakness this might have been. And perhaps we might continue to speak ‘sensitively’ while ignoring the brutal facts of women’s ‘weaknessing’ by systematic patriarchal domination.

Karabo’s own mother warned her that Sandile would kill her. Weeks before her death, she tells Karabo ‘You cannot go on like this, this is not love, it is not a toxic relationship, I do not even know what to call this’.

What form of weakness/ing inhabited Karabo when she went home with Sandile? Was it external, in the form of physical coercion, or internal, and concerned with her own complicity?

At the funeral Bathabile Dlamini added, ‘once someone abuses you emotionally, they break you. You are finished. It lowers your confidence.’ In an interview Lerumo Matloko, member of ‘Men of Hope’ stated that ‘there is never any justification for someone to vent their anger by taking the life of a defenseless, loving and trusting young lady’. What is yet to be discussed in public is the form of weakness Dlamini describes as ‘breaking’, ‘finishing’, and ‘confidence-lowering’. The question to lead that discussion being ‘defenceless against physical or internal violence?’.

In public, we are also yet to discuss ‘weakness’ as the unwanted opposite of ‘strength’, which is a defining quality that precedes a black woman. When people talk about the strength of black women, they are speaking about both a social expectation and a personal/group strategy against dominatory systems. Strength, to black women, is a learned application that serves as a self-protective mechanism. Here, the weak never survive. They are defenseless, without strength. Broken. And Finished!

For many of the survivors, the strong black women, rebuking weakness often implies enforcing silence about the implications of the weaknessing nature of race, class, and sexual, gendered violence on their experiences of living.

We are also yet to speak in public about how our mothers and our aunts and we, are taught ‘strength’ as a strategy for black womanhood.

Despite her mother’s pleas to leave him, Karabo was a social being who was also hearing generations of voices of elder women coaching young black women on the role of persevering in strength. We must have this conversation in public too.

We must confront the reality that we live in a society where extra-ordinary women do not speak. Even when those around them can see they are in agony. We have to speak about our own complicity every time we admire the strength of our mothers and grandmothers because ‘I don’t know how she did it all, but she did’. We measure their stature by how much they do not complain or share anguish with others. We nobilise their silent suffering and in turn recreate tropes for the present and the future about the hidden beauty of black women.

What about other forms of silence in black womanhood? Women who know truths yet are silent and allow lies to prevail, even when their loved ones or they themselves could die. We must yet speak in public about what form of weakness intimidates women that they won’t tell the truth, even to their own detriment. Is it fear of men? Are they brutalized into silence? Either way, there is a complicity, which is heartbreaking at most.

Karabo, like many strong black women across the world, died not so much of the physical wounds she sustained, but of a broken heart. Broken hearts that yearn, in silence, for someone who will hear how heavy the burden of systematic networks of oppression are.

This implies that the very idea of a strong black woman, as explained by scholar bell hooks, ‘as females in a patriarchal culture, we were not slaves of love; most of us were and are slaves of longing– yearning for a master who will set us free and claim us because we cannot claim ourselves’.

We have to have a public discussion about this form of yearning, this form of weakness/ing in tons and tons and tons of strong black women.


*Philile is self-acclaimed queen of all scrabble boards. Try her.


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