‘The personal is political’ – shifting contexts and enduring relevance(?)

Thought Leader Encounter of 11 May 2017

Thursday 11 May saw the Centre for Law and Society (CLS) convene its first Thought Leader Encounter of 2017. Officially launched in early 2016, this series is a key activity under the CLS Hub, an initiative aimed at providing supportive spaces for robust debates around critical socio-legal issues. These Encounters seek to bring students and faculty in contact with Thought Leaders in and especially outside the field of law. Our hope is that these spaces encourage dialogue on provocative and difficult topics, and open conversations between a wide-range of socio-legal scholars, researchers, activists and thinkers who practice at the boundary between law and society.

Nomboniso Gasa, a lifelong political activist, gender research analyst, and a public intellectual, was invited to kick off the 2017 series. A thinker and an active commentator on issues that form part of South Africa’s public discourse, Nomboniso is well-known for stimulating debate, especially around her areas of interest. These include: human rights for women and feminism in Africa; the de/constructions of cultural identities; masculinities; and the intersection of unequal patriarchal power relations with gender and other social inequalities.

With the talk entitled ‘The personal is political’ – shifting contexts and enduring relevance(?) Nomboniso’s input during the one hour session to a filled to capacity Moot Court audience was, as anticipated, gripping.  She artfully used a feminist lens to draw rich connections between the abstract and the theoretical, with her talk spanning a range of crucial and challenging topics, from hair – its style and texture – to patriarchy in its various forms and diverse contexts.

While Nomboniso’s talk provided us with innumerable points to ponder, we have identified, through lengthy discussion, the following three standouts as the centre of this short reflection.

The conscious and unconscious connects and disconnects – in what ways are we, as Black people, and Black women in particular, compromising who we are when we step into specific spaces – work spaces, male spaces, academic spaces, white spaces – and what informs our decisions to reveal only certain  parts of ourselves? Is it not a matter of stepping into spaces, your whole self entering, but a multitude of choices (consciously, or unconsciously?) leading to a silencing of component parts of ourselves which make up the whole? Allowing only what is perceived to be acceptable to cross the threshold?

In the moment of that ‘choice’, is there a power exchange that takes place? Are you exercising power in making that decision to strategically choose what parts of you, you bring into that space. Or are those who receive you in that space exercising power by shaping and influencing what parts of yourself you bring with you or choose to silence. Does this not raise questions about the equality of that power exchange?

The cost of “making up” the self: The nude make-up analogy – Is the ultimate conclusion that we are not enough? That our whole, authentic selves, require ‘fixing’, ‘adjusting’, before being suitable to enter and engage? The investment into changing, adapting, shifting into who the external needs you to be – whether conscious or not – seems significant. And raises questions around who dictates what the external values and the disproportionate burden of change(ing).

The personal as political requires more than partial commitment but rather is about a continuous holistic engagement with all elements of the self. Is there a connection here with why some of us Black women are frustrated? For us (the authors), the frustrations relate to the question of who is putting in the continuous work required by a commitment to holistic self-examination.

Acknowledging the existence of patriarchy does not de-value the African customary experience – There is power and freedom in admitting that patriarchy is part of any system and the admission does in no way de-value African systems or ways of being. In fact, it has the potential to release you from being forced into defending the indefensible and opens up the conversation. This aspect of the talk really foregrounded the freedom of revealing the hidden messiness, the hidden edits in that “Word Document”. There is an unburdening that happens and a deepening of conversation that takes place. This is tied into what you gain in admitting incompleteness, admitting that there is still work to be done. Personally, that is a large part of the admission that we would want to see from men (and the wider society) about “women’s issues” and from white South Africans about “race issues” – An admission that all is not well here and an acknowledgement that we certainly have not transcended the need to be doing the work on self and society.


Podcast of Nomboniso Gasa’s talk found here

Reflection Piece [1]by Nolundi Luwaya and Diane Jefthas – 15 May 2017

[1] This is the first in a series of Reflection Pieces produced by staff, partners and associates of the Centre for Law and Society. These pieces are intended to be personal reflections of one or more individuals who attended an activity or event hosted by CLS. Decisions regarding structure and content are at the writers’ discretion.


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