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SA feminism has long been intersectional, says Prof Shireen Hassim

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Prof Shireen Hassim
Prof Shireen Hassim

by Leletu Tonisi, Postgraduate Diploma in Journalism and Media Studies student

Wits University Professor of Politics Shireen Hassim, based in WiSER (Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research), presented the Fourth Annual Neil Aggett Labour Studies Lecture on the 14th of August at the Eden Grove Blue lecture theatre.

Prof Hassim was introduced by Dr Nicole Ulrich, Senior Lecturer in the History Department at Rhodes University and an Associate of the Neil Aggett Labour Studies Unit, which hosts the Annual Neil Aggett Labour Studies Lectures.

Prof Hassim is currently in the process of completing her fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies at Harvard University. She is amongst, if not the leading scholar of feminist theory and politics in South Africa today. Her research is focused on social movements and collective action, the politics of representation, affirmative action and social policy. She has written many articles and authored books including Women’s Organizations and Democracy in South Africa: Contesting Authority (2006), and The ANC Women’s League: Sex, Gender and Politics (2014).

In her introduction to the lecture, Dr Ulrich reminded the audience of the contribution of Dr Neil Hudson Aggett, after whom the lecture series was named. Neil Aggett was a trade unionist and medical doctor who died in detention in 1982 under the Apartheid government. He dedicated his life to fighting for the idea of a nonracial and nonsexist democratic society where workers, both men and women, played a central role in creating a better more egalitarian future for all. He attended Kingswood College in Grahamstown/Makhanda, after which he went to the University of Cape Town to study medicine. He served as an intern in various hospitals in Mthatha and Thembisa where he became convinced that the ill health of those he treated was rooted in the oppressive, social, and economic conditions under which they lived.

He opposed Apartheid and the privileges that came with being white and middle-class. He was arrested on the 27th of November in 1981 along with a group of other trade unionists. He was found dead 70 days later in his cell at the John Vorster square police headquarters and was the 55th person to die in detention after the 90-day detention-without-trial law was passed in 1963.

In remembrance of his phenomenal legacy, Prof Hassim prefaced her lecture with a reminder of the ways in which race is intertwined with the capitalist system, or in which race and class are mutually constitutive. She reflected on the complex dynamics between structure and agency, and the contribution of feminist scholarship in South Africa to our understanding of the ways in which class, race, gender, and sexuality are all intertwined in processes where they constitute each other. South African feminism was intersectional long before the term gained the currency it has today. This approach challenges the foregrounding of race and class, and the preeminence of class in most radical analyses of South African society, even while acknowledging the value of understanding the ways in which South African capitalism is reproduced, including its racialised and gendered forms.

In a quest to understand racial capitalism not only as gendered and racialised exploitation, but as an ideology of fear, displacement, and anxiety, Prof Hassim used the life of Winnie Madikizela Mandela to explore the intersections of race, class, and gender.

Winnie transcended political parties, generations, and ideologies. As Prof Hassim put it:

“All of us, it would seem, have our own version of Winnie and the fact that we can use a single name signals the intimacy of our relationships not just in South Africa, but across the world. People are able to place her not only in the world, but within their own lives as an extension or representation of themselves – as either their most powerful and freedom-loving selves or the part of their selves that is the most unwanted or shameful. She’s either an icon of resistance or an unrepentant and violent woman.”

Winnie was a powerful figure throughout the history of SA politics and a strong representative of black women’s struggles and triumphs under the harsh realities of the Apartheid era. “What Winnie’s life reminds us of, is the power of memory across generations of injustice and dispossession,” she said.