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French National Order of Merit awarded to Professor Helen Rees

- Wits RHI

This accolade recognises her outstanding medical career and commitment to improving global health with a focus on public health in Africa.

Prof. Helen Rees Wits RHI_CROWN study 2020 600x300

Professor Helen Rees, Executive Director of the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute (Wits RHI), has been awarded the prestigious L'ordre national du Mérite (National Order of Merit) by the President of the French Republic Emmanuel Macron, in recognition of her groundbreaking and outstanding medical career.

In February 2022, she received notice of the honour from the French Ambassador to the Republic of South Africa Aurélien Lechevallier.

The National Order of Merit is a French order of merit that was founded in 1963 by President Charles de Gaulle and is the second national Order after the Legion of Honour. Its purpose is to reward "distinguished merit".

Rees is the Founder and Executive Director of Wits RHI, the largest research Institute at Wits University with over 2 000 staff members. She is internationally recognised as an award-winning health practitioner who has dedicated her professional career to improving global health with a focus on public health in Africa.

Over the years Rees has received numerous national and international awards for her contribution to science and to the South African, African and global health sectors. She is an Officer of the British Empire awarded for her contribution to global health and received the Order of the Baobab, one of South Africa’s highest honours, for her contribution to the health of women and children.  

Rees’s global reputation has meant that many international global health organisations have recruited her to serve on and/or chair international scientific committees and Boards.

She Chairs the Board of the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority and also Chairs the World Health Organization’s AFRO Region Immunization Technical Advisory Group.

She has extensive involvement in national, regional and global response efforts to Covid-19 including the development of Covid-19 vaccines, their potential rollout and utilization.

She is a member of the South African Ministerial Advisory Committee on Covid-19 and a member of the South African Ministerial Advisory Committee on Covid-19 vaccines. Rees is involved with the oversight of the COVAX facility that GAVI, CEPI and WHO are jointly driving.

She is a member of the COVAX committee on Covid-19 maternal immunization and a member of the WHO IHR Emergency Committee on Covid-19, a member of the WHO Expert Committee on Covid-19 vaccines, and a member of WHO’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Group on Infectious Hazards.

Rees Chairs the WHO’s International Health Regulation Polio Emergency Committee and Co-Chairs the WHO SAGE Working Group on Ebola Vaccines. She is a member of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization Board and chairs the Gavi Programme and Policy Committee. She is a member of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness and Innovation Board and chairs the CEPI Scientific Advisory Committee. 

Rees is honoured to receive this award from the French Government and acknowledges that this personal recognition reflects the work of many committed and talented colleagues.

Wits physicist awarded 2022 Sang Soo Lee Award

- Wits University

Professor Andrew Forbes recognised for his outstanding leadership in founding and growing an optics and photonics community in Africa.

Professor Andrew Forbes from the Wits School of Physics

Forbes, a Distinguished Professor in the Wits School of Physics, has been awarded the 2022 Sang Soo Lee Award, jointly conferred by Optica, the world’s leading optics and photonics organisation (formerly known as the Optical Society of America), and the Optical Society of Korea (OSK). 

Forbes, Director of the Structured Light Laboratory which he established in 2015, is honoured for “advancing photonics in South Africa through strategic leadership in executing national photonics programmes, high-impact research and education, and mentorship of African researchers”.

Forbes’ leadership has transformed the advancement of photonics in Africa. A National Research Foundation A-rated scientist, he is a founding member of the Photonics Initiative of South Africa (PISA), which aims to accelerate and grow photonics research and impact in South Africa.

“It is a great honour to be recognised by these top international societies. Photonics in South Africa and Africa is still at a fledgling stage, but hopefully my small contributions have helped to creative an environment for the next generation to pick up the baton and flourish,” says Forbes.

He is an active participant in the African Laser Centre, organising and hosting numerous training events in South Africa and Africa, and strives to increase the visibility of South African research initiatives internationally, coordinating events and programmes with global organisations such as Optica (formerly OSA), advancing optics and photonics worldwide.

Forbes is also the initiator of South Africa’s Quantum Technology Initiative, coordinated by Wits to drive local quantum technology research and innovation. He also leads WitsQ, the University’s vision to strategically promote and advance Quantum Technology at Wits, with a focus on the research, innovation, business, education and outreach, and ethics of quantum technologies.

He serves on many international advisory panels, conference committees, and journals, and is presently the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Optics.

His contributions to the field have been recognised through several national awards, as well as the Georg Forster Prize from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, and the South African Institute of Physics Gold Medal, the highest award for physics in South Africa, and in 2021 he won the Vice-Chancelllor’s Research Award.  He is a Fellow of Optica, the South African Institute of Physics, and SPIE, and an elected member of the Academy of Science of South Africa.

About the Sang Soo Lee Award

Established in 2013, the Sang Soo Lee Award recognises outstanding leadership in founding or growing an optics and photonics community in a specific population, anywhere in the world.

It honors Professor Sang Soo Lee for his pioneering role in establishing optics in the Republic of Korea. The award is jointly presented in even years by Optica and Optical Society of Korea (OSK), and is endowed by Optica, OSK, and the family of Sang Soo Lee.

About Optica

Optica (formerly OSA), Advancing Optics and Photonics Worldwide, is the society dedicated to promoting the generation, application, archiving and dissemination of knowledge in the field. Founded in 1916, it is the leading organization for scientists, engineers, business professionals, students and others interested in the science of light. Optica’s renowned publications, meetings, online resources and in-person activities fuel discoveries, shape real-life applications and accelerate scientific, technical and educational achievement.

About the Optical Society of Korea

Founded in 1989, the Optical Society of Korea (OSK) is the leading academic society in the field of optics and photonics in Korea. OSK provides academic activities including domestic and international optics conferences, tutorials, seminars, workshops, and publishing services including journals, technical digests, monographs, and technical bulletins.

New promising interventions to protect term and premature babies from deadly respiratory virus

- Wits University

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a major cause of lower respiratory tract infection (LRTI) and hospitalisation in infants.

Globally, approximately one-third of all hospitalisations for lower respiratory tract illness are caused by RSV. Hence, there is a serious unmet medical need for RSV protection in healthy infants born at term.

The Wits Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytics (Wits VIDA) research unit was the lead South African collaborator in a phase 2/3 study to investigate the efficacy and safety of drug called Nirsevimab in healthy late-preterm and term infants.

Nirsevimab is a monoclonal antibody against RSV with an extended half-life.

Monoclonal antibodies are proteins made in a laboratory that act like human antibodies in the immune system to fight a particular infection, such as RSV. They are administered as a single injection.

‘Half-life’ refers to the time it takes for the amount of a drug’s active substance to reduce by half in the body. Nirsevimab has an extended half-life of three to four months, and is able to provide protection for the entire RSV season, which usually lasts for three to four months.

Late preterm infants – that is, babies born at 32 to 37 weeks – have a higher risk of being hospitalised and dying of RSV than term infants, due to their relative physiologic and metabolic immaturity. Late preterm infants are at increased risk of various morbidities and mortality, including respiratory distress and failure, feeding difficulties, poor growth, hypoglycaemia [deficiency of glucose in the bloodstream], hyperbilirubinemia [higher-than-normal amount of bilirubin in the blood], and hypothermia [dangerously low body temperature].

The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that the drug Nirsevimab significantly protected infants against RSV disease in the Phase 3 MELODY trial, and protected high risk children in a separate study known as MEDLEY.

“This intervention provides the opportunity to protect young infants against the most common cause of hospitalisation from lower respiratory tract infections – RSV – which kills between 60 000 to 190 000 babies each year, mainly in low- and middle-income countries,” says Wits Professor of Vaccinology Shabir Madhi, Director of Wits VIDA, and a co-author of the study.

The findings showed 74.5% efficacy against medically attended lower respiratory tract infections caused by RSV in healthy infants.

Furthermore, Nirsevimab is the first potential immunisation for all infants to demonstrate sustained protection across the entire RSV season with a single dose.

“The new drug provides the opportunity of protecting infants, including high-risk groups – such as those born prematurely or with chronic lung or congenital heart disease – against the leading cause of hospitalisation for lower respiratory tract infections among infants globally,” says Madhi.

About Wits VIDA

Wits VIDA’s current focus areas include next-generation vaccines against rotavirus and TB, as well as development of novel vaccines targeted at pregnant women to protect their young infants against the leading causes of sepsis and pneumonia. Wits VIDA was and remains one of the leading research units pioneering pregnancy vaccine trials with a specific focus on RSV and GBS.

About Professor Shabir Madhi

Professor Shabir Madhi is the dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand and Director of the South African Medical Research Council Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytics Research Unit (Wits-VIDA). A National Research Foundation A-rated scientist and a paediatrician, Madhi’s research has focused on the epidemiology and clinical development of vaccines against pneumonia and diarrhoeal disease. These studies have informed World Health Organization recommendations on the use of the lifesaving pneumococcal conjugate vaccine and rotavirus vaccine in children, and flu vaccination of pregnant women. Madhi also co-directs African Leadership in Vaccinology Expertise (ALIVE) at Wits.

Bushveld Complex functioned as a big magma tank

- Wits University

Scientists find that large, long-lived, and entirely molten magma chambers did exist in Earth’s crust.

An international group of researchers led by geologists from Wits University in Johannesburg have come up with multiple lines of evidence indicating that the Bushveld Complex in South Africa functioned as a “big magma tank” in the ancient Earth’s crust. This research was published as a paper in Scientific Reports

Doctor Sofya Chistyakova and Professor Rais Latypov.

Professor Rais Latypov from the School of Geosciences at Wits University says “While re-examining thin-sections of Bushveld chromitites, we noticed a very puzzling observation: chromite often occurs as individual grains that seemingly ‘suspended’ within matrix minerals. This observation leads us to a critical question: why have the chromite grains failed to sink towards the chamber floor despite being much denser than the host melt?”

To answer this question, the researchers have studied chromitite in three-dimensions (3D) using high-resolution X-ray computed tomography and revealed that nearly all chromite grains are closely interconnected to form a single continuous 3D framework. “This gave us an answer to the above question: chromite grains are not able to settle freely towards the chamber floor simply because they are all bound together in self-supporting 3D frameworks attached to the chamber floor,” says Dr Sofya Chistyakova from the School of Geosciences at Wits University. 

There is only one process that may result in the formation of such 3D frameworks of chromite crystals. This is an in situ self-nucleation and growth of chromite grains, for example, when all new chromite grains nucleate and grow on pre-existing chromite grains directly at the chamber floor. This happens from the parental melt that is saturated in chromite as the only crystallising phase.

A ‘big-tank’ chamber of the Bushveld Complex (a) filled with a resident melt that crystallizes into the UG1 chromitite at the chamber floor as a 3D framework of touching chromite crystals.

“This logically brought us to a long-known Cr mass balance issue – normal basaltic melts contain only a very small amount of Cr so that the formation of thick chromitite layer requires extraction of Cr from a very large volume of liquid that must be present as a thick melt layer in the chamber. Simple mass balance calculations indicate that a 1 metre thick layer of chromitite will require a magma column of 2km to 4km thick,” says Latypov.

Latypov and his co-authors believe that the enormous lateral extent of chromitite layers indicate that during the formation of massive chromitites the Bushveld chamber was operating as a giant magma body of more than 400km in diameter, with a column of the resident melt likely attaining a few km in thickness. “This conclusion is at odds with a currently emerging school of thought is that such large, long-lived and largely molten magma chambers are non-existent in Earth’s history,” says Latypov.

Developing equal partnerships in unequal societies

- Wits University

Wits strengthens EU partnerships through becoming a CIVIS Alliance strategic partner.

Wits University is one of six African strategic partners to the CIVIS Alliance, which committed to Deepening African-European science cooperation by tapping the potentials of European University alliances.

A delegation from Wits University, led by Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, signed the partnership agreement and position paper for cross-Mediterranean collaboration in higher education, on the final day of the three-day conference titled New Horizons for the European-African Partnership, co-hosted by CIVIS and its member university Aix-Marseille Université, in Marseille, France last week.

Academics and policymakers from both sides of the Mediterranean, including the French Minister of Higher Education Fréderique Vidal, Wits historian Professor Achille Mbembe and Peter Maassen, and numerous representatives of the European Commission attended the conference.

Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Vice-Chancellor and Principal, addressing the signing ceremony where Wits became a strategic partner of the CIVIS Alliance.

“We entered into an ambitious partnership agreement with CIVIS and five other African partners to collaborate on several fronts in the coming years,” explains Vilakazi. “Although we have numerous direct partnerships with universities in the EU, this new agreement will institutionalise cooperation with the entire Alliance and its members. This is an opportunity for us to level the playing fields and to develop equal partnerships in unequal societies.”

The position paper put forward makes the case for an EUI which:

  • Acts as a catalyst for challenge-based education, as seen in the CIVIS Hubs. Humanity now faces global problems, so the search for solutions must reach out to partners beyond Europe’s borders.
  • Broadens the definition of student mobility to include exchanges and study visits which take European students outside Europe or bring students from around the world to European universities.
  • Supports equitable research partnerships, as foreseen in the agreement between the European Union (EU) and African Union (AU) on an EU-AU Innovation Agenda.

In terms of this partnership, the six African partners will be integrated into the CIVIS Hubs, where academics will work together to develop educational and other activities to respond to global challenges. “This could offer the chance for increased mobility (both physical and virtual) or create new opportunities to leverage our shared capacities to seek external funding. Together we can also build on our work with a positive social impact on our local communities,” reads an extract from the statement.


CIVIS is a European Civic University formed by the alliance of ten leading research higher education institutions across Europe: Aix-Marseille Université, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, University of Bucharest, Université libre de Bruxelles, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Sapienza Università di Roma, Stockholm University, Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen, University of Glasgow and the Paris Lodron University of Salzburg.

It brings together a community of more than 470 000 students and 58 000 staff members including

35 000 academics and researchers.

Six African Strategic Partner Universities

The six strategic partner universities are: Université Hassan II de Casablanca, Morocco, Université of Sfax, Tunisia, Université Cheikh Anta Diop de Dakar, Sénégal, Makerere University, Uganda, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, and Universidade Eduardo Mondlane, Mozambique.

Creating job opportunities for SA’s youth

- Wits University

The Wits Entrepreneurship Clinic gets going with programme to drive innovation and entrepreneurship.

The new Wits Entrepreneurship Clinic, based in the School of Business Science,  is part of the newly formed Innovation for African Universities (IAU) project, part of the British Council’s Going Global Partnerships programme.

A new programme, the Wits Entrepreneurship Clinic Accelerator Programme (WECAP), is a structured entrepreneurship clinic/accelerator setup providing entrepreneurial support and guidance. It will be implemented by the Wits Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct in partnership with Wits University, the African Circular Economy Network (ACEN), and The University of Edinburgh.

WECAP aims to strengthen the entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem and improve student employability outcomes in South Africa.

The Total Entrepreneurial Activity score in South Africa is approximately 11%, while unemployment amongst South African youth grows at an alarming rate of 63%. This is due to the little support for entrepreneurship as a career trajectory historically at the university level despite its significant establishment.

Due to the increasingly poor economic outlook, youth employment will not improve immediately. This, together with burgeoning poverty levels, suggests that employment alternatives need to be explored. Young entrepreneurs are one of the country's best hopes of solving the jobs crisis, which the Covid-19 pandemic has worsened in an environment of weakened economic growth.

WECAP will give a clinic programme focused on experiential learning and evidence-based management, together with a structured mentorship programme, to develop students’ business acumen and improve their overall employability through exposure to and solving of business problems confronting students, staff, and external entrepreneurs.

WECAP also intends to provide professional and quality business advisory services to the university and its surrounding communities to accelerate viable entrepreneurial opportunities. At the same time, data and research-centric entrepreneurial methodologies such as lean-start-up, evidence-based management, and design thinking will be adopted to accelerate businesses.

The work of the WECAP partnership will be submitted to form learnings that will contribute to formulating a policy framework for universities under South Africa's Department of Higher Education and Training.

About the Innovation for African Universities Programme (IAU)

The IAU programme is implemented by the Centre of Excellence (CoE), a partnership between the City, University of London, Nairobi, and ChangeSchool UK. 

The Programme comprises 24 UK universities, Sub-Saharan African universities, and entrepreneurial ecosystem organizations. The Programme is running in Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana & South Africa.

We wish this project well as we unite to grow and innovate Africa for youth employment opportunities. We're looking forward to working in partnership with WECAP to exchange knowledge and ideas to strengthen the role of universities in entrepreneurship ecosystems – British Council

To find out more:

New project will examine Covid-19 vaccine acceptance in southern Africa

- Wits University

A new project will examine Covid-19 vaccine acceptance in SA and Zimbabwe and recommend strategies to promote vaccination.

The project will aim to fill critical information gaps in South Africa and Zimbabwe.

The University of the Witwatersrand and its partners announced the launch of a new study on Covid-19 vaccine acceptance in South Africa and Zimbabwe, with the goal of better informing efforts to promote vaccination in the two countries.

The project is funded by Schmidt Futures, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Aspen Pharmacare.

Joining Wits University in the project consortium are Columbia University in the USA, RTI International, Charles River Medical Group in Zimbabwe, the Rhodes Trust based at the University of Oxford, the Atlantic Institute, and the Schmidt Science Fellows.

Together, this consortium comprises the Vaccine Information Network (VIN), part of the VacSafe Working Group at Columbia University.

VIN aims to increase COVID-19 vaccination rates through data-driven confidence building messages from trusted community leaders and partnerships with governments.

The study will be hosted in South Africa by the Wits Vaccines & Infectious Diseases Analytics Research Unit (Wits VIDA), directed by Professor Shabir Madhi, who is the Principal Investigator in South Africa.

Wits Professor of Vaccinology Shabir Madhi is Executive Director of VIDA leads both the Oxford and Novavax Covid19 vaccine trials in South Africa

Madhi says, “Wits VIDA welcomes the opportunity to host this critical and timeous study to promote vaccine uptake in South Africa and Zimbabwe. African countries increasingly bear the burden of SARS-CoV-2 infection due to both misinformation and access to life-saving vaccines. The study makes an important contribution to our unique African context and to saving lives through vaccination.”

Associate Professor Janan Dietrich will lead the study in South Africa, through a partnership between Wits VIDA and the African Social Sciences Unit of Research and Evaluation (ASSURE) – a new research syndicate co-founded by Dietrich and Dr Nellie Myburgh, via the Wits Health Consortium.

Dr Janan Dietrich is director of Biobehavioural Research at the Wits Perinatal HIV Research Institute

Dietrich says, “I am very excited to be doing this work through ASSURE, which aims to support health research through conducting African-led social and behavioural sciences studies. The VIN study is a timely social and behavioural sciences study that places people at the centre of local efforts to promote vaccination.”

Dietrich is director of bio-behavioural research at the Perinatal HIV Research Institute (PHRU) and Myburgh is Head of Anthropology at Wits VIDA.

The project will follow a three-phase approach in both countries, beginning with focus group discussions to understand the nature and drivers of vaccine hesitancy.

In the second phase, the research team will recruit and interview a cohort of 2,000 COVID-19 vaccine recipients three times over six weeks to understand the motivations, barriers, safety perceptions, side effects and other experiences of COVID-19 vaccination.

In the final phase, the researchers will draw on their findings to co-design a strategic communications framework with local influencers, including religious leaders, community leaders and media.

“The drivers of vaccine hesitancy vary from country to country and even locality to locality,” said Dr. Larry Stanberry, Associate Dean for International Programs and Director of the Programs in Global Health at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.

“Without a better understanding of the local reasons behind vaccine hesitancy and how people overcome their hesitancy, it is challenging to build a strong local plan to promote vaccination.”

Dr. Tariro Makadzange, M.D., Ph.D., Founder and CEO of Charles River Medical Group in Zimbabwe added: “This project will equip governments and local influencers with the critical data and information needed to create effective messaging.”

Learn more about this project.

About Wits VIDA

The Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytics (VIDA) Research Unit of the University of the Witwatersrand is an internationally recognised, African-led research unit in the field of epidemiology of vaccine preventable diseases and clinical development of life-saving vaccines. Wits VIDA conducts cutting-edge medical research, with the objective of saving lives across Africa and low and middle-income countries (LMIC). Founded in 1995, the unit’s work informs local and global policy recommendations on infectious diseases and the use of next-generation and novel vaccines.  For more information, visit

About Columbia University’s VacSafe Working Group

The Vaccine Safety and Confidence-Building Working Group (VacSafe WG) convened by Wilmot James PhD, Senior Research Scholar at Columbia University’s Institute for Social and Economic Research and policy (ISERP) and co-convened by Joshua Nott at Schmidt Futures, will catalyze and support projects that generate, scale and analyze actively-collected vaccine safety surveillance and pharmaco-vigilance data in Africa. For more information, visit

SA’s first black female doctor was a Witsie

- Deborah Minors

When apartheid became law in 1948, a black woman from Limpopo had already achieved a series of firsts …

Mary Susan Makobatjatji Malahlela © Adler Museum of Medicine | Curiosity 13: #Gender ©

Mary Susan Makobatjatji Malahlela (pictured alongside) was born in Polokwane (then Pietersburg) on 2 May 1916. Her parents, Thadeus Chweu and Susan Mautswane Malahlela, fled the village after they refused to kill the twin boys born after Mary – the BaPedi tribe traditionally considered twins a curse.

The eldest daughter attended the Methodist Primary School in the former Roodepoort West Location, where her father was the principal. She completed the Native Primary Lower Teachers Course at the Kilnerton Institution in 1933 and then enrolled at the Lovedale Institution for the Junior Certificate Examination at UNISA. In 1936, she registered for the Medical Aid Course and her pre-medical course at Fort Hare University, which at the time was the only programme available to black people interested in practising medicine.

In 1941, Malahlela made history as the first beneficiary of the Native Trust Fund. This scholarship for academic achievement enabled her to enrol to study medicine at Wits. On 21 June 1947, she took the Hippocratic Oath at the graduation ceremony where she became the first black woman in SA to qualify as a medical doctor. She completed her internship at McCords Hospital in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, and remained there as a doctor until 1949.

Dr Malahlela married Wallie Tamsanqa Xakana in 1948 and the couple had two daughters and a son. The family lived in Kliptown, Soweto, where Malahlela established her first surgery, on Beacon Road, followed by a second at Cross Roads in Mofolo South. She had to close her Kliptown practice due to the Group Areas Act’s forced removals, which relocated Roodepoort West families to Dobsonville.

Malahlela dedicated 34 years in service to her community. She was the first black doctor at the Heinsbeek Community Clinic in Dobsonville and a member of the first Baragwanath Medical Advisory Board. She was chairperson of the first Roodepoort Bantu School Board in 1970 and served on the Fort Hare University Council. She was a founding member of the YWCA, the Women’s Peace Movement and the Balebowa Women’s League.

On 8 May 1981, Malahlela collapsed while attending to a patient at the rural Oppenheimer Witkoppen Clinic where she volunteered. She passed away the same day at Parklane Hospital. She was 65.

The South African Presidency awarded Malahlela the Order of Baobab (silver), posthumously, for her “excellent contribution in the provision of medical services to the oppressed majority of South Africans during the apartheid era”.

Malahlela was memorialised at Wits in 2015 in a plaque erected by the University to redress historical discrimination against black alumni. In 1992, just 37 9 women enrolled in the Wits Faculty of Health Sciences, constituting 11.3% of total enrolments. Now in 2021, women make up 27.4% of enrolments with 1 955 women registered in the Faculty.

  • Deborah Minors is Senior Communications Officer for Wits University.
  • This article first appeared in Curiositya research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office.
  • Read more in the 13th issue, themed: #Gender. We feature research across disciplines that relates to gender, feminism, masculinity, sex, sexual identity and sexual health.

We’re not your victims


COLUMN: Srila Roy says that feminists in the Global South are fighting the battle on two fronts, making a history of their own.

Not your victim | Illustration by Boniswa Khumalo | Curiosity 13: #Gender ©

Countries in the Global South have long robust histories of feminist resistance and agency, not least in moments of national liberation and decolonisation. And yet, these locales are more commonly known for staggering and endemic rates of gender-based violence (GBV).

There is a pervasive tendency – among policymakers, the media and even academics and researchers – to ignore the agency of women and cast them, instead, as helpless victims of backward and ‘primitive’ cultures and societies. 

The Global South even provides the targets of and the moral reasons for specific kinds of humanitarian intervention. Think for instance of the ways in which international NGOs focus on ‘saving’ women and children in countries like SA. Many are even led by women who identify as feminist. In other words, the Global South has served less as a site of feminist struggle in its own right than with the making of feminist subjects elsewhere.

Considerable energy has gone into debunking these assumptions — that feminism originates in the West and spreads to the rest of the world, and that the non-West is, in turn, populated by victims who enable white, Western women to pose as saviours.

Battle on two fronts

We now have stories of being a feminist in very many places in the world, in struggle with very many patriarchies. What is perhaps unique to feminists in ‘our’ parts of the world is that we have to struggle on at least two fronts: we have to speak back to local patriarchs who tend to dismiss our struggles as derived from Western ones and secondly, we have to disrupt the hierarchies and assumptions of white Western feminisms.

We have to constantly stress that we too are making history, to establish ourselves as subjects worthy of national citizenship and belonging, on the one hand, and as agents, on the other. And yet, the loudest feminist voices continue to belong to white feminists in the North.

Part of the problem of the continuing dominance of Western feminism is not only the exclusion of other feminist voices and histories, but also their inevitable flattening into one singular and homogenous mass. So, when ‘we’ in the Global South speak, it is as if we speak in one voice, thereby erasing the considerable differences and even inequalities that exist within ‘our’ feminisms.

Taking the lead

In recent years, we have not only seen the expansion of gender and sexual rights struggles in countries like India and SA, but we have also witnessed a more intersectional turn. For instance, in India, Muslim women emerged central to the nationwide protests against the right-wing Hindu nationalist government which took place at the end of 2019. In SA, women – black and queer – expanded the remit of the “Fallist” student movements of 2015-16, beyond the issue of higher education alone, by making sexism, sexual violence and heteropatriarchy central to a decolonial agenda.

I lead a project called Governing Intimacies – located in the School of Social Sciences (with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation) – which is precisely trying to map some of the complexities of feminist struggles in the Global South. By specifically placing southern Africa in conversation with India, the project has been able to reveal the surprising resonances and dissonances in our contexts.

As part of the project, I have co-edited a volume of essays on the MeToo movement in India and SA as a way of thinking more intersectionally, comparatively and transnationally about questions of GBV and cultures of resistance. Such a lens undercuts the hegemony of the North while offering a different way forward, from a genuine feminist theorising of and from the south. This book, then, is also part of the project’s wider goal to build theory in the south on the south, which is feminist in orientation and spirit. It contributes to shaping future research and teaching, but also builds public memory of feminist resistance and reinvigorates our commitments to gender just futures.

  • Srila Roy is Associate Professor of Sociology and Head of Development Studies at Wits. She wrote Remembering Revolution: Gender, Violence and Subjectivity in India’s Naxalbari Movement, is editor of New South Asian Feminisms and co-edited New Subaltern Politics: Reconceptualising Hegemony and Resistance in Contemporary India. Her book on feminist and queer politics in India is scheduled for publication in 2022. Roy is the 2022 Hunt-Simes Visiting Chair of Sexuality Studies at the University of Sydney, Australia, and was awarded a Rockefeller Foundation residency in Bellagio, Italy.
  • This article first appeared in Curiositya research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office.
  • Read more in the 13th issue, themed: #Gender. We feature research across disciplines that relates to gender, feminism, masculinity, sex, sexual identity and sexual health.

Towards gender parity in academic leadership

- Refilwe Mabula

Eight female fellows of the Female Academic Leadership (FALF) Programme at Wits share their experiences of breaking the glass ceiling.

An initiative of Dr Judy Dlamini, a leading businesswoman and Wits’ first female Chancellor, the FALF programme aims to ensure that more black women occupy leadership positions in academia.

A staunch advocate of female leadership, Dlamini believes in developing women to assume leadership roles in society. “Empowering women starts with a quality education,” says Dlamini in the Wits Review. “Women must be able to achieve their full potential and assume leadership positions in the future.”

But it has not been easy and challenges remain. For example, outut of 26 higher education institutions in SA, only six have female Vice-Chancellors.

Taking up space

One of the youngest fellows, 28 year-old Mohlalakoma Therecia Ngwako, a Control Systems Engineer and an Associate Lecturer in the School of Electrical and Information Engineering, says that as a young woman working in a male-dominated field, she at times experiences imposter syndrome, and doubts her abilities. She says that given her age and gender, she over-stretches herself to prove her competency.

“I have found myself working extremely hard, sometimes to my own detriment, to prove myself – not only to myself but also to other people, including the students that I lecture,” she says.

Dr Veronica Ntsiea, Head of the Department of Physiotherapy at Wits, echoes Ngwako’s sentiments. She also encountered gender stereotyping when she began serving on various committees and structures. “I had to deal with feelings of being patronised and having to always prove that I had the knowledge, and that my ideas also deserve consideration.” But the experience has made Ntsiea more confident and assertive so that her opinions are heard as an academic, and are not based on her gender.

Lungile Khambule, the youngest lecturer in the Department of Chemical Pathology, struggles to divide her time between her career and maternal duties since giving birth to her first child.

FALF Fellows (top l-r) Ann George, Dineo Mapanya, Jillian Gardner, and (bottom l-r) Mohlalakoma Ngwako, Thama Duba and Veronica Ntsia | Curiosity 13: #Gender ©

FALF Fellows (top l-r) Ann George, Dineo Mapanya, Jillian Gardner, and (bottom l-r) Mohlalakoma Ngwako, Thama Duba and Veronica Ntsia 

Subverting the status quo

Women constantly have to ‘fit in’ to what was traditionally known as a male-dominated sector. Lungie Maseko, a Lecturer in the School of Construction Economics and Management, wants to change this archaic narrative by contributing to the gender and racial transformation of academic leadership in her field.

“Again and again, women are made to feel uncomfortable and are made to accept that this is a male-dominated industry – so they conform, even when they do not agree. The South African construction industry continues with all forms of gender discrimination, sexism and patriarchy, and this has somehow spilled over within the academic sphere of construction,” says Maseko, who is vocal about challenging and changing the status quo.

“As a woman, I am willing to rise up and say I will not ‘fit in’ to this male-dominated organisational culture.” She says that she and her female colleagues “will start our own culture”.

Dr Jillian Gardner, a Senior Lecturer in the Steve Biko Centre for Bioethics, says that she pursued a PhD in Philosophy to show that women can succeed in the field, because “the idea of reasoning and means-end rationality and thinking is usually associated with men”. 

“I need to show that we can sit around this table (the philosophy field) because this is one of those disciplines where you don’t see many women,” says Gardner.

Gender transformation should be part of correcting historical ills, says Dr Thama Duba, a Lecturer in the School of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics. Duba says that such redress will ensure that gender disparities are addressed to achieve equity, while tackling gender discrimination.

Forging a path for future female leaders

Despite the challenges that she has experienced, Ntsiea says that she is encouraged by Dlamini, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng (Vice-Chancellor and Principal, University of Cape Town), Professor Puleng LenkaBula (Vice-Chancellor and Principal, UNISA) and others “who continue to make the path much easier for female academics to be recognised as intellectuals and not just appointees for transformation purposes”. 

Mentorship plays an important role in nurturing future leaders. Dr Dineo Mpanya, a nuclear physician and Lecturer in Internal Medicine, says that to develop the pipeline for aspiring academics and emerging researchers, female academics need to create networks with each other and empower young scholars.

Similarly, Dr Ann George, a Lecturer in the Centre for Health Science Education in the Faculty of Health Sciences says that she wants to inspire the next generation of female leaders so that they can realise their potential.

“I seek to model female achievement. It is vital to have role models that exemplify the possibilities for others like me. I have been fortunate to have been exposed to several role models across the University, some of whom have taken the time to guide me on my career path,” she says.

George, who joined the Faculty in 2016 as part of the Diversifying the Academy Programme, says that role-modelling has made an invaluable contribution to her advancement in academia, which is why she believes in the vision and mission of the FALF programme. “Being exposed to successful female academic role models reinforces the potential for the fellows to realise their goals.”

Similarly, Khambule aspires to “motivate and mentor young academics to be the best that they can be”, and particularly those in her field. 

  • Refilwe Mabula is Senior Communications Officer for Wits University.
  • This article first appeared in Curiositya research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office.
  • Read more in the 13th issue, themed: #Gender. We feature research across disciplines that relates to gender, feminism, masculinity, sex, sexual identity and sexual health

Philanthropy’s feminist future

- Brigitte Read

Could a growing understanding of the role of women in African philanthropy spark the evolution of the charitable giving sector?

Volunteer and social work | Curiosity 13: #Gender ©

Most of us associate the term ‘philanthropist’ with someone sitting comfortably on the Forbes list – someone who is ultra-rich, and usually male. However, a philanthropist is technically a person who donates ‘time, talent and treasure’ to help make life better for other people.

However, generosity is not an elitist act. Women in Africa have been doing the work of everyday philanthropy for the benefit of their communities for generations. They have been providing the daily support and safety nets that their communities need, and the work is embedded in their daily lives.

“We retain the title of philanthropy for the people who have their names on the Forbes List and plaques on buildings. It’s not a term that we use in Africa, it’s not ours,” says Halima Mahomed, Associate Researcher at the Centre on African Philanthropy and Social Investment (CAPSI) and TrustAfrica Senior Fellow on African Philanthropy. “Here, we talk about help, giving, solidarity, we talk about charity and stokvels. And outside of the Forbes List, in everyday philanthropy, it is the women who dominate.”

In a recent women’s month webinar on the feminisation of philanthropy hosted by CAPSI in the Wits Business School, Mahomed spoke of three related aspects to women in philanthropy that could be influencing the sector. There is the philanthropy of women, there are the women working professionally in the aid and philanthropy field, and there is an emerging feminist approach to philanthropy, where women’s agency, power and voice come into play. 

“What we’re seeing now is an exciting feminist lens to philanthropy. It is changing our understanding of how the issues we address influence and impact on women.”

A woman’s touch

Where traditional philanthropy often reinforces power imbalances, the feminist approach actively challenges inherent power dynamics, attempts to address the consequences of male dominance, supports women’s rights, and helps women claim agency. Yet, practically, at the grassroots community level, many challenges remain for how women can access support.

“Thirty years ago, it was easier for women’s organisations to access aid. The policy environment was more conducive,” says Dr Rose Gawaya who graduated with her PhD from the Wits School of Governance in July 2021. “Now, the criteria are more stringent and many do not qualify.”

Her research looked at women’s organisations in South Africa and Uganda that are the beneficiaries of aid, and found that women’s organisations largely remain on the margins of grant-making, struggling to engage competitively in the fast-evolving donor environment.

Driven by passion

“Usually, these projects are started by women who are motivated by passion,” says Gawaya. “They are not technocrats and don’t always have the skills to manage the details.”

She says that their weak operational systems and governance challenges make it more difficult to access aid. “Internally, these organisations have to continually improve, communicate better, market themselves more, and understand the rules if they are to benefit from donor support.” 

Research such as Gawaya’s that critically evaluates the values embedded in aid structures and the power that influences access and the utilisation of aid is making a valuable contribution to the understanding of gender dynamics in aid and charitable giving in Africa.

“Any study of the sphere is so influenced by the world view of who is doing the study and what kinds of narratives emerge,” says Mahomed. “Narrative matters. For too long we have adopted the western, male, patriarchal narrative and it has not been appropriate for our context.”

Mahomed says that we are seeing a shift in the narrative on the continent as some of the emerging knowledge builders are centring African narratives. “There’s an emerging space of documented knowledge on African philanthropy and so much potential to do interesting work,” she says. 

  • Brigitte Read is a freelance writer.
  • This article first appeared in Curiositya research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office.
  • Read more in the 13th issue, themed: #Gender. We feature research across disciplines that relates to gender, feminism, masculinity, sex, sexual identity and sexual health.

Performing masculinity in Men’s Res

- Deborah Minors

Q&A with Moeketsi Gordon Koahela on his research into masculinity and male university students.

Moeketsi Gordon Koahela earned a Master’s in Sociology from Wits in November 2021. His research explores how masculinity is rendered among male university students at Wits’ all-male Men’s Hall of Residence (Men’s Res). Koahela – black, male, homosexual – shares his lived experience and findings.

Men's Res at Wits University | Curiosity 13: #Gender ©

What does it mean to be a man in the 21st Century?

In my opinion it’s about holding a mirror to myself as someone assigned the ‘male’ gender at birth because of the genitalia with which I was born and reflecting on the unearned power that comes with that. 

From early childhood we learn our power to dominate women and to see LGBTQIA+ men as ‘weak’. My research suggests a persistence of patriarchal, sexist and homophobic ideals of being a man accompanied by risk-taking behaviours associated with manhood – drinking, smoking, multiple sexual encounters strictly with ‘females’ – and these markers are constantly reinforced.

However, there were also positive attributes at Men’s Res, exemplified through the ‘big brother’ programme aimed at senior students mentoring first-year students where privacy enabled the necessary emotional vulnerability.

Is this comparable to being black, male and homosexual?

My notion of a 21st Century man is very much in conflict with the views expressed by the men with whom I spoke  – being a gay man is unfortunately still seen to be wanting to be a woman and weak. 

What is abundantly clear is that masculinity across races, classes, ethnicities and sexualities is violent – through the eroticism of young children and infanticide, to femicide, ‘corrective rape’, femphobia and internalised homophobia. It is also violent towards heteronormative men themselves who largely enact violence, motivated by the system of patriarchy making them believe that they are superior.

Being gay at the residence means being seen through the lens of a caricature who is always eroticising other men. I found myself in constant negotiation with my identity and movements. Other LGBTQIA+ men who I interviewed spoke of the constant battle to ‘perform maleness’ to avoid being shunned. 

How do South African men understand masculinity?

The majority of South African men hold binary and patriarchal understandings of masculinity, even some who attended liberal institutions like Wits.

The men I interviewed were South African nationals across race, ethnic, class and sexual lines. ‘Masculinity’ heavily relied on the idea of providing for your family. Notably, some men referred to their fathers (present or absent), by reflecting on how fathers influenced their notions of manhood, which were characterised by having money and providing for family. 

Manhood was also understood through the lens of enacting physical aggression and doing ‘manly’ work. According to one male interviewee studying mining engineering, drilling underground is an exclusively male task because of men’s biological wiring deeming them ‘fit’ for the task, whereas he perceived that a woman drilling underground would damage her biological reproductive organs.

How do you define masculinity?

My definition of masculinity is a constant reflection on the benefits that I enjoy because of being born with male genitalia, and ways I use these unearned benefits from patriarchy.

I constantly have to remind myself to check where I might be complicit in unconscious bias against women and other trans/non-binary/gender-fluid identities and bodies, because being a black gay man does not, in any way, absolve me from patriarchy.

Locating myself as a black homosexual man in society allows me to reflect on both the threat of oppression due to my skin colour and the privilege afforded by being a gay male but presenting as straight. When I walk to the Joburg MTN taxi rank, I will not be cat-called or sexually harassed because I am not feminine presenting. I understand that if I want to get home safely, then I negotiate my identity by acting ‘more masculine’ through body movements, my voice and clothes. 

How do we change the narrative?

I am often worried about the use of language especially regarding GBV (gender-based violence) in our country. Often you hear ‘real men don’t kill women’ or ‘real men wear pink’ to raise awareness on GBV issues, but I think that we have set the bar substantially low for boys and men by praising them for not groping or sexually harassing women. It should be the norm not to do that. We like to give accolades to things that should be normalised as part of one’s upbringing, like respect and vulnerability. Language is another powerful platform that we cannot take for granted. 

  • Deborah Minors is Senior Communications Officer for Wits University.
  • This article first appeared in Curiositya research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office.
  • Read more in the 13th issue, themed: #Gender. We feature research across disciplines that relates to gender, feminism, masculinity, sex, sexual identity and sexual health.

'Real' men lift others up and don't put them down

- Andile Ndlovu

Men cannot be left on the periphery of conversations about gender-based violence and abuse.

Boys don't cry. Illustration by Boniswa Khumalo | Curiosity 13: #Gender ©

Imagine a society in which victims or minorities are offered financial assistance to escape violent partners? This happens in Australia, where one woman is killed by a partner every nine days. The government is offering women who are abused by their partners around R54 000 for expenses that they might incur from uprooting their lives and leaving their abusive partners.

The focus, curiously, is not about the harmful behaviours of perpetrators, but about what to do with the victims, who are typically mothers.

Despite the proliferation – and positive impact – of social movements such as #MeToo and Time’s Up, which aim to empower victims of sexual abuse and sexual harassment, it still feels as though conversations around gender inequality, sexuality, sexual abuse and sexual harassment only occur because of the leadership of minorities – including women and queer people.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, toxic masculinity refers to ideas about the way men should behave that are seen as harmful.

Toxic masculinity thrives when men do not hold themselves and each other accountable for their actions. Even in the media, men have been able to avoid taking responsibility for their actions because they have been portrayed as financial providers, too busy and ambitious to notice that they are shut-off, emotionally-unintelligent figures. 

A dire state of affairs

It is almost as if we do not exist in a society where gender inequality is pervasive. The World Economic Forum’s latest Global Gender Gap Report estimates that it will now take 135.6 years to close the gender gap worldwide. 

The Covid-19 pandemic appears to not only have worsened the economic disparity between men and women, but it has also contributed to family violence and meant that women who experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of a current or former partner could not leave. 

In SA the situation is thought to be even more dire. Just days into the country’s lockdown to combat the spread of Covid-19, the government revealed a concerning spike in the number of gender-based violence cases. This included the brutal murder of 28-year-old Tshegofatso Pule, prompting President Cyril Ramaphosa to refer to “a war being waged against the women and children of our country”. 

But men cannot be on the periphery of such conversations. The Wits Centre for Diversity Studies’ Kudzaiishe Vanyoro last year published a peer-reviewed academic paper, titled “Learning How Language is Used in Higher Education to Strategically Marginalise Female, Queer, and Gender Non-Conforming People: An Autoethnographic Account”, in which he shows how he found critical diversity literacy “helpful in realising the complicity of language in dominance”. 

He told Curios.ty that critical diversity literacy, which was initiated by the Director of the Wits Centre for Diversity Studies, Professor Melissa Steyn, “can aid men in the University to reflect on their positionality as male, masculine and privileged” and how it affects others. Essentially, it explores how men can move from being complicit in causing harm to unlearning toxic habits.

“As heterosexual men we need to realise that we are not only gendered a certain way, but we are also racialised, (dis)abled, classed, aged and afforded citizenship in a certain way,” says Vanyoro.

“We can be sure that our inaction in other areas of identity like gender and sexuality sensitivity, enforced other systems that also affect us – such as racism, ableism, classism, ageism and nationalism. Nothing exists in isolation and any form of oppression produces and enforces another. We need to remember that.”

Negotiating manhood and masculinity 

In his 2020 book, Becoming Men, Associate Professor in the Wits Department of Psychology, Malose Langa tells the story of 32 boys from the Alexandra township whom he followed over a dozen years as they negotiated manhood and masculinity.

“[The subjects] were aware of a hierarchy of masculinities in which alignment with some positions rather than others allows for social status and positive self-esteem… On the whole, the findings revealed the considerable internal and external struggles that boys experience in adopting both popular and unpopular masculine positions,” writes Langa.

A further finding was that all the boys, irrespective of ‘type’, were united in their antagonism towards ‘gay masculinity’, accusing gay boys of letting males down in a variety of ways.

“It was evident in all the interviews that gay masculinity occupies a very low status in the hierarchy of masculinities.”

Clearly, heterosexual men, especially, have been complicit in various forms of hate and a failure to encourage the unlearning of such traits will only serve to perpetuate toxic masculinity in our society.

As former US President Barack Obama said two years ago at a conference for his My Brother’s Keeper initiative: “The notion that somehow defining yourself as a man is dependent on [whether you are able to] put somebody else down… able to dominate… that is an old view. If you’re confident about your strength, you don’t need to show me by putting somebody else down. Show me by lifting somebody else up.” 

  • Andile Ndlovu is a freelance writer.
  • This article first appeared in Curiositya research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office.
  • Read more in the 13th issue, themed: #Gender. We feature research across disciplines that relates to gender, feminism, masculinity, sex, sexual identity and sexual health.

Monstrous males/femme fatales

- Leanne Rencken

Gender portrayals in animated films have come a long way, which is important, as animation can be a tool for positive social change.

The first question that Dr Gillian Wittstock, film fundi and Lecturer in Wits Interdisciplinary and Cultural Studies (IACS) department asks her students is which animated film had the biggest impact on them as a child.

Her favourite response to the question, and the most surprising she received from this year’s cohort, was randomly, Ed, Edd n Eddy, because, as the student who nominated the cartoon series elaborated, “it showed the hustle, like how important it is to make money, how to adapt, and how to become an entrepreneur”.

This was an option and an interpretation that Wittstock hadn’t yet considered, but which goes to show, whether it is an emotional, cultural or educational connection, animation as a medium is certainly effective, and way more than the sum of its intricately illustrated parts.

“Every student could come up with an animation that profoundly impacted on the way they perceive the world,” she says. “It is something that pop culture does. It is so all-encompassing that we get influenced by it daily, and it stays with us for the rest of our lives.”

Pop invasion

With the proliferation of viewing devices and streaming platforms, it is easy for both adults and children to be bombarded by ‘invasive’ pop culture messaging that dictates gender stereotypes as the norm. We don’t question these messages enough – especially when it comes to animation, as this is likely the first medium with which children typically engage. 

“We’re passive consumers, and we don’t really think about the meaning and ideology behind the films that young children are watching. I would love for them to see shows that promote inclusivity and equality within genders, rather than shows that promote othering and exclusivity,” adds Wittstock.

Wittstock focuses much of her academic energy on animation. It is the reason why she recently published a chapter in the book Gender, Supernatural Beings, and the Liminality of Death: Monstrous Males/Fatal Females.

The chapter she submitted is titled The Animated Dead: Reimagining the Beautiful Corpse in Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, and is based on a portion of her Master’s thesis, as well as some of the material that she has developed with her colleagues in the Department.

She is obviously delighted to have her work featured in this international collection of essays, and experienced the writing process as a cathartic distraction from Covid-19. “I feel like I achieved something in a really difficult time,” she explains. “Something that I thought was worthy and needed to be discussed.”

Corpse Bride | Curiosity 13: #Gender ©

Gender evolution

When it comes to gender and the portrayal of the female in animated film, Wittstock has much to say. She believes that within a Westernised context, representations of gender have come far since the early years of animation, particularly when it comes to heteronormative ideas of gender.

“Each wave of feminism has brought with it a great change in society, and these shifts in gender ideologies have bled into popular culture, and subsequently animated film,” she explains.

“If we look at the evolution of Disney’s princesses you can see a massive shift in gender representation. The pathetic and feeble portrayal of Snow White in Disney’s first feature length animation Snow White and the Seven Dwarves has been radically overthrown in their more recent animated offerings, and can be seen explicitly through protagonists, Anna and Elsa (Frozen), Moana (Moana) and Raya (Ray and the Last Dragon).”

Pixar has had a similar journey of growth, although that studio is providing new guidance on masculinity and manhood within a post-feminist world.

“I think fondly here of the 2001 film Monsters, Inc.,” says Wittstock. “Sully the Monster is represented as a paternal figure whose masculine presence is loving, kind, emotional and protective.”

Wittstock cautions that there is still much to be reimagined and envisioned regarding gender. 

“Although there have been great leaps in representation, I believe that as we continue to develop and practise our ideas surrounding gender identity, we will begin to see even more changes in our films. Gender binaries are being questioned, and I hope that the future of animation allows spaces for positive queer identities, and for feminine identities to be redefined in spaces that have previously been destructive or exclusionary.”

In her contribution to the book, Wittstock shows how animation enables these ventures into new feminine figures within the horror genre.

“Emily from Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride is not simply a site of the monstrous, nor is she fully released from the objectification of the beautiful corpse. She is a subtle rendering of both, subconsciously navigating and commenting on previous feminine horror tropes. As a result, Burton refreshingly offers a powerful, alternate female horror figure, whose agency lies within ambiguity, subversion and humour of the macabre.”

But does Burton’s ‘refreshing’ nuanced take on Emily’s character make him a feminist ally?

“Yes and no. Women in horror are still incredibly objectified and undervalued, but through my argument I show how an animated character could potentially break through these problematic genre codes and conventions in a way that is unseen in other genres or film formats. I wanted my research to show the power of animation as a tool for positive social change that is often ignored or patronised due to it mistakenly being labelled as childish or naive. For me, Emily is a truly unique character and this marks a moment of change within the horror genre.”

Wittstock’s passion for her research extends to how we discuss gender in SA – a country with one of the highest femicide rates in the world. 

“We need to constantly reflect on how we are navigating gender and the ideologies that we are circulating. It is represented in different spaces, in different ways, at different times - we need to question gender everywhere. Our students don't have to agree with us, or what we’re saying, but they need to be able to back up their beliefs. They need to be able to provide evidence, they need to have opinions and a voice that is both reasonable and reasoned.” 

Gender, Supernatural Beings, and the Liminality of Death: Monstrous Males/Fatal Females is available for purchase on Amazon. 

  • Leanne Rencken is a freelance writer.
  • This article first appeared in Curiositya research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office.
  • Read more in the 13th issue, themed: #Gender. We feature research across disciplines that relates to gender, feminism, masculinity, sex, sexual identity and sexual health.

Mobilising big data and AI to fight GBVF

- Tamsin Oxford

Gender-based violence and femicide is a pandemic more insidious and endemic than a virus – how technology can help combat and prevent it.

President Cyril Ramaphosa described gender-based violence and femicide (GBVF) as the “second major pandemic we face in South Africa today”, and with good reason. SA has one of the highest incidences of femicide and rape in the world, and the lockdowns only made things worse – more than 120 000 victims were reported in the first three weeks of the first lockdown in 2020.

According to Stats SA, almost 50% of assaults are committed by a friend, partner, relative or household member, and one in five partnered women have experienced physical violence. This finding led the President to launch the GBVF Response Fund (GBVF-RF) early in 2021. For Wits University Chancellor, Dr Judy Dlamini, who also chairs the GBVF-RF, the starting point for addressing this problem lies in understanding how big it is and how impactful this crisis is, which is why she has engaged in a project to mobilise big data and artificial intelligence (AI) against GBVF.

Impartial intelligence

“We have a serious national crisis that predates Covid-19 and we need to find ways of combatting GBV with the sole aim of eradicating it,” she says. “To ensure that there are the right policies in place to address this problem, and to allocate responses in the right places at the right time, you need accurate data, accurate data analysis, and AI without bias.” 

One of the challenges facing the project from the outset was the need to create an AI platform and data analysis toolkit that was free from the inherent biases found in AI. There are numerous examples of how AI platforms – Microsoft, Amazon – have favoured the white male, and this is a bias that cannot be allowed when it comes to overcoming the complexities of GBVF.

“The starting point is to get the correct data which requires conducting participatory research in affected communities, as this data can be effectively analysed to find the right solutions,” says Dlamini. 

“The goal is to develop an intersectional lens that can look at those social identities that tend to be ignored and the different contexts for different communities, so that any solution developed will truly address the issues.”

Dlamini says that the challenge is to work out the representivity in teams of developers, what data is being used and how the algorithm is developed. Only 22% of professionals in AI are women, and they usually hold low-level roles. Women are 20% less likely to own a smartphone or have access to the internet, according to the Global Gender Gap Report, 2018. “So, when using AI to address social ills, we first have to address inherent bias.”

GenderXSecure | Curiosity 13: #Gender -

GenderXSecure is a parody site for gender safety insurance. This parody site speculates on the existence of a subscription service that offers one less exposure to GBV by endowing the member with privileges that would make them less vulnerable. They review the options for the different packages one could take out and lastly, they do a risk assessment calculator to help them find their best cover. The questions asked by the website are supported by screenshots of GBV stats."

Subverting patriarchy

For Dlamini, the patriarchal system is so entrenched in all communities for various reasons that it will take deliberate and consistent effort and support across the board to defeat GBVF and gender inequality in general, in this lifetime. With the right data and analysis, she believes that it is possible to predict and prevent GBVF, and that the right data can influence policy, the appropriate interventions and resource allocation.

 “We can use the data to see what it’s telling us about a specific community and how many intervention areas and types of intervention are required, such as at police stations and other support services,” she says. 

“We can use the data to look at the causes underlying GBVF and how we can address those, and find ways of creating social cohesion and better conversations around gender equality and different sexual orientations. If we get it right, it can inform so many aspects that can change the paradigm of how women are viewed and how we can change this toxic system that doesn’t serve anyone.”

It’s early stages for this initiative and collaboration across sectors, academic disciplines, civil society and government holds the key to finding a sustainable solution.

Mapping gender safety on the ground

Another project that focuses on the GBVF conversation, but on a more granular level, is the Digital SUPERPOWER! Lab in collaboration with Fak’ugesi Labs. Creative technologist Ling Tan from Umbrellium, and Dr Tegan Bristow, Principal Researcher for the Fak’ugesi Festival and Senior Lecturer at Wits, are developing an app specifically targeted at womxn and the LGBTQIA+ communities in Bulawayo, Johannesburg and London.

“This is a citizen-led data project on a small scale, led by a community,” explains Bristow. “The point is to understand how different rights organisations and people interested in gender safety in these three cities can use a piece of technology on a mobile phone to answer specific questions around gender safety. Ultimately, it’s about putting a tool into the hands of communities and citizens that allows them to geospatially map issues around gender safety in their communities.” 

The tool asks the questions that governments may not be answering by logging where and how people are experiencing problems. While the app is still in the prototype phase, it is built to work around very specific questions. Bristow and Tan are working with a group of femme-identifying individuals, including those who are transgender.

People in each group across the three cities use the app by screen tapping to share insights, while concealing the app in their pockets so as not to put the person at further risk of attack or theft. They share their impressions of security within specific areas across the metrics of ‘very good’ to ‘very bad’. They can stop at a place and take a photo and write a note, enter their answer on a scale of one to five, or tap on their phone – one tap indicates ‘not feeling safe’ while five taps is a healing location. The information is logged according to location and situation.

“The insights offer an overview of how people are managing safety and advocates for improvements around gender safety,” says Bristow. “The app considers a lot of data and takes the nuanced detail into account that can help organisations by providing insights that can make tangible change for GBV.”

  • Tamsin Oxford is a freelance writer.
  • This article first appeared in Curiositya research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office.
  • Read more in the 13th issue, themed: #Gender. We feature research across disciplines that relates to gender, feminism, masculinity, sex, sexual identity and sexual health.

Let’s talk about sex (and health), please

- Lem Chetty

Changes in sexual functioning are a side effect of many physical and mental illnesses, however, across genders, sexual health and behaviour are not addressed.

People | Curiosity 13: #Gender ©

“I recall a patient consultation that lasted all of 16 seconds,” says Deidre Pretorius, a PhD candidate in the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute. Pretorius’ research, published in the journal Sexual Medicine, looks at sexual history-taking for risk behaviour in primary care.

Her research found that when healthcare practitioners talk to patients about their sexual history and health, it can contribute towards improving health outcomes in primary care but, due to factors such as high patient volume, a lack of empathy and shying away from these topics, these discussions don’t happen often enough.

“We live in a country with high numbers of people living with HIV and Aids, which implies that a comprehensive sexual history must be taken when patients are treated. This doesn’t happen.”

Pretorius filmed 151 routine consultations with patients with diabetic or hypertensive conditions, yet found only five consultations in which sex was discussed. “Conversations were paternalistic and lacked privacy, warmth and respect,” Pretorius writes in the journal.

Both chronic conditions, diabetes and hypertension have neurological and vascular effects which in turn affect sexual health. “Not only was sexual history not taken, but patients living with sexual dysfunction were missed. If patients understand how disease and medication contribute to their sexual wellbeing, this may have changed their perceptions of the illness and adherence patterns,” she says.

Barriers of inequality 

The study focused largely on women – about two-thirds of the interviewees. But Pretorius says that studies also show experiences of discrimination towards queer individuals when seeking healthcare which has resulted in barriers and inequality in the access of healthcare. “When members of the LGBTQIA+ community see doctors, we find that the doctors and nurses tend to giggle and not take the patient seriously.” 

Pretorius says that one interviewee lied about having hypertension so that she could be a part of the study into sexual health, as she was experiencing problems with her partner who is a transgender female. “That is how serious it is on the ground. I wonder how much of this is about lack of education?” asks Pretorius.

As a social worker for 40 years, working with families, Pretorius says that the topic of sex comes up often in consults – in the context of gender-based violence, marital concerns or coercion to expand couples’ sexual repertoire, amongst others. She recalls working in an oncology unit with a couple where the wife was coming to the end of her chemotherapy after a mastectomy. “I found the husband holding his head in the waiting room. He said that he was not coping, his blood pressure was not good. Up to that point the medical discussions with the couple were clinical. But he eventually shared that they were having intimacy issues because in 50 years of marriage, he would sleep holding on to her breast. Due to the illness, they had to adjust their way of life. Both were feeling rejected. So, if doctors are willing to talk about sexual functioning along with illness, it would make a huge difference to people.”

Pretorius says that the side effects of medication and sexual health are not often discussed. “I had a patient with epilepsy whose medication caused a lack of libido. The doctor who prescribed it never explained it. I saw her and her husband when they were already contemplating divorce.” 

Mental health and sexual health 

Psychiatry Registrar, Dr Kirsten Rowe, achieved her PhD from Oxford University using research from her work with the Medical Research Council/Wits Rural Public Health and Health Transitions Research Unit. She says that the treatments for many mental illnesses including depression often have an effect on sexual health and sexual desire.

Antidepressants – especially those used in the public sector – can affect libido while common mental illnesses like major depression result in a general lack of energy and may lower libido. “People just don’t enjoy anything anymore, including desire. The conundrum is that treating depression with common antidepressant medications can cause sexual issues like anorgasmia and erectile dysfunction,” says Rowe. 

Bipolar disorders also affect sexual functioning. “When people are in a depressed frame of mind, they would experience a lack of libido, but when they are in a manic state, they become disinhibited, taking sexual risks and later regretting them. Libido increases and so does a loss of self-control. But to control the behaviour, mood stabilisers, antidepressants and antipsychotics can have sexual side effects, so it is a difficult balance to find,” says Rowe.

Other mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety or schizophrenia affect sexual functioning in other ways, like social isolation. “In the case of PTSD, sexual trauma can have a huge impact on sexual desire and health.”

Despite this, Rowe agrees that in the public sector particularly, screening for sexual side effects is not prioritised in the mental health sector. “Patients would be seeing nursing sisters and GPs, because there are just not enough psychiatrists. Also, as an impact of time and patient volumes, in my experience, sexual history and psychosexual history is not taken from patients.”

Let’s talk about sex 

Patients tend to find it difficult to talk about sexual issues, because of their own views and judgement, especially when the conversation is between an elder caregiver and a younger patient. “People are scared to discuss sexual health and this should not be the case. We should be able to feel comfortable and speak openly, especially because relationship history and sexual history can reveal abuse or trauma,” says Rowe. In an ideal world, treating ailments like chronic pelvic pain would start with an assessment of sexual behaviour rather than treatment options.

Having worked outside the country, Rowe says that the South African medical fraternity needs to evolve its thinking around gender. “For instance, gender-neutral bathrooms and preferred pronouns for patients are not a consideration, although they are the norm elsewhere. Healthcare workers seem not to be sure of how to handle transgender patients, like nurses not wanting to place a transgender woman in the female ward for fear of safety. 

SA has “a long way to go in a world where transgender people make healthcare workers nervous”. Changing attitudes begins with education, and this should start with medical and nursing schools.

Pretorius adds that sexual health is a rights-based issue. “In a country where diabetes is so prevalent, we should consider helping patients, perhaps with medication to treat virility. But doctors don’t talk about it.”

Women experiencing menopause and vaginal atrophy cannot access medication in the public sector and it is too expensive for them to buy themselves. “We have to think about the implications of not talking about sexual behaviour and functioning. It is devastating, and if untreated, can create a greater cost down the healthcare line. There’s a lot of judgement. I’ve had doctors who said it isn’t a priority. We don’t train our doctors to do this either. We know psychotherapy can help.”

But there is good news. “Healthcare workers are realising that we cannot ignore this any longer. Curricula are being updated. We can’t be talking about the smells of discharge, excrement, etc. with our doctors but not sex. It is a natural experience to have sexual needs, even with a chronic illness.”

  • Lem Chetty is a freelance writer.
  • This article first appeared in Curiositya research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office.
  • Read more in the 13th issue, themed: #Gender. We feature research across disciplines that relates to gender, feminism, masculinity, sex, sexual identity and sexual health.

A heart for the queer and gay

- Brigitte Read

Dr Ahmed Badat spends his life focusing on improving LGBTQIA+ mental health training for medical students.

Dr Ahmed Badat | Photo by Shivan Parusnath | Curiosity 13: #Gender ©

It was a comment during a talk on transgender mental health while doing his community service that hit a nerve for Dr Ahmed Badat. Addressing a room full of medical professionals, a very experienced senior clinician made an aside remark about the need to preserve heterosexual relationships. The comment stirred anger in Badat and made him realise that something needed to change.

Research shows that there is still a high prevalence of homophobia among medical doctors. Many still believe sexuality is a choice or that conversion therapy is appropriate. Badat had witnessed discrimination towards queer patients in the healthcare setting, yet notes that in his own six years of undergraduate training, he only had one lecture about LGBTQIA+ communities, which was related to health.

“Going through med school, I realised that healthcare for the LGBTQIA+ community is not a priority in terms of medical education, and that’s not necessarily as a result of discrimination. It is six years and medicine is vast and there is much to cover, but also historically medicine is rooted in a very heteronormative space. For example, we’re not taught to ask patients their pronouns as part of the formal training.” 

Caring for LGBTQIA+ patients

As a result, Badat’s research for his MMed in Psychiatry is focused on assessing final year medical students’ preparedness for caring for LGBTQIA+ patients with mental illness. Part of his hypothesis is that the LGBTQIA+ population is a minority population and individuals are therefore subject to distinct stressors which may negatively affect their mental health. There is a large body of research which highlights the increased prevalence of depression, anxiety, suicidality and substance-use disorders amongst the queer population.

Badat’s research, currently in the data collection phase, assesses medical professionals’ ability to provide care for LGBTQIA+ patients, looking at clinical awareness, attitudinal awareness and basic knowledge. Badat also evaluates knowledge about the specific mental healthcare needs of LGBTQIA+ populations and if students feel prepared to provide adequate mental healthcare to LGBTQIA+ patients after completing their psychiatry rotation. 

“My aim is to identify areas for improvement in the care for LGBTQIA+ patients so that undergraduate medical education can be adjusted to adequately prepare future doctors and improve the quality of mental healthcare received by queer people,” explains Badat. “This is all long-term work, that will require buy-in from many different parties, but I’m hoping to get the ball rolling and that this creates an opening for improvement in medical education on LGBTQIA+ issues.”

Drawn to people’s narratives

An ardent TV series fan, Badat was initially inspired to go into medicine after watching Grey’s Anatomy. Now he particularly enjoys podcasts and documentaries in the true crime genre, and this curiosity about people’s motivations and narratives is what drew him to psychiatry. He is a massive fan of Survivor, admitting to becoming quite invested in analysing the contestants’ personalities and strategies. He is also a die-hard Harry Potter devotee, His favourite character is the intelligent and steadfast Hermione – he believes that she is the true hero of the series – and his Hogwarts house is Ravenclaw, which fittingly embodies wisdom, wit and academic learning.

Badat currently works as a Registrar at the Tara Psychiatric Hospital where he serves patients with severe personality pathology. He acknowledges that he has found this rotation to be the most stimulating and rewarding so far. Coincidentally, he works in the same ward wherein which he completed his psychiatry rotation as a final year student and where he became convinced that psychiatry was the path he wanted to follow. His Registrar at that time was Dr Sanushka Moodley and in a poetic full circle, she is now his research supervisor.

“As my Registrar, she was a role model in terms of who I wanted to be - nurturing, willing to teach, so kind, but she also delivered such a high standard of care and compassion for her patients. And hopefully I can give the medical students here now a similar experience.”

When people have greater understanding, there is also a chance that they will have greater empathy.

(Badat also acknowledges the support and mentorship that he has received so far from Dr Laila Paruk and the Wits Head of Psychiatry, Professor Ugasvaree Subramaney.

Moodley was his first guest on a podcast he created called Purple Couch: A Psychiatry Podcast. The podcast series is intended to serve as a study aid for medical students and junior doctors. Featuring a different mental healthcare practitioner in each episode, the show aims to provide information specifically related to the South African context.

Badat admits that if he wasn’t a doctor, he would probably be a teacher. This seems fitting as his research is aimed at improving undergraduate medical training to better prepare clinicians to understand the unique challenges of the LGBTQIA+ communities, and to ultimately lead to better care for all. 

“Education has been shown to reduce prejudice. When people have greater understanding, there is a chance that they will have greater empathy.” 

  • Brigitte Read is a freelance writer.
  • This article first appeared in Curiositya research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office.
  • Read more in the 13th issue, themed: #Gender. We feature research across disciplines that relates to gender, feminism, masculinity, sex, sexual identity and sexual health.

An illegal failure of our criminal justice system

- Beth Amato

Hate crimes such as the so-called “corrective rape” of lesbians and trans women is a black mark against SA’s constitutional democracy.

In 2021, there were 16 known LGBTQIA+ murders in South Africa. This was mostly against black lesbians and those who identify as transsexual. This is in a country with a rock solid and clear Constitution: no matter your sex or gender, you are protected from discrimination and have equal rights.

Keval Harie, the Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (GALA) Queer Archive Director, calls the killings an illegal failure of the criminal justice system where killers often walk free to commit crimes again.

“It particularly fails those who don’t have access to resources and who can’t really afford lawyers. Therefore, they have to rely on the state for justice,” says Harie.

Wits Journalism Lecturer, Dr Nechama Brodie who authored a book on femicide in South Africa spanning 40 years, explains that the growth in hate crimes was experienced by all members of the LGBTQIA+ community, with transgender individuals experiencing higher levels of violence, as a group, than lesbians or gay men. 

The state has a poor record of dealing with hate crimes. “Hate crimes against queer people get throttled by the overburdened court system,” says Dr Nolwazi Mkhwanazi, a medical anthropologist formerly with the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research.

Added to this, a national task team set up by the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development to coordinate the various government offices and private organisations to deal with hate crimes, has fallen by the wayside. 

“I don’t know what it is – is it corruption? The patriarchal society in which we live? It needs to be looked at because as people we should all be treated the same,” says Mkhwanazi.

Hopes and Dreams that Sound Like Yours: Stories of Queer Activism in Sub-Saharan Africa. © Taboom Media & GALA Queer Archive, 2021 | Illustration by Lamb of Lemila

Hopes and Dreams that Sound Like Yours: Stories of Queer Activism in Sub-Saharan Africa. © Taboom Media & GALA Queer Archive, 2021 | Illustration by Lamb of Lemila

‘Jackrolling’ and ‘Blackwash’

Indeed, homophobia is entrenched and sexual violence a popular weapon, notes Brodie. “Jackrolling", for example, "involves men targeting black lesbian women to ‘teach them how to be proper women’. 

Jackrolling became curative [with] corrective rape [and] the underlying belief that women would somehow be cured from their homosexuality.” Jackrolling is a term that has been around since the 1980s, suggesting its long and prevailing history.

Dr Clare Harvey, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology at Wits University, explains that foregrounding the image of the black lesbian woman as an inevitable victim of grotesque crimes “blackwashes” homophobia.

Blackwashing refuses to acknowledge the structural inequalities that persist and perpetuates colonial and white supremacist tropes of black people as inherently violent.

Harvey explains that intersectionality theory provides the tools to examine oppression and power, in order to “explore possible counter-discourses that disrupt master narratives of black lesbian womanhood/s”. 

Lesbian women must not be seen as singular and unidimensional. “Critically, constructions of rape as ‘corrective’ serve only to remove agency from the target of the crime, bolstering mythical discourses of homosexuality as ‘unnatural’… In many ways, these discursive mechanisms are problematic; primarily because they normalise violence and hatred as acceptable parts of identifying as a lesbian in township spaces,” says Harvey.

Drag Queens and creative defiance

Harvey demonstrates the complexity of queer lives through the example of the Rainbow Girls – a documentary photographic project by Julia Gunther. Some of Gunther’s work shows the Miss Lesbian competition in Khayelitsha township, Cape Town. The photographs reveal unflinching defiance and the women’s refusal to accept the repressive attitudes that marginalise them. 

The GALA Queer Archive based at Wits University houses a remarkable permanent photographic collection, entitled Kewpie: Daughter of District Six. This too shows the diversity, fluidity and multiplicity of the life of famous District Six drag queen, Kewpie.

Harie says, “Most of the photographs in the collection were taken by Kewpie and friends, and show Kewpie’s extensive social life and social circle, both in District Six and further afield. The photographs depict the carefully crafted public personas of the drag queens, and also their private ‘off-duty’ lives.” 

Harvey adds that these kinds of subversive acts of creativity and boldness “allude to the fullness of queer people’s identities; they are constructed as plural, intricate and dynamic, with possibilities for pleasure, joy, freedom, power, resilience and agency.”

Same-sexuality past and present

- Shaun Smillie

The notion that homosexuality is ‘unAfrican’ is totally false. People have engaged in same-sex relationships for centuries.

There is a misconception that same-sex relationships and gender fluidity is new to Africa and that it is an evil practice that sneaked in with colonialism. But the notion that homosexuality is ‘unAfrican’ is totally false, says Keval Harie, Director of the GALA Queer Archive, who stresses that gender fluidity stretches way back to the indigenous peoples of Africa.

Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum © Jon Bodsworth - The Egypt Archive

Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum.  © Jon Bodsworth, The Egypt Archive

Evidence of this can be seen in San paintings, says Harie, and there are hints of same-sex liaisons on ancient Egyptian tombs. Across the Mediterranean, it was the ancient Greeks who first documented same-sex relationships. It was only when the Roman Empire began transitioning to Christianity that same-sexuality became taboo.

Today religion is still often a force against gay rights. “When it comes to Christianity, you still feel that stigma,” says Dr Nolwazi Mkhwanazi, a medical anthropologist formerly from the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research. She adds that religious leaders often fuel homophobic and anti-queer sentiment.

Times have changed considerably since the Roman era and worldwide in the 21st Century there is increasingly recognition of the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community – legally, at least.

Same-sex legalities in the 21st Century 

In September 2021, another country joined the revolution that began two decades ago – Switzerland voted overwhelmingly in a referendum in favour of allowing same-sex couples to marry and to adopt children. Weeks earlier, the Mexican state of Sonora had approved same-sex marriages. Switzerland’s inclusion brings to 29 the number of countries where same-sex marriages are now legal.

This global list began gathering momentum in April 2001 when a lesbian and three gay couples exchanged vows in an Amsterdam City Hall on the day that the Netherlands legalised same-sex marriages. And while SA was fifth on the list to ratify same-sex marriages, the country was the first in the world to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in SA’s new democratic Constitution, on 8 May 1996.

Legal but persecuted 

The revolution may be forging ahead, but resistance to gay rights persists. In March 2021 the Vatican ruled that priests would not be allowed to bless same-sex unions. And even in SA – the shining example of LGBTQIA+ rights on the continent – there is a dark side of gay hate crimes and a growing number of killings. In 2021 there have been 16 known LGBTQIA+ murders, and most have been black lesbians and transsexuals.

Harie calls the killings an illegal failure of the criminal justice system where killers often walk free to commit crimes again. “It particularly fails those who don't have access to resources, who can't really afford lawyers, but have to rely on the state for justice,” says Harie. 

A national task team set up by the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development to coordinate the various government offices and private organisations to deal with these hate crimes has fallen by the wayside, according to Harie.

Mkhwanazi concurs – time and time again she sees gay hate crimes get bogged down in the courts. “And I don’t know what it is – is it corruption? The patriarchal society in which we live? It needs to be looked at, because as people we should all be treated the same.”

Future fluidity

Hari says, “We need leaders to speak out. Things have changed remarkably from where we were 25 years ago, but the hard work still remains. We need to be engaging with communities who are still very deeply conservative and we need to engage with religious leaders to tell them to stop spreading hate.”

  • Shaun Smillie is a freelance writer.
  • This article first appeared in Curiositya research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office.
  • Read more in the 13th issue, themed: #Gender. We feature research across disciplines that relates to gender, feminism, masculinity, sex, sexual identity and sexual health.

Being queer in Africa

- Beth Amato

Despite a history of openness to queerness in pre-colonial times, Africa is now largely unwelcoming to LGBTQIA+ people.

In halls at undisclosed locations in Zambia, you might think that you were on the set of Pose, a drama series based on drag ball subculture among black and Latino LGBTQIA+ people in New York City in the ‘80s.  In these halls, difference and repressed expression are celebrated and encouraged. Zambia’s queer community, in their ball gowns and under those moving twinkly squares of a disco ball, take centre stage. There is lively catwalk commentary and the outside world, with its terrible risks and dangers, is quiet.

Hopes and Dreams that Sound Like Yours: Stories of Queer Activism in Sub-Saharan Africa. © Taboom Media & GALA Queer Archive, 2021 | Illustrations by Larissa Mwanyama and Amina Gimba

Hopes and Dreams that Sound Like Yours: Stories of Queer Activism in Sub-Saharan Africa. © Taboom Media & GALA Queer Archive, 2021 | Illustrations by Larissa Mwanyama and Amina Gimba

In Zambia it is illegal to be gay. Policies are deeply rooted in heteropatriarchal and religious values and beliefs. “Zambia is undoubtedly and irrefutably a Christian country. In that country, homosexuality and anything other than a binary definition of sex and gender is an anathema to Christianity,” says Efemia Chela, a Master’s student in the Governing Intimacies Project at Wits University. Chela is trying to understand what it is like to be queer in Zambia, and how sex and gender are constructed in Zambia’s broader imagination. Her research is the first on lesbian, bisexual, queer and non-binary people in Zambia.

Africa Check published findings by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Gay, Trans, Intersex Association (ILGA), which showed that 31 out of the 54 UN member states in Africa criminalised consensual same-sex sexual acts between adults in private. Meanwhile, same-sex marriage is only legal in SA. 

ILGA’s 2020 State Sponsored Homophobia report reveals that in Egypt, for example, “even though there are no laws explicitly criminalising consensual same-sex sexual acts, other laws are used in practise to arrest, prosecute and convict people of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities.” Hence, this is de facto criminalisation.

In states where Sharia law is applied (such as Mauritania, Somalia, Nigeria and South Sudan) being gay is punishable by death.

Indeed, while many countries do not directly criminalise transgender and gender-diverse people, many do so indirectly through indecency laws, the criminalisation of same-sex relationships, and impersonation laws. It is almost impossible in Africa to change gender markers on legal documents, although this may be changing in the near future.

Only three states – SA, Mauritius and Angola – explicitly condemn discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. Despite this, there is no guarantee that people across the queer spectrum live safely and openly.

Jo'burg Pride 1996 © Ditise Collection | GALA Queer Archive

History tells another story

Why is it so challenging to be queer in Africa when research shows that there is a rich queer history on the continent. 

“In pre-colonial times, being queer was acceptable. We have queer ancestors all over the continent. That history has been demonised, erased and further supressed by religion,” says Boniswa*, a 28-year old who identifies as queer.

She explains that her great-grandmothers had words for being gender non-conforming. Indeed, those who transcended gender binaries were considered spiritual healers because they embodied masculine and feminine qualities.

"We have queer ancestors all over the world"

Catherine Burns, an Associate Professor in Medical History and Ethnography at Wits University, notes that gender and sexual diversity in Africa has been around for many generations. “Indeed, the Modjadji monarchs or the rain queens of the Balobedu in Limpopo, South Africa, are not supposed to marry, but have many ‘wives’, although they are not spouses in the typical sense. Moreover, while Modjadji procreated with male suitors selected by her clan, she was not required to remain in exclusive relations with them,” she explains.

Burns says that the ‘self’ was never strictly seen in binary and gender specific terms. Fluidity, play and the embracing of a multi-faceted ‘self’ strengthened bonds and aided community cohesion. “We need to start taking all intimate experiences seriously. We need to ‘open’ up our language to give space to gender fluidity and difference,” adds Boniswa.

First Cape Town Pride 1993 | © Theresa Raizenberg Collection, GALA Queers Archive | Curiosity 13: #Gender -

First Cape Town Pride 1993 | © Theresa Raizenberg Collection, GALA Queers Archive

The dangers of being queer today

Fast-forward to 2021, and being queer in Africa is complex, gritty and granular. Entangled with a validating queer ‘ancestry’, as Boniswa puts it, is tangible and intangible discrimination. On the most horrific end of the spectrum, there are hate crimes, where lesbian and trans people in particular are at huge risk of violence and death. It is worse for poor, black queer people.

“Already there are so many odds stacked against you when you identify as queer. Your families and churches may have shunned you. Then you live in poverty-stricken circumstances in highly unequal societies. In 2020, when lockdown began, we had to go beyond our role as queer memory archivists and help people who were starving, out of work and isolated with no support structures. The stories made us weep,” says Keval Harie, Director of the Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (GALA) Queer Archive at Wits University.

While there are stories of hardship, pain, rejection and discrimination, there are many ways in which heteronormativity and patriarchy are challenged. Indeed the GALA Queer Archive showcases stories of change, especially through storytelling, history, education, advocacy and art.

“There isn’t this universal and monolithic queer-lived experience in Africa,” says Boniswa.

For her, more ‘liberal’ spaces like Braamfontein have been surprisingly unwelcoming. She recalls how the waiters in a pizza restaurant refused to serve her and her girlfriend after they saw them holding hands. When she came out as queer, Boniswa’s heterosexual female friends shunned her. She has to argue with those who think she is ‘anti-man’, because she challenges dominant monomyths.

“No matter the huge risk to them, queer people find ways to subvert authority and express themselves wholeheartedly,” says Chela. A thriving drag ball and Pride subculture in Zambia extends to an active supportive community. There are ‘chosen family’ gatherings, underground Pride events and closed Facebook and WhatsApp groups. Important information is shared, such as which mental health workers, medical doctors and state officials are queer friendly.

Boniswa deeply admires the work of queer artist and activist Zanele Muholi. In Muholi’s recent work, exhibited at the Tate Modern in 2020, the artist’s photographs give voice and agency to the lesbians, gender non-conformists and trans men depicted in the work. The exhibition is a prosaic take on the everyday reality of those believed to be ‘threatening, un-sacred and tragic’. Muholi aimed to re-write a black queer and trans visual history of SA “for the world to know of our existence, resistance and persistence”.

“While I can’t say whether being queer will ever be formally acknowledged and decriminalised in Africa, there are many pockets of people who express themselves in the ways that they can, and establish robust social networks, no matter how marginalised and despised they are,” says Chela.

*Boniswa prefers to use only her first name in this article. She is a member of the Wits Community. 

Safe Zones 

The Safe Zones @ Wits programme strives to erase prejudice, while providing a support system for the LGBTQIA+ community at Wits University. Through education, advocacy and awareness-raising, the programme contributes to a campus climate that is safe and accepting. 

University members are asked to consider becoming a Safe Zone ally. After members have completed training, a badge and sticker can be displayed indicating a Safe Zone. Ultimately, an ally is defined as an individual who supports and honours diversity, challenges acts of prejudice against LGBTQIA+ people and is willing to explore and understand these forms of bias at the individual and institutional levels. 

The Pocket Queerpedia 2021, made available by the Tshisimani Centre for Activist Education, is an illustrated glossary of LGBTQIA+ terms. The book came into being after activists realised how LGBTQIA+ terms were not commonly understood. “Why are some terms used in different ways by different people? What is the difference between a transgender and a gay person? Can a person be transgender AND gay? What does the word queer mean, and why should I care if I do not share any of these experiences?” are questions asked by participants in the making of the book. The full version is available at:

The GALA Queer Archive (GALA) is a catalyst for the production, preservation and dissemination of information about the history, culture and contemporary experiences of LGBTQIA+ people in SA. As an archive founded on the principles of social justice and human rights, GALA works toward a greater awareness about the lives of LGBTQIA+ people as a means to an inclusive society. GALA's primary focus is to preserve and nurture LGBTQIA+ narratives, as well as promote social equality, inclusive education and youth development.

  • Beth Amato is Communications Manager at the African Centre for the Study of the US at Wits University.
  • This article first appeared in Curiositya research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office.
  • Read more in the 13th issue, themed: #Gender. We feature research across disciplines that relates to gender, feminism, masculinity, sex, sexual identity and sexual health.

Fractured histories

- Tamsin Oxford

Coloured women find their centre beyond the whisper and gossip.

Krotoa | Curiosity 13: #Gender ©

Krotoa, the first matriarch of the Cape

The story of the coloured women’s dispossession in South Africa circles back to Krotoa, the first matriarch of the Cape. Krotoa was a Khoi translator and mediator for the Dutch in the 1650s when they began their colonial conquest of the Cape.

Krotoa was not only a domestic worker, but an interpreter and a mediator – a woman so trusted that she helped make peace when war was breaking out. She was only 16 when she negotiated peace between the warring factions of the ‘Hollander and Hottentots’ in the 1600s.

Hers is a powerful and impactful lineage that came to a sad, marginalised end when her intelligence, gifts and forceful nature should have given her a rich future. Krotoa was a powerful woman whose history was lost by time and colonialism.

Dr Darlene Miller, a Senior Lecturer in the Wits School of Governance, is currently conducting research that traces Krotoa’s lineage. Through her research, Miller contends that the loss of this lineage – and that of other Khoi or coloured women – is a situation affecting many South Africans who are classified as coloured. This loss of lineage has implications for coloured women’s leadership, and the unique experiences that come with being a woman of Khoi descent. 

An eviscerated history

“The first difficulty is that you don’t exist,” says Miller. “When you don’t have an active past, you exist in the present without it, and the truth is that the past is a gift. It is an ancestral river that has been eviscerated by the historic actions of others.”

This is a scenario that many other cultures in South Africa cannot imagine. Yet exploring an archive as a coloured woman means being surrounded by rows and shelves of books that trace the lineages and histories of white families while the microfiche films of coloured births and deaths have been erased. 

“I can’t even find a record that my grandmother existed,” says Miller. “There is no lineage, record or lists of birth and deaths, a very common experience for coloured people. We don’t find ourselves in the archives because our ancestors struggled to acknowledge our existence. We were the dirty little secrets stuck onto a part of the farm where we could not be seen and recognised as the child of the patriarch who sired us. We were a whisper and a gossip, our history erased.”

Biographical impoverishment

When a person doesn’t have a written or verbal record of their lineage – this link to the land through their history – then they lose out on the spiritual and symbolic connections to their past. For Miller, many black South Africans still have some connection to the land and many can trace back to their ancestral homes and lineages. However, being a descendent of the Khoi is a complete dispossession – mixed race parentage with no history on either side.

“It is defined as umbilical ontology, where coloured women end their days without the knowledge of their lineage in a sort of biographical impoverished existence,” says Miller. “Your life is writ small. If you have the awareness of this loss, then this tends to express itself in learned cultural habits like alcoholism and substance abuse. This is a far way to fall for a culture that’s highly articulate and intelligent. Many of the Khoi were poly linguistic with immense talent, and the removal of their history means that many people of this descent are having to make do with a montage made from the fragments of the past.”

Lost leadership legacy 

For Miller, it is critical that coloured women reclaim who they are so that they can fulfil their leadership potential. The value of this can be seen in the powerful confidence of strong African women leaders – self-possessed and self-confident, they are comfortable within themselves and their histories, not concerned about the criticisms they receive. This, Miller feels, is a gift taken away from coloured women and one that requires that they take a different route to achieve that sense of self-possession and ancestral purpose.

“Coloured women need to acknowledge their pasts and their lineages and traditions, this will give them the stories that they need to dig deeply into their histories and build their cultural traditions,” says Miller. “This can be done by listening to the stories, African storytellers, and realising that your past is a powerful route to confidence and understanding.” 

Miller believes that coloured women are amazing and captivating storytellers. “Somewhere in your psyche is a story,” she says. “We would do this in the past around the fire when the moon was rising, capturing the rhythms of life within the stories. We need to recapture our history by finding the storyteller within, and then reconstructing the damage of our lineage.”

In most cases in the past, these women ended up as marginalised and incarcerated, especially the powerful and beautiful ones. “Avoiding tragedy is difficult. But ultimately, coloured women now sit at the cusp of change, where they can leave behind the strictures of European lineages and stories, and find their own within the fractured histories that still exist. And, in finding these, find the centre of themselves.” 

  • Tamsin Oxford is a freelance writer.
  • This article first appeared in Curiositya research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office.
  • Read more in the 13th issue, themed: #Gender. We feature research across disciplines that relates to gender, feminism, masculinity, sex, sexual identity and sexual health.

Monetising Pride

- Andile Ndlovu

Responsibility and representation: Where does the buck stop for brands and business sales targeting the LGBTQIA+ community?

Lego Pride | Curiosity 13: #Gender ©

October was Pride Month in SA and, as has become the norm, brands and establishments went out of their way to lure buyers and to cash-in on the festivities. Despite the absence of a Pride parade for the second year running due to pandemic restrictions, businesses still launched pop-up events welcoming queer patrons. In Johannesburg, particularly, establishments including Liquid Blue in Melville, the Shakers Bar in Maboneng, and Boulevard Lifestyle Lounge in Midrand were sites for much revelry.

However, subsequent conversations swiftly switched to the lack of or the need for increased safety around these spaces. Criminals have been targeting unsuspecting queer revellers outside these establishments for their valuables. Indeed, a voice clip purported to be between two such criminals trading secrets on how to rob queer revellers of their smartphones in and around Durban, was circulated on social media in an effort to encourage more vigilance. Questions have rightly been asked as to whether businesses truly care or simply see this community as a market ripe for the picking.

Of the myriad of stereotypes about the LGBTQIA+ community in this country, one that has snowballed in recent years pertains to the spending power of queer people. 

The myth of the pink purse 

The concept of the ‘pink economy’ or ‘pink money’, which describes the purchasing power of the LGBTQIA+ community, has grown significantly in recent years as acceptance (slowly) grows across societies. The upshot is twofold: firstly, there’s an increasingly visible and powerful yet relatively untapped market for brands to target, but there is also the peddling of a perception that queer people are gaudy high-earners with vast disposable income in a country where the majority of the population cannot make ends meet. 

A 2019 survey measuring the attitudes of non-LGBTQIA+ Americans to exposure of LGBTQIA+ people and images in the media by Procter & Gamble and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation found that companies benefit from including LGBTQIA+ people in advertisements, with the vast majority of non-LGBTQIA+ consumers looking favourably upon companies that do so. 

Brands in the pink 

Hence the exploitation of this audience by brands – with some embarrassing or harmful effects. From former US President Donald Trump’s grossly queerphobic administration selling “Make America Great Again” hats printed in Pride colours, toymaker LEGO’s Everyone is Awesome campaign in which it produced an LGBTQIA+ LEGO set to celebrate diversity, to local jeweller Galaxy & Co. launching a limited-edition tote bag to support the Triangle Project (a Cape Town-based organisation that challenges homophobia, transphobia and intersexphobia, while appreciating sexual, gender and bodily diversity), and even The Body Shop urging its shoppers to sign a petition supporting the Equality Act in the US – there have been some hits and misses.

The commercialisation of Pride Month, opportunistic or otherwise, is no longer the objective of just a handful of brands. There is a sense that it is not only a way of realising a sales boom, but also earning a positive brand image, thereby increasing brand loyalty. Research shows that consumers are likelier to support brands that they perceive to be in their corner.

The Pride Flag meaning | Curiosity 13: #Gender ©

Whose pride is it anyway?

According to Dr Katlego Disemelo, Associate Lecturer in Media Studies at Wits, whose Master’s dissertation titled Black Men as Pink Consumers? A Critical Reading of Race, Sexuality and the Construction of the Pink Economy in South African Queer Consumer Media, and whose doctoral research was on drag queen pageantry and performances of gender in Johannesburg, it is almost impossible to “examine or discuss any brand in terms of authenticity” in this context

“A more salient aspect to this discussion is a critical awareness of the fact that the very notion of a ‘pink economy’, which was pioneered in the Global North in the early 90s, is much more of a marketing ideal than a tangible, sociological, and/or economic phenomenon,” says Disemelo.

“Arguing from a specifically contextual point of view, South Africa’s economy and socioeconomic structures are far too fragmented and fluctuating to accommodate a ‘neat’ application of this Western term in the South African context.” 

In a country like SA where the marginalisation of women and queer people persists, there remains a need for brands and agencies to take more responsibility for raising awareness around equal rights, and for changing societal misperceptions about sexual minorities by committing to purposeful marketing, instead of just cashing in on the queer. Consumers are exceedingly perceptive (not to mention diverse in how they identify) and will take their monies elsewhere when they sense that they are being exploited.

“The branding and commoditisation of various Pride marches, events, and social movements remains problematic and exclusionary,” adds Disemelo. “The transnational branding of ‘Pride’ is inevitably connected to the erasure and underrepresentation of black and other queer communities of colour. This then begs the analytical question: Whose pride are we speaking about? Who is represented and who gets to shout at the tops of their voices (or buy branded commodities) in the name of ‘Pride’?”

  • Andile Ndlovu is a freelance writer.
  • This article first appeared in Curiositya research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office.
  • Read more in the 13th issue, themed: #Gender. We feature research across disciplines that relates to gender, feminism, masculinity, sex, sexual identity and sexual health.

Older people do bonk

- Beth Amato

The notion that people older than 50 neither desire nor engage in sexual intercourse is a misnomer that demands further research, particularly in Africa.

Lesbian couple and love | Curiosity 13: #Gender ©

Many of us express a strong aversion to imagining our parents having sex. It’s an awkward thought that must be dismissed as quickly as possible. Why do we feel so uncomfortable thinking about grannies and grandpas enjoying some time beneath the sheets? We express disbelief that men over 50, for example, can have erections or that women past reproductive age are erotic beings, beyond fetishising them as predatory ‘cougars’.

This discomfort has deep-seated roots, with implications for gender and sexual diversity and more importantly for public health.

Sexual silence 

Catherine Burns, Associate Professor of Medical History and Ethnography at Wits University, explains that gender and sexuality theory on ageing populations is sparse – globally, and particularly in southern Africa. This dearth reflects the ignorance and taboos around sexuality in older people.

“Sylvia Tamale [African feminist, scholar and lawyer] was one of the first theorists to expand our notion of what sexuality means in this region, across age categories and ethnicities, drawing especially from the Global South,” says Burns.

In Burns’ own historical work, Sex Lessons from the Past, she reveals that there were many ways in which people expressed themselves sexually that were appreciated and valued. Fertility and childbearing were not the only ways sex was socially acceptable. Burns points out that Tamale’s recent research also shows that communities across Africa contain ‘multiple sexualities’, and that this is key to carrying out meaningful research on gender and sexuality today.

“We must see beauty across a life spectrum. Ageism sees older people as undesirable. Mostly, we must transcend our notions of what it means to be a sexual being, otherwise we could fall into the trap of binary and split thinking,” she adds. 

Much of the research around sexuality in SA has focused on younger people. A lot of this research focuses on sexual and reproductive health, and the risks associated with sex, including the transmission of HIV/Aids. 

Dangerous liaisons

However, studies emanating from a rural community in Mpumalanga show that people older than 50 were contracting as well as transmitting HIV, were not using protective measures like condoms, and had multiple partners. But preventative HIV and Aids messaging was either absent or inappropriate for an older group.

Professor Kathleen Kahn and Dr Chodziwadziwa Kabudula, in the South African Medical Research Council/Wits Rural Public Health and Health Transitions Research Unit (Agincourt) at the Wits Rural Campus were part of the team that conducted the research into HIV/Aids among older people. Their findings suggest that prevention initiatives tailored to the needs of older adults are urgently needed to reduce HIV risk.

“At first we thought that older people had lived with HIV for a long time, but we soon discovered that they were contracting it later in life. This surprised us as there was a dearth of evidence on HIV acquisition and transmission in older people. Our study is one of the first to delve into these matters,” says Kabudula.

Rewriting the geriatric sex script 

In 2010, a cohort of 1 360 adults over 40 were tested for HIV. Five years later, 33 people who tested negative in 2010, tested positive in 2015. The rate for women was double that of men.

“Essentially we have to go back to the drawing board in terms of the prevention messages and campaigns we have. We can’t just transplant the messaging we have for younger people,” notes Kahn.

Kahn says that older people acquiring HIV and Aids in rural communities has consequences for the caregiving of younger and other older people. Younger people often leave the rural areas in search of work, and older women in particular step into primary caregiving roles. 

“It’s a matter of priority to ensure that we don’t ignore the older age groups. We have found that older people are more likely to test at home with self-testing kits than at clinics. This is something that could be incorporated into awareness campaigns and interventions for older people,” she says.

Burns notes that older people have been excluded from a lot of clinical research, and this is why the study at the Wits Rural Campus is so important.

In her book Researching and theorizing sexualities, Tamale says that we cannot make homogenised assumptions about African sexualities. Indeed, the idea that older people can’t have sex is among other common and restrictive stereotypes with negative consequences, including misconceptions such as:

  • Human beings engage in sex for reproductive purposes only,
  • He is a man and therefore desires only female sexual partners,
  • She wears a religious veil and is therefore sexually submissive, and
  • She is menopausal and is therefore asexual.

Older people’s sexual dreams and fears should be less shrouded in shame, mirth and silence. Leave ageism behind with all the other ‘isms’. 

Parenting in the city

- Leanne Rencke

Building cities for women will make them more inclusive for all groups.

Mapping Motherhood © GCRO | Curiosity 13: #Gender ©

A local Facebook group that boasts over 390 000 active members, empowers (mostly) women by encouraging them to share the deals that they encounter while shopping, so that everyone can benefit by taking advantage of the bargains and setting up their own shopping stockpile at home. 

Interestingly, a post to the group – which doesn’t feature a savings deal – still hit the mark with a lot of women: an announcement that one of the members had discovered a shopping centre’s ‘Baby Care Lounge’. This is a private space where moms can breast or bottle feed, it provides access to complementary nappies and other care items, as well as bottle warmers, a microwave and kettle.

If this doesn’t sound like a big deal, consider that some commentators on this post indicated that they would be willing to travel far from their communities to access this kind of service while shopping with children – especially during the festive season.

This type of data also resonates with Senior Researcher, Dr Alexandra Parker, of the Gauteng-City Region Observatory

Parker is mapping the spatial footprint of mothers and fathers in Gauteng. It is a fascinating study because it literally tracks how people move across the City, and then interrogates their reasons for doing so.

This study and its predecessor Mothers in the City (2017), were inspired by a research colleague’s experience, a new mother who was already interested in how the activities of motherhood intersect with the urban environment. 

“She was inspired by her own life,” Parker explains, “describing how one day her child was sick at home, so she couldn't work at home, and she couldn't work in the office, so she found herself working in her car. I think she thought, well, if I’m in a relatively privileged position, how are other mothers dealing with the activities of parenthood in the urban environment?” 

The project developed into something all-consuming, with research based on interviews with 25 mothers across Johannesburg, looking at different demographics, locations and personal circumstances, finances and employment.

With this data, the researchers mapped the spatial footprint of mothers, revealing that some women were travelling huge distances across the City to access their needs, while others were keeping a very small footprint. 

“We found that the values that mothers had about what they wanted for their lives and what they wanted for their children’s lives were really the driving force behind the decisions that they were making,” says Parker.

For example, if education is a priority, mothers are prepared to travel further to access it, or make other kinds of arrangements, or compromise where necessary, to fill that desire.

A city’s gender dynamics 

This study has led to a follow-up, which Parker is completing as a series of journal articles, in partnership with Professor Margo Rubin, Senior Researcher at the South African Research Chair in Spatial Analysis and City Planning at Wits. 

“We wanted to really try to understand more about how parents saw themselves and what was important to them. And then, how did that filter through into the decisions that they made and how they juggled the constraints of both the urban environment and the challenges of parenting,” says Parker. “We also wanted to try and understand a little bit more about the differences between mothers and fathers.” 

The team looked at five neighbourhoods across Gauteng, specifically selected to obtain a sense of their spatial dynamics, their location in terms of proximity to amenities, economic opportunities and transport, as well as variances in population groups and economic conditions. 

Ten to 12 parent groups were interviewed to participate in the study in Denver, Mamelodi, Edenvale, Lenasia and Bertrams. The study started with focus groups and conversations about the challenges of parenting and living in Gauteng. From there, eight to 10 people were selected in each area and given a smartphone featuring an app that could track their mobility patterns for two weeks. An informal support group, via WhatsApp, was set up. 

People were encouraged to share their reflections and experiences of parenting and moving around the City through the groups, and participated by sending photos, videos and voice notes. After two weeks, the research was concluded with an in-depth interview.

“We were expecting to find gender dynamics, but we were quite surprised at how deeply entrenched some of the heteronormative gender roles were,” says Parker. “There were definitely both mothers and fathers who were struggling within the confines of the gender constructs that were emerging in these families and households, and it cut both ways.” 

The daily grind cuts both ways 

For instance, because Lenasia is quite far from the Johannesburg CBD and other economic centres, more of the fathers were doing the travelling and mothers were less likely to have access to a car or a driver's licence. Fathers might take the kids to school or do a little bit of the shopping. 

In the Denver informal settlement, some of the fathers were living on their own. The research team found that the expectations around gender roles put them at quite a disadvantage.

“For example, one father had two wives and families in KwaZulu-Natal, and when he lost his job, his wives told him that they weren't interested in him coming home unless he was bringing money. He was deeply hurt by the fact that his only role was the money he brought to the family,” says Parker. 

Internationally, much attention is being placed on making cities more inclusive. Parker believes that the more we target vulnerable groups in our approach to designing and building cities, the more inclusive the City will become.

“It is certainly not about making urban environments that only work for women,” she says. “It is the fact that when we think about designing for women it often means that we are being more inclusive.”

A classic scenario shows that a woman with a pram has the same sort of mobility and access needs when compared to a person in a wheelchair. 

“If we can make cities more inclusive for women, then they will be inclusive for many other groups as well, and they will be better cities.”

  • Find more of Parker’s work on the Gauteng City-Region Observatory website at, including the 2017 study: Spatial footprints of mothers in Johannesburg.
  • Leanne Rencke is a freelance writer.
  • This article first appeared in Curiositya research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office.
  • Read more in the 13th issue, themed: #Gender. We feature research across disciplines that relates to gender, feminism, masculinity, sex, sexual identity and sexual health.

A woman’s work is never done

- Charlotte Matthews

The work that women do in households is largely overlooked, yet it is critical for a well-functioning society.

Women and work | Curiosity 13: #Gender ©

While the issue of disparities in earnings between men and women is attracting considerable academic research and media attention, a quieter injustice is going largely unnoticed. That injustice is the amount of essential work in the economy that women are doing for no payment whatsoever. 

In 2000 and again in 2010, Stats SA conducted a survey on time use to see how different South Africans spend their time. The 2010 study found that women spent 2.2 times more time on average than men on household maintenance activities (housework, shopping) that are not valued in the System of National Accounts for Gross Domestic Product (GDP) purposes (non-SNA work). The amount of time dedicated to this activity was even higher for married women. In caring for other members of the family, which is another non-SNA activity, women spent more than three times as much time as men. 

Various studies have highlighted the gender disparity in sharing home responsibilities during the Covid-19 lockdowns.

“This work is largely overlooked and undervalued, certainly in mainstream economic theory and policy, and yet it is absolutely vital to the reproduction of labour for the paid economy and to the survival of any well-functioning society,” says Professor Daniela Casale of the School of Economics and Finance.

Malerato Mosiane, Chief Director of Labour Statistics at Stats SA, says that the organisation was planning to conduct this survey every four years, starting from 2016, but this did not happen due to budgetary constraints. Currently, there are no plans to repeat it. However, the UN and ILO are investigating alternative ways to get time-use statistics more cost-effectively.

Pricing the priceless 

Professor Imraan Valodia, Dean of the Faculty of Commerce, Law and Management, says that the approach of mainstream economics is only to value something which has a price. If there is no trade in that item – such as home care – it will not be included in measures like GDP. 

He believes that it is important to account for this sector because if no value is put on it, it will continue to be ignored in policy decision-making. At present, if National Treasury has money to spend, it is more likely to invest it in the physical or infrastructure sector, rather than the social or unpaid labour sector. As a result, gender bias in the economy is reinforced. 

Unfortunately, Stats SA’s time-use surveys had no discernible effect on government policy. This underscores the importance of promoting gender economics as a field of study. As a result, the Faculty is planning to launch a postgraduate programme that will focus on the economics of gender. 

“Firstly, by studying the economics of gender, it creates more transparency in the economy,” says Valodia. “Looking at time use forces us to think about the economy in a more complete way. Secondly, placing this burden of unpaid work on women is a huge cost on the economy and is not the most efficient allocation of resources.” 

Towards a female basic income grant 

There are various ways to value this work. For example, by using median earnings in an economy or the cost of employing someone to do it. In all these calculations there would be gender bias as well, since women generally earn less than men. Broadly, it is estimated that the value of this unpaid work could add 25-50% to current estimates of GDP. 

Casale says that overlooking this feature of the economy could have negative outcomes. For example, it could stymie attempts to bring more women into employment because of the frequent argument of ‘who will look after the kids?’. Cuts in social spending, particularly on health, education and childcare support, would increase the burden on women. 

“As long as women remain the primary caregivers in society, inequalities in employment, pay and access to resources will persist,” she says.

Professor Uma Kollamparambil, Head of the School of Economics and Finance, says: “Black female-headed households are among the poorest in SA. This underscores the need for a means-tested female basic income grant that would account for the unpaid care work that a woman undertakes in her household. There is evidence that state transfers to a female member benefit the household more than similar transfers to a male member.”

A means-tested female basic income grant would address multiple issues, including mitigating the growing inequality in the subjective wellbeing of women in SA, helping to combat gender-based violence as well as contributing in the long run to address issues such as teenage pregnancy.

“Establishing this through empirical evidence, however, calls for investment in data collection by Stats SA,” concludes Kollamparambil.

More on this research

  • Charlotte Matthews is a freelance writer.
  • This article first appeared in Curiositya research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office.
  • Read more in the 13th issue, themed: #Gender. We feature research across disciplines that relates to gender, feminism, masculinity, sex, sexual identity and sexual health.

Levelling the playing fields

- Ufrieda Ho

The competitive sporting world is playing catch-up with the realities of gender in modern society.

Women in sport | Curiosity 13: #Gender ©

When the German gymnastics team arrived at the Tokyo Olympics with arms and legs covered in unitards, it earned more attention than the team’s performance. It was the same when the Norwegian women’s beach volleyball team ditched their bikini bottoms for fitted shorts at the Euro 2021 Games and got fined for ‘improper clothing’.

The defiance of the two teams were statements; a triumph of female athletes pushing back on the world’s biggest sports stages, protesting, and importantly, finding support beyond the sporting world to drive home the fight for gender parity, equal rights, women’s freedom of choice over their bodies and the long-overdue respect and recognition of athletic professionalism for women in sports.

“Each step forward is a triumph in raising awareness, and in keeping gender issues a priority,” says Dr Corlia Brandt, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Physiotherapy. But, she says, these are also moments to reflect on just how much work society as a whole still needs to undertake. One of the biggest gaps is found in research data on women in sports, and research that comes out of SA in particular. 

Starting from scratch

“We really have been starting from scratch. There are no statistics to go on that give you a base from which to start. What is available is based on men’s profiles even though of course, women athletes have such different needs,” Brandt says. 

A key area of focus that is overlooked, for example, is the changes in the pelvic area after childbirth. The dearth of research hinders the return of women athletes to professional sport after having a child.

Training and assistance to return to peak performance is not specific or targeted and this can affect women’s longevity in competitive sports. Add to this the limited support and understanding of shifting pressures for young mothers who are sometimes forced to hold down fulltime jobs because professional careers in sports are not a reality for many female athletes.

Brandt also focuses on inclusivity in sports, including support and the rights of transgender athletes to compete fairly. This extends to understanding the need for medical and psychological support and the reality that transgender people remain easy targets for discrimination and victimisation.

Moving goal posts

“Sporting codes and rules are changed regularly, but if there isn’t research, new data and evidence emerging, we won’t be able to push as hard or fast to bring about transformation,” she says. For example, the International Olympics Committee admitted this year that its guidelines for transgender athletes are ‘not fit for purpose’ and are only expected to be released in early 2022 – three years behind schedule.

It means ensuring that the voices of those on the margins are heard, Brandt says. It is essential for visibility and representivity.

Jon Patricios, Professor of Sport and Exercise Medicine, agrees that there is a need for more diverse voices in the room, more platforms for open, focused discussions, and for more robust science. 

Patricios says that it is clear that society’s agenda must move towards greater inclusion and tolerance while promoting diversity. At the same time, competitive sport finds itself at odds with this because it is binary by design. Sport separates ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ and celebrates the exceptional that stands above the average person, he says.

“Sports participation is different because it’s about rules and regulations. Either you qualify or you don’t; either you compete in the men’s or the women’s divisions; either you are a junior, senior or a veteran; either you’re a heavyweight fighter or a featherweight fighter, and so on,” he says.

About fairness and safety

Aligning sport with societal shifts must therefore take a nuanced but directed approach. It must also still fulfil competitive fairness and safety requirements, especially in collision sports.

In rugby for instance, the World Rugby Federation released transgender guidelines to disallow transgender women to play in women’s rugby. Transgender men are allowed to play men’s rugby ‘on confirmation of physical ability’. Transgender men may not compete in women’s rugby ‘after the process of sex reassignment (that includes testosterone supplementation) has begun’, the current rules state. 

Guidelines need to evolve in response to whether they are successful and also where they fail. “Sports’ regulatory bodies are making decisions on transgender athletes without adequate scientific support,” says Patricios.

“Managing fairness in a competitive sporting environment is different from how it applies in a general societal context.”


Women’s cricket research

The Wits Cricket Research Hub for Science, Medicine and Rehabilitation launched in October 2021 with a division looking only at women’s cricket.

It is a huge step forward to ensure that evidence and research become the backbone of professionalising the women’s divisions and to give female players equal status. Researcher and physiotherapist Jolandi Jacobs, who heads the Division, says for many young women having a career in sport was a limited choice even just a decade or so ago.

“Many of us had to choose careers that would mean you could support yourself financially instead,” she says, having played professional cricket throughout her teens. 

Jacobs believes that the professionalism of female sport is changing rapidly with the push for research laying new foundations. Until now, the data and evidence have been borrowed from research on male players, but she says that there are obvious requirements to understand female cricket players’ different needs and therefore strengths and limits for peak performance, injury prevention and rehabilitation. 

“Fast bowling is one of the most complex movements in sport because you run, jump, twist, land and deliver the ball. The action causes fast bowlers to be particularly injury-prone, but the bowling action is different for male and female cricket players,” says Jacobs.

Male players have a more linear approach to bowling where everything lines up and they use momentum to deliver the bowling action. Females have a more rotational approach with less linear momentum. 

“So, male fast bowlers tend to have more lower back injuries and female fast bowlers tend to have more shoulder injuries,” she says. 

The women’s division of the Research Hub is beating a path for the next generation of female cricket players. 

“We want to be able to conduct research that also looks at adolescent girls and to understand their pathways through sports, whether or not they become elite athletes – it’s understanding not just injury prevention, but the psychological aspects of the game and pressures on athletes who are also thinking about salaries, families and work-life balance,” she concludes.

Read more about the Wits Cricket Research Hub: 

  • Ufrieda Ho is a freelance writer.
  • This article first appeared in Curiositya research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office.
  • Read more in the 13th issue, themed: #Gender. We feature research across disciplines that relates to gender, feminism, masculinity, sex, sexual identity and sexual health.

Finding Nemo’s sexual identity

- Shivan Parusnath

As a species, we are only starting to scratch the surface of our understanding of gender, sex, and identity.

Finding Nemo | Curiosity 13: #Gender ©

Reversing stereotypical gender roles

The term “fathering instinct” does not have quite the same ring as “mothering instinct” because of our antiquated notion of women as primary caregivers. In contemporary human society, these stereotypical gender roles are falling away. After the birth of a child (and perhaps with the exception of breastfeeding) there is no reason that a father cannot be the primary carer.

The African Jacana – a bird well known for its large feet that allow it to walk on lily pads and live a waterborne life, epitomises a successful gender role-reversal. “Female African Jacanas are 60% larger than males and have a harem of up to five different males that they mate with each season,” explains Wits ornithologist Dr Chevonne Reynolds from the School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences (APES).

“The males then go on to incubate the eggs and care for the chicks after hatching, while the female moves on to mate with the next male in her harem. The males of the species even have special adaptations to their wings that allow them to carry their chicks around with them.”

This strategy of the philandering female and the hard-working father teaches us that the labels and the roles that we assign to males and females may be just that – labels. Evolution simply favours what works. 

The real reason why Nemo’s dad was so desperate to find him 

While humans, the self-proclaimed highest form of intelligence on planet Earth, struggle to accept the notion of gender fluidity, many animals such as frogs and fish have been successfully doing so for ages, and without any notable transphobia to boot.

Clownfish, the popular aquarium fish, and star of the Pixar Studios movie “Finding Nemo”, engage when required, in a process called sequential hermaphroditism. The social structure of a group of Clownfish consists of a large dominant female and a smaller, dominant male. The remainder of the group is made up of small, sexually immature males (in fact, all clownfish are born male). If the dominant female dies, the dominant male will change sex and take her place at the top of the pack. 

This “sex change” is a result of hormonal changes that cause the testes to dissolve and ovaries to form. The new female leader of the group will then seek out another male to become her partner. This unique sexual system may have evolved because of the close relationship that clownfish have with sea anemones – they tend to not venture far from home, and so a male becoming a female may be a safer strategy than roaming for a new mate. This may have been Nemo’s dad’s real inspiration to find his son – so “he” could become a “she” and mate with Nemo. 

Virgin birth

Finding a sexual partner can be challenging. At least, we, as humans have dating apps to help us when times get tough. But what do animals do if they don’t come across a sexual partner within their lifetime? 

Since passing on genes to the next generation is perhaps the central driving force of most lifeforms – many species have evolved a creative way to ensure that their seed is spread. Females of certain species of insects, reptiles and fish amongst other animals are capable of reproducing parthenogenically – essentially fertilising their own eggs in order to create offspring.

“Unlike mammals, whose embryos start off as female (the default sex), the embryos of some reptiles and birds start off as males by default,” explains Wits herpetologist Professor Graham Alexander from the School of APES. “In the case of Komodo Dragons, there have been females in zoos that have never met a male of their species but have laid eggs that resulted in normal healthy babies.” 

Interestingly, the babies are not exactly clones since their genetic make-up is the results of some chromosomal remixing – instead of half from a mom and half from a dad as in typical sexual reproduction. And since the babies produced this way are male – it would allow a single female Komodo Dragon to reproduce with her offspring and populate an island all by herself.

‘Sneaky Fuckers’ 

Dominance is a key factor in the rights to mate in the animal kingdom. “Superior” males may be those that are larger, more colourful, or more prominently ornamented. But it does not always mean that they possess superior genes – the outward appearance may simply be due to environmental factors during development such as better access to food as a juvenile. 

But if luck is not on the side of smaller males, there are alternative mating strategies. Subordinate males of many species take on the appearance of a female, allowing them to get closer to females while avoiding the usual conflict with the alpha male. 

“These sneaky fuckers get in with the females and do their business without the dominant males even noticing,” explains Alexander. The term “sneaky fuckers” was actually the preferred scientific lexicon for this strategy for a period, believed to be coined by renowned British biologist Tim Clutton-Brock. Today though, they are referred to using the more politically correct term ‘sneaker males’. 

“An example of this from the insect world are horned dung beetles, where the males with large horns guard the tunnel of a female beetle with which they are reproducing,” says Wits entomologist Professor Marcus Byrne from the School of APES. “While no other males can get close to the female without getting into a fight, the less ornamented, ‘sneaker males’ dig a side tunnel to the female, where they do not appear to pose a threat to the guarding male. They then surreptitiously mate with the female while the ‘superior’ male is guarding the front door.”

  • Shivan Parusnath is Senior Communications Officer for Wits University.
  • This article first appeared in Curiositya research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office.
  • Read more in the 13th issue, themed: #Gender. We feature research across disciplines that relates to gender, feminism, masculinity, sex, sexual identity and sexual health.

The knife between her thighs

- Shaun Smillie

Female Genital Mutilation - South African researchers and medical practitioners are increasingly seeing it in its most extreme forms.

Warning: content might be potentially disturbing

Female Genital Mutilation | Curiosity 13: #Gender ©

Female genital mutilation is the surgical removal of a girl’s external genitalia for religious or cultural reasons to prevent intercourse and to enhance status. This extreme form of gender violence is increasing in South Africa.

Dr Marise Subrayan could do nothing to save the newborn baby at the Rahima Moosa Mother and Child Hospital in Coronationville, Johannesburg. The baby she was helping to deliver had become trapped in vaginal scar tissue and suffocated to death. The mother’s family had refused a caesarean section, citing religious reasons. 

“And it is not just babies, I have had a woman die on the table,” says Subrayan. That woman bled to death.

The killer that day is under-researched and hides behind religious dogma. It is Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and South African researchers and medical practitioners are increasingly seeing it in its most extreme forms.

Subrayan saw FGM victims during her residency at the Hospital, and her experiences prompted her to examine this form of abuse in a Master of Medicine dissertation through the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Wits in 2019.

“What was strange is that I found that there was no research on Female Genital Mutilation in South Africa,” says Subrayan. 

A silent violence 

She focused her research on the doctors who were coming across FGM, through exploring their knowledge, awareness and attitudes towards this extreme form of gender violence. What came out in Subrayan’s study was that the majority of those who answered the anonymous questionnaire had come across FGM and had difficulty in dealing with patients who had experienced the trauma.

Subrayan discovered that South African doctors are seeing some of the worst forms of FGM. It is being performed in some north-east African migrant communities.

“What we are seeing is Type 3 Female Genital Mutilation or infibulation. This is where they don't just cut out areas of the clitoris or the vaginal lips, they also sew it shut,” says Subrayan. This is to prevent intercourse, and it begins when the girl is still a young child. 

“Sometimes they don’t even have a memory of this event,” says Subrayan. Bones are sometimes broken during the ritual. Infibulation causes other complications such as infection and severe pain. “Sometimes even wearing underwear is extremely painful for them.” There is also severe psychological trauma.

Status by scalpel

FGM persists across Africa because of the social status it affords women, explains Professor Ngianga-Bakwin Kandala from the Wits School of Public Health

“FGM – a century-long tradition – is a social norm, meaning that in societies where cutting is the norm, being cut gives women social status and more social support among women and the community. In these societies, girls have more and better marriage opportunities and thus a better chance of bearing children,” he explains.

“Furthermore, for young girls, it is usually undertaken as a cultural or a religious practice, a coming-of-age ritual, or one that sanctifies a girl’s purity or makes her more attractive to a potential husband – hence the persistence of the practice from generation to generation.”

Saving sexuality 

Across the globe, countries are seeing a rise in reported FGM incidents because of migration and the practices of certain migrant communities.

In some countries, like the UK and the USA, guidelines have been developed to assist medical personnel when they are presented with a FGM patient. These guidelines include notifying the police. 

Subrayan says no such guidelines exist in SA, and medical personnel have to rely on other guidelines. 

Dr Loveth Obiora, who holds a Hillel Friedland Postdoctoral Fellowship in the Department of Physiotherapy at Wits, has studied FGM, but in other African countries. Like Subrayan, Obiora found that little research has been conducted on FGM in SA, despite increasing reports of women arriving in South African hospitals showing signs of genital mutilation.

“The World Health Organization does not recognise South Africa as being a location where female genital mutilation is undertaken,” says Obiora. But, unlike SA, many other African countries have introduced programmes and measures to prevent FGM.

“In countries like Nigeria and Kenya, these programmes have been successful and have resulted in declines in incidences of FGM. The success of these programmes can be attributed to the involvement of traditional and community leaders, because the programmes work towards educating communities and moving them away from rituals that involve genital mutilation,” adds Obiora.

SA is far behind the rest of Africa in addressing FMG. But before preventative programmes can be put in place, Obiora and Subrayan agree that FMG must be recognised as a growing problem in the country and that more research is needed to fully understand the extent of the problem. 

  • Shaun Smillie is a freelance writer.
  • This article first appeared in Curiositya research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office.
  • Read more in the 13th issue, themed: #Gender. We feature research across disciplines that relates to gender, feminism, masculinity, sex, sexual identity and sexual health.

The politics of a woman’s body

- Ufrieda Ho

The backsliding of women’s rights happening right now should be the clarion call that gender rights are still everybody’s business.

Afghanistan seems a million miles away, so does Texas in the USA. But in early spring, events in those two places struck a chilling chord for women everywhere. It was a stark reminder of just how quickly the backsliding of rights happens in a world where women’s bodies remain fair game.

The return of the Taliban to rule comes with the terror of its track record against women. Its interpretation of Sharia law has included keeping girls from attending school, prohibiting women from being in public without a male guardian, banning nail polish and demanding the public floggings for women considered to have transgressed certain laws.

In Texas this September the state passed into law limits to abortion care after six weeks of pregnancy, when many women are not even aware that they may be pregnant. It extended this with a diabolical so-called ‘bounty clause’. It allows citizens to sue those who assist in any way in the provision of an abortion and rewards them by covering their legal costs and offering a $10 000 ‘incentive’.

These are just two examples that reflect how it has always been a situation of two steps forward and one step back when it comes to women’s bodies as the sites upon which others’ decisions are played out.

Lenore Manderson, a medical anthropologist and Distinguished Professor in the School of Public Health, highlights the contradictions that women face on an everyday basis.

Theory vs practice

“There’s tension that is played out on women's bodies and a consistent tension of women having to try to claim a right for an equal voice,” she says.

For example, SA has a liberal abortion policy compared to other African countries, yet it is not easy for women to access abortions, or even contraception. “In practice, many young, unmarried women don’t feel that they have the authority to ask for contraceptives at a public clinic, and feel judged when seeking an abortion,” Manderson says.

“Women don't have anything like a strong voice in any arena. And that includes in the corporate world, the political world, and educational institutions. The irony is that women in South Africa aren't invisible as they are in some societies, but they are nevertheless consistently pushed to the side.”

There is rhetoric, and paradoxes, that mean patriarchy impacts on women’s lives not just as systemic and structural fixtures in society. There are also hundreds of micro-aggressions directed at women, which are sometimes not immediately recognisable, and sometimes not even exacted by men, which keep women on the back foot.

For example, it is often female healthcare workers who choose ‘cruelty over caring’ for their women patients and clients. It could be shaming a teenager for having sex before marriage or judging a sex worker for asking for lubricants or berating a mother whose child’s illness has not been managed in a way regarded as appropriate. Such judgemental attitudes impact negatively on women’s healthcare choices, their access to information and their health-seeking behaviours.

Hopes and Dreams that Sound Like Yours: Stories of Queer Activism in Sub-Saharan Africa. © Taboom Media & GALA Queer Archive, 2021. Illustration by Lamb of Lamila

Hopes and Dreams that Sound Like Yours: Stories of Queer Activism in Sub-Saharan Africa. © Taboom Media & GALA Queer Archive, 2021. Illustration by Lamb of Lamila

Paying lip service

Added to this are the pressures that women experience of being poorly paid, working in often appalling conditions with few prospects of advancement or improvement, and juggling work with their own personal burdens. All of this is framed within a society that fails women by only paying lip service to being tough on gender-based violence; that does not rectify the skewered burden of household division of labour; or that allows the imbalance of child-rearing responsibilities still to be placed squarely on women’s shoulders.

“Women – and LGBTQIA+ people – are subject to a range of put-downs, inequalities and exclusions that need to be challenged in order to protect people’s rights,” says Manderson.

One powerful tool to challenge these inequalities lies with artists. As creatives, they smash boxes and use the abstract as deliberate power. 

Creative engagement

The Wits Art Museum (WAM) will dedicate its 10-year anniversary in 2022 to women artists’ solo exhibitions. The focus on women artists is a statement about using art to start conversations, to go to tension points and to touch raw nerves.

Julia Charlton, Senior Curator at the Museum, says: “There are artists who are very consciously using their identities, their bodies and their modes to engage specifically around issues [like the political and the personal of women’s bodies]. But there’s a kind of space in the exhibition platform between what the artists think they're doing and why and how they’re doing their art; and what the audience sees in the end. It creates a conversation and engagement that is open to interpretation.”

One reaction could be to understand the bodily risk to Zanele Muholi in making photographs of herself and queer and transgender people in her series Faces and Phases. Another could be engaging with Penny Siopis’s Pinky Pinky series to recognise the dread of being a teenage girl in a world that regulates women’s bodies; that uses and rapes women’s bodies and dismisses the trauma. It may be to appreciate bead work made by unknown female master bead workers, but to ask the critical questions about anonymity, agency and the lack of access for many women crafters and artists. 

Fiona Rankin-Smith, Special Projects Curator, who will curate the WAM’s exhibitions with Kutlwano Mokgojwa, the African Art Collections Curator, says that in tallying up the gender split for solo exhibitions over the years, it did come as something of a reckoning that male artists have dominated.

“It wasn’t unexpected because the reality is that we come from a very male-dominated space, historically,” she says. 

Self-care and self-love

For Dr Danai Mupotsa, a Senior Lecturer in African Literature with research interests that include feminist and queer theory, being deliberate is personal accountability, authority, presence, clarity of purpose and also healing. It is what is appropriate in a “hyper-capitalist, time-invasive world that has constructed secularism to be anti-black, anti-female, that limits people’s routes to seek justice and separates thinking from feeling,” she says.

These entrenched societal constructs allow for boundaries to be crossed more easily, to cause trauma, but also to escape consequence.

“Often, we experience a feminist consciousness when our boundaries come into contact with something that makes us feel a sense of harm, and this animates as consciousness of something wrong in the world. But because girls and women are taught to be polite, to comply, to not make a fuss, you learn the habit of becoming complicit in your boundaries constantly being crossed,” she says. 

Her call is to enlarge the role and prominence of self-care and self-love.

“Freedoms need to be less capitalist – they need to be less use-based and they need to be less violent.”

  • Ufrieda Ho is a freelance writer.
  • This article first appeared in Curiositya research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office.
  • Read more in the 13th issue, themed: #Gender. We feature research across disciplines that relates to gender, feminism, masculinity, sex, sexual identity and sexual health.

Beyond the binary

- Ufrieda Ho

The gender binary has reached its expiry date but it still hasn’t been consigned to society’s dustbin.

While most of the world is moving towards a gender-neutral world, the fall of gender binaries – the idea that only two sexes, namely ‘male’ and ‘female’ exist – is late to the party – mostly because pigeonholes have for the longest time been the more convenient way to order things in society.

But the coming of a more expansive way of thinking about gender is on the horizon. The push is now to create environments and systems that support a gender-diverse world that is adaptive and flexible.

Professor Kevin Behrens, Director of the Steve Biko Centre for Bioethics, says that the traditional beliefs that someone can only ever be male or female is driven by a mix of ignorance, conservatism and rigid ideologies and belief systems. It is also much easier to simply sweep any conception that falls out of the gender binary mould under the carpet.

“It feels like the ‘T’ and the ‘I’ in the acronym ‘LGBTQI’ have lagged behind for decades, even though it has in recent years started to blip on broader society’s radar,” says Behrens.

In this well-known acronym, the ‘T’ represents ‘transgender’, while the ‘I’ stands for ‘intersex’ people. While it is a common belief that people are either born as a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl’, Behrens dispels this idea as a myth. 

“It scares people to think that a baby can be something other than male or female, even though the number of babies born with ambiguous sex is a lot more common than people realise – it’s just that it’s something that has been hidden,” he says.

Behrens has over the past four years been giving an ethics-based lecture to third-year medical students. The lecture is designed to sensitise students to gender identity, transgender surgery and therapies, and to help young healthcare professionals ask different questions when considering medical intervention. It also seeks to help healthcare professionals offer different choices and support for parents, when it comes to children born as intersex persons.

Behrens says that medical students are an easy audience to reach. It is broader society that also needs to understand and recognise the damage caused by entrenched gender binaries.

“You can typically present evidence to medical students and they get it. But with broader society, evidence and facts don’t necessarily change ideology. What does help is to try to understand people’s fears and questions, and what lies at the heart of their silence or discomfort,” he says. 

Not a disorder 

Internationally-renowned endocrinologist Professor Roy Shires says that the momentum of change in the demise of the gender binary system means that “we are seeing the tip of the iceberg of transgender people”. 

“It is, of course, not like there’s suddenly more transgender people, but now more people are finding access and personal courage to come forward for the likes of hormone therapies, surgeries and counselling support.”

Shires says that the demand for therapies and services to the transgender community currently outstrips availability in SA. The waiting list for these types of services at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital’s clinic where he works has exploded in recent years but they have been unable to take on more patients. 

Shires believes that people should be aware of the range and fluidity of gender identities, and come to grips with the fact that gender and gender identities are not fixed. 

Many are not cases that need medical intervention – they are not disorders. On the other hand, there are variations of sexual development that the public should know about, because in these cases medical intervention can help improve someone’s quality of life, he says.

For example, there is growing evidence that suggests that particularly with babies born with ambiguous sex, there is no urgency to medically intervene.

“Knowing more means that doctors and parents don’t need to be pressured to make their child fit into a gender box at birth,” he says.

“Underpinning everything is gender identity, and what that person feels is right for them in their head is what is most important. This is what we want to help them achieve, while managing their expectations,” he says.

But it is just as important for society to come to terms with these realities, and be more mindful of transgender and intersex people.

“This should be a moment for a willingness to deepen understanding and to build tolerance and diversity – not for people to retreat to their corners or to feel like they forever have to tread on eggshells around each other,” says Behrens. 

Shires agrees: “We can’t always be in someone else’s shoes, but what we owe to each other is to listen.”

Hopes and Dreams that Sound Like Yours: Stories of Queer Activism in Sub-Saharan Africa. © Taboom Media & GALA Queer Archive, 2021 | Illustrations by Lame Dilotsotlhe and Neil Badenhorst

Hopes and Dreams that Sound Like Yours: Stories of Queer Activism in Sub-Saharan Africa. © Taboom Media & GALA Queer Archive, 2021 | Illustrations by Lame Dilotsotlhe and Neil Badenhorst

Mainstreaming the Ts and Is

These lessons are a personal lived experience for Dudu*, a 30-year old transwoman who started undergoing hormone therapy through the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute’s  (WRHI) Key Populations Programme at the beginning of 2020.

“I came to this late because you don’t know where to go for information or help. But I’m not just thinking about me, I’m thinking of the trans and intersex children and teenagers who are killing themselves because they don’t know what’s going on in their bodies and they have no one to talk to,” she says.

Dudu lives in the Vaal and there are no clinics close to her home where she can access therapy and services. She says that nurses at her local clinic dehumanise her and discriminate against patients like her.

“They will ask why I’m wearing a dress or say ‘why do you want to make yourself a woman?’, and they will do this so that everyone in the clinic can hear and everyone is looking at me,” she says.

For Dudu, a safe space like the WRHI facilities helps, but it can also be isolating. She says: “I want to go to a clinic where I’m with everybody else – not just other transgender people, sex workers and people who use drugs. We need to see transgender people in our courts, at the police station, in the clinics, that is how we start to change society; we can’t hide.”

But mainstreaming transgender and intersex genders goes much deeper than having the public understand them. It is about pushing medical aids to change their policies and funding; encouraging schools to have gender-neutral bathrooms and greater privacy for children; challenging the medical fraternity to adapt to trans children’s needs, and raising questions about policy and the laws that have not kept pace. 

For Shelley*, a Joburg mother of a transgender male who is now 17 years old, high school was especially hard for her child. However, it helped being able to bring trusted friends and family into their family circle, and building parent and children support groups and networks, as well as becoming an activist.

At two-years old, her child, a biological female, simply said no more girls’ clothes; no more pink everything.

“We were fine with that. But it took us years to fully understand what L* was trying to tell us,” she says, stressing the importance of listening and finding ways to let go of expectations or putting things down to ‘it’s a phase’.

Getting rid of the binary code

The South African government has only this spring announced that it will no longer be using a gender marker of male or female in the 13-digit ID numbers (the four numbers after a birthdate). The Department of Home Affairs acknowledged the current system is “binary in nature … which is unfair, exclusionary and unconstitutional”.

Mutondi Mulaudzi, a Lecturer at UNISA and a PhD candidate in the Wits School of Law, is looking into the scope within SA’s legal framework to go ‘beyond the binary’. A change in the binary gender markers of the 13-digit ID is a significant victory that will create momentum, she says. 

However, for Mulaudzi, SA cannot rest at this triumph or think that pieces of legislation while progressive, such as the Alteration of Sex Description Act of 2003, are adequate in a 2021 world. She says that the Act is patchy in the way it is applied in different cases. It has allowed, for example, a transgender woman to be regarded as a man and be incarcerated in a men’s prison.

“The problem is that if we keep things at the level of policy frameworks but don’t pull this through to the law then we will always have weaknesses, including a system that is medicalised rather than based on self-identification,” she says.

“It also means that we never take into account the socioeconomic realities of people who rely on stretched public hospitals that do not easily offer gender-reaffirming surgery and exclude people who identify outside of the binary, but do not wish to undertake gender-reaffirming surgery,” she adds. 

Mulaudzi’s argument is that although legal solutions are not a catch-all fix, clear, strong laws help move all of society in the same direction. This includes unlearning that gender binaries are the norm. This involves asking different questions about what props up the systems and structures in society – like who funds research, who benefits, and who gets left behind. She reminds us that the practise of racialising medical treatment remains an issue and that there were certain mental health conditions ascribed only to women not so long ago. 

“By reviewing the existing legal framework and by investigating alternative ones that are more inclusive of all gender identities, we can develop a human rights framework that protects gender-diverse people and that structures legislation that is inclusive and understanding of the different genders and processes of self-identification,” she says of the journey that still lies ahead to finally consign the gender binary to the bin of obsolescence.

*Identities withheld

  • Ufrieda Ho is a freelance writer.
  • This article first appeared in Curiositya research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office.
  • Read more in the 13th issue, themed: #Gender. We feature research across disciplines that relates to gender, feminism, masculinity, sex, sexual identity and sexual health.

STEM - not all are equal

- Buhle Zuma

Structures need to be put in place at higher education institutions to give women their rightful opportunities.

Illustration of the Wits Great Hall | Curiosity 13: #Gender ©

Structures need to be put in place at higher education institutions to give women their rightful opportunities in the world of science, technology and engineering.

While the number of women pursuing higher education has increased over the years, gender equity in the science, engineering, technology and mathematics fields is far from reality.

At Wits University, female students comprise more than 55% of the student population, with a significant number in the STEM-related fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

The number of female and male students are nearly equal in the Wits Faculty of Science. However, the number of females in the Faculty of Health Sciences exceeds that of men, according to the Business Information Systems Unit. Health Sciences includes therapeutic sciences such as nursing that traditionally attracts female students, which might account for the bulge.

Balancing the numbers in the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment is proving harder to achieve. In 2016, of the 4 719 students enrolled in the Faculty, 2 355 were female. In 2021 this figure sits at 4 822 males and 2 858 females.

Familiar choices

A recent study by the African Academy of Sciences found that a number of factors, reinforcing at various levels, including the individual, family, societal and work environment, contribute to whether a woman finds a STEM career appealing, and determines her success in these fields.

These findings are corroborated by the work of Vanishree Pillay, whose PhD focused on the bicultural life experiences and career orientation of South African Indian women engineers, who found that family played an important role in a woman’s choices. Her study focused on South African-Indian female engineers and sought to understand their experiences.

“Family support was a major contributor to their aspirations of becoming engineers. Particularly interesting were the responses received from some participants when asked what motivated their career choice. They nominated their fathers as the motivation that steered their choice of profession,” says Pillay.

Hope Sikhosana, a Master’s in Social Work student, also found that family was a significant source of support for female students in computer sciences, another field where only 18% of undergraduate computer science degrees are held by women. 

While families may be changing how girls are socialised, female students still have a myriad of challenges to navigate. The workplace has been identified as a serious obstacle to the lack of progress for women.

Entrenched inequality 

Women scientists tend to work primarily in academic and government institutions, while more male scientists are found in the private sector “with better pay and opportunities”, the African Academy of Science report found.

Women are often concentrated in the lower echelons of responsibility and have limited leadership opportunities, says the report. In academia, for example, female scientists are often lecturers and assistant researchers, and few are professors. Women are rarely research directors or principal investigators in major studies.

A US study, Women’s Reasons for Leaving the Engineering Field, also raised alarm about the flight of female engineers to the finance industry. Reasons included unfair working conditions, pay gaps and industry attitudes.

To remedy this, female academics have called for structured and well-resourced mentorship programmes. Dr Jenika Gobind, a Senior Lecturer at the Wits Business School who specialises in gender, believes that universities have a major role to play in changing the experiences of women in STEM industries.

“When we put the curriculum together for STEM-related qualifications, we go for hardcore content and we don’t deal with the people-relations component, and it’s that people-relations component that will tackle aspects like gender, diversity and all the elements about which women still complain.”

Pillay shares this view: “Higher education institutions need to look at how they inculcate gender and diversity within the curriculum, which should ideally be incorporated from first year to graduation. We are behind, as the STEM workplace culture is learnt and highly gendered, taking away credible women.” 

In an address on International Women’s Day, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the former UN’s Women's Executive Director, who also holds an Honorary Doctorate from Wits, said: “Incentives will be needed to recruit and retain female workers, like expanded maternity benefits for women that also support their re-entry into work, adoption of the Women’s Empowerment Principles, and direct representation at decision-making levels.”

  • Buhle Zuma is Senior Communications Officer for Wits University.
  • This article first appeared in Curiositya research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office.
  • Read more in the 13th issue, themed: #Gender. We feature research across disciplines that relates to gender, feminism, masculinity, sex, sexual identity and sexual health.

To live and love across a spectrum

- Professor Lynn Morris

EDITORIAL: The way we choose to identify ourselves provokes questions and demands interrogation to ensure a more equitable and tolerant society.


Professor Lynn Morris, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation | Curiosity 13: #Gender ©

Professor Lynn Morris, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation at Wits University.

This 13th issue of Curios.ty is themed  ‘Gender’. It features research across faculties and disciplines at Wits that relate to gender, feminism, masculinity, sex, sexual identity and sexual health. Non-binary and gender fluidity are increasingly prevalent as people claim their unique identity as complex individuals who live and love across a spectrum.

Language locates us in time and place and our two feature stories provide an historical-geographical overview of Being Queer in Africa – and the profound personal, social and legal impact. In Beyond the Binary, we challenge (through research) the misconception that people are either male or female, and how we might transcend and transform transphobia. 

There’s no escaping the scourge of gender-based violence and femicide in SA and our stories on female genital mutilation, lesbian hate killings, and the politicisation of women’s bodies are horrifying and discomforting. Big Data and analytics can help detect and prevent gender-based violence – if the inherent biases in Artificial Intelligence are adjusted (AI traditionally defaults to the white male). Our stories on performing masculinity – as black, gay, and male – in SA and at Wits, suggest that toxic masculinity and patriarchy persist, and provide direction on how we might begin to change the narrative.

Alongside these dire but necessary stories are chronicles of inspiration and courage – read how our Female Academic Leadership Fellows (FALF) with the guidance of our formidable Chancellor, Dr Judy Dlamini, confront and overcome challenges in academia, while Wits female scholars in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, voice the clarion call to advance women in science.

Curiosity 13: #Gender ©

Throughout our adult lives, we seek solutions to issues around our sexual health, yet sex talk remains taboo, to the detriment of public health. Similarly, in the geriatric phase of life people remain sexual beings, but ignorance and silence on sexuality in the elderly can be lethal. 

Read our Gender in Sport story for what it takes to be an athlete competing at the highest levels in the 21st Century and how male and female cricketers differ, and why this matters. On a lighter note, read how our companions in the animal kingdom indicate and celebrate their sexuality and diversity (it may surprise you!) and pop culture representations of monsters and gender a’ la Corpse Bride.

At Wits University, which celebrates 100 years of research excellence in 2022, we proudly advance knowledge that is responsive to a new generation and embrace the LGBTQIA+ spectrum of identities and sexualities ready to confront the inherent challenges. Whether lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, queer, intersex, or asexual, the way we choose to identify ourselves in the 21st Century provokes questions and demands interrogation to ensure a more equitable and tolerant society. Join us. 

  • Professor Lynn Morris is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation.
  • This article first appeared in Curiositya research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office.
  • Read more in the 13th issue, themed: #Gender. We feature research across disciplines that relates to gender, feminism, masculinity, sex, sexual identity and sexual health.

R10 million for the palaeosciences

- Wits University

#Wits100 donation will be used to fund the Micro CT scanner upgrade to benefit palaeontologists.

Palaeontologists at Wits are set to benefit from a R10 million bequest, which will give them x-ray vision to “see” into solid rock, without destroying the fossil or the sedimentary material in which it is embedded. 

The R10 million will be used to renew the University’s Micro CT scanner, which enables scientists to scan a fossil-bearing rock sample using 3D imaging to examine a fossil without having to painstakingly physically remove the fossil from the rock. It uses 3D x-rays to scan inside an object, bit by bit, without having to break it open. This will save time and will also ensure the preservation of the fossil in the rock or sedimentary material.

“Given that Wits is now excavating thousands of fossils from various places around the country, this technology will help scientists to save time and resources, and will greatly advance their research,” says Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Wits University. “Wits is a leader in the palaeosciences and the renewal of the Micro CT scanner will enable scientists to continue to scan fossils from Africa on home soil. This will also allow us to tell our stories of the origins of Earth and Life from our perspective in the Global South.”

A project team has been approved and a project manager has been appointed to drive the design, procurement, acquisition, and commissioning of the new facility, and to provide a turn-key solution to Wits scientists.

“We are extremely grateful to the generous benefactor who left this bequest, as an ongoing gift to the University. Her foresight and investment in science, research and development, will not only benefit scientists and students at Wits in our centenary year – it is a lasting gift that will impact on our entire society, and will benefit generations of peoples to come,” adds Vilakazi.

“Wits is national treasure that occupies a special place in the hearts and minds of South Africans,” explains Vilakazi. “It makes a significant impact on society in multiple spheres. This bequest will go a long way in helping us to realise these goals.” 

If you would like to learn more about how to leave a lasting legacy that will benefit future generations, contact Justine Dangor on +27 11 717 9713, or + 27 83 415 2495 or email or visit Giving to Wits - Wits University.

Mapping mosquitoes to combat malaria

- Wits University

Theresa Mazarire in the Wits Institute for Malaria (WRIM) combines environmental science and public health to control malaria mosquitoes.

She was one of just 20 laureates selected from 440 applications in 17 African countries to receive the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Sub-Saharan Africa Young Talents Award.

Theresa Mazarire in the Wits Research Institute for Malaria is a LOREAL UNESCO Women for Science awardee

Mazarire came to Wits in 2016 to pursue her MSc in Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping and Remote Sensing.

Geographical information systems are able to integrate, store, analyse and display geographical data. GIS incorporates spatial data (geographical features) in the form of maps, and descriptive data in the form of relational databases linked to mapped features.

GIS is used to understand patterns, relationships, and geographic contexts based on their location and spatial characteristics. It is known for its sophisticated spatial statistical analysis and visualisation capabilities, which can be applied as an intelligent and accurate decision-making tool in a wide range of global phenomena.

“My GIS skills cut across all fields; for example, it can be applied in peace keeping initiatives and for life-saving aid provisions such as those in the Russia/Ukraine conflict-affected communities, in the humanities,  in public health for disease mapping, as well as in agricultural industry to improve food security,” says Mazarire.

Her Master’s, awarded in 2019 by the Wits School of Geography, Archaeology, and Environmental Studies (GAES) focused on mapping crop types to inform strategies for precision agriculture, crop monitoring, crop yield estimation, and food security management.

From maize to mosquitoes

Anopheles mosquito mating male on left and female on right_Melika Hajkazemian Emami Lab 600x300

“For my PhD, I wanted to do something in public health, and improve the way that we study and understand environmental issues that cause diseases,” says Mazarire, now in the third year of her doctoral studies in the Division of Virology, School of Pathology at Wits and based at the Vector Control Research Laboratory, National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD).

Mazarire’s doctoral research focuses on malaria vector control. A vector is an organism that carries and transmits an infectious disease, as mosquitoes do for malaria.

“I use geotechnology to study the interaction between the environment and mosquitoes,” explains Mazarire.  

Her research seeks to analyse the geographical phenomena that contribute to mosquitoes’ prevalence and spatio-temporal distribution over space and time.

This is done by using satellite remote sensing data to map the climate, land cover and ecological variables that promote the emergence/survival of malaria vectors in an environment.

"The success of vector control strategies depends on timely and accurate knowledge of the distribution of vectors spatially and temporally. This knowledge is crucial in designing mosquito control strategies and developing suitable frameworks for monitoring and evaluating the success of control approaches."

It is also essential to understand the interaction between the environment and the mosquito so that vector control strategies are specifically targeted where they are needed, saving resources and time and thereby aiding to eliminate malaria.


“My PhD research forms part of a bigger project in which male mosquitoes [male mosquitoes are not involved in malaria transmission] are mass-reared in the laboratory, sterilised and released into the wild so that when they mate with native wild females, the offspring from such mating are not viable and thus do not transmit malaria. This novel technology is called the ‘Sterile Insect Technique’,” explains Mazarire.

The Wits Research Institute for Malaria has a unique facility in southern Africa that enables the infection of mosquitoes with human malaria to study chemical compounds that could treat malaria.

The Sterile Insect Technique (SIT), often referred to as ‘birth control’, is an environmentally-friendly biological control method based on population suppression. The technique involves releasing mass-reared, sterile male insects into the wild. These released sterile males compete with wild males to mate with native females. Females that mate with a sterilised male produce unviable offspring, thus reducing the next generation’s population.

Mazarire says the most exciting thing about her research is working with these little critters. “We keep live mosquito colonies at the NICD, and when you see a mosquito, you can’t just kill it – you have to do further analysis on it,” she laughs. “My field research is in Mamfene in KZN. We go there to catch mosquitoes. I like it! It’s laborious, but you actually then understand their environment.”

Malaria vector control team prepre to release sterile male mosquitoes in Mamfene Jozini KZN

Women in science for sub-Saharan Africa

Mazarire is jointly supervised by Dr Givemore Munhenga, a Principal Medical Scientist in the Vector Control Reference Laboratory, Centre for Emerging, Zoonotic and Parasitic Diseases at the NICD, and Professor Solomon Newete, a Senior Researcher at the Agricultural Research Council-Natural Resource and Engineering, and a Visiting Associate Professor in the School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences (APES) at Wits, for GIS and remote sensing data analysis

Munhenga heads the SIT project in which Mazarire’s PhD studies are nested. He also suggested that Mazarire apply for the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Sub-Saharan Africa Young Talents Awards.

“These awards are given to women involved in novel science research in sub-Saharan Africa that is going to help communities,” says Mazarire. “Dr Munhenga told me about the awards originally and encouraged me to apply.”

Mazarire was named an awardee in 2021 after her second attempt. She is one of 20 laureates selected from 440 applications in 17 African countries.

Science is the key to sustainable development and economic growth, says Mazarire, who advocates for women scientists to help lead the transformation of global health systems.

‘Bad air’ malaria

In 2021, there were an estimated 241 million malaria cases globally with more than 95% of these cases reported in Africa.

Globally every year more than 200 million acute malaria episodes occur and about 438 000 people, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, die because of malaria.

The first reports of human malaria infections appeared in Chinese medical texts as far back as 2700 BC. Initially it was thought that the air around salt marshes played a role in the spread of the disease, hence the name malaria, (derived from the Italian words ‘mal’ [bad] and ‘aria’ [air]).

“What I like about working with mosquitoes is that they’re such small and minute organisms, but they’re making a big difference in people’s lives through malaria. People die from this,” says Mazarire – who has good reason to work towards ridding the world of malaria: She married in October 2021 and is expecting a baby in June.

Malaria transmission in South Africa is seasonal, with malaria cases starting to rise in October, peaking in January and February, and waning towards May.

In this country, malaria is mainly transmitted along with the border areas, and malaria is endemic in some parts of Limpopo, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal). Approximately 10% of the population are at risk of contracting malaria, which can be fatal if not diagnosed early.

In her (free) time, the Zimbabwean native who now lives in Pretoria enjoys “roaming around the internet to see what’s happening in international affairs” and applying GIS to all sorts of global phenomena – for fun! Mazarire also consults to a climate change non-profit, Rabia Transitions Initiative, on how financial institutions can manage climate change in South Africa.

Job losses, pay cuts – State of the Newsroom during Covid-19

- Wits University

The 2020 State of the Newsroom report looked at a year of ‘shock, confusion and a need to radically adapt’.

The report, launched in March 2022 and titled Then and Now: Looking Back at the First Year of the Pandemic, investigated the impact that the Covid-19 pandemic had on the South African media in 2020. It also explored data and data governance, and how South Africa’s media should be re-orientating itself to a more local data narrative. And it asks a group of media practitioners what they thought of the South African National Editors’ Forum’s (Sanef’s) 2021 Satchwell Report on media ethics.

State of the Newsroom report 2020

The State of the Newsroom Report illustrated the significant challenges print media, especially magazines and newspapers, faced. CosmopolitanHouse and Leisure and Men’s Health were forced to shut down due to major financial restraints, while a number of community newspapers were either shut down or shuffled around to be amalgamated under one title. 

By the end of 2020, at least 10 local papers had been terminated in one way or another, impacting accountability in small towns and communities where they are needed the most. Kate Skinner, executive director of The Association of Independent Publishers (AIP) noted that though some publications were dying out, there were “counter trends of innovations and improvements in the quality of news and reporting, especially on health topics”.

News24’s online traffic soared during the pandemic, giving it leverage to launch its digital subscription service in August 2020.

“From content and traffic point of view, it has been a good two years for News24. We have seen our audiences double, with readers/audiences staying longer to read articles/content, engagement time has gone up on our app,” said Adriaan Basson, News24’s managing editor. He added: “with the subscription service, we have seen the introduction of a new solid revenue stream”.

Despite a growth in online media, the Daily Maverick made a bold leap into print media in the same month, launching Daily Maverick 168, which can still be found in selected Pick n Pay outlets across the country.

TV viewership over the course of the pandemic also changed significantly. The report found that during the first three months of the pandemic, SABC 3 News attracted 65% more viewers than in previous years. By the end of the year, the top prime time news slots on eTV and SABC 3 attracted around half of their 2016 audience numbers, but fatigue and dwindling interest in the president’s covid-19 updates saw audiences decline after some time.

The year also saw significant job losses in the industry: an estimated 700 jobs were lost at the start of the lockdown and several journalists had to take pay cuts – some as high as 45%. In response, Sanef launched a relief fund for journalists in July 2020 to financially support struggling journalists. The report also highlighted issues of harassment by the police and defence force that journalists faced at the onset of the pandemic.

Two years on, the nature of media continues to shift, but there are mechanisms in place that practitioners can employ to safeguard the informants of our democracy and the work that they do.