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Time for Insubordinate Leadership

Updated: Feb 11, 2020

25 November 2019 signalled the start of the 16 Days of Activism campaign against Gender-Based Violence. 10 December was International Human Rights Day. The UN estimates that a third of all women and girls will face gender based violence in their lifetime. Many will lose their lives through femicide and other hate crimes. Women across divides of geography, race, class, caste, ability, culture, sexual orientation and identity have united, organised and fought against oppression, exploitation and discrimination. Despite our best efforts fighting individual violations of  human rights, from bodily integrity to clean drinking water, women and girls continue to face worsening human rights and a tsunami of violence. It is time to implement the Universal Declaration of Human Rights foundational human right: "Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized". The current international order is patriarchal, racist and capitalist. It is destroying our planet, deepening women's poverty, unemployment and precarious employment and creating greater vulnerability to misogyny. Our children and grandchildren have a right to a social and international order capable of realising human rights. 2020 is the year our creative intellects and energies will shape the social and international order that serves humanity and the earth that nourishes us.

In our country, as in all others, rape and sexual assault have been interwoven into wars of patriarchal conquest and colonisation, genocide, slavery, apartheid and capitalism. Religious texts justify violence against women and children. ‘God is male - male is god’ is deeply embedded in the human psyche. Those taught to be subordinate are female and those taught to expect subordination are male. The world order mirrors Apartheid and has deepened inequality and poverty. Economic, military and religious fundamentalisms have increased vulnerability to misogyny across the world and an estimated 1 billion women and girls are raped or sexually assaulted in their lifetimes.

Our insubordinate ancestors – the 20 000 women of 1956 defied the patriarchal, capitalist, Apartheid state. The pass laws entrenched colonial dispossession and criminalisation of millions of Black South African people. Generations after the 1956 march, Biko united us across apartheid’s ghettoes of ‘African’, ‘Indian’, ‘Coloured’, ‘non-white’ as Black people fighting Apartheid brutality and its strategy of divide and rule. As Biko said: ‘We have set out on a quest for our true humanity and somewhere on the distant horizon we can see the glittering prize.’

Ordinary people from countries across the world, including Cuba, Zambia, India and Sweden, acted in solidarity and Apartheid was declared a crime against humanity. The extent of that crime is yet to be fully comprehended by a world that does not recognise the genocides of the first peoples of the world, committed before the genocide of World War 2, by the colonisers of the Americas, Africa, Asia, Australia. Apartheid’s misogynistic police and army worked alongside the state’s institutionalised brutality, including forced removals to Apartheid’s equivalent of Nazi Germany’s Ghettoes – the 'Bantustans', townships and informal settlements - where millions died slow deaths linked to malnutrition, injuries from frequent mining accidents and preventable illness such as silicosis, TB and, later, HIV.

Our first Parliament committed to transforming an authoritarian state to a participatory, accountable, transparent, democracy… to a people’s democracy. A new Constitution, laws and institutions committed to social justice, equality, dignity, freedom, non-racism, non-sexism and women’s rights. The abortion debate located sexual and reproductive rights within economic, political and social rights. Government committed to transform the budget from a gendered perspective and reports on gender-based violence tabled integrated strategies. The Apartheid budgets prioritised white power and privilege. The new economic policy of 1996 was drafted almost exclusively by white men, many of them consultants to the IMF and World Bank. The global trading system demands open markets for its hormone-injected meats (as the US did) and sources SA’s organic fruit and vegetables (as Europe does) because their own courts have ruled against carcinogenic products, as cancers have increased across the world.

Contrary to the promise, land redistribution and restitution have not been effectively addressed. Colonial wars often killed or removed insubordinate traditional leaders and replaced them with men of greed. Today, the Traditional Leaders and Khoisan Bill and the Traditional Courts Bill have just recently been enacted, re-asserting Apartheid-era tribal authorities. Unelected traditional leaders will make decisions about land and mining without any meaningful consultation with the community and women will lose their constitutional right to gender equality. In Xolobeni, an Australian mining corporation has partnered with local traditional leaders against the people of Xolobeni, whose leader has been assassinated.

Apartheid era homelands, townships and informal settlements remain places where mortality rates skyrocket and people continue to die of preventable causes; the places with the highest unemployment, hunger, homelessness and lack of access to basic services like street lighting, water, refuse removal or decent sanitation, schools with pit toilets and without laboratories or libraries. This is where depression regularly ends in suicide and there is no place to run for women, girls, transgendered and gender non-conforming people.

The cost of winning universal franchise continues to be paid to those who own the world. While poor people are branded as thieves of money, electricity, water and land, the statistics reveal that wealthy corporations steal billions. Their illicit financial flows, theft of land, water and electricity falls below the radar of our consciousness of what a thief looks like.

Instead of addressing this crisis, the greed and corruption of yesterday’s leaders distract us from the fact that corruption is intrinsic to the global order. The countries that sold us arms in SA’s infamous arms deal build in what for them are minor costs compared to what they make. Britain, which sold us arms we do not need, sells arms to both opposing sides in Yemen’s bloody conflict.

While we are all distracted, Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, Jair Bolsonaro, Benjamin Netanyahu, Boris Johnson, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and other right wing conservatives push the world towards fascism. Trump has stripped the façade of American politics to what it is and has always been – the power of corporates to corrupt and divert attention away from addressing the 43.1 million living in poverty in the US. In India, Modi came to power on corporate funding of 10.3 billion rupees. In just one month under Bolsonaro, Brazil’s own satellite monitoring system showed that corporate mining, logging and farmers destroyed more than 1800 square kilometers of the Amazon rainforest, the lungs of our world. The impending destruction of humanity and our planet, presented by climate scientists, does not penetrate the thick wall of denial and inaction with devastating consequences for people who are poor, especially women.

The pollution of the Earth’s water and air, her plants and animals seeps into our bodies, causing cancer and other illnesses that claim millions every day. Corporate self-interest dictates the priorities of our politics, economics, media, education and culture… our beliefs about who we are, how we should live and what we can be.

I want to incite insubordination against this in each of us. Like you, I have felt the fear, greed and hate of subordination land on my skin, course through my blood, unsettle my nerves…its paralysis, impotent rage and helplessness… In searching for answers I looked to and learnt from grandmothers and grandfathers, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters and many who subvert traditional binaries, who live beyond label, who embody wisdom in their lives, their relationship to others and to the earth. There is wisdom in the everyday beauty of fragile complex beings grappling with contradiction.

We can reclaim ourselves by recognising that love is intrinsic to our being and we can invoke the courage to dance with our fear. The first founding value of SA’s constitution is inherent dignity… our individual and collective birthright that underpins substantive rights. When we forget our birthright, as we often do, we can look in the mirror of our selves, of each other or let the rising sun remind us of the radiance we were born with.

Black and white digital photo collage of young women protestors silently protesting at the IEC, in solidarity with Fezeka Kuzwayo ('Khwezi'); against gender based violence and against President Zuma, placed in front of a photo of the insubordinate women leaders of the 1956 South African Women's March.

The insubordinate women leaders of the 1956 South African Women's March, Rahima Moosa, Lillian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph and Sophia Williams-de Bruyn. In front of them are four young women protestors, Simamkele Dlakavu, Naledi Chirwa, Amanda Mavuso and Nyiko Lebogang Shikwambane. In 2016, the four protested silently at the IEC, in solidarity with Fezeka Kuzwayo ('Khwezi'); against gender based violence (GBV) and against President Zuma, who was about to speak. In 2005, 'Khwezi' had charged Zuma with rape and faced misogyny inside and outside the court. Burly security-men roughly manhandled the four young women out of the room. To demonstrate and to inspire solidarity from others, Parusha, my daughter, helped me create the above collage of the two photos.

The focus on GBV intensifies in August, 'Women's Month', the month in which 20, 000 women marched on apartheid's government. On 1 August 2019 I was invited to present an Inaugural Leadership Lecture on Insubordinate Leadership that opened UCT’s month-long programme of lectures and events. It was followed by a silent protest march on campus against gender-based violence led by UCT's Vice-Chancellor, Mamokgethi Phakeng on Friday, 2 August.

On 24 August 2019, 19 year old UCT student, Uyinene Mrwetyana was raped and murdered in a post office, catalysing massive public protests against her murder and the murder of many other women. Through her anguish, Uyninene's mother, Nomangwane, a university academic, quoted Uyinene's words: "Thetha Mama, vula umlomo" (Speak Mom, open your mouth).

At Uyinene's funeral, UCT's Vice Chancellor called for South Africa to go to the root of gender based violence and reiterated the call for insubordinate action:

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