South Africa: Knowledge In Resistance

For the past fifteen years, in South Africa, the stories of black women generally living in poverty in townships and rural areas have been collected by women’s organizations, for the purpose of valorizing their memories. These stories create knowledge in resistance, because they are made visible in a country where gender is institutionalized (Seidman, 1999, p. 287-307). Indeed, in terms of rights, South Africa’s constitution is clear, but in reality the country is the most unequal in the world, in terms of distribution of wealth (Bhorat, Van der Westhuizen and Jacobs, 2009, p. 8) coupled with an environment of entrenched violence and a big prevalence of AIDS, situations which women are feeling the effects of every day.

The aim of this article is to examine, in South Africa, the relationship between gender, knowledge and resistance in a context of globalization where one-upmanship, excess, acceleration through which is named “Information Society” or “Knowledge Society” are up. It is in this regard to isolate gender epistemic inequality from economic inequalities, most often put forward, to unveil non-academic knowledge produced and increased by relations of subalternity (Spivak, 2009).

To this end, we will ask ourselves two sets of questions:

  • How, in an exacerbated and accelerated context of gender violence, (which is also economic, social, political, and epistemic), can women’s voices emerge? How do these voices form knowledge in resistance?
  • How is globalization reducing the space and the time for States, (between States, and between States and their populations) and what impacts does this have in term of gender?

The answers to these questions will determine why South Africa knows today two tangled systems of domination, coloniality (sets of domination relationships related to the expansion of capitalism) of knowledge and patriarchy, and especially how, paradoxically, these two systems are source of knowledge creation.

This article is the result of a research study conducted between 2002 and 2008 on the activities of two organizations: Southern Cape Land Committee in Cape Town and the Western Cape region, and Aids Counseling Care and Training in Chris Hani Baragwaneth Hospital in Soweto, Johannesburg. These observations have continued by an institutional analysis and the contextualized study of the renewal of the coloniality in Africa, which has been purchased from 2008 to 2011. Interviews conducted as part of this research in December 2008 in Cape Town were the political impacts of ICT uses on male and colonialitarian (related to the coloniality of power) domination with 12 women’s or feminists organizations, research institutes working on gender and organizations focused on support for peasants’ rights or triple therapy but not working with a gender perspective.

This article begins with brief reports on gender inequalities in South Africa. On one hand the specificity of gender violence in the country will be stressed, and on the other hand it will be insisted on subalternity reports related to the State masculinism, which is detrimental to the production of own knowledge. Finally, experiences that make visible knowledge in resistance will be highlighted.

Specific gender inequalities

Despite a model constitution, severe gender inequalities exist in South Africa. Gender violence speak out on the grounds of the women’s bodies appropriation with the highest rates of rape and femicide in the world (Jewkes and alii, 2009), corrective rape of lesbians but also an increasing rate of AIDS prevalence among women[1], their impoverishment, and increased emergency situations.

These inequalities also express through and very specifically, by excessive masculinism[2]; they became a public policy since the Zuma presidency in 2009. This bias is coupled with a claimed traditionalism[3], which reflects a defensive position taken by most of the ANC’s leaders. In fact, the South African State, wishing to play its role of African model, outbids on epistemic violence (Spivak, 2009). Its leaders affect competition between States they undergo, particularly on feminist organizations that demonstrate the pitfalls of gender institutionalization, of the gap between legislation and reality in terms of equality. These organizations represent a threat to the government’s populist rhetoric.

Moreover, the institutionalization of gender, crossed with that of ICTs, which aims to assist African women to fight against the so-called “gender digital divide”, participated to make the women’s organizations topics of struggles invisible[4]. The expressions and knowledge of South African women cannot be highlighted.

Gender subalternity factor

In Africa, over the past fifteen years, the messages of international organizations as regards gender have converged to “we must educate and support African women to fight against poverty.” In South Africa, in particular, this requires their integration into the global labor market (De Clercq, 2004). This means it is considered necessary that South African women integrate imported and homogeneous knowledge, which is created ​​by executives of international institutions. This homogenization is, in fact, ​​Western and universal.

Though globalization promotes Westernization of thoughts and that makes women from the grassroots subaltern: these women are not considered as actors of development, nor as carriers of their own knowledge[5].

Resistance: disseminating knowledge in resistance

With these results, its has been decides to look in interviews and participating observations (conducted in 2000, 2002, and between 2006 and 2008), at what could illustrate some tracks of resistance offered by South African feminists or women’s organizations. Among the many South African women’s movements, many fall knowingly “on the ground”. Many of them crystallize around issues of memory together with the assistance of excluded people or those affected by HIV. These three tracks – memory, support for excluded people and those affected by HIV – are all characteristic of the transition of the country’s transition, a period stigmatized by three simultaneously difficult and unique situations: a racist and apartheid regime and a deadly plague, AIDS, combined with an economy radically oriented toward a neo-liberal system[6]. In South Africa, where democracy has only existed for the past 18 years, it is not uncommon to hear people express their fear of losing the memory of the “victims” of colonialism and apartheid and today of liberalism, fear that is very expressed in society, as well as the need for justice.

Within these movements, two experiments has been chosen, then analyzed to illustrate the problematic. For over ten years, the organization Southern Cape Land Committee (SCLC) has been facilitating – outside its traditional areas of intervention largely related to issues of land reform and land ownership – the writing and publication of stories of South African women, under the term “women’s stories”. The first book that has been published, entitled “Memory of women”, was launched in November 1999, and reveals the personal stories of six women from different communities in the region of the Western Cape. In 2002, SCLC reiterated the campaign by launching a second book written by sixteen women in their own language, all of the same community, Nelspoort, a small town that got its status in 1999. Since 1924, Nelspoort was designed as a hospital run by the health department of the government.

These sixteen women, whose birth dates range from the early 1920s to 1980s, thus wrote their own vision of the city’s history. According to the project’s organizers, this approach “revealed a dynamic of change and of empowerment for both the participants and the facilitators themselves.” It seems that these rural women have at least won the time and space to reflect on their lives and share their experiences with others, through writing and disseminating their totally new production.

In addition, the unemployment caused by the disappearance of the hospital has refocused its inhabitants on new claims as the right to communal land in order to cultivate, brought to the Ministry of Agriculture, and on new priorities, including securing livelihoods, fighting against AIDS, and highlighting gender equality. Today, these books are available in schools and libraries, and this model of initiatives is reproduced in other languages throughout the entire country.

In “Chris Hani Baragwaneth Hospital” Hospital in Soweto, Johannesburg, the NGO ACCT (Aids Care and Counseling Training), which was established in 1992, provides psychological support and care for HIV patients and communities affected by the AIDS virus. Patients are mostly women, and according to the organizers they “must reclaim their identity […] and go out of male domination.”

Sessions of psychological support welcome women for an hour or more, and women are meant to talk about their illness, isolate responsibilities, and discover the intimate and even taboo, namely sexuality. The organization offers other activities, including a workshop of tablecloths and napkins, another one of bowls, pulp and beadwork production: bracelets, ribbons, and pins. Each pin or anti-AIDS lapel has sells for 10 Rands, half of which goes to the woman who made ​​it.

On a weekly basis, the center also receives pregnant women with and without HIV, and offers them a meal. These activities, that seem to refer women to their traditional roles, create a contrary dynamic, the sick feeling “personalized”, “existing”, two states which it is difficult to imagine the importance in a country where HIV has been ignored, have felt treated as “animals” by their “revolutionary” government for many years[7].

Moreover, all these women participate in writing workshops, where they write down their daily lives, their sexual relationships, talk about their pregnancies, and their relationships with their babies, in the hope that the child who will grow up will have access to the story of his mother’s and his or her own story. Each personal story is then shared, discussed explicitly, before being archived and becoming a public good. All women can see them as often as they wish. They manage the room, the place where these stories are stored, by themselves. This activity takes all its political value, questioning the individuation – in the existentialist sense – of the “cases” and the failure to be taken into account at the national level.

Methodologies for the standpoint theory

The sessions of women’s stories of these two organizations will now be presented. They are held outdoors or indoors and meet whenever a dozen women, faithful or new, speaking in their own language – there are eleven official and ten ethnic groups in South Africa – and sometimes having English as a common language. The duration of these meetings varies and the frequency is adapted to the availability of the women who are talking. These women, rural or urban, express throughout different sessions, fix the “episodes” of their lives before and after apartheid.

Violence is more or less omnipresent. [“We were moved every day. I do not know where I will be tomorrow with my kids. My husband was gone. So I always had a loan package. Now it’s the same.” “My husband is dying. I’m sad. I do not want to live. […] Last week I stopped to see him at the hospital. I no longer want. […] I met a man. It pleases me. We meet. I like him. We make love. I didn’t tell my husband … ” “I come here to express my anger against the government, which treats us like dogs, animals. I’m 26 and I want to have children. At least three. I want to heal. I come here to be treated and to thank the private companies that allow me to have access to medicines. I bless them! And Mbeki and his gang can go to hell! I want them to burst!” “I saved one Rand a week. I could build my house. But my children sought privacy. I tried to build toilets inside because we did not know how it was. We did not know. I do not even know I could do it. But buying used stuff, windows, doors … and friends, like M. and R., came to help me cement doors … just to finish the church that has borne our grieves.” “I am old now. I speak for my children to remember. I want them to tell their turn.”

In each case, representatives of organizations, one or two, volunteers or not, accompany speaking, record sometimes, often translate, intensify the flow sometimes, questioning, pushing the narrator into a corner. Interviews are framed or free, rarely individual without pre-established questionnaires, semi-conductive and non-conductive.

The women who speak are predominantly black, poor, living in the townships and rural areas. They do not want to create their autobiography. They do not always follow a chronological line from birth, decrypting step in their lives. Their stories can be much more “chaotic” in the sense that they can be fragmented, partial, disjointed. One HIV-positive woman could only tell her occasional experience of sexual relationship in detail, with specific times of tension and ecstasy, for example, while another would polarize the trauma of displacement imposed by systematic apartheid which gave her the feeling that she lived nowhere, and had no “home”. A third one could still talk about poverty and “toilet” experience, at least public, as external, or outdoors, events completely out of intimacy. These stories are not specifically structured and holistic.

The collection mechanism does not aim to assist, to victimize the person speaking or writing, or to refer to her sole introspection. It further promotes not only collective expression but also the development of a feasible shared future. As such, it allows the “witness” to express a point of view on the environment in which she lives, or to analyze it.

An approach that distorts time and space

The economic and social environment plays a major role in rates of unemployment and disease, notably AIDS, creating a context of idleness in the city or in rural areas, particularly conducive to availability, almost constant. This availability has the direct consequence to distort time that is more to lose than win. This system implies that unemployed or ill women stop where they are, when they are there, without really “knowing” why. The concept of appointment is quite absent here. Convening less. So that it is more often the place or time that create the opportunity of the story and not a concerted memorial collection operation.

It will be understood that it is not so much the methodological process (of collection or narrative) that creates knowledge, but rather its non-academic framing.

Female collective identity

In South Africa, it is not so much sex that creates identity, feature or community, but the combination of this sexual biological membership with many items as class, race, culture, ethnicity, gender… Each identity that is being expressed runs contrary to any approach going the same way of an identitarism, a particularism, and a traditionalism that President Jacob Zuma leans towards[8].

This “feminine collective identity” also goes against the preconceived idea of national identity, historical situation that considers equality will be resolved at the same time that democracy, expects women, viewed as mothers of the nation, to achieve, but does not take into account the gendered dimension of citizenship, its exercise and the relationship between the individual and the State. In fact, women have been treated more as “recipients of government policy and not as agents of the construction of new States” (Seidman, 2006).

Furthermore, breaching the norms of public expression, women who speak question this exercise of power, endangering a male domain, creating knowledge in resistance, not initiated by the “top”, to a liberation movement now run by black male elites, claiming more “knowledge of dominant”, as Isabelle Stengers may have defined it (Stengers, 2002).

This approach pushes the exercise of democracy into a corner by promoting de facto freedom of expression and equality in expressions as two structuring components of a society to create. It eliminates control (which barricades and legislates) and thus the domination (which uses it to hold), to account for power (that of subalterns: those who do not speak out).

Economy of transmission

Then, far from wanting to complete the puzzle pieces of a national memory, such as in the case of the Holocaust, or the one of survivors of the Rwandan genocide, the collection of women’s stories is more about building an “economy of transmission”[9] within the meaning where it creates its specific exchange currency – one language[10], the stories themselves – and its own capital – the knowledge – and therefore its own modes of wealth distribution, by pooling female collective memory, which is in turn both black and African, as opposed to the “white Western male”, as outlined by Gilles Deleuze (Deleuze, 1986).

It is more akin to an attitude of ownership/capitalization of a reality, of a situation taken from life, real life, as opposed to institutional, rational life, as provided by State rhetoric. This ownership of the “real” therefore requires methods not theorized that also form knowledge.

An alternative reading of globalization

This approach also runs counter to a global knowledge, which tend to “standardize” thought, since it clings to each personal identities, borrowed heavily from local culture and socialization (language, urban/rural, rich/poor…). By following in the footsteps of the foundations of “ethnoscience” (Nathan, 2005), the process of collecting these memories does not try to adapt these modes of expression to the dominant knowledge, but rather works to create its own values. As Jean-François Bayart invites us to “consider our time in its incompleteness and its fragility” (Bayart, 2004), this process offers an alternative reading of globalization. For example, the aim is not to rewrite the struggle against apartheid from female perspective, but rather to create a look of women who have experienced apartheid, and thus having accumulated specific knowledge on a society in transition, organized by those who collect.

A revealing intimate

Dealing only with violence, revealing their intimacy, their intimate relationships, these women witnesses flout all social institutions and other local traditions, which designate sexuality as masculine domain, and female sexuality as non-existent, as being only at the service of the male. Cutting short this trend, this revealed intimacy invents a form of social “legitimacy”, transgressing traditional modes of communication, reserved and established by men throughout the community. It establishes a new language that allows discussing, exchanging, developing and disseminating the thought of equality with men. We can then speak of “revealing intimate.”

A moral of the invisible

Finally, “saying” in public her daily life as a woman, or some of its “elements”, pushing the boundaries of what is invisible, hidden, latent, may propose a new grid of social reading, a “moral of the invisible”, breaking all codes that now govern the South African society. As Michelle Perrot argued (Perrot, 1990-1991), by communicating orally and creating their history, these women who speak, neglecting their invisibility that is socially and historically constructed, transform their status from object to subject, including in terms of the national revolution which continues. From controlled, they become controller of their daily lives and not of the system which products their subalternity.

A future?

These approach have proven over the last ten years so “productive” that works were published that inform methodologies for collecting personal stories[11], both photographic (black and white), written (thematic or chronological or according to the political affiliation or geographical indicator – the country is large and there are different regional cultures), and audiovisual…

Moreover, today, websites have sections dedicated to these women’s stories. They are devoted to fields as varied as LGBT rights[12], Landless ones or the impacts of ICT on the South African society. The recognition of this knowledge in resistance begins to make its way since Women’s Space was launched in Cape Town on November 27 2008, with the aim of collecting all the books and collections of women’s memories, in all formats, including online. This very recent phenomenon – which has existed for less than seven years – coincides with the paradoxical impact of the digital age on the lives women in this country. These women’s stories take their full resistant modern sense, injecting “lived”, easily associable to the “past” (apartheid), or even the “morbid” (AIDS) in the “virtual” (Internet). This invented alliance between reality and modernity demystifies the two icons – reality and modernity – and so does creative work in a country where both items are carefully kept well at bay, as a legacy of apartheid, by a large majority of actors of society[13].

However, the impacts of this knowledge in resistance on organizations and on people, and the number and typology of people who read these stories, remain to be investigated.


Bayart, Jean-François. Le Gouvernement du monde, une critique politique de la globalisation. Paris: Fayard, 2004.

Bhorat, Harron, Carlene Van der Westhuizen, and Toughedah Jacobs. Income and Non-Income Inequality in Post-Apartheid South Africa: What are the Drivers and Possible Policy Interventions?. Working document for the Development Policy Research Unit (DPRU), 09/138 August 2009, 8. (accessed January 23, 2014).

De Clercq, Lize. “Les mouvements de femmes placent le ‘genre’ à l’agenda de la société de l’information”. ada online et la société de l’information, dir. (Bruxelles : ada, 2004), (accessed January 23, 2014).

Deleuze, Gilles. Foucault. Paris : Minuit, 1986.

Duby, Georges and Michelle Perrot (ed.). Histoire des femmes en Occident. Paris : Plon, 1990-1991.

Jewkes, Rachel and alii. Understanding men’s health and use of violence: interface of rape and HIV in South Africa. Gender & Health Research Unit, Medical Research Council, 2009. (accessed March 27, 2008).

Nathan, Tobie. “L’ethnopsychiatrie, une morale de l’incertitude, Notre Librairie”. Revue des littératures du Sud. N°157. Littérature et développement (January – March 2005)

Seidman, Gay. “La transition démocratique en Afrique du Sud : construction d’une nouvelle nation et genre de l’État”. Clio, numéro 12/2000, Le genre de la nation, May 24 2006. (accessed January 23, 2014).

Seidman, Gay. “Gendered Citizenship: South Africa’s Democratic Transition and the Construction of a Gendered State”. Gender and Society, XIII (3) (June 1999), 287-307.

Spivak Chakravorty, Gayatri. Can the Subaltern speak?. Paris : Amsterdam, 2009.

Stengers, Isabelle. Sciences et pouvoirs. La démocratie face à la technoscience. Paris : La Découverte, 2002.


[1] ONUSIDA 2004. Rapport sur l’épidémie mondiale de SIDA, 4e rapport. (accessed January 23, 2014).

[2] Palmieri, Joelle, “Afrique du Sud : le traditionalisme et le masculinisme au secours du pouvoir”, December 2011, (accessed January 23, 2014).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Palmieri, Joelle, “Les femmes non connectées : une identité et des savoirs invisibles”. Joubert, Lucie (dir.), Les voix secrètes de l’humour des femmes (Québec : Revue Recherches féministes, numéro 25,2, November 2012), 173-190.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Following the period of national unity, which knows the desire to create a non-racial liberal democracy (Obono, Daniele. Neoliberalism and social movements, Centre tri-continental. April 2008. (accessed January 23, 2014), Thabo Mbeki, then vice-president, launched in 1996 a macroeconomic policy called Growth Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) which sets the following targets: an annual growth of 10% of manufactured exports and a 36% increase in trade with Africa (Murray, N. Somewhere over the rainbow. A journey to the new South Africa. Race and Class, 38 (3), 1997).

[7] The position of Thabo Mbeki, president since 1999, who has long denied the link between HIV and AIDS, was a major brake to fight against the disease; he refused the treatment of antiretroviral therapy. He told the National Assembly in November 2001, “anti-retroviral treatments were as dangerous as AIDS” (Agence France-Presse, October 24, 2001).

[8] Jacob Zuma defined himself as a “tribune Zulu” strongly attached to his home province of KwaZulu-Natal, and boasts very traditional concepts like virginity testing or polygamy. (, December 19, 2007. (accessed January 23, 2014)).

[9] To be opposed to the theories of the “knowledge economy”, which origin is liberal economy.

[10] See infra.

[11] Women’s in South Africa History. Basus’iimbokodo, Bawel’imilambo/They remove boulders and cross rivers. Nomboniso Gasa (eds), 2007.

[12] Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans

[13] Especially those who proclaim themselves “resistant” and intend to remain the ”guardians of tradition” (Myers, J.C. Indirect Rule in South Africa: Tradition, Modernity, and the Costuming of Political Power, Tradition, Modernity, and the Costuming of Political Power. University of Rochester Press, July 2008).

Joelle Palmieri

19 avril 2014

Contribution donnée lord de l’International Symposium « Writing Women’s Lives: Auto/Biography, Life Narratives, Myths and Historiography » qui s’est tenue à Istanbul (Yeditepe University), Turkey, du 19 au 20 avril, organisé par The Women’s Library and Information Centre Foundation (WLICF) et The Yeditepe University.
Axe 1- Theory, methodology, feminist history, feminist criticism and women’s life writing

Voir également: Des savoirs de femmes en résistance

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