Popular imagination tells us that if there is anything to be learned from the history of psychoanalysis and psychology, it’s that sex and our minds are intertwined in a complex web of tensions. South Africa’s national psychology then, serves as a case study in hyperbole.
South Africa has some of the highest rape statistics in the world, with someone being raped every four minutes, and a woman being murdered by her intimate partner every 8 hours. Combine this with the single highest rate of HIV infection in the world, and it’s easy to see a problem.
The issue is also not a new one. In fact, according to Professor Pumla Dineo Gqola, it is deeply rooted in South Africa’s past. A past defined by radical patriarchal oppression where the majority of the population was infantilised by a hyper-masculine system of dominance. The result of this is an enormous section of the population trying to gain access to agency and power in any form available.
The ramifications of this past can still be felt today, with frequent headlines detailing the deaths of women, children and members of LGBTQIA+ community. These victims become the ‘feminised’ collateral in a struggle for agency. These people are the sites of violence.
The most recent of these outrages comes out of the Uthukela municipality in Kwazulu-Natal. This week, there was countrywide uproar surrounding a new bursary. Introduced by the Mayor of the district, Dudu Mazibuko, the “Maiden’s Bursary Award” is governed by an unusual criterion. Designed specifically for young women, its chief requirement is not academic eligibility — it’s virginity.
According to Mazibuko, these bursaries are specifically designed to “reduce HIV, AIDS and unwanted pregnancy” among girls in the region. This is done by ensuring that they undergo invasive tests, regularly, to ensure that they are “pure”. While it is true that unwanted and teenage pregnancies are a problem, is this really the right way to solve it
The basic principles behind the mayor’s decision are easy to lay out. According to Mazibuko, there is a problem in the Uthukela municipality: young girls are beset by older men, and either they cannot say no because of social hierarchy and their position in that system, or they are lured by the charms of older men who furnish them with gifts in exchange for sex. For many girls, this means losing their chance at an education.
There lies the rub. Mazibuko’s bursary scheme has, at its core, the desire to subvert a patriarchal system that perpetuates women’s dependency on men. Mazibuko essentially their chance at agency. In principle, they are afforded the chance to be educated and become successful, powerful and active members. Sounds good, right?
Not really. At the core of this bursary lies some very flawed reductionist logic. The struggle towards empowering women cannot be aided by only easy, plug-and-play solutions. Rather we need to try understand the issue in its complexity.
The mistake inherent to the “Maiden’s Bursary” is precisely one of over-simplification. The bursary falsely assumes that there is only one worthwhile way of empowering women, through education, and a job, and social standing. Let’s call this public empowerment. However, this ignores the importance of human beings’ private lives. How do these girls feel, emotionally and physically? Do they or do they not have power over their own lives, minds and bodies? Let’s call this private empowerment. We need both of these, at least, in order to move towards meaningful empowerment.
By creating a bursary that forces young women to relinquish control of their bodies and sexuality in order to achieve public empowerment, the patriarchal system of dominance is reaffirmed. Mazibuko is simply recreating the circumstances (albeit in a different guise) that the bursary was intended to fight. The very existence of the bursary is a contradiction, because no real empowerment has taken place. Only conditional empowerment is on offer here: you achieve your goals you, if.
This if has taken on a sinister and menacing tone in South African culture. And more often than not, the if wants control. It wants dominance. It wants sex. Don’t go out too late if you don’t want to be raped. If you wear those clothes, then. The bursary also wants sex, but it wants to withhold it. It is removing an important and healthy part of human life in the name of empowerment.
While the inchoate sentiment at the base of the funding is laudable, the “Maiden’s Bursary” can offer no solutions in its current form. The funding should be based on merit, not a dubious carrot and stick logic.
The contradiction is indexical of a larger national problem that can only be solved by first acknowledging the issue and our country in their complexity. Disgrace, by South African-born author J.M. Coetzee, opens with these words: “For a man of his age, fifty two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.” What ensues is visceral account of sexual and race relations catapulted by the protagonists own sexual transgressions. For a democracy of our age, 22, divorced, we have, to our minds, solved the problem of sex rather well.