Black and Female | Tsitsi Dangarembga | Granta

Black and Female

Tsitsi Dangarembga

By the time I was in my teens, I had taken up an existence framed by a double negative: not male, not white. Not male came with other ‘nots’: not kind, not benign, not smiling. This meant instead of deploying my energy to positive effect, I was constantly pushing back against negatives. Continually engaging with negativity was disorienting and made me nervous. I felt badly off centre. Racism didn’t describe it all, in spite of Ian Smith’s settler government inclining increasingly toward an apartheid system similar to the one that was in place in South Africa at the time. The settler government’s policies had thrown the country into a civil war that pitted the settler regime against black nationalists and the handful of white and other groupings who supported the principle of majority rule. The guerrillas, trained in the communist bloc, drummed the doctrine of class struggle into the people. However, that did not account for the viciously sexualised attacks upon members of the population they were said to be trying to free. Nor did class struggle account for the sexual abuse of women in the guerrilla camps. Only a few women who had been active in the guerrilla ranks were brave enough to speak out after the war ended. I didn’t find a word that accounted for the workings of what I called maleness until I was in my early twenties as a student at the University of Zimbabwe. It was there, thanks to a group of older women, mainly white and expatriate, that I came across the word ‘patriarchy’.

The time was the 1980s, a couple of years after Zimbabwe’s independence. Independence had been gained in 1980 after a guerrilla war that lasted one and a half decades. The war was prosecuted by black Zimbabwean nationalist movements that, in the early 1960s, split into two groups roughly aligned with the two major ethnic groups in the country: Shona and Ndebele. The Shona  grouping is the larger, population-wise, which led to its nationalist political party the Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU PF) obtaining a majority at the elections that followed peace negotiations at Lancaster House in London. In reality there was  no great division between the political and military wings of the nationalist ZANU PF machinery, which was a military movement and government-in-waiting in exile. On being elected to power, the guerrilla movement turned ruling political party made a raft of social reforms to cement its image as a new example for Africa.

The reforms included the 1982 Legal Age of Majority Act or LAMA, under which black women  in Zimbabwe were legally emancipated at the age of eighteen, to become, in law at least, the equal of black men. This piece of legislation was revolutionary. Up until LAMA was passed, African women in Zimbabwe had been perpetual minors under  codified  law.   Even  after  she  reached the age of twenty-one, an African woman remained subordinate to her male guardian, unable to enter into any contracts, employment or marriage without the written permission of this male guardian. That meant she could not earn money to sustain herself through formal employment, could not own land or start her own business without her male guardian’s consent. Even medical  decisions, such as tubal ligation, were made by male guardians. My Nervous Conditions character, the post-grad-educated Maiguru, is an example of how the need to adapt themselves to these kinds of restrictions eroded an African woman’s sense of agency and selfhood, with the result that African women reflected a distorted sense of womanhood and female power to themselves, and to female and male members of their families, as well as to their communities. The effect of imperial colonial legislation was to lump African women together as undifferentiated adjuncts, commonly characterised by inferiority to men.

Educated in South Africa at Fort Hare University and at King’s College, London, my mother was the first black woman in Southern Rhodesia to obtain a Bachelor’s degree. My mother, as I often am, was, for better or worse, a first. She then went on to do  her Master’s at University College London, majoring in English and Latin. Returning to Rhodesia after the British settlers in the country had declared unilateral independence from Great Britain in 1965, she was a strong role model for the young women she taught. At her death her old students banded together to sing and praise, to give eulogy after eulogy, about how my mother had taught them a viable, achieving kind of womanhood. Professionally she was the kind of teacher who had the young men in her classes speaking Latin in the school corridors. That was her personal power. But I suspect she never fully enjoyed the achievement society allowed her, because she knew she could have been so much more, that the true extent of her personal power was limited by a history and present that positioned African women in a disempowered space throughout the colonial era.

This constraining positioning of black African women was practised throughout the British Empire’s African colonies. describes Theophilus Shepstone, the man who devised this system of degrading the humanity of African women, even more than that of their men, as a ‘British official in Southern Africa who devised a system of administering Africans on which all later European field administrations in Africa were to be based’. Brought up in the Cape and educated at his father’s mission school there, Shepstone moved to Natal in the mid-nineteenth century when he took up the first of several posts in the British colonial government. Shepstone was a consummate apartheidist on the grounds that black people were unfit to take part in white society until they were properly civilised. Engaging with the ‘unfit to take part’ proposition of his belief, rather  than  notion of civilising, problematic in itself, Shepstone concluded that a system of indirect rule needed to be established. He set about negotiating with indigenous authorities with the intention of rendering these tribal powers useful to the colonisation effort, often through the ruse of playing one off against the other. Two of his enduring legacies include reserves on which Africans lived, and the codification of the local customs of the time as law through dialogue exclusively with men. Through the latter, African women’s subjectivity was simply expunged from colonial discourse and practice. This second  of colonial rule’s divide-and-rule strategies was gendered. African men were pitted against African women and identified with the encroaching colonial force, even though time would soon show that this identification would not save them from their own abject subjugation by the settlers. So successful were Shepstone’s strategies, including his gender strategies, in subverting local power in the interests of empire that the model went on to be used in all British colonies in Africa.

Shepstone’s codes are what came to be called ‘traditional’ or ‘customary’ law, although they were little more than a set of normative practices as envisioned by the men he spoke to at the time that the conversations took place. Thus they reflected the concerns and desires of the moment. Local law was neither codified nor legislated. It existed through normative custom, and was regulated by the incumbent monarch at any given time. In this way local legal practices were flexible enough to accommodate changing contexts. Through Shepstone’s intervention, African women were frozen into a moment in the nineteenth century as imagined and narrated through the eyes of black and white men, a moment that saw them as fit only for subjugation. The local traditional systems had been patriarchal. However, this traditional patriarchy was built on kinship, a foundation that made it qualitatively different from patriarchal systems that are anchored in private ownership. Ownership implies an object to be possessed, and a possessor who possesses it. Objects in private ownership need to be quantifiable as they require to be counted. Thus ownership is a system of disaggregation and control as precursors to a central act of acquisition. These precursors render strife and conflict, presented as competition, fundamental in any system (including patriarchal systems) based on private ownership.

On the other hand, systems of patriarchy grounded in kinship acknowledge the infinite nature of relational bonds, and the need to ensure the continuance of these bonds through proper access to resources by everyone. This is why pre-colonial society dealt harshly with individuals said to interfere with the stability of these bonds through practices such as witchcraft. By disrupting positive bonds in society, witchcraft was a threat to social cohesion. Pre-colonial patriarchy was not utopian, as many Africans are inclined to believe, but due to its ideological genesis, it afforded space to and conferred respect on female power: women were kinspeople whose power was to be valued. Accordingly, traditional patriarchy recognised differing degrees and locations of female power. In my part of the world, female power was and still is practised through the male line. A paternal aunt wields power in the extended family that can be regarded as ‘female fatherhood’, even when her status in the family she marries into is the lowly condition of muroora, daughter-in-law – literally the one who is married. Critically, women were not absolutely deprived of power as kinship systems of patriarchy ensured that everyone had power in some capacity. Hence women could and did become rulers and warriors, and royal spirit mediums called mhondoro.

One of the most famous mhondoro is the woman Charwe. Charwe was a spirit medium in the Mazowe Valley area of Zimbabwe, which is some eighty kilometres north of Harare. She was said to become possessed by the spirit of Nehanda, who had co- founded the Mutapa dynasty along with her brother in the fifteenth century. In 1896, Charwe organised a rebellion against the increasingly oppressive British South Africa Company, once of Cecil Rhodes’ private companies, that ruled the area. A particularly tyrannical native commissioner called H. H. Pollard was killed during the rebellion. The company sent its police force to hunt Charwe down. She was captured and hanged in 1897.

With locations of power and influence assured to them, the idea of women in Zimbabwean and many other African settings fighting for power was as absurd as it was an abomination. African philosophy did not proscribe women’s access to power, but through the philosophy of ubuntu whose central tenet is ‘I am because you are’, peace was highly valued and members of communities were expected to practice it, rather than fight each other. Only those who were designated as ‘not I and not you’, which is to say ‘not we’ could legitimately be engaged in combat. As anyone who approached in peace became a ‘you-who-I-am’, the notion of ‘we’ expanded to be inclusive. In the pre-capitalist agrarian societies of African traditional community, women had no incentives to fight for power as a group.

This had all changed by the time my mother was born in the 1920s. In 1899 Cecil Rhodes’ company created a legislative council which effectively turned its territories into a self-governing colony. The British courts, however, ruled that all land that was not privately owned belonged to the British Crown. This ruling entrusted the settlers with responsible government of all the new colony’s land, and its inhabitants. Africans pushed for independence first by peaceful political means, and when these were spurned, through an armed struggle that lasted from 1966 to 1979, ending in a ZANU PF government. Life under this guerrilla-turned-lawmaker government presented dismaying inconsistencies early on in my young feminist days.

Very shortly after the legislation conferring majority status came into law, news of atrocities began to filter through from Matabeleland. It was hard to reconcile the progressive legislation the government enacted with rumours of genocide. Factual information disconfirming or confirming the rumours was practically impossible to obtain as there was a complete black-out in the media – print television and radio – which were all state-owned. The rumours of atrocities in Matabeleland combined with hushed reports of atrocities that these same people had committed during the war, told in small family circles by victims and eyewitnesses, were then repeated in widening circles. Simultaneously, ZANU PF began its campaign to nationalise feminism by rolling its Women’s League out through the nation. The women who had danced and sung, ‘Oh, Mr Mugabe, I want to strap you to my back,’ when ZANU PF returned from the Lancaster House conference proclaiming a triumphant military victory were now harnessed to prop up the ruling party through its feminine structures. The celebratory climate of early independence quickly came to an end. The feminist meetings at the University of Zimbabwe that had so informed my germinal feminism soon came to an end too. White expatriate feminist women left the country. Then, to our dismay, in 1999, less than two decades after its promulgation, the Supreme Court attacked the provisions of the Legal Age of Majority Act.

The attack was made in the infamous case of Magaya v. Magaya. In 1990, only eight  years  after it had passed LAMA, ZANU PF  went  on  to  pass  the Customary Law and Local Courts Act, which harked backed to Shepstone’s positioning of African women. This Act established a new variety of court, called a community court, in order to apply customary law in communities, which meant the reserves that Shepstone had created. By the time the Magaya v. Magaya case came before courts, the Act had already been amended two years previously. Simon Coldham has this to say about the case:

The issue before the court was deceptively simple: when an African male has died intestate, leaving a daughter (his eldest child) by his first marriage and three sons by his second marriage, who is entitled to be appointed heir to his estate? In this case the Community Court had held that the daughter (the appellant) was not entitled to be appointed heir, given that there was a son able to act, and it awarded the heirship to the second son (the respondent), the eldest son having disclaimed it. The daughter appealed to the Supreme Court, challenging the appointment.

The appeal was dismissed.

Under section 68(1) of the Administration of Estates Act, the applicable law at the time, the deceased’s estate fell to ‘be administered and distributed according to the customs and usages of the tribe or people to which he belonged’.

After referring to a number of court decisions as well as two books on African Customary Law, the Supreme Court concluded that an heir succeeded to the status of the deceased, inheriting both rights and responsibilities, and that, in the appointment of heirs, males were preferred to females. The Court then had to address the question whether this discriminatory principle of customary law should either be struck down as unconstitutional or be held to be inconsistent with the Legal Age of Majority  Act.

Several previous decisions that had eroded Zimbabwean women’s rights were cited by the Supreme Court in coming to its decision. The arguments in the Magaya v. Magaya case are telling. In dismissing the eldest’s appeal to be appointed heir to her father’s estate, the 1999 Zimbabwean Supreme Court reasoned that women were discriminated against in inheritance matters not because of an irreversible minority status but because the notion of minority was Western and therefore inapplicable in a traditional setting. The court opined that ‘the reason why men were preferred as heirs was not because women were “perpetual minors”, but because on marriage women would leave the family of their birth and join their husband’s family. The Legal Age of Majority Act was designed “to remove disabilities rather than to confer rights”’, and it was therefore irrelevant in the customary setting. A poor woman who was therefore unable to prove emancipation – and therefore qualification to be tried under Roman-Dutch Law – was discriminated against by the ruling.

In addition, Section 23 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe at the time of the case provided for protection from discrimination. However, this protection only extended to discrimination resulting from ‘race, tribe, place of origin, political opinions, colour or creed’. In spite of the 1982 LAMA conferring majority status on African women, discrimination based on sex remained legal. Other areas in which discrimination on the basis of sex remained legal were in the areas of adoption, marriage, divorce and burial. The source of this discrimination in private ownership of property was evidenced by the failure of the then Constitution of Zimbabwe to provide protection with respect to matters of devolution of property on death, or other matters of personal law, and the application of African customary law in any case involving Africans.

The Supreme Court’s decision, as well as the previous discriminatory decisions on which it relied, emphasised the performative nature of the work of the Zimbabwean state. In 1980 Zimbabwe was a new nation state, with the eyes of the world looking towards it. Progressive  legislation evoked good will towards the new republic. However, the changes were cosmetic. Performative progressive actions were such a staple of the new nation’s patriarchy that feminists needed to be on constant high alert, exhibiting the hypervigilance that is today also a condition of black people in racialised societies. Some actions carried out ostensibly to address gender inequality were downright regressive. After independence, Zimbabwean citizenship laws provided that children born to Zimbabwean fathers were citizens by descent, regardless of the country of birth. This birthright was not extended to the children of Zimbabwean mothers. When women’s rights groups lobbied for the amendment of the law, the birthright was rescinded in the case of children born to Zimbabwean fathers, rather than extended to children born to Zimbabwean mother.



Image © J Swanstrom


Still Born: Nettel, Guadalupe, Harvey, Rosalind: 9781913097660: Books

This is an excerpt from Black and Female by Tsitsi Dangarembga, published by Faber & Faber.

Tsitsi Dangarembga

Tsitsi Dangarembga is the author of three novels: Nervous Conditions, winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize; This Mournable Body, shortlisted for the Booker Prize and The Book of Not. She won the PEN Pinter Prize and the German Book Trade Peace Prize in 2021. Dangarembga is also a filmmaker, playwright and the director of the Institute of Creative Arts for Progress in Africa Trust. She lives in Harare, Zimbabwe.

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