History of South African Bantustans
Local terms and meanings of girlhood
The following narrative dissects meanings of the local terms of girlhood, specifically girlhood in Qondwa village, Mpumalanga Province, South Africa, comprised of the Swazi tribe. These attempted definitions of girlhood defy the Western constructs of childhood as ethnography is carried out in African context of Bantustans (informal settlements created for black people under apartheid policies). Western constructs I refer to here are the legal definitions of a girl (child) being any individual below the age of 18 years. Interestingly, local meanings of girlhood are expressed as any female financially dependent on parents or guardians, regardless of age. Furthermore, a girl transitions into a woman, when financially independent of her parents/guardians, regardless of age. In this voyage, I go beyond the local definition of girlhood, and further explore the objective social expectations of girlhood by the local parents/guardians versus the subjective experiences of girlhood by the ‘girls’ themselves. Here I adopt Karp’s theory of personhood which illustrates that social objective expectations and subjective experiences are never identical thereby leading to my argument that there is no universal meaning of childhood/girlhood as these are constantly shifting, negotiated and contested through space and time.
This five part narrative begins with a thick description of Qondwa village, Mpumalanga which is a South African Bantustan. I elaborate on informal Bantustan settings in the context of South African apartheid history, seeing that apartheid policies anchored the formation of subcultures in South Africa. I proceed to describe three anchoring qualitative methods utilised throughout the duration of fieldwork before presenting the field findings. I close off by analysing findings anchored heavily in the theory of personhood.
History of South African Bantustans
This historical account on South African Bantustans is divided into three parts. In the first section I provide a brief background on apartheid in South Africa which resulted in the formation of Bantustans. Secondly, I provide D’Amato’s (1996) definition of a Bantustan and I draw upon King (2006). Lastly I employ King’s (2007) analysis of Kangwane in particular as a former Bantustan, as well as the uprising of Kangwane as discussed by Ginindza (2012).
Apartheid in South Africa
In 1948, racial segregation was established in South Africa. This segregation was based on a system of laws which were upheld by the Race Classification Boards whereby each individual in South Africa was designated as white, native, coloured or Asian. A person’s racial identity was codified in an ID document. Those who were identified as Black had regulated and restricted mobility to the point where from the 1960s to 1980s, 3.5 million blacks, coloureds and Asians moved to segregated informal settlements and this is when Bantustans were formed. This era of segregation is known as the apartheid era. The idea of geographical isolations of each of the black ethnic groups into separate homelands was the apartheid government’s main idea behind forming Bantustans. This separation meant that the remaining territories of South Africa would be governed by white people. According to the apartheid government, the reasoning behind the separation was that different races would cease unrelenting threats of conflict and this when the idea of Bantustans materialised (King 2004:177).
King (2004) states that prior to the onset of democracy, South Africa was divided into a resource rich area legally set out for the inhabitants of European descent, historically known as ‘white South Africa’. The 1913 Glen Grey Act set down the legislative grounds for the formation of the Bantustans (King 2004:182). King (2004) indicates that the division of South Africa into white South Africa and the black Bantustans served only the interested of the white minority. White South Africa which occupied 81% of the geographical area was the site in which industrial, economic, and commercial farming proceeded apace. In contrast, the Bantustans, legislatively demarcated for black political and civil aspirations, occupied only 19% of the geographical area. Wolpe (1982) argues that these Bantustans (also called ‘native reserves’) served merely as underdeveloped labour reserves of black migrants for the white economy. He questions these methods of distribution and separation of land by arguing that the apartheid government advocated for Bantustans by claiming that black people would become politically independent and economically self-sufficient (King 2004:183).
King (2004) argues that realistically speaking, political independence meant economic interdependence with the white areas. Economic interdependence covered a spectrum of situations, ranging from virtual self-sufficiency with moderate trade to subservience of a manpower pool that would exploit its labour for mines and industries. Such exploitation meant capitalists had no intention of losing their workforce due to resistance. New factories were located along the borders of the Bantustans, phasing out. In this way, white people managed to get labour from Bantustans but remained on English soil which did not advocate for any kind of independence (King 2004:183).
Map of the Bantustans formed during apartheid in South Africa
South African historian Simeon Ginindza (2012), informs readers in his narrative of Kangwane that the masses of people in Kangwane desired to be accorded self-governing status. Such status would give them additional powers to take decisions politically and economically for the improvement of the quality of the socio-economic lifestyle of the oppressed Swazi people at that time (Ginindza 2012:146).
The apartheid government had decided to incorporate Kangwane Bantustan into the region of Swaziland. The size of population of the homeland of Kangwane was in the region of 850000 people. This was the number of people whose citizenship would have to be fortified through the incorporation of Kangwane into the Kingdom of Swaziland, as a means of pseudo-independence. Young and old within and outside the borders of the homeland opposed the incorporation where the Inyadza National Movement was looking for political and financial support and started consultation with the ANC political party in South Africa (Ginindza 2012:146-147). Ginindza states that the ANC was totally against the incorporation of the Kangwane homeland into the Kingdom of Swaziland and supported the programme of politicisation and mobilisation of the masses by the Inyadza National Movement. Despite the political hardships, the Inyadza National Movement triumphed. The Kangwane Legislative Assembly was reinstated in 1983 and in 1984 Kangwane was accorded self-governing status (Ginindza 2012:146-147).
This history of the formation of Bantustans plays a crucial role in the examining of personhood in this space, as described in the following section.
Different persons are culturally defined and recognised by different rights, abilities and responsibilities (Kratz 2000:137). The social actions, responsibilities and choices that any society attributes to an individual reflect its socio-cultural construction of personhood. Persons are attributed readily identifiable agency, as well as responsibilities. However these attributes differ in relation to generational cohort, gender, and socio-economic status, which are determined by space and in this case that of informal settlements. Furthermore, these attributes do not remain fixed through time but is constantly negotiated, reproduced or contested in everyday social interaction and relationships.
Salo (2004) explains how the notions of persons as individual socially recognised actors free from the influence or constraint of socio-cultural relationships and contexts, are regarded as western and associated with the rise of individual economic wealth associated with capitalism. She goes on to state how Fortes’ (1969) and Karp’s (1995) conceptualizations of personhood allow for a more complex notion of agency, that is always relationally defined and negotiated, as well as constrained within these relationships.
Karp (1995) states that personhood ought to be analysed from objective and subjective facets. The objective facet of personhood is the capacities and roles with which society endows an individual whereas the subjective facet is the individual’s own lived experience. This means that although there are societal norms, values and expectations ascribed to an individual, his or her sense of world and sense of themselves are by no means invariant. Occasionally, one may see himself/herself as differentiated and detached from others, other times as one with others (Karp 1995). Here Karp (1995) further argues that emphasis on studying personhood through modes of self-consciousness also entails a praxaelogical perspective and interest not only in how people construct meaning in social life, but in how life is experienced and lived from within the mind of the person (Karp1995:17).It is therefore important to explain agency when discussing personhood.
Salo (2004) draws upon Whyte’s (1990) and Karp’s (1995) explanations of agency, as an expansion of Forte’s (1969) conceptualization of personhood. Whyte (1990) and Karp (1995) indicate that agency is the semantic and bodily means for generating and regenerating the world. Agency is complexly intertwined and determined by history, social structure, and individual choices or intent (Salo 2004:28). Karp (1995) goes on to emphasise that agency itself can never simply mean the free exercise of choice or carrying out of intentions because choice itself is structured (Salo 2004:29).Therefore norms, values, and expectations that society ascribes on individuals are not necessarily how individuals experience these attributes.
When it comes to the personhood of children, rightly asks how children, in this case, the girl child experience, understand and resist or reshape the complex frequently contradictory cultural politics that inform their daily lives. To what extent is this identity conceived as singular and exclusive and what sorts of priorities are asserted in cases where various forms of cultural identity – regional national ethnic minority or indigenous come up against each other. There is a need to re-examine the meaning of childhood in this case, girlhood, where more and more girls are living in multi-cultural settings demanding that they move in and out of diverse social roles and create identities foreign to parents as displayed in the ethnographic journey in this review.
Philippe Aries challenge to naturalistic orthodoxies had major impact on social sciences. The basic assertion her was that the idea of childhood did not exist (Aries 1962:125). Aries argued that modern conception of childhood as a separate life stage emerged in Europe between 15th and 18th centuries together with the bourgeois families’ notions of the home and privacy. The critique of this dissertation may be that there is not enough ethnographic display of the meanings of childhood in the African context. Most literature is embedded with the meanings of childhood in the European context as argued by Aries, which show just how relevant my dissertation is to the body of knowledge regarding the multiples meanings of childhood in Africa (Aries 1962:126). Institutions then contributed to the notion of childhood though the notion mainly catered to upper class society. This opened up the channel of the notion of childhood not being natural but a social construct. As a result, the exploration of the child and its structural role in modern society are still underdeveloped, further highlighting the lack of thick ethnographic examples of the different meanings of childhood.
In the 1948 United Nations Declaration of Human Rights there was no specific reference to children. The foundation for a global standard for children’s rights was laid down in 1959 when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration specified for children separate from and in addition to the rights of adults. Child welfare was identified with protection of the family with no sense of the dangers to the children that that modern family might impose. The charter did not recognise cultural differences in what constitutes the children’s best interest. This declaration was aimed at protecting and nurturing childhood as defined by adults in Western contexts. It is important to note that what this notion of culture has in common with the universal notion of culture as a special symbolic domain. Both emphasize culture as the realm of symbols, language, values and beliefs. Thus a child’s right to a cultural identity is built on liberal democratic principles of tolerance for diverse views and freedom of self-expression (Sanders & Sanders2006:34-37).
I carried this knowledge with me into the field, eager to unearth the meanings of girlhood, in the specific context of a Bantustan setting of Qondwa by implementing qualitative methods of fieldwork.
Data Collection techniques
I quickly learnt that I had to do away with desktop related tools that I had constructed prior to fieldwork, such as surveys and questionnaires. The success of this fieldwork relied heavily on discourse, meaning one on one interviews, focus groups and participant observation. Prior to entering the field I had gone in relying on the methods and strategies of anthropology as I had been trained using Bernard (1994). When in the field I however realised that I had to pick and choose what suited the space situation.
Bernard (1994) states that one should organise and hold focus groups of 6 to 8 people and indeed I entered the field with focus group questions in hand looking to get volunteers for my sessions. It took two weeks of failed attempts at focus groups for the realisation that this strategy was inefficient. Potential participants would either agree to take part, though not be in attendance on the day, or attend though remain awkwardly silent throughout the session. I had to debunk this field situation and I became conscious of the fact that the Swazi appreciate social gathering events so much that there is an event every weekend. Such gatherings include birthing celebrations, beer making ceremonies, ancestral worship celebrations and communal leadership feasting. It is in these events that dialogues within the community is freely exchanged, with the assistance of alcohol which is present in every event. When I started becoming a regular at these events, I started striking up conversations in these groups regarding the intended research.
These focus groups were recorded as instructed in ‘Bernard’s book of fieldwork’ (Bernard 1999:238). I obtained consent from participants to carry out these recordings which were transcribed in the days immediately after the focus groups were held. Recording the interviews was beneficial in that all information provided was captured. It was difficult to write notes or type out information while simultaneously engaging discussions with informants. I observed that writing or typing while informants shared information distracted them, and also made my participation in the events appear manipulative in manner. I did away with the notebook and pen and relied heavily on the recordings, contrary to Bernard’s teachings that recording must not substitute note taking (Bernard 1990:386).
One on one interviews
I selected participants for one on one discussions from observing them in a focus group setting. Having interacted with the participants prior in focus group settings, rapport would have been formed prior to the one on one sessions. During pre-field training I was instructed to embark on fieldwork with a list of questions in hand, also having an idea of who I would carry out the one on one with. In this space, this did not work for the conversations in the one-on one rolled over form the data that I would have gathered from the focus groups, making the learnt strategy inefficient.
It was in hanging out with residents in the absence of questionnaires and surveys that led to the thick data that I obtained. Questionnaires and surveys that I had constructed during my pre-training provided me with the direction that I was to take in terms of themes and topics to discuss, however I did not use these as tools on ground with participants. Firstly what we did not realise prior to embarking fieldwork was that Qondwa’s illiteracy rate ranks high according to South African statistics. Mirroring this was the admission by participants who trusted me enough to share that they could not read what was on the papers that I had presented them with, also that they could not write what I was asking them to.
These fieldwork methods indicate how pre-training is of utter importance prior to entering the field. However depending on the cultural/ socio-economic space that one is entering, there are situations where researcher has to think on his or her feet in terms of strategy so as to obtain thick, rich data without having wasted too much time which is already limited time in the field. This requires cultural openness and a developed skill of analysing a people so as to know which method will obtain one data of substance.
Local terms and meanings of girlhood
The methods that I applied in Qondwa obtained me data of depth regarding girlhood as perceived by local elders, and girlhood as experienced by the ‘girls’ themselves. Throughout this review I provide speech bubbles instead of paraphrasing the conversations for I expressed that I presented my ethnographic journey in a thickly described manner which I find verbatim as one. I believe that ethnography is not only about being on an expedition as the researcher, but as the reader as well, so as to mentally embody the space in question.
‘Qondwa village has raised girls who obey everything that we say. I am proud to be a parent here because our children have been taught values and morals.’ – Mama Saky (mother in Qondwa village).
‘ The stupid adults think we are so angelic and heavenly. Well its either they are really dumb or they choose to believe that.’ – Menenhle (perceived child in Qondwa village)
The day after my arrival at Mama Lucillah’s household (my host), an intimidating cock which I named ‘beastie’ (nickname for beast), was my reliable alarm whether I wished to arise or not. Beastie was intimidating, well fed and wobbled in an unshakable pompous manner. He always flapped his wings as if he was preparing for a Balinese cock fight. As embarrassing as it is to admit, I was frightened of Beastie and as if he sensed my fear, he enjoyed hanging out just outside my door as if he enjoyed my cautious movements around him. Nevertheless, I could rely on him as my daily alarm. I arose, bathed, and made sure that I paid much attention to my style of dress. My supervisor’s colleague spent a total of two years in Qondwa village where he carried out research on sexual violence in the village. Before I headed to the field, he shared with me that Swazi elders regard dressing a symbolism of respect to one’s own body and to others. It is deemed that a respectable woman is one who does not reveal much skin or accentuate body parts such as the thighs, breasts, back and buttocks. Bernard (1996:245) explains how as a researcher, one has the decision or choice to dress to fit different circumstances, which is what I had to do in order to be accepted in the space that the mothers occupied. I normally dress up in sleeveless vests and lose fitting shorts, and occasionally short sleeveless dresses in hot weather. I had to burrow through my packed clothes in my suitcase searching for the longest dress that I had packed at the bottom of the suitcase. The long plain black, loose fitting cotton dress that brushed my ankles was however sleeveless exposing my shoulders and upper back which is deemed unacceptable in the space I was to occupy that day. I threw on a brown shawl that covered my shoulders and upper back despite the heat.
As I tied my long black braids into a bun at the back of my head, I walked towards Mama Linda’s compound where the focus group discussion was to take place. Bearing in mind that the Swazi appreciate events, no matter how small, I organised for this focus group to take place in the form of a ‘tea party.’ My dress appeared as if it had swept all the dust off the dust road and my face as if I had stuck my head through a sauna door and applied dust as makeup on my face. I direly wished for my shorts and vest but quickly shoved my uneasiness at the back of my mind as I approached Mama Linda and her neighbours, Mama Saky, Mama Thuli and Mama B. I made sure to emphasise that this was a more of a ‘tea party’ event more than a question/answer segment, hence the eagerness to participate.
A warm inviting smile complimented Mama Linda’s cheerful demeanour. She had a full voluptuous figure wrapped in blue patterned one piece West African attire with a brown embroidered head piece. ‘ Hello my friend come into the house with that nice dress that you are wearing !’ As I supposed, much attention was paid to my dressing for Mama Thuli was next to comment ‘ Wow you must borrow me that nice dress. It is lovely,’ as she shook my hand and spun me around so as to inspect more. Tall and light in complexion Mama Thuli’s braids were styled into a French plait which fell on her long loosely fit grey dress. Short, bald Mama B had cheek dimples that lit her face. Mama Saki had her feet up on a stool for she suffered from swollen legs. I was grateful that despite her health condition, she had walked from her household a street away to attend this discussion.
We settled in Mama Linda’s hut built of brick and layered over with a brown thick mud. Mama Linda excused herself in order to boil water to serve tea and a heavy meal comprised of rice and chicken, for us as her visitors. The mere thought of eating this heavy meal in the early morning, made me full. However I knew from my Swazi colleague who when a person visits another’s household, he or she is offered a plate of overflowing food, it is a genuine welcoming gesture, regardless of whether he/she had eaten or desires to eat or not. Declining this gesture is deemed as boorish because the hosts interpret the decline as the visitor not being comfortable in the space or wishing to be elsewhere. As much as I wished to decline this I accepted overflowing plate as my token of appreciation for having been welcomed in their space.
As the kettle boiled on the open fire outside, the women finished off a conversation in siSwati which I figured was a melancholic conversation judging from the solemn expressions on their faces. We sat in Mama Linda’s round thatched hut which comprised of a brown two seater couch and a brown three legged coffee table. The two eldest women sat on the couch while we younger women sat on reed mats with our legs stretched out. In Qondwa, offering the elders the only chairs available in a space while younger members sit on the floor is a sign of respect. My host mother and her brother explained this when I had first arrived at their household as a means of explaining why I had to sit on the floor. They explained that biologically, it is argued that younger members are physically healthier than older members. Younger members of the household are able to sit on the floor whereas the elderly need to comfortably rest their ailing bodies. From a cultural perspective it was explained that sitting on the floor symbolises acknowledgement from the younger members that they are less imperative than the elderly and they have much to learn from the wisdom of the elderly.
Upon returning, Mama Linda served us all a cup of tea and two slices of bread and shortly the room went quiet which was my cue to start the discussion. I explained to them that the aim of the discussion was to understand how children grow up here, what adults expect of them, and whether their experience of growing is the same or different to that of older people. Mama B was very jovial and said, ‘ Yes ask all the questions as long as you then write me in your book and tell them that I was the one who gave you all these answers !’ I switched on my recorder after asking for permission from all the participants. As I switched it on, Mama Saky joked asking if they are going to be on radio. As the women laughed Mama Linda tapped my shoulder saying, ‘ Ignore my friend she is crazy. Start your topics my child, ’ and with that I started.
Q: How do you describe a child in Qondwa Village?
Mama Linda: A child is a young person who needs to be take care of by their parents or anyone at home who make sure that they are ok.
Mama B: Yes as long as you are in my house and you eat my food and I work for you so that you are ok, you are still a child.
Q: but the law says that a child is anyone who is under eighteen?
Mama Thuli: Hai. Hai. (In a challenging tone directed at me) Mama Linda and Mama B are right. Even if you are thirty and you do not know how to make yourself ok (you are still financially dependent), you are still a child. You can only support yourself when you are now a big person (adult). It does not matter how old you are.
Q: What expectations and roles do you set for your daughters in the household?
Mama Saky: It is very important that these girls listen to what we say and to what we tell them. If I tell you as a parent that I do not like what you do. You must stop. Because I say so.
Q: May you please give me examples of what you do not like in your household?
Mama Saky: I do not like it for example, when they do not come home when I say that they come home. They should not be outside playing there after five o’clock, and my children I tell them that it is time to come home before the sun go down. They need to listen to me.
Q: What is your reason that they should be home at a certain time? And do they know why they need to be home at that time?
Mama Saky: When they are the age that they understand why they should not be outside after five for example when they are now fourteen years old all the way up to twenty, I tell them. I tell them that it is not safe for them to be outside after that time because when it is night a lot of bad things happen. That is when the thief comes out and those people who drink alcohol who are violent. It is just safe to be at home.
Mama Linda: My children should listen to me when I tell that I want them to do something for me in the house. If I tell my children that they should wash the dishes, they should wash the dishes and not ask any questions. Then after I ask them a few times, they then just know that they are supposed to do the dishes without being asked to do the dishes. Like my child who is twelve years old, she already knows that she should cook when it is now four o’clock and I do not have to ask her to do it because she already do it.
Mama B: I also teach my children to listen to me and to all the elderly in the house and in the community. For example, if my child is playing outside and the elderly woman or man from next door ask my children for something, I teach them that they should do it. Because it is their elderly and they should listen.
Mama Thuli: I just tell my children to respect their elders by not wearing clothes that show their flesh. Hai. Elders must not see your thighs, your breasts, and your back. No. It is very rude because as girl only you should see those parts. Those parts are private. So girls should cover their bodies. Just like you have done.
Q: What if it is just fashion and that is what is sold in the store?
Mama Linda: Haiboooono (Gosh) no fashion there. Just a cheap girl.
Q: Cheap girl?
Mama Linda: (Nods her head vigorously) These girls who just want to sleep around.
Q: Do these expectations and roles differ between girls and boys? If so can you tell me how they differ?
Mama Thuli: Yes they do differ from boy and girl. When you have daughters you want to teach them about things about the house. You want to teach them how to do the dishes, how to sweep the yard and inside the house. You want to teach them how to cook for the family because one day they will get married and they need to cook for their family and if they do not know how to cook, it is you who will look stupid for not teaching her. You want to teach her how to wash clothes and how to sew clothes also. She needs to know how to keep order in the house. And the most important thing is that these girls should not even open their legs to men until they are married.
Me: What about boys? Is it acceptable for them to have se?
Mama Saky: Hm we don’t really worry about the boys and what they do, because they can take care of what happens to them.
Mama Linda: Yes for a boy it is different. The men of the house teach them things about the outside. They are taught how tend to the cattle; feed the chicken, the goats. The boys are taught also how to fix things around the house. For example if the light bulb break, they have to fix it for us, or if the radio is not working. They are in charge of the things to fix.
Q: Mama Saky you mentioned something about having the children home by 5pm every day, does that also mean the boys too?
Mama Saky: No with the boys it depends at what age. If the boy is still small like 7 or 8, yes they should be home at that time. But when they grow older and they are like 23, 24, they can do what they want because they are now old enough to do what they want and they can take care of themself out there (protect themselves from the dangers of the night whereas the girls are unable to do so). I just want to know when he is coming home late so that I know not to wait for him.
All: Ehhhhhhh (saying yes, in agreement)
Q: You said that the boys can take care of themselves. How about the girls?
Mama Thuli: No we are not saying that girls cannot be able to take care of themself. We are saying that the girls are weak and they are the targets of crime. So it is better that they should be home. The boys can fight, girls cannot. Just like girls get pregnant and boys do not. So it is more important for the girls not to have sex before they are starting a family.
Q: Do children get punished if they do not listen to what they are told to do by adults? If so what form of punishment is used?
Mama Thuli: Yes children do get punishment if they do not listen to what we tell them to do. I smack my children on the bum, not too hard. I just want them to know that I am not happy that they did not listen and then I smack. Next time, they will not want me to smack then they will not do it again. With my eldest child who is 24, I do not smack him anymore. I talk to him and I tell him that I do not like what he does. Then I tell him that he cannot go and see his friends for a week. The next time he decides not to listen, he will know that I will say again that he cannot see his friend. Because he loves his friends, he will listen and he will not do it again.
Mama B: Ehh you cannot go up to 26 years and you still beating up that child. That is a bit too grown up you have to find other ways. Like with my child who is now 20, I tell her that if she does not listen I will take away the cellular phone that she saved up money for so long so that she could buy. And because she loves that phone, she will not do it again.
Me: So at what age do you allow your girls to get married?
Mama B: She can get married from anywhere of 15 or 16.
Me: So this means that she will no longer be a girl, she will be a woman?
Mama Saky: Yes she will be a woman because she can now have a family and have sex with her husband
Me: What if she is married but still needs money or food from you as her mother? Is she still a baby or has she grown up because she is married even though she still needs money from you.
Mama Lucillah: Nooo that does not matter that she needs money. We understand that maybe she will not be going to work so we just help her if we can.
Just then an elderly man entered the hut cutting out tea party short. All women stood up as the man went around the circle shaking their hands. As he shook their hands, the women and held their left hands over their right arms as a sign of respect. This gesture is carried out by all women when greeting elderly men in the village as a sign of respect to them as the male heads of the households.
The local meanings of girlhood emerged in this discussion. When I shared with the women that the law states that a child is defined by age, there was intense disagreement. Here a girl is particularly defined by financial dependence, one who obeys, one who diligently carries out household chores, one who dresses appropriately and most importantly, one who abstains from sex. What stood out for me was under the issue of marriages, which in these local spaces, is not illegal. On paper South African legislation holds that for a girl the minimum age for marriage is 15 years old, though for a boy 18 years old. Exceptions can also be granted with the permission of the Minister or any public officer in question, meaning a 13 year old can be granted marriage (Kwedza 2015;345). Locally, this 13 year old is regarded older than an unmarried 24 year old. This information put a spring in my step as I saw that I was in for interesting unearthings. This conversation highlighted the objective facets of girlhood in Qondwa by local mothers, and I could not wait to dig into the subjective experiences of girlhood by the girls themselves.
Realities versus Expectations
With the information floating in my head regarding the meanings of girlhood as shared by the mothers, I spent a good deal of my time hanging out with three high school pupils whom I named Thandiwe (18), Menenhle (19), and Buhle (18). Legally, these three individuals are not children therefore academically qualifying them eligible to participate in my research. On the other hand all three reside with their parents in Qondwa village, making them children.
Hanging out with these girls showed a sharp contrast between the objective and subjective personhood of children in Qondwa village. Buhle, Thandiwe and Menenhle invited me to lunch soon after my discussion at Mama Linda’s. I felt uncomfortable in the heat with the ankle length dress and the shawl wrapped round my shoulders. I was engulfed in the personhood of girlhood as well, since at the time I was unmarried, childless and living under my parents’ roof. I was playing into this objective personhood when I was in the company of the mothers so as not to disrespect their space as I needed to be in their welcomed presence. Practicing agency away from them, I threw off the shawl as a means of preventing combustion from the furnace ball, oblivious to the disapproving looks from elderly women I passed along the road.
I was content as being viewed as ‘ Jezebel ’ if that meant that I would cool down. A Jezebe l is a term used in local terms to describe any young woman who dresses in a manner that reveals shoulders, thighs and her back. This term is derived from a biblical character whose name was Jezebel. She was known as the village harlot who was able to seduce any man that she encountered. Her name, Jezebel is both a noun and a verb in Qondwa whereby a girl or woman who seduces boys or men is known to be ‘ Jezebelling’. It is interesting to note that there is not a negative term that describes a boy or man who womanises. These boys and men are given different labels such as, ‘ Mr lover boy’ or ‘ The Main Man,’ which are both terms linking their actions to awe, encouragement and praise, illustrating gendered dynamics of sexuality in Qondwa village.
I arrived at the eating place and I literally stood by the entrance of a grocery shopping store called PicknPay, for there was a fan by the door. Paying no mind to the stares cast by passers-by, I continued fanning myself, and drinking a bottle of warm water due to the heat that had turned my bag into an oven. I then gathered the strength to go and sit in the Kentucky Fried Chicken diner where I prayed that the air conditioner was on. I reached the air conditioned place and plonked myself on an empty table waiting for Buhle, Thandiwe and Menenhle. As the server shouted an order frustrated that the person was not coming forth to collect the order, my informants walked in and I waved my hands frantically hoping they would spot me so that I would not have to bustle among the crowd to walk towards them.
Buhle caught me off guard as she pointed at my dress and the shawl on the table and exclaimed. ‘Why the heck are you wearing that? Did you come from church?’ This comment was in sharp contrast to that of the women that I had interviewed earlier at Mama Linda’s compound. The very same girls that they expected to dress in a certain manner only did so in certain spaces such as in churches and in households where their parents and guardians were present. These girls did so in order to avoid upsetting the adults and to avoid conflict. Spaces where their parents and guardians were not present, allowed these girls to dress in a manner that pleased them, allowing expression of subjective personhood. They were not too concerned by the disapproving looks of other adults for they did not reside with them and they were strangers to them for Qondwa village was an hour’s walk away from this diner. The possibility of adults in Qondwa from spotting them was possible but slim. However, if they were to be in the same space with their specific guardian or parent their manner of dress would be the same as mine during the focus group discussion I held at Mama Linda’s compound, regardless of the space they occupied. Thus, considerations on appropriate dress are not only about space but also about whether a parent or guardian will be present in the same space.
Laughing I answered that I held a focus group with some mothers and they all echoed, ‘ Ah,’ acknowledging that there was a need to be dressed in that manner in that space. Petite, light in complexion Buhle wore a short green skirt that ended just above her knees and a black lace sleeveless blouse that hugged her flat stomach. Her red lipstick complimented her red nail varnish. I yearned for the shirt that she wore for I imagined it let the air conditioner work its magic on her skin. Thandiwe wore a long black skirt and a sleeveless red see-through blouse which showed her matching red bra which also matched her red clutch bag. Menenhle wore a green jumpsuit. Her mascara was perfectly applied on her eyes and her toe nails perfectly painted in black nail polish. The reason I was particularly interested in observing how they were dressed was because of the discussion that I held with the parents earlier that morning. I also asked them when they had had the time to change their school uniforms. Mene (her shortened name for Menenhle) answered, ‘It was easy. We knew that we were coming here so we put these clothes in our bags so that we do not waste time to go home and change. ’ I asked them if they had to change when out of the school uniform and Buhle responded saying, ‘ No but who wants to walk around in that nasty ugly uniform! The skirts are so long like what the hell?’ We laughed while we decided what to eat and as we waited I asked them if they usually wore those clothes at home. Menenhle laughed and said, ‘No at home I would not wear this only. In my bag I have a little jersey that I will wear when I am going back to the house otherwise if I get there just like this they will look at me. ’ Buhle then said, ‘ I do not always dress like this. I picked this because I knew that I was going to go back home when my mother would have not returned from work. Usually I wear miniskirts and high heels, but that is only when I know that they will not see me at home . Thandiwe then said, ‘ Well I wear what I want when my mother and father are not around. Otherwise I wear ugly clothes, like what you are wearing now’ (laughter).
I asked them what would happen if they wore those clothes at home and they all agreed that their parents would punish them for they would have been disobedient. Buhle further explained that their parents took dressing seriously saying that people in the village should see that they respect their bodies by the way that they dress and that failure to do so would lead to disappointing the parents. Buhle then exasperated said, ‘ I just don’t damn get it though. It is bloody hot like blistering hot yet we should be dressed like monks. I like dressing like this because this is cool, it lets in fresh air dammit! It has nothing to do with Jezebeleeweee (dragging the last syllables for Jezebel) Ah!’
They all nodded in agreement as I asked what they thought about the term Jezebel regarding clothing. ‘ That’s just stupid,’ exclaimed Mene, ‘ Yes there are a lot of Jezebels here but just because you wear clothes like this it does not mean that you are a Jezebel, just like if you wear those long garments it does not mean that you are innocent either!’. Thandiwe chipped in saying, ‘ Uh yes hey. Like a lot of those girls you see always wearing those amagamanzi (garments), oh some of them will steal your man while you are looking. It has nothing to do with what you wear. ’
The issue of dress code sparked a heated discussion with these girls. They were irritated by the fact that they were expected by their parents to wear full clothing in the heat. They were irritated further by the fact that the term Jezebel was used to describe a girl who wore revealing clothes. They expressed that some of the girls simply wore revealing clothes because of the hot weather so as to keep cool. These girls and I seemed to have a similar strategy in terms of dressing for the space. This is a situation which required negotiating personhood through agency. We wore clothes we were expected to wear when in our households, however away from that space such as the park; we wore clothes that we desired. Objective personhood here, drawing from Karp (1995) meant displaying the ideal girl that was explained by the women which entails dressing in the manner that they prefer. Subjective personhood here is the style of dressing away from the spaces occupied by parents or guardians. I was eager to spend more time with these girls in order to observe this duo personhood in different spaces. The girls and I parted ways for they had to head back to their households to assist in dinner preparations. I headed back to Mama Lucillah’s household where I laid my head on the pillow and did not awake until the next day when the alarm crowed.
Hanging out in the tavern
This section aims to draw out how childhood, girlhood in particular, is negotiated in the particular socio/geographic space of the tavern hereby eliciting the argument that childhood is constantly negotiated. A tavern is a South African local bar in an informal settlement. Menenhle, Thandiwe, Buhle and I had organised a Saturday where we would hang out at a youth tavern without their parents’ knowledge. Their parents frowned upon hanging out in taverns. Menenhle’s mother once described the tavern as a space where ‘ kids go to get babies.’ Once I bought bread from one of the village grocery outlets where I listened to a conversation between the vendor and one of her customers. The vendor explained that her grandchild was influenced by promiscuous girls to attend a party at a tavern. This implies that taverns are a place where promiscuous girls hang out. Again the focus is on the girl child with little or no mention of the behaviour of boys at taverns. I looked forward to becoming one of those ‘promiscuous girls’ together with Menenhle, Thandiwe and Buhle.
That afternoon, I dressed up in a manner acceptable for a tavern space. From my own experiences of attending clubs and also just passing by the taverns I knew what one was expected to dress like when going to a tavern. Long skirts, scarves and shirts that cover the upper body, are not typically considered to be the style of dress in tavern spaces. A tavern is the turf where one can wear dresses that look as if the tailor ran out of fibre to complete it. It is the turf where women show off their biological gifts and men feast their eyes upon these females. My dilemma was leaving Mama Lucillah’s household dressed in the outfit that I wanted to wear at the tavern. The outfit that I had set aside for the tavern was tight black jeans that stuck to my skin as if trying to become my skin. The shirt was green, backless. The other girls were faced with the same dilemma so they made an arrangement with a woman named Lethabo whom I so desperately wanted to meet because of the number of times she was referred to by the girls when discussing adventurous weekends. Lethabo is categorised as a woman in the local meaning of the term because she owns an apartment in Malelane town away from her family in Qondwa village. She does not depend on them financially; therefore she transitioned from a girl to a woman. Lethabo and the girls agreed that we would change into our tavern attires at Lethabo’s apartment so as not to be seen wearing those clothes by family members. I too left Mama Lucillah’s household wearing a long white skirt and a black full sleeved t-shirt. I told my host mother that I would be back before dark and I made my way to Lethabo’s apartment with a change of clothes in my bag.
I arrived at Lethabo’s apartment where Menenhle unlocked the door. Lethabo was absent but she had given Mene the key to the house so that we could use the facilities there to dress up and then head to the tavern. Dressing up was enjoyable and interesting with much exchange of jewellery and make up. Mene’s famous statement was, ‘Girls you got to look good out there , ’ while Thandiwe expressed how she was careful not to apply too much makeup so that it would be easy to remove it when going home to her parents. Menenhle wore a silver one piece jumpsuit and painted her fingernails silver to match the outfit. The black shoes that she wore complimented her black clutch bag and a black chain that she wore round her neck. Thandiwe wore a short pink dress and white sandals. The dress defined her petite figure. Buhle wore black jeans and a yellow sleeveless blouse and a black figure belt around her waist bringing out her small waist and her big derriere. We all complimented each other on how elegant we looked and I asked them how they got their outfits for I was certain their parents would not have purchased these clothes for them. Mene got her outfit from one of her ex-boyfriends, Thandiwe from a cousin who works as a waitress in Johannesburg, and Buhle got the outfit from different friends around the village.
We then headed to the tavern using a route that Mene described as ‘hardly used’, reducing the chances of being seen by any of the neighbours, or even worse, her parents. We were well aware that the adults would disapprove of the way in which we were dressed for they would see it as sexually provocative yet we saw this style of dress as fit for the tavern space. We attracted a lot of attention on the way to the tavern and I was not sure why this was so until Mene explained that I was the talk of the village at that moment as the girl from Pretoria. ‘Don’t worry just ignore them they are just jealous ’, commented Buhle, brushing her hair away from her forehead. I asked Thandiwe if it was a tavern for young people and she explained that it was for all ages but most of them had curfews so the young people generally came late afternoon and left around 8pm.
We strolled into the tavern to buy some drinks and as I walked in I got the feeling of walking into a sauna. This particular sauna would be accompanied by sweat and the smell of urine which swept through from the toilets. The chipped cream walls dripped of sweat as people were standing on the tables, dancing and breathing heavily to the heart vibrating bass of South African house music by the popular group Mafikizolo. By the bar, boys bought drinks for girls who giggled and smiled constantly while enjoying having alcoholic drinks come their way. One could tell that the boys buying drinks were wooing the girls by the way that they held the girls around their waists or perused their legs and backs. It was as if Menenhle read my mind when she shouted into my ear over the music, ‘ Now this is how you get men and boys to hook up with. Just make eye contact and they will come and get you a drink’. After we bought our own drinks, we went outside in search of fresh air, but the heat welcomed us as we sat on hot cement benches.
A group of four girls seated on the table next to ours attracted most of the attention from the collective group for they sang along to songs that the deejay played the loudest, danced in provocative manners which delighted the men, and made girls who were with their boyfriends feel intimidated and insecure. ‘ These girls are irritating ’, commented Mene and I asked if they knew each other and Mene responded that they did not like each other. Thandiwe then offered more information:
‘You see that one, the one in the zebra dress, she is only 13 and we do not know how many abortions she has had. She has had so many and when you go to church, she is one of the ushers there. She stands there looking like she love God so much and then we come here when it is not Sunday, and see for yourself. Humph that one, hai (expression of disgust)’.
From the information Thandiwe shared about the girl, the girl is a prime example of an individual displaying duo-personhood depending on the space which she occupies. In the church space she had to behave in a reserved, obedient manner as preached and instructed by the Holy Bible. Away from church spaces she was free to engage in sexual activities and attend taverns, much at the judgement of others such as Thandiwe. What was interesting is that Thandiwe was quick to point her out for displaying two characters, yet Thandiwe had another set of clothes to change into when returning to her household.
I had to use the toilet and to reach it at the far end of the tavern I had to pass the bar and all the tables. On my way there, I passed a table where one man grabbed my hand and pushed me to him. My immediate reaction was to grab my left pocket where I had pepper spray for safety precautions, but I quickly reminded myself that I was in a tavern where these gestures were bound to take place. I took back my hand and he stood up and whispered in my ear in siSwati. He was tall and skinny and wore clothes that seemed to be triple his size. He wore a number 11 basketball jersey and brown jeans with brown tennis shoes. His left ear was pierced with a gold stud that complimented his front gold tooth. I told him that I did not understand siSwati and with the smell of a Hunters Gold alcoholic drink, he whispered again, ‘let me buy you a drink’. My immediate reaction was to decline the offer but I quickly remembered that I was there for research and opportunities like this would help a great deal in terms of gathering data. I told him that I needed to go to the bathroom and that I would return to his table.
The toilet was grimy. The white floor was sticky which made me guess that it was not water spilled from the taps but urine. The hand basins contained wet tissue with which people had wiped their hands. The cubicle that I first entered had blood smeared on the toilet seat – possibly from a tampon or sanitary pad. The second cubicle that I entered was a tad cleaner and I squatted over the seat to avoid touching it. The toilet did not flush and when I wished to wash my hands there was no water. I did not want to take out the face tissue that I had in my bag for fear of being viewed as a snob, but for hygienic purposes I had to, despite being stared at.
I returned to the table where the guy I named Zaki awaited me. We went to the bar together and I thanked him for the drink and walked away to the table where the girls were sitting, not realising that Zaki had followed me although I had expected it. ‘ Who is that guy ?’ Buhle asked. And I responded saying that he bought me this drink. ‘Oh no, he is going to stick on you the whole time now ’. Indeed he did. We had small conversation and he asked me what I was doing in the village, showing that he had already heard about me. When I explained he just laughed and said he could ‘ show me a good time’ which is colloquial speech for ‘engage in sexual activities’. He plopped himself next to Thandiwe where he slurred, ‘ You girls are so beautiful. I want to buy drinks for all of you. But this one (pointing at me ) I already buy her a drink’. Menenhle was annoyed and said, ‘Nyasha, give him back his bloody drink or give him back his money so that he can leave you alone’. He then started speaking in s iSwati to the girls and I could see that they were getting irritated. I suggested that we leave for the sun was now setting. As we left, Zaki grabbed my hand again and demanded ‘ let’s go’. He then let go of my hand and we left the tavern while he was shouting obscenities in si Swati.
I relate this ethnographic experience to Wojcicki’s (2002) ethnography of taverns in Soweto and Hammanskraal. She explains that it is argued that when a woman accepts beer from a man she is obliged to exchange it for sex because ‘she drank his money’. According to Wojcicki (2002), this agreement is entered into by women who seek survival sex. Survival sex is a process whereby a woman accepts a beer from a man and exchange sex whereby they then form a relationship where the man financially provides for the woman. She highlights that this is different from commercial sex where sex workers stand in the streets specifically looking for money in exchange for sex with no relationship aspect to it (Wojcicki 2002: 272). In Qondwa village, adults share the same sentiments. My host mother, for example, once said to me, ‘ In the taverns girls look for money and the men look for sex ’.
This explains why Zaki was so furious when I walked away after I accepted his drink, but did not offer anything more than a ‘thank you’. This general understanding that when bought a drink, some transactions must take place is further illustrated in Wojcicki’s findings. One participant in her research was quoted saying ‘ They buy me beer and as we are busy drinking, I ask him not to buy anymore because I know the right time will come. So then comes the time when I have to go to his place (Wojcicki 2012:275).
I find Wojcicki’s research limited due to her methodology based purely on interviews. She used a standard questionnaire and the disadvantage of her sole reliance on it was that the participants felt inclined to tell her what they thought she wanted to hear (Wojcicki 2012:269).Also, spending time with the participants would have revealed more information. I, for instance, learnt after several visits to taverns that requests for sex did not always follow accepting a drink from a male. Zaki was the only one who shouted obscenities at me after I had received a drink from him but then left him without falling for his suggestions. Upon refusal of their requests, other boys and men I encountered just moved on to the next girl or woman. Different boys and men handled the situation differently, thus to state categorically that taverns are places where women look for sex and men expect it, paints a generalised distorted picture.
We proceeded back to Lethabo’s apartment where we had to change and remove our makeup before returning to our prospective households. I then took the opportunity to discuss some of the issues that I wanted to discuss in a focus group. I spoke casual English in an attempt not to change the atmosphere from playful to serious.
Q: Whilst growing up, how did parents and adults in the community respond to you guys when you would ask about sex and relationships?
Buhle (washing her face in the bathroom and yelling): Questions? Questions? Nyasha this is not the movies where you see white parents sitting with their children and asking them about their sexuality and telling them what to do and not to do. Here we do not ask any questions to anyone. You just have to figure it out by yourself!
Menenhle (throwing herself on the bed and removing her heels): Yes! That is it. You do not ask adults questions here because they will think that you are being too fast forward.
Q: What does ‘fast forward’ mean?
Menenhle: Yes fast forward is when a child wants to know or do things that only adults should do. So me asking about sex is me being fast forward because here sex is only for adults.
Thandiwe (brushing her teeth to get rid of the smell of alcohol): You can even get beaten for asking those questions. If you have a question you go to ask your friends at school. You do not say anything at home.
Q: Where do children mostly learn about sex and sexuality? (laughter)
Buhle: Let me tell you, from many many places. These parents think that because they do not talk to us, we don’t know how to find out about these things. When I was 13, I had this boyfriend who was 18 years old. He taught me a lot of things.
Thandiwe: Stuff like what? Tell us. (laughter)
Buhle: You guys know (laughter)
Menenhle: Yes but Nyasha does not know!
Buhle: Ok Ok. He taught me how to give him head (colloquial speech for performing oral sex).
Menenhle: Yah (Yes) that’s true. We learnt from older guys. The guy that I lost my virginity to was 20 years old when I was 15. He taught me everything that I know. But also we learn from other places like by listening to other older kids talk about their experiences.
Thandiwe: There is also pornography. There are a lot of porn DVDs (Digital Versatile Discs) that we can buy and then watch at a house of a friend for example. We used to go watch it here at Lethabo’s house because we knew that at our house we would get caught because there are always people there.
Q: Where else do you think children learn about sex? Are there no ways that they could learn from home?
Thandiwe: Home? No ways!
Q: Do children experiment sexually? And if they do, with who?
Buhle: Yes it goes back to dating older guys who know what they are doing and they teach you. That is who you then start experimenting with. It has to be done in secret otherwise oh if any of these older people find out, they will beat you til you are almost dead, and they will chase you out of the house.
Menenhle: That is why Lethabo had to go and live by herself. Her father caught her doing stuff with the step uncle. So she had to leave.
Q: Are conversations held with children about their sexual rights and responsibilities? Where?
Thandiwe: Yes but all they tell you is no sex before marriage. That does not help us much does it? (laughter)
Buhle: One time I asked what is the best way to prevent pregnancy between the pill and condoms. Then the teacher said why should I know that when I am not yet at the stage where I can have sex. And he never answered my question.
Menenhle: Yes the three of us are not liked by teachers. They think that we know too much because of the questions that we ask in school during Life Orientation (a South African school subject in life skills). One time I also asked that why is it that we should just know that we mustn’t have sex and not talk about sex itself. The teacher just continued marking his paper without even acting like he heard me. And there have been many rumours about the three of us. Some are true though! (laughter). We will tell you some other time don’t worry.
The above conversation confirms that sex is not a topic discussed between parents/guardians and children, girls in particular. However, this does not imply that these girls do not possess subjective experiences through agency. These ‘girls’ explore with boys and men who are knowledgeable about sex and learned from there. It is understood that sex and sexuality is a taboo topic to discuss with parents/guardians. Jewkes et al (2005) had similar findings in their research about sexual behaviour in rural South Africa. After carrying out several focus group discussions in a rural area in Durban South Africa, one of their findings was that sexual behaviour was a taboo subject. Jewkes et al (2005) also found that there was hardly direct usage of the term ‘sex’; instead, their participants found ways of saying the term in a polite way. For example, they used the isiZulu term shaya, which actually means ‘hitting’ or ‘beating’, as a euphemism for ‘sex’.
I then wrapped up the session and we walked to the taxi rank from where we were to go to our respective households. When I reached my household I said my goodbyes to the girls and was immediately welcomed by my host mother who was ironically at the same spot where the taxi dropped me off. ‘ Who are those girls?’ she asked me. I told her that they were my friends and she linked arms with me saying, ‘Just be careful of the people that you go to play with. Those girls are not so good girls ’. I asked her what she meant by that and she just replied ‘ nothing just be careful.’ I found it interesting that she asked me who they were and immediately after warned me about them. This meant that she knew who they were and that was her way of seeking confirmation.
Judging by the knowledge of sex and sexuality that these girls held, the clothes that they wore upon our first meeting, and the warning that I received from my host mother about hanging out with them, it seemed these girls were knowledgeable about sex and sexuality. As much as they attempted by all means to engage in secret sex, the community was tiny and it took just one person to spread what one had encountered. Holly (2006) carried out research with a similar calibre of participants in Tari town, Papua New Guinea, where she spent 26 months among the Huli people. Her core interest was Papua New Guinea’s gender relations in contemporary context. Her key informants were four sisters whom the community labelled as pasinja meri, literally meaning ‘deviant women’. These sisters were labelled as defiant because they sexually flirted in public and were sexually intimate with men in public. Holly (2006) notes that one of the sisters embraced the pasinja meri label by deliberately flirting in public, shouting provocative words in the streets, and socializing with men while dressed in revealing clothes. In the case of Thandiwe, Menenhle and Buhle, their sexual activities were carried out away from the public eye; however their style of dress and rumours of having been spotted at the taverns was sufficient enough to be labelled as iyapapa (fast forward). The term fast forward here means that the girl knew too much about sex, yet they were children who were expected to be ignorant about sex.
The term pasinja meri carried a dual meaning. Holly (2006) explains that on the one hand, the term was mobilised by community members including men, hospital employees, police officers and religious authorities. The term was meant to categorise women, stigmatize their behaviour, and control other women. On the other hand, some women such as these sisters embraced the label pasinja meri as a means of contesting societal expectations, norms, and values ascribed to them. They embraced the label with gleeful impudence. Similarly, Menenhle referred to herself as ‘ the bad bitch’ and Thandiwe as ‘ man stealer. ’ The term bad bitch here means that she is ‘ fast forward’ and proud. Man stealer means that she had the sexual power to lure married men or boys in relationships, into sleeping with her. These girls were adamant that their parents believed the obedient child facade that they displayed when they were in the household. The rumours of them being ‘bad’ began and ended with the children in the village and never reached their parents.
Overtime I did begin to realise that as much as ‘girls’ feigned ignorance regarding sex and sexuality when in the space of parents/guardians, many of them were well aware as well as experienced.
This three part voyage will continue with an expedition of ‘boyhood’ in a different informal settlement setting in South Africa. I continue to argue that there is no universal definition or meaning of childhood as these are complex, contested, and negotiated through agency and structures. The last part of this series will be a cross comparison of ‘girlhood’ in this setting tackled, and ‘boyhood’ that will be executed as described. The cross comparison aims at stringing together the similarities of objective versus subjective childhood in informal settlements of South Africa, as well as outline the differences from one particular settlement to another, seeing that childhood is not and cannot be universal cross culturally.
IN LOVING MEMORY OF
ELAINE ROSA SALO
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- Catalog Number
- Institution / College
- University of Pretoria
- Girlhood childhood variant meanings of childhood