By Dikeledi Mokoena
The obsession with gender exclusively as a statistical venture for abating inequalities without interrogating the fundamental problems African women are facing will endlessly lead us to applying insignificantly fruitful tools of “women empowerment” within the status quo/coloniality. It is important for us to critically think about the modern economy which we partake in forcing us to rat-race for development and progress. Economic progress is an unending process we could never catch up with if ours is to become an African modern continent emulating European modernity owing its success to imperialism, capitalist exploitation, racially structured international division of labour, patriarchy, sexism, ableism, veiled religious fundamentalism and many other pathogens.
Decolonial scholars have meticulously revealed to us that the brighter side of modernity, which is technological advancements, great economies, coveted institutions, development and all the glittery things that make the poor in Africa risk their lives to ferry to Europe. The same western progress that leads our best African minds to flee to the Euro-American North and proudly attach to their identities double-barrel nationalities such as Nigerian-American. And for some of those who remain behind gaze with envy and find comfort in glutenous consumption of imperial thought processes, ways of being, cultures and products. Of course I have no problem with international trade, but thus far it has undertaken the form of imperialist warfare[i].
Unfortunately, there is a darker side to this modernity, it is premised on racialized and gendered processes of capitalist exploitation and South African history is one of the examples of how this order was/is created and recreated. With this in mind, I wish to ask each African the following questions. When we speak of renewal, when we conceptualize Afro-modernity and/or the African renaissance are we intending to reproduce the status-quo/coloniality which is fundamentally exclusionary and the criteria of exclusions are determined by class, race, gender, religion, ethnicity, language, geographic location, age, sexuality and many other socio-historically constructed politicized identities? Or do we seek an inclusive renewed Africa?
I will try to be optimistic and state that we seek an inclusive society whereby none will justify the domination or exploitation of others including the reproduction of racism whatever its economic merits are. I highlight the economic dimension of racism so as to remind many of us who praise South Africa’s colonial and apartheid legacies and success in terms of infrastructure and economic development to keep in mind that the foundation and success of the white dominated South African economy owes its emerging economy and top-economy-in-Africa status to the super-exploitation of Black South Africans and the extra-super exploitation of Africans from other African countries.
However, an optimist believing in an inclusive renewed Africa, believes that South Africa’s mimicry of neo-colonial tendencies and racist interactions with the rest of Africa[ii] will cease. It means our African Union will not be silent on issues of discrimination against queer Africans when other forms of oppression are chastised[iii]. It means religious affiliation or ethnicity will not determine which regions within our states will benefit from public service, welfare and patronage. It means urban development will not be at the neglect and underdevelopment of the rural areas. By the way, “development is a product of race, and functions as technology of implementation of the death/sub-humanization project. As a tool of race. Or more precisely of white supremacy, development has been forged to legitimize and maintain coloniality.”[iv] Modernity and coloniality are two sides of the same coin[v]. However, let us continue to pretend that what we seek in Africa is radically different. Let us believe that our modernity will ensure that women are participating in the economy and are remunerated fairly for their labour and that patriarchal traditions which oppress women will be a thing of the past. We will have all of these realities and become the number one economy in the world. After all, modernity demands out of us to be obsessed with GDP[vi].
As we chase the $28 trillion global GDP expansion target for 2025, the agents of development and economic progress are, with good intentions, advocating for women empowerment which simply means the inclusion of women into the modern economy. Unfortunately, the deception is that the benefit thereof is gender equality. I say this is a deception because the chase is facilitated by the current neoliberal capitalist rules of the game. Others have argued that the issue is with neoliberal capitalism and not capitalism per se[vii]. Thus the state’s involvement in the capitalist economy may help address disparities caused by this inherently crisis prone system of economic activity.
Let us, for argument’s sake go along with this belief and think about the complex issues of the African state which was captured from its very foundation. This means, we have inherited a state that has imperialism, racism and patriarchy deeply coded in its DNA and has low capacity to address the challenges faced by Africans today, who in the original gaze of the colonial state were sub-human. The very same state failed to recognize African women as equal sub-humans and never understood the economic institutions that the same women were involved in and continue to dominate to this day.
These economic institutions are today engines of what we refer to as the informal economy and we the disciples of GDP seek to regulate them as we chase national GDP growth. Of course the purpose is to ultimately have them contribute to the state’s tax revenue which would help finance the services that the same women largely benefit from. And to grant the marginalized the pride of knowing that they contributed to investing in an economic environment that makes us palatable to investors thus reproducing the same cycle of capitalist expansion. Understanding capitalism as a world system, which configures the economic, intellectual, political and social world in hierarchical ways, means that we accept that ending gender inequalities is an impossible task particularly under the current logic of modernization, be it an African version adjusted from the European one or its exact replica.
Inequalities are an inherent part of modern capitalist system and addressing gender as if it is an independent variable that is not interlinked with other forms of oppression would mean that the voices of the most marginalized women have been ignored. The voices that say that gender oppression intersects with other forms of hierarchies which reinforce one another. This simply means we cannot address gender inequalities without addressing issues of class for instance. If we choose to “empower women” in the same way that we are currently doing, we will reproduce intra-gender inequalities as we see the disparities among African women. Romanticizing communism will not work either, it cannot guarantee the eradication of patriarchal consciousness and institutions. When we decide to understand that African women are no longer a homogenous group and that the issue if fundamentally modernity entangled with its darker side of coloniality, we will begin to appreciate the mammoth task ahead of us and also trigger our creative faculties to begin the process ideas and concrete plans for radically change society in ways that reflect the founding merits of African ways of being where each human being has value and the environment is not perceived as an object of conquest and exploitation. Once our worldview/sense alters, the new paradigm will guide the ideas and practices that yield new ways of thinking and doing economics and politics thus re-configuring our social order and definitely the status of all women.
**Mokoena is a PhD candidate in Political Studies at the University of Pretoria. Her research interests are in Political Economy, Gender and Decoloniality. She also teaches at the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute (TMALI).
[i] See Yash Tandon (2016). Trade is War. OR Books: New York
[ii] See Liesl Louw-Vaudran (2016). South Africa in Africa: Superpower or Neocolonialist. Tafelberg. Cape Town
[iii] See the African Union agenda 2063
[iv] See Julia Suarez-Krabbe (2016). Race, Rights and Rebels: Alternatives to human rights and development from the global south. Rowman and Littlefield: London. Pp, vii, italics added
[v] See Sifiso Ndlovu-Gatsheni and many other decolonial scholars.
[vi] See Lorenzo Fioramonti (2013). Gross Domestic Problem: The Politics behind the world’s most powerful number. Zed Books: London
[vii] See Joseph Stiglitz and other neoliberal regulationists