The Pursuit of Freedom in South Africa: An Interview with Dr. Gabeba Baderoon

This post is part of our forum on “The End of South African Apartheid Anniversary.” 

Credit: Stellenbosch University

In today’s post, Black Perspectives’ Senior Editor Tiana U. Wilson interviews Dr. Gabeba Baderoon, a South African poet, editor, academic, memoirist, and performer. Prof. Baderoon is an Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, African Studies, and Comparative Literature at Penn State University. She received her PhD in English from the University of Cape Town and has held Post-doctoral fellowships in the Africana Research Center and the “Islam, African Publics and Religious Values” Project. Among her honors are the Sarah Baartman Senior Fellowship at the University of Cape Town, an Extraordinary Professorship of English at Stellenbosch University, and fellowships at the African Gender Institute, the Nordic Africa Institute, Bellagio, and the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study. Dr. Baderoon is the author of Regarding Muslims: from Slavery to Post-Apartheid, which received the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences Best Non-fiction Monograph Award, and the poetry collectionsThe Dream in the Next BodyA hundred silences, andThe History of Intimacy. Her poetry has been recognized with the Daimler Award, the Elisabeth Eybers Poetry Prize, the University of Johannesburg Prize for South African Writing, and a Best Poetry Book Award from the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences. Prof. Baderoon also co-edited the award-winning essay collection, Surfacing: on Being Black and Feminist, with Prof. Desiree Lewis.

Tiana U. Wilson [TUW]: April 2024 marks the thirtieth anniversary of South Africa’s first democratic election. When considering the history of South Africa since the end of apartheid, what are some common misconceptions about the country’s social, political, cultural, or economic context?

Gabeba Baderoon [GB]: In some ways, South Africa is viewed through a too-neat narrative in the US, rather than for its tangled and ongoing political, social, artistic, and intimate challenges and realities. As you have already documented on Black Perspectives, this too-easy legibility to the US political system comes from the ways South Africa seems to align with liberal narratives of race and political transformation. But there is a larger, more complex story to be told, one that reaches back to the colonial period and attends acutely to gender, slavery, transnational solidarities, and the compromises and disappointments that have followed the initial hopes of the 1990s. And despite this, the visions and practices of freedom unique to these struggles remain a legacy of the long pursuit of liberation in South Africa.

TUW: You are currently the co-director of the African Feminist Initiative at Penn State University with Alicia Decker and Maha Marouan. You have also written extensively about Black South African feminists, many of whom came to the forefront of social movements during the anti-apartheid struggle. Can you share with us two or three examples of how the Black women you study discuss, analyze, and theorize about oppression and South Africa’s apartheid in the twentieth century through an intersectional lens and experience?

GB: One of the most important and illuminating examples of the difference that women make to a country’s history can be seen in Makhosazana Xaba’s brilliant edited collection, Our Words, Our Worlds: Writing on Black South African Women Poet, 2000-2018 (2019). This book shows how poetry written by Black women in South Africa transformed national culture. After the end of apartheid, to their shock, Black women found themselves still exiled from the official spaces of poetry in the academy and the dominant publishing world and were even marginalized in places we expected to be welcoming, such as post-apartheid writing conferences and workshops. From these margins, Black women poets forged a new infrastructure for poetic expression and invented new ways to disseminate their work, ultimately reaching new audiences that official poetry did not touch.

In these new spaces, Black women also wrote poetry of a completely new kind that dealt not only with trauma but also pleasure; that gave unceasing attention to the injuries to women that had become ordinary in their familiarity; that created more intricate visions of Black life including the memory of the joys of Black life even under apartheid; that asserted the hidden lineages in which women stood proud; and that envisioned histories and futures that had never been put into words before. This poetry in a new register has claimed a central role in the post-apartheid public culture. For instance, it appeared on protest placards in the student movements of 2015-2016 and in marches led by women to the Houses of Parliament protesting the country’s epidemic of sexual violence. Because of the African Feminist Initiative and other projects that are attentive to global solidarity, several of these visionary writers have visited Penn State recently to share their striking work, including Koleka Putuma, Jolyn Phillips, and Nadia Davids.

TUW: In your edited collection, Surfacing: on Being Black and Feminist in South Africa (2021), you and Desiree Lewis noted, “black feminism in the global imaginary is often synonymous with African-American feminist thought.” What is gained and lost when ideologically situating South African women’s knowledge production in the tradition of Western frameworks like feminism?

GB: What Surfacing argues is that Black Southern African women have produced a long and important history of liberatory political and intellectual work that is usually overlooked in writing on Black feminism globally and even in work on African feminism. This is the case even though certain South African women are often cited as icons in Global Black feminist thought, at the same time that the rich history of feminist thought and practices from South Africa are overlooked. As Desiree and I outline in our introduction, we were motivated by finding again and again in our students’ accounts of Black feminist history that they read deeply about Black feminism based in the Global North (including some African feminists published there) but that feminists from the African continent (and particularly from southern Africa) are completely absent from the lineages they trace in their work. Now, the work of African American, Caribbean, and other Black feminisms produced in the Global North is irreplaceable and we ourselves draw from it in our own writing, so we certainly don’t intend them to be displaced from anyone’s reading. However, we just don’t think they should stand for all Black feminist work. We wanted to counter the repeated underrepresentation of Black South African feminist writing in such histories, so we curated the beautiful, weighty, visionary, intellectually rich, and pleasurable intervention in African and global feminist history that is Surfacing.

TUW: Your book, Regarding Muslims: From Slavery to Post-Apartheid (2014), explores Muslims in South Africa from the country’s founding to the present. Can you share with our audiences some of your methodological interventions/approaches when studying the relationship between culture, race, and religion?

GB: As a graduate student, I found it gutting that it was possible to tell a plausible version of South Africa’s past that erased the country’s 176 years of slavery. How was it possible that almost two centuries of brutality in which enslaved women were subjected to sexual slavery could become invisible in the country’s accounts of its past? The answer was paradoxical. It is not because there were no sources in the archives on the topic – in fact, I discuss a plethora of materials that allude to slavery, including landscape paintings, cartoons, and cookbooks – but because of the picturesque way in which enslaved people was represented in them that created to the idea that slavery at the Cape was “mild” and historically insignificant. Image after image portrayed enslaved people as submissive and compliant figures embedded in a benign past, and the very familiarity and ubiquity of such images helped to cement this benevolent impression. So, in writing about this period, I argued that such representations masked the extreme violence of slavery at the Cape and rendered it both highly visible and overlooked. I pointed to revisionist scholarship that showed that slavery shaped every aspect of Cape society and was marked by high levels of violence. I also drew on a different archive, one that included oral history, jokes, and contemporary art that revisited the topic in necessary ways. This practice of rereading the archive and expanding the archive helped me to craft a new understanding of the relation of slavery to concepts of race, gender, sexuality, and religion in South Africa.

TUW: You are one of South Africa’s most acclaimed literary voices and have authored several poetry collections. Can you share your entry into poetry with our readers? Furthermore, how has this medium allowed you to grapple with painful histories, the delicates of intimate relationships, and the politics of refusal?

GB: Poetry has offered me the freedom to be a beginner. I took my first class in writing poetry as an extramural evening course for beginners in 1999 while I was also a PhD student in literature. In contrast to the anxiety that being a graduate student in the discipline of Literary Studies generated in me, poetry was a place in which I could fully inhabit the position of being a beginner, someone who was still learning and, therefore, had the freedom to make mistakes without penalty. I always try to remember this: that liberation lies in being able to refuse and reinvent boundaries, and sometimes that is most possible as a beginner. Being outside of the disciplining effects of being an “expert” meant that I could write about topics that “weren’t important” but to me were revelatory, like the unusual configuration of gender in my childhood home (my father was a house-husband and my brother was the best cook in the house), the shocking ordinariness of racial and also gendered violence during that time, and the risks and tenderness of Black domesticity under apartheid.

TUW: We know your PhD is from the University of Cape Town and you have published with African presses and maintained strong connections with South Africans. We also know your work with the African Feminist Initiative has addressed the different challenges scholars in the Global South face when trying to publish with an academic press. Would you mind sharing tips or suggestions for how scholars in Western academia can leverage their privilege to bridge conversations with scholars, artists, and writers on the continent?

GB: The first step to producing an original and dissident intellectual work is to find your community, those fellow writers, thinkers and friends who will not only hear and contest and ultimately deepen your ideas, but who will keep you alive and sane in ways you can’t even imagine. For me, these profound friendships came in the form of the Women of Colour Consciousness Raising Group at the University of Cape Town, where I got my PhD, the Dr Sisters group at Penn State, in whose company I was a Post-doc and an Assistant Professor, and the Fountain of Beauty sisters, Kathryn Belle, Solsiree Del Moral, Shirley Moody Turner, and Alyssa Garcia, who wrote our first books together. These women accompanied me and got me through my PhD, first book and the tenure process. I will treasure them forever. These profound affective relationships are the true heart of the intellectual process, despite the pressure to subject our work to instrumental measure. I advise all academics to find and build your communities and treasure them.

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Tiana U. Wilson

Tiana U. Wilson, Ph.D. is a Just Transformations postdoctoral fellow in African American Studies at the Pennsylvania State University and an incoming assistant professor of Africana Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. She completed a Ph.D. in History at the University of Texas at Austin. Her book project, “Revolution and Struggle: The Enduring Legacy of the Third World Women’s Alliance,” examines Black women’s contributions to women of color feminist groups in the U.S. from the 1960s to the present. Her research has been supported by the American Council of Learned Societies, the Center for Engaged Scholarship, the Sallie Bingham Center, Smith College, the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics, and others. You can follow her on Twitter @PhenomenalTiana.

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