“Unshouted Courage” in South Africa: The Young Women of the University of the Western Cape

“Unshouted Courage” in South Africa:
The Young Women of the University of the Western Cape

by Evelyn L. Parker, PhD

From the moment I step from an Uber onto the main quad of the University of the Western Cape (UWC) my spirit ignites with joy of a place where the euphony of Afrikaans, isiZulu, isiXhosa, and other languages float through the air. The Ancestors call to me through the drumbeats and even occasional rap lyrics as I make my way from the quad to the Faculty of Arts building. Students from all regions of the Continent create the rhythmic sounds of language as they move through the corridors and down the sidewalks. I am especially amazed at the finger-snapping of young women affirming the hair styles and dress of other female colleagues. My own physicality is affirmed when I see curly, kinky, and straight hair displayed in more colors than a rainbow as well as all shapes and sizes of hips unapologically swinging from side-to-side. While students of all nationalities, ethnicities, sexual identities, and social classes give me an affirming nod if we make eye contact, I am especially intrigued by the young women of UWC who respectfully greet me, a grey-headed female professor who looks foreign on most days. Some of these young women, specifically those in the Religion and Theology Department, have endeared me with accounts of their joys and pains of negotiating UWC campus life as cisgendered or transgendered young woman. Their stories weave a beautiful tapestry of characteristics that include sassiness, savviness, tenacity, courage, resistance, and persistence. I have focused on courage in this blog. By courage I echo Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon’s idea of courage that is “unshouted,” which is to be steadfast and fortitudinous against oppressive and unjust forces/powers on behalf of one’s community. The “unshouted courage” of UWC young women takes center stage for my reflections.

The young women of UWC courageously rose up to purge the campus of all rapists which included a male residence assistant who demanded sex for housing/dorm rooms from first year young women. This incident happened during the night, just hours before a campus memorial service for Jesse Hess, a first-year theology and religion student who was brutally raped and murdered. Jesse’s 85-year-old grandfather was found dead tied up in the bathroom and 19-year-old Jesse was found dead on a bed on August 30th. The rapist killed them both before fleeing their apartment in the Cape Town northern suburb of Parow. Jesse was one of five rape/murder victims of women and girls in Cape Town during the last week of the August 2019 Women’s Month.

The young women of UWC Kovacs residence held the male residence assistant hostage after several young women courageously broke their silence and identified their assailant. The young women sought justice for his egregious crime until the local police were notified and entered the residence hall spraying rubber bullets on the young women until they freed the young man. The UWC women sought after other male students who were identified as rapists. Their act of justice included use of multiple social media platforms as well as identifying and delivering assailants to UWC authorities.

The next day, September 4th, the UWC main auditorium was packed beyond capacity with students, faculty and staff adorning black attire and standing in the aisles and corridors of the auditorium. Those who could not get in the auditorium filled the quad and listened to the memorial serve on jumbo speakers. The anger and frustration were palpable. Young women in the UWC Choir passionately and beautifully sang songs of justice that were familiar to the audience that blended their voices with those in the choir. The student government president, a UWC young woman, spoke powerful words of accountability to school, state, and government authorities to end Gender Based Violence (GBV) on the UWC campus and in South Africa. Her courage to speak on behalf of the student body was audibly affirmed with finger-snapping and “Justice of Jesse” chanting.

The courage of a UWC young woman is no doubt an aspect of the legacy of women committed to dismantling Apartheid in South Africa as well as seeking gender equity on the campus. The UWC Women and Gender Studies (WGS) Department emerged out of gender and anti apartheid activism in the late 1980s. Professors Rhoda Kadalie and Gertrude Fester gave courageous leadership in establishing the Gender Equity Unit that evolved into the WGS Department through their efforts to raise the conscious of the Rector and other UWC campus faculty and administrators about the injustices that UWC women experienced. Professor Kadalie, a Social Anthropologist, expanded her activism beyond UWC through her regular articles in Cape Town newspapers. As an activist, Professor Fester was a member of the African National Congress (ANC) and was charged with treason by the Apartheid government. She was sentenced to two years in prison and spent five months in solitary confinement where she composed the one-woman play Apartheid’s Closet: The Spirit Cannot be Caged in her head because she was denied a pencil and paper. Professors Kadalie and Fester’s legacy lives on. Today the UWC Women and Gender Studies Department and the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice are promoting courageous research, writing, publishing, and teaching about many aspects of justice for women and girls.

What does “unshouted courage” look like when it is embodied in an 18, 19, or 22-year-old UWC cis-gendered or transgendered female student? With this question I extend an invitation to meet young women and girls in Cape Town, South Africa during the 2020 Biennial Consultation of the Daughters of the African Atlantic Fund.

Dr. Evelyn Parker is Susanna Wesley Centennial Professor of Practical Theology at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. Dr. Parker was named a 2019-2020 U.S. Fulbright Scholar based at the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice and the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa, to work on a project titled “Role of Religious Leaders in Preventing and Intervening in Teen Dating Violence in South Africa.” Dr. Parker is a founding director of The Daughters of the African Atlantic Fund and Chair of the 2020 Consultation to be hosted in South Africa on August 8-14, 2020.

Gender and Resistance Work in South Africa

Gender and Resistance Work in South Africa:

An Interview with Dr. Miranda Pillay

by Evelyn Parker

While researching and writing a paper to be presented at the 2015 International Academy of Practical Theology (IAPT), I discovered the work of a scholar, Dr. Miranda Pillay, who is a member of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians, the group our beloved Dr. Mercy Oduyoye founded. Dr. Miranda Pillay is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Arts at the University of the Western Cape. Her writing and teaching are in New Testament Studies and Ethics.  Since the IAPT meeting will convene in South Africa, I ventured to introduce myself to Dr. Pillay by email. She responded immediately. During my last trip to Cape Town, I met Dr. Pillay. She invited my mother and me to her home for a traditional Capetonian meal with her family. We shared family stories and intriguing conversation about our research during and after a wonderful meal of grilled Snoek (fish) and Smoortie (tomato sauce) and other delicious dishes.

The beginning of our friendship was magical.

In a recent email exchange, I told her about The Daughters and asked her if she would tell me about a forthcoming conference entitled “Gender and Resistance” that she is hosting at the University of the Western Cape. Below is our conversation.

EP: What is the purpose/goal of the “Gender and Resistance” Conference?

Dr. Pillay: During this one-day conference (5 May 2016), we will contemplate the question of the nature and the significance of Gender and Resistance. What role do feminist concerns play in the current culture of protest that will likely be with us for some time? What biblical and theological resources are there to help us in this quest for justice and recognition that has been central to many of the protest movements? What does the history of resistance movements in South Africa, particularly as it relates to gender, have to teach us today as we are facing a whole new set of challenges in working toward a just and fair society?

EP: Why is “resistance” important?

Dr. Pillay: The theme of resistance has been (and continues to be) an existential reality, not only in terms of racism, but also in terms of gender.  While women in particular were on the forefront of resistance against the racist pass laws (which restricted the movement of black people in apartheid South Africa), it is a sad fact that today, one of the few profoundly non-racial institutions in South Africa is patriarchy. Amongst the multiple chauvinisms which abound in our country, the male version rears itself with special and equal vigor in all communities. Recently, there has been a rise in conservative or fundamentalist religious movements, often associated with conservative nationalism or right-wing politics. These movements are generally opposed to the concept of gender equality.

Dr. Pillay: The year 2015 will go down in history as the year of student protests. What started with #RhodesMustFall culminated in the #FeesMustFall and #EndOutsourcing movements. Since October 2015, students have been demanding free education on campuses all around the country, in addition to fair working conditions for university workers. On some campuses, including the University of the Western Cape, exams were disrupted and protests turned violent.

EP: Who will attend the “Gender and Resistance” Conference?

Dr. Pillay: In attendance, will be students from the University of the Western Cape and University of Stellenbosch Academics. Also, pastors (from the different churches) are invited to participate. This conference is an annual joint venture of the UWC and Stellenbosch Chapters of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians.

If you are able, I invite you to attend the conference on “Gender and Resistance” on May 5, 2016. The experience holds promise for forming new friendships at the intersection of works of justice among women of African ancestry.

Evelyn L. Parker is Susanna Wesley Centennial Professor of Practical Theology and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.

Going Back before the Beginning

Selections from a Long-Running Interview of Dr. Mercy Oduyoye

by Katie G. Cannon

“Going back before the beginning,” is an idea coined by Professor Toni Morrison, who says, “There is always a ‘BEFORE’ that makes our beginnings possible.” This concept of “before beginnings” is a central theme in the theology of Dr. Mercy Amba Ewudziwa Oduyoye. In her article, “From Cover to Core: A Letter to my Ancestors,” Dr. Sister Mercy sums it up this way: “We must investigate the foreground of our existence prior to the social construction of sexism, racism, and injustices against the dignity that rightly belongs to being made in the image of God.” Therefore, the following is a long-running interview with Dr. Mercy Amba Oduoye by Dr. Katie G. Cannon, with question and answer sessions that go back before the beginning.

Katie’s Q: Sister Mercy, what is your working definition of Theology?

Mercy’s Answer: Theology is something we struggle to do—not something we receive.

Katie’s Q: Why do you say we need to de-dogmatize Christian beliefs?

Mercy’s Answer: Christian doctrines are not from heaven. Doctrines are crafted by struggling human beings in order to feed our spirituality. For instance, when African women believe in Christ as true friend, companion and liberator, we participate in healing society in three distinct ways: 1) listening 2) caring and 3) telling stories of hope.

Katie’s Q: Are your colleagues correct when they say you are committed to the significance of story in your teaching and throughout your ministry?

Mercy’s Answer: Yes, stories we inherited from our religious traditions become healing narratives for African women and to African women. For instance, in Daughters of Anowa (1995), the stories I tell serve as invitations to women theologians to move from the position as social critics to women theologians as healers of society. All in all, African stories, myths, and proverbs are legitimate sources for women’s theology.

Katie’s Q: In 1997, when the African Conference of Third World Theologians met in Ghana, you delivered a paper, African Religious Beliefs and Theological Practices. What do you understand as three major points of contact between African Traditional Religions and Christian Theology?

Mercy’s Answer: First, both religious traditions affirm God as Creator of the world. Secondly, both traditions believe God has appointed humans to be stewards of creation. In essence, the more we learn about our humanity, the better we are able to understand what God is telling us about divinity. And finally, both religious traditions uphold and defend African-centered wholeness over and against Western fragmentation and individualism.

Katie’s Q: In your book, Christianity in Africa you write, “In order to begin the experience of fully human living, whatever gender we are, we are called to refuse to be what others require us to be. We must resist becoming instruments against our own convictions.  As a people, we must never acquiesce to our own marginalization.” In light of this prophetic wisdom, what is the agenda for women theologians of African ancestry?

Mercy’s Answer:

  • Women must engage in intensive struggles against fundamentalist anti-women usages of the Bible;
  • Women must refine our cultural hermeneutics; that is, we must re-read Biblical and Historical texts with a focus towards understanding the masculinist biases embedded therein;
  • Theological Education and Ministerial Formation must be enhanced, encouraged, and supported for and by women;
  • Women must retrieve the stories of our foremothers and foresisters who were actively involved in religion and society;
  • Women must critique patriarchal culture and analyze patriarchal influences in and on women’s lives;
  • Women must claim our rightful place as partners in leadership in the life of the Church as well as throughout society.

Katie’s Question: In closing, please remind me of the time when African women took off their clothes, an embodied testimony about our ancestral mothers that continues to be shared from generation to generation.

Mercy’s Answer: There was a time in our history when African women grew desperate to overturn violence, so they decided to take off all of their clothes. The fire of condemnation against injustice flashed in their eyes. When the eyes are red, there is no need to light a fire, because the fire of condemnation against injustice is the light we will need. The fire from our eyes is indicative of all that destroys our humanity. So, all the women took off their clothes. Yes, they did.  The women got naked in anger and disappointment. The women took off their clothes when all admonitions against violence failed. Desperate to overcome injustice, the women took off their clothes. Even though, it is a taboo to see mothers’ nakedness, resisting injustice is our God-given right.

Ashe! Thank you Dr. Sister Mercy, thank you so very much.

Katie Geneva Cannon is Annie Scales Rogers Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.