“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.

2018 Consultation Reflections: Real Community

Real Community

by Kathlene Corley

M.Div. Student, Shaw University, Raleigh, North Carolina

I decided to attend The Daughters of the African Atlantic’s consultation only knowing that a trusted mentor said I would enjoy it. Reading over the proposed workshops and forums energized me, setting a high expectation that would miss the mark. What I found during the consultation was a place that felt like home. The feeling of familiarity, similar to a grandmother’s loving hug, set the atmosphere, created a clear difference between The Daughters of the African Atlantic’s consultation and any other conference or consultation I have attended. Each workshop, event, forum, and meal was community focused. None failed.

Content quality could be discussed for days; however, there was one item, in particular, that will be the focus of this post as it will likely stick with me for the rest of my life. A time was set aside for Community Building and Engagement in small group break-outs. Each group included an interpreter, women native to Brazil, and women from other areas of the diaspora, intentionally creating opportunities for exchange that may not take place otherwise. Each person openly shared the first time they met a Black person from another country, a Black woman from another country, and their experiences with privilege and a lack thereof as a Black woman. Listening to the sisters speak, I heard similar emotions attributed to differing encounters and experiences. Some of them caused us to laugh while others weighed heavier on the group. Though their words greatly shaped my take-aways, I will not attempt to tell any of their stories here. However, I will attempt to share something I verbalized for the first time during that group.

My first thoughts of being less than equal had nothing to do with the beautiful brown that adorns my body. As a young woman in a poor urban area most of the people around me were Black. The injustices I experienced, as understood by a child, were attributed to my gender, not my Blackness. It was easy to see that my younger brother was given more praise, trust, and respect than I was. My mother was treated differently than my step-father and uncle. Men were applauded for being present, even though the women themselves were never absent. My baby brother’s future was bright because the world was at his feet, and, on the other hand, I may do well if someone decided to date the girl with glasses who stuttered when she spoke. Value (or lack of value) was placed on five-year-old me based on the chances that I may be valuable to a man one day.

Life and changes in our familial income showed me that it was not only being female that changed how I was perceived and addressed. A Black girl could not be as smart as the White girl and was only in the top class because they needed a Black girl, according to my classmates. During school I fought to prove I belonged. That was a waste of time. It was painfully clear that everyone in the room was expected to be better, brighter, and more worthy than me because I was Black and female. During those formative years, many of my Black friends stated they wanted to be White or have hair like White girls, and it baffled me. I understood how much harder and more painful it was for us, but I was proud to be the one who was overlooked and still smarter than anyone realized. There was joy in my personal celebration of what is to be a Black Girl.

Graduating from college, entering, and continuing in my career opened opportunities that would have otherwise been closed for me. As my career was beginning, I associated privilege with a change in economic status. For the majority of my life I saw no benefit in being a Black woman living my reality. To be clear I am not stating that there are no benefits or that I would want to be anyone other than a Black woman, but being a Black woman is hard. We are abused and not heard; we are the engine that is not cared for; and a Black woman is the one who is discarded when the ship comes in. The tenacity of Black women kept me proud to be who I am.

While contemplating how to answer the small group question about experiences of privilege, I realized the first time I felt there was a privilege in being a Black woman. It occurred during the 2017 women’s conference at Shaw University. The theme was “Lives of Black and Brown Girls Matter.” Latinx women were describing the horrific experiences of children being taken from hospitals and deported to other countries. Women who look like me and love their children with the same fierceness with which I love mine were living a nightmare removed from my reality. I sat there embarrassed because I had no idea this was happening. I felt powerless because my voice did not carry the weight to create the change needed to stop it. The only difference between them and me is that there was less chance that this horror would happen to me (although thousands of Black mothers and fathers have seen their children wrongfully taken into the foster care system) because I am a Black woman born in the United States. That was the first time I recognizably felt there was a privilege in being a Black woman in this country.

Realizing that truth hurt. My mind continued to process it for weeks after returning home. I began this blog comparing the atmosphere of the consultation to the safely and solace one may find resting in their grandmother’s arms. That atmosphere provided the space where I was able to be completely raw in my experience as a Black woman and to learn from openness of others. My journal notes from the consultation continue to inspire me. So, if I may add to my answer from the small group session, this is it: It is a privilege as a Black woman to be in spaces like the one created by The Daughters of the African Atlantic. It is a space where individuals are challenged holistically and cared for throughout the process. And rigorous, critical analysis is never lost in the process. It was a privilege to be among Black women from around the world and to know that I am home by listening to what cannot be heard with human ears and embracing what I did not know I possessed.



We Honor and Celebrate Marielle Franco!

We Honor and Celebrate Marielle Franco!

The Daughters of the African Atlantic Fund abhors the murder of black Brazilian activist Marielle Franco.  In solidarity with movements for black empowerment in Brazil, we share Kia Caldwell, Wendi Muse, Tianna Paschel, Keisha-Khan Perry, Christen Smith, and Erica Williams’ collective statement on Franco’s murder, originally published on The Black Scholar‘s website. Click here to read that statement entitled “On the Imperative of Transnational Solidarity: A U.S. Black Feminist Statement on the Assassination of Marielle Franco.” 

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.