Contemplating the legacies of colonisation on gender and identity in Africa.

By Sabelo Nkosi

Curthoys (1993: 165) acknowledges that in the theorisation of national identities (and their construction), it is crucial to take into account the underlying drivers that characterise the most basic constituents of identity which are gender, race, ethnicity, and history amongst others. Furthermore, she denotes that in the dissection of gender as a component of identity (and identity in its entirety) there must be deliberate attempts at explaining the impact of the colonialist, racist and imperial histories of societies. This blogpost seeks to do exactly that, it shall assess the legacy of colonisation on gender and identity especially in the African continent. To achieve this, the post shall expressly identify the theoretical foundations which it will employ to contextualise the discussion about this legacy, and it will locate the key concepts (identity, gender and colonisation) and reconcile them with the African situation and context. Moreover, post shall attempt to explain the construction (or deconstruction) of identity and gender by colonisation. In addition, institutions will be used to assess the extent and influence of this legacy. The theory contained in the discussion shall be accompanied by examples as an element employed to assist in understanding the argument(s) in the paper.

Framing Constructivism and its Implications on Identity, Gender and Colonisation.

Some two very prominent scholars of International Relations, Jackson and Sorensen, offer an account of what constitutes constructivist understanding and thought in the Political Sciences, they posit that at the centre of constructivism is social reality, and that “social reality is not objective, or external” (Jackson & Sorensen 2006; 162). It is argued by these scholars that the world we inhabit is not a concrete actuality, it is not a limited reality that exists beyond humans’ ability to discern. Essentially, the thrust of the argument is that our reality is a construct of an intersubjectivity, that is to say, it is a product of peoples’ convergent, divergent and intersectional abilities to intellectualise, it is a product debates, ideas, discourse and thoughts, it does not form itself (ibid). Furthermore, they draw a relationship between ideation (production of ideas) and social reality, that as the pattern of thought and formation of philosophies about our reality changes, a somewhat new reality emerges. Identity is not easy to characterise nor define, it is constituted of many complexities which are but not limited to, fluidity, duality, and various levels of analysis. If applying the logic deduced from Jackson & Sorensen’s work, it is not difficult to identify the concept “identity” as a notion borne out of constructivist understanding, as it is an element of social reality. Fearon (1999: 2) gives extra substance to the conversation about the constructivist roots of “identity” by arguing that the idea of an objective form of identity is a problematic concept by denoting that “our present idea of ‘identity’ is a fairly recent social construct, and a rather complicated one at that”.

Butler (1990: 16) in her theorisation of gender, both as an identity and as a constituent of identity trivialises the normative understanding of gender by asserting that “there is no gender identity behind the (normative) expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results.”, this denotes in particular that an individual’s expression of themselves in the form of gender norms should not be easily taken as their gender, there must be an understanding of the rational the individual uses to identify themselves. Again, if applied similarly as in the preceding arguments the logic that justifies identity as a constructivist idea, may be equally used to justify gender as a constructivist idea.

As explained earlier, Curthoys (1993) discusses identity in the context of history, particularly that of colonisation, she explores the effect of colonisation on the identity of Australian aboriginals, she concedes to the reality that perhaps one of the most important features of identity formation is the question of history. Additionally, she also submits that colonisation is multi-dimensional both in its application and consequential form. Curthoys (1993: 167) explains how the multi-dimensional nature of colonisation plays itself out, especially in relation to subjugation, racism and imperialism. She identifies how the norms and standards of European civility have thwarted the development of the aboriginals. This explanation, like that of identity and gender justifies the concept “colonisation” to fit into the constructivist understanding of social reality as colonisation is/was a social reality.

The Construction of Identity by Colonisation in Africa

During the fiftieth anniversary of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) which was celebrated simultaneously with the tenth anniversary of the African Union (AU) in the year 2013, former President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, in The Thinker offered an account of how colonisation had constructed modern African identities or how it deconstructed ancient African identities. Mbeki explains how the arrival of colonisation in the form of the Berlin Conference of 1885 created new identities by dividing the continent into different geographic parts, each of whom were European colonial territory.

Mbeki contends that this altered the common African identity that had been established across the different African Kingdoms and it established a new border regime that would later usher in the establishment of African colonial “nation states”, these states would impose the colonial identities on their new African subjects. He further notes that this would later limit the migration of Africans in Africa (ibid). Mbeki does, however, explain that colonisation was met with resistance from its inception through the wars of resistance recorded to have occurred in the Sudanese and Ethiopian parts of the continents, with Ethiopia emerging victorious against the Italians. He also observes that the struggles against European imposed colonialism were waged until the early 1950’s in certain parts of the continent, the colonies that had reached independence would on 1963 establish the Organisation of African Unity.

To underscore the legacy of colonisation, in the same publication, Ndlovu-Gatsheni (2013: 46) laments the fact that “Africa continues to be inhabited by a people suffering from mental colonisation to the extent that the majority of them are comfortable with being judged by Europeans and are always striving to get validation of whatever they do from Europeans and Americans”, this observation is also noted by Spinner (1994) in his narration of the story of Cornelius May, a Creole that hails from Sierra Leone, who finds himself in the belly of an “identity crisis”, in that he had been socialised into European ‘civility’ as a direct consequence of colonisation and had later been rejected by people of European descent through racism and could not forge a way back into his African roots of the Yoruba tradition as there was nothing in his life that could locate him within the Yoruba tradition.

The legacy of colonisation on African identity can also be identified in the emergence of the spurts of violent attacks of “amakwerekwere” (a South African derogatory term used to identify foreign nationals of black African descent) in South Africa, which Dube and some characterise as Afrophobia, a term that implies “fear of the African, has come to mean the hatred of the African other” (Dube, 2018). This according to Dube (2018) may be a direct result of the colonial imposition of borders amongst many other reasons.

The (de)Construction of Gender by Colonisation

Bouilly, Rillon and Cross (2016) document an account of the struggle of African women in a “gendered perspective”, in that they pay specific attention to the gendered identity of “womanhood”, they advance an argument that suggests that though this struggle has ancient roots, it only gained intensity in the late 1970’s to the early 1980’s; a period that was dubbed by the United Nations as the “Decade for Women” as the body had sought to ignite the struggle for women internationally.

Bouilly et. al (2016: 339) claim in particular that “historians have widely documented women’s protest in precolonial and colonial periods, and have recorded female involvement in anti-colonial struggles, liberation wars and nationalist political movements”. Moreover, they argue that this struggle has taken a political, economic and social/societal dimension because institutions in society are gendered. They argue that the struggles for women’s liberation cuts across the boundaries of class and social ranks because African women of all classes find it difficult to locate themselves in the current social order that is not only a direct result of colonisation but that of globalisation and capitalism. These authors submit that this current order has, as a consequence, shaped the form of women’s political, social and economic organisation. For example, the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa was interwoven with that of the liberation of women and a figure of the struggle who signified this intersectionality was the late struggle icon Winnie Nomzamo Madikizela-Mandela. Over and beyond the intersectionality of the South African struggle, Bouilly et. al (2016: 3420) characterise the struggle of women as one that also cuts across identities in that while women in South Africa face difficulties just by being women it goes beyond that it also has a racial dynamic to it, in that black women face difficulties just by being black. This is largely influenced by the country’s history.

To highlight this reality the Annual Report for the period 2016/17 of the Department of Labour in South Africa denoted that seventy percent of all senior managerial positions in South Africa were occupied by white males. This signals that the pace for transformation in South Africa is too slow or that there is a flaw that demands immediate attention. It is also indicative of the fact that a number of social institutions such as the workplace remain reflective of the legacy of colonisation and in particular Apartheid for the case of South Africa. Another debate that deserves to be entertained at a different stage is how the “liberal capture” of the transformation agenda in South Africa has led to this situation.

This piece was submitted at an earlier stage as an essay to fulfill academic ends but has since been modified to be suitable for this blogspot. If you are interested in the sources you can find them below:

Bouilly, E, Rillon, O and Cross, H. 2016. African Women’s Struggles in a Gender Perspective, Review of African Political Economy, Vol.43(149), pp 338-349

Butler, J. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and Subversion of Identity. London: Routledge

Curthoys, A. 1993. ‘Identity Crisis: Colonialism, Nation, and Gender in Australian History. Gender & History. Vo1.5(2), pp 165-176.

Dube, G. 2018. Afrophobia in Mzansi? Evidence from the 2013 South African Social Attitudes Survey, Journal of Southern African Studies. (Submission to the editorial board)

Fearon, J. D. 1999. What is Identity? (As we now use the word). Department of Political Sciences (DRAFT). Stanford University.

Jackson, R and Sorensen, G. 2006. Introduction to International Relations Theories and Approaches. 3rd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Labour, Department of. 2017. Annual Report 2016/17. Tshwane: Department of Labour.

Pahad, E. 2013. The Thinker: For Thought Leaders. The Journal for Positive Thought. Vol.51(5/2013), pp 1-84

Schwartz, S.J, Luyckx, K, Vignoles, V.L (editors). 2011. Handbook of Identity Theory and Research (Volume 1: Structures and Processes). New York: Springer.

Spinner, J. 1994. The Boundaries of Citizenship: Race, Ethnicity and Nationality in the Liberal State. Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press.

Sabelo Nkosi at the time of publishing this blogpost is a second year student of Political Sciences and International Relations at the University of Johannesburg (South Africa).



By Sabelo Nkosi

At the end of a lengthy, heated and emotive debate with my roommate yesterday, it struck me that I should attempt to bring to everyones’ attention the importance of understanding “personal agency”, and expose the value that comes with appreciating, recognizing and respecting the personal agency of individuals.

Personal agency refers to the power an individual has to initiate and execute action, on the basis of their views, beliefs, and freedoms in the pursuit of a personally beneficial end goal. Emirbayer and Mische (1998) argue that the the concept of personal agency, as a philosophical notion, has been the subject of critique and debate. They, furthermore, posit that this concept has been “defended, attacked, buried and resuscitated […] in often contradictory and overlapping ways”. This is to say that “personal agency” both at a conceptual and practical level is subject to a differing reception, especially taking into account that every individual is entitled to their own opinion, interpretation and analysis.

It also dawns on me that some people may confuse personal agency with selfishness. Emirbayer and Mische (1998) explain that personal agency is characterized by “self-hood, motivation, will, purposiveness, intentionality, choice, initiative, freedom, and creativity”. Contrary to personal agency, selfishness is inextricably linked but not limited to vanity, narcissism, self-adulation, and obsessive self-centredness. Not even by a long short, may there be a similarity between these two concepts, neither of the two may be invoked as arguments to justify the other.

Public discourse in South Africa is a site of contention, many people have an opinion about a number of a issues. The nature of our public discourse, like in most societies, is such that there is never unanimous agreement about how a particular question must be dealt with, consequently giving space to intensely opinionated voices to propagate their views. From Steve Hofmeyr, an Afrikaner nationalist who believes black South Africans were “the architects of Apartheid”, to Naledi Chirwa, a staunch believer of Black Radical Feminism and former #FeesMustFall leader who is by her own confession an unapologetic and fearless advocate for the emancipation of black people, black students and black women in particular.These views time and again spark debates about their motive but it must be recognised the most fundamental motivation behind these voices that frequently shape our conversations in the classroom, blogposts, opinion pieces, supper tables, taxis, emakhoneni, social media and our bedrooms is first and foremost; their personal agency.

Earlier this month (March, 2019), a former University of South Africa (UNISA) employee, Gugu Ncube, staged a “half-naked” protest (half) at the sit of official state power, the Office of the President, the Union Buildings in South Africa’s administrative capital Tshwane. Ncube, a black woman believed to be of Zimbabwean descent, was later arrested and released on warning, faced harsh criticism and backlash from a number of people on social media on the basis of the nature of her protest rather than engaging the substantive details of her protest, which were the allegations of sexual assault by her former boss. This is symptomatic of the nature of response accorded black women in society; the erasure of marginalised bodies and their voices; and as a consequence stripping them away of their personal agency.

The imposition of moralities is another defining element of the erasure of personal agency. One tweet read as follows (as a response to the half-naked protest staged by Gugu Ncube): “Which normal human being goes to the Union Buildings naked and shouts I want the President” , this means that people were not willing to entertain Gugu’s personal agency because the nature of her protest suggests that, as some may argue, she is mentally unstable, committing public indecency, or that it is grossly unAfrican. Moreover, the meaning of the backlash Gugu faced, is that women may not be naked in public out of their personal agency but it should always be for the gratification, satisfaction and entertainment of sexual desire.

Gugu’s incident is just one in many incidents that amount to the assault of personal agency. The victims of this assault are usually black people, women, black students, queers, poor people and all the wretched of earth who are relegated to the permanent state of infantilisation.

The rejection of personal agency when used by those who don’t “follow the script” serves a political, cultural, and economic function, that of protecting the status quo. It serves the purpose of maintaining the unbalanced power distribution in society. It insults the intellect of those who stand up against injustices. This rejection must be crushed, it must be rejected with double or triple the contempt it rejects personal agency with.

I appreciate the article coauthored by Mustapha Emirbayer and Ann Mische in helping me provide a structured argument. If you are interested in engaging it here is the link:

Reference: What Is Agency? Author(s): Mustafa Emirbayer and Ann Mische Source: American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 103, No. 4 (January 1998), pp. 962-1023

Sabelo Nkosi is currently a second year Political Sciences and International Relations major at the University of Johannesburg. For further engagement, comment.