South Africa

Maverick Citizen: UNTHERE US

An Account of the Violence of Heterosexual Marriage Identity-Making

In their regular column in Maverick Citizen, Kneo Mokgopa hopes to conjure there where there has been unthere, through contemporary analysis, archival research, cultural studies, videography, photography, installations, interviews and narratives.

The undeniable, incontestable, bona fide truth about the “New South Africa” is that its mother and father are Karabo Moroka and Mandla Sithole. That is the hill I will die on. Generations, the aptly titled soap opera, premiered on SABC1 in 1994, fulfilling the public broadcaster’s vision “to become the leading, credible voice and face of the nation and the continent”. Karabo Moroka and Mandla Sithole fashioned the ideal subjectivity of Black South Africans in post-1994 South Africa: A wealthy marriage. One elegant, feminine woman and a powerful, masculine man. The adult ambitions of generations to follow.

It is difficult to study and deconstruct an institution as expansive and pervasive as the Victorian Love-Marriage plot of our lives and it has indeed gone understudied for a long time. However, Elizabeth Brake, in her 2011 book Minimizing Marriage: Marriage, Morality and the Law, gives the phenomenon a word – Amatonormativity: “[The] disproportionate focus on marital and amorous love relationships as special sites of value, and the assumption that romantic love is a universal goal…”. The failure to strive for romantic, monogamous love-coupling is often seen as a sign of psychopathy. Our society says, “If you don’t want this, something is very wrong with you.” And yet many people have no desire for this. Not only are many people polyamorous – capable and desiring of multiple, nonhierarchical romantic partners and in a way that is not motivated primarily by sex with multiple partners – but many people are also aromantic and asexual, having no desire for romantic love-coupling and for sexual intercourse respectively. Polyamorous, asexual and aromantic people are not sexual deviants, are not sociopaths or broken in any way whatsoever. They can lead healthy, fulfilling lives if not for the prejudice and scorn they face in amatonormative society.

Instead of arguing for queers’ social validity, I want to show that the heterosexual, cisgender love-couple can be a site of violence and that its pursuit can be masochistic in ways we have tried to present as healthy and innately fulfilling.

I will begin by describing the psychosocial dynamics of heterosexual amatonormativity and how it absorbs and weaponises gender identity and performance as its own. Then, I will trace a genealogy of the sanctions on women’s self-determination and very humanity, and deconstruct the historic institutions that pursued the domestication of women as objects of marriage in Europe from 500 AD to the 19th century. Following that, I will, relatively briefly, unpack men’s monopoly over violence as their primary source of identity formation, using the South African, historically white, elite, all-boys’ schooling system in the 20th and 21st centuries as my point of departure. I will then contextualise these received notions of marriage and identity within the contemporary ways in which Black South Africans have received, multiplied and navigate their dehumanisation.

By the conclusion, I hope to have shown that, first, the dynamics produced by identity systems in marriage are not self-executing – they are because of an unbroken sequence of decisions made by people, notions that have been created and arduously maintained in the church, the school and in the family. I hope to have shown the life and liberty pursued by queers in denouncing the traditional marriage blueprint. Ultimately, I hope that having delivered an account of the violence of traditional marriage identity systems, we may consider heterosexual and traditional marriages as worthy of serious reconsideration at least as the dominant and most widely accepted version of successful adulthood. I hope to have created space at the centre for homosexual and homogender relationships, polyamorous as well as aromantic and asexual people.

Amatonormativity and ‘Gender Labour’

The machinery used to engineer the belief that human beings naturally strive for a monogamous, romantic and wealthy heterosexual marriage is expansive, with multiple sources and outlets. It is a belief that is first imparted to us during childhood from Western fairy tales of dragons and damsels in distress who are saved by men wearing metal who possess copious amounts of intergenerational wealth. It is supported by the state which affords extraordinary amounts of social and economic privilege to those that successfully conclude a marriage whether they are citizens, refugees, immigrants or asylum seekers – whether people of the same sex could conclude a marriage was enormously contested for a long time in this country, and still is in other countries, although same-sex romantic and sexual relationships are older than prohibitions against them and were not always pathologised in the way they have come to be.

Magazine editions of True Love, Cosmopolitan and Destiny targeting wealthy and heterosexual women are strikingly incomplete without advice on how to fulfil the highest “achievement” a woman can strive for and no Hollywood script can be considered for production without a romance subplot for the lead character. Marriage is a story that the entire enterprise of organised religion clamours to own and sanctify as an instruction from God to the very hollows of our bones. Whether you are in a romantic, heterosexual relationship or not, the banks, your doctor, your grandmother and your employer all want to know how far you are with that “God-given desire”.

If we are good boys and good girls, if we are faithful to the gender identity we were assigned at birth, we will be rewarded with the perfect, “balanced” life as fashioned by Karabo Moroka and Mandla Sithole. And once we win love, we must work to keep love. We must continue to furnish our lovers’ identities and the institution of our union with our gender performance.

Within the idealised love-coupling of Karabo Moroka and Mandla Sithole is both the fruits and the maintenance of what we might call “Gender Labour”: The conscientious, concentrated and concerted styling of the body, of mannerisms and of behaviour in the interests of maintaining public gender identity and sexuality. Put differently, if we are men, we must embody the agency of violence with the timbre of our voices, with the broadness of our shoulders, with the performance of dominance, power and the apparent threat of physical violence and share the dividends of patriarchy with our women; if we are women, we must become agents of sex, beauty, morality, and the grace of God on Earth. We must supply our men with the objects of their power through our bodies by painting our faces, wearing shoes that raise and flatter our proportions and adorn our men with our beauty. This is labour.

This is labour we perform, particularly, in public spaces, at family gatherings, in malls, at restaurants, in walks to the park. Faced with the sanction on male beauty, heterosexual men pursue women to perform beauty on their behalf. Similarly, faced with the sanction on female self-determination, heterosexual women seek men to embody the agency of self-determination on their behalf.

Do Women have Souls?

Catherine MacKinnon has invested the past 15 years of her life’s work into asking “Are Women Human?” It is also the title of her 2006 book which spans her public speeches and scholarly publications in law journals as well as addresses to Human Rights conferences, national legislatures, parliaments and the United Nations. Are Women Human jettisons the theorisations, futurities and utopias of academic feminist work to present “brutal (literally) hard, cold facts and insightful analysis of the material conditions of women’s local, national and global inequality – and a practical legal strategy for remedy…” By existing legal and social definitions, “‘Human’ and ‘female’ are mutually exclusive by definition”; one cannot be a woman and a human being at the same time.” as Lori Watson’s review goes. Women’s humanity has been a topic of debate for centuries.

“Women do not have souls” states the legendary decree of the council of Mȃcon, supposedly in 585 AD. In reality, such a decree was never made by any Synod or council of European Christianity. What had happened was that a satirical pamphlet published in Germany during the late 16th century, criticising literal interpretations of the bible, took a strange turn. The author was anonymous and based the satire on the Latin term “homines” which can be interpreted as “human beings” or as “adult males” much the same way as James Baldwin and Bantubonke Biko refer to “the Black man”. However, the public sincerely debated over scripture on the point whether women had souls. It is also widely held by historians that the pamphlet was translated into Italian and published in Lyons in 1647 under the translated title Women Do Not Have a Soul and Do Not Belong to the Human Race by Many Passages of Holy Scripture, un-satirically. The pamphlet was later republished in many other European countries over the next half-century.

Thankfully, when the matter reached the Catholic Church, it was formally condemned by the Pope.

The pamphlet made over 50 claims about the nature of women, including the idea that women have no souls, are not invited to heaven and are comparable to demons and dogs. One claim asserted that while a smith may use a hammer to fashion a sword, the hammer is not a part of him nor the sword. In this way, the writer states, women may be used to perpetuate the human race by a man but do not rank among those considered “mankind”. But isn’t that how we have built the conception of women and the purpose of marriage? Is this not the substantive goal of patrilineality and heterosexual love-coupling? Is this not what society means when they insist that the baby must take the husband’s surname because the child is his offspring? Centuries on, The Roots would go on to perpetuate this belief in their 2002 song The Seed:

 “I push my seed in her bush for life
It’s gonna work because I’m pushing it right
If Mary drops my baby girl tonight 

I would name her Rock and Roll”.

Western Womanhood and Marriage

Over a millennium later in Britain, women’s humanity in relation to men was still being debated. The questions were: Should women be educated, and what should that education teach? Thomas Markby is quoted from an article he published in an 1866 edition of Contemporary Review saying that, “[t]he true end of the education of women is making good wives and mothers”. Thomas was not at all unique in his claim but was joined by proto feminists of the age, unions and other movements who varied in approach but not in principle whether or not ciswomen need education and what that education should teach was debatable, however, the outcome must always be to achieve successful wives and mothers out of children assigned women at birth. What all seemed to agree on was that a woman’s identity is constituted by being a good wife to her husband and being a good mother to her children. In 1889, a mother of a Girton College student wrote that “woman’s proper sphere is the domestic, and to fill that position she requires to learn all that will make a good wife and mother.” The fight to have young ciswomen admitted into formal education was won with the express purpose to have them become successful wives and mothers.

And once the project was won, once ciswomen became married, the doctrine of coverture legally enforced the idea of her marital inferiority. Until the 19th century, only unmarried ciswomen could enter into contracts, sue and be sued, draft wills and sell their property in their own name. The doctrine of coverture was the legal fiction that, upon marriage, a husband and wife become one person: the husband, whose consent the wife needed to perform any and all juristic acts. The Western institution of marriage was an institution that constituted women as perpetual minors, soulless domestic helpers whose existential identity was summed up by wifehood and motherhood. The doctrine of coverture was never officially abolished, only gradually displaced by piecemeal legislation and judicial decisions.

“A woman should, according to the current gender ideology, be a companion to her husband, a teacher of her children, and the pervasive moral influence within the home; but only an educated woman could perform these functions adequately; therefore academic education was in fact the best preparation for marriage and maternity” Ellen Jordan “Making Good Wives and Mothers”? The Transformation of Middle-Class Girls’ Education in Nineteenth-Century Britain 1991 History of Education Quarterly 

“For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh [belonging to him. And the two shall become one mind, his mind]” Genesis 2:24, insertions my own, if not implied and merely made express.

The relevance of middle-class girls’ education in 19th century Britain is presented because it illustrates the precarious humanity and precarious self-determination of women a millennium after Germany’s anonymous pamphlet that nominally shook the pope. Even advocates for ciswomen’s education came just short of repeating the pamphlet’s hammer analogy: “To be a help-mate to man is, I believe, admitted on all sides to be woman’s happiest position” Henrietta Stanley, an early patron of Queen’s College in a letter she wrote in 1879. Further, this history scaffolds some of the ways amatonormativity is constructed through the identity formation of children in girls’ schools. This conception of womanhood and social validity was later to be exported to South Africa as a colony through the British formal schooling system. It is this colonial notion of womanhood that informs Karabo Moroka and Mandla Sithole’s ambitions in marriage.

Cartoon from The Vote, a newspaper published by the Women’s Freedom League (February 1911)

Boys Will Be Made Boys

The stories that historically white, elite boys’ schools in South Africa tell themselves leave much to be desired. I know this from research for this article but also because I went to one Jeppe High School for Boys in Johannesburg, South Africa. If their websites are anything to go by, their excellence is palpably measured by the successes of their sporting records and less so by the standards of their academic education. All of the elite all-boys’ schools Michaelhouse, St Andrews, Bishops, King Edward, SACS etc share ideological underpinnings in the vision of colonial, British masculinity, a subjectivity perfected by marriage, but not determined by it.

The all-boys’ schooling system in South Africa is one of Britain’s most successful exports, with the first one, South African College Schools, being founded in Cape Town in 1829. These schools inculcate a version of manliness that stresses “obligations and duties to the school and wider society, country and Empire”, according to John Lambert in ‘Munition Factories … Turning Out a Constant Supply of Living Material: White South African Elite Boys’ Schools and the First World War.

George Edward Lynch Cotton introduced sport into the British schooling system in the 1850s as headmaster of Marlborough College with the express justification that sport teaches boys how to “take a licking”, follow instruction from authority and curates an appetite for domination. Participating in sport is of paramount importance to the South African elite, all-boys’ schooling system. Failure to participate in sport attracts the most dehumanising humiliation for students in boys’ schools. At Jeppe Boys, students who do not participate in sport are referred to as “scum” ultimately, black students who live in the townships, on the other side of the mine dumps, two taxis and a train away, who cannot realistically afford to leave school after 6pm and again on weekends. The objects of boys’ education are constituted by self-mastery, physicality as the primary site of existentialism and the desire for dominion.

Contemporary to the sporting obsession was the premium placed on the cadet system/ band pipe/ scouts. The cadets pursued the ethics and idealisation of militarism, with parades on the monarch’s birthday, Open Day, rival rugby matches and other auspicious occasions. Unlike sport, the cadet system was never made compulsory except in Natal (today, KwaZulu-Natal) which made it compulsory in 1903.

The connection between the cadet system and militarism was so direct that, in the 1870s, the headmasters of Hilton College and St Andrew’s publicly stated that their cadets are “available to the colonial government in its task of subjugating the natives”, and went on to offer their cadets as volunteers against the Chief Langalibalele rebellion of the amaHlubi in 1873. Over the decades, many cadets would go on to serve in colonial regiments against anti-colonial African uprisings, against the “scum”, and later returned to train cadets – emphasising the connections between the schools and the military. During the First World War, South African all-boy’s schools were overrepresented in the British troops, so much so that the headmaster of St Andrew’s at the time describe all-boys’ schools as “munition factories [doing their share turning out] a constant supply a living material” – the insertion being John Lambert’s. Speaking on behalf of “the boys” when the war broke out in 1914, Eric Addison, an old boy of Hilton College, described the atmosphere like this:

“[We] were rank flag-wagging imperialistic jingoes, and how we loved it! We certainly did have something to shout about, and the present generation has no idea how we felt … We certainly had the courage of our convictions, because when the dogs of war were let slip we were ready to die in thousands to uphold our beliefs.”

To this day, there persists the same disturbing veneration of war within South African all-boys’ schools in the competitive pride they take in their war memorials, listing proudly how many of their former students died protecting the egos and demonstrating the dominion of men. I wonder if Parktown Boys will memorialise Enoch Mpianzi as a life it took in the same order.

Far from institutions that teach inferiority, meekness and servitude, boys schools breed children into agents of violence, soulless in their own way, their innocence a stain on the perfection of their manhood. A wife is not a necessary condition for identity formation, but evidence thereof. Once these boys accrue power and dominance in society, they are led to believe that they are entitled to a wife to perform the kinds of labour they are unwilling and sanctioned from performing in their own name – domestic labour, moral labour and the agency of beauty.

The Precarious Black South African Marriage Identity

In an exaggerated parody of double consciousness, black South Africans often get married twice. Although the current Recognition of Customary Marriages Act allows for customary (traditional) marriages to be recognised as Civil Marriages (Western unions), black South Africans will often host wedding ceremonies to socially institute the welding of their four identities. One to wed their black African selves, the other to wed their Western (or Western aspirational) selves. A “Traditional wedding” in each family’s yard wearing Isintu or seShoeshoe and a “white wedding”, often at the Methodist Church down the road, wearing British suits, bowties, Monk shoes and a white wedding gown with a veil. The tensions created here are extraordinary.

The white wedding institutes a joint identity formation much the same as the one described above, whereas the black wedding institutes a far more explicitly patriarchal set of relations.

“Lula, leha a u otla, lula – Stay, even when he beats you, stay,” said my great grandmother to my mother on the day of her wedding. A man’s entitlement to beat his wife is not an uncommon reality in black marriage institutions. It is often explicitly instructed that “sometimes, a man must discipline his wife”. Inasmuch as Western marriage-identity constitutes a perpetual status of a social and legal minority on the wife, the black South African marriage-identity does not obscure this with veneers of love and intimacy. Acrobatic arguments attempt to romanticize this arrangement with lyrics on duty and communal responsibility that necessitate the concentration of power around men in marriages. Young black South Africans understand this arrangement and internalise it from a very young age by referring to young women as “le ngane, lo mntana/ ngoana enoa – this child”.

Black womanhood in South Africa is not unfamiliar to Western womanhood. In the black marriage identity, a woman is constituted by the embodiment and agency of domestic and reproductive labour: “uMakhoti”. This must be executed while still serving the Western-ambitious identity of their union as the object of beauty and grace. You must labour to be Imbokodo, navigate an anti-woman and anti-black and anti-black-woman capitalism, bitch in the office servile in the home while being an object of revelry and elegance. And that labour will be enjoyed by the social capital of your husband. And then of course there is the institution of lobolo which I will not argue here save to say Black men use it as justification for their dominion and domestication over and of women.

@NochillinMzansi“Venda women are soo respectful. She will kneel down like this before sex & go on some “aee khaba e f[*]cke wee””

Before I was born, before Karabo Moroka and Mandla Sithole, my grandmother knew I would be. She was born in the Eastern Cape and spoke isiXhosa and was coloured. She lived with my grandfather in a township called Katlehong (perhaps Where There is Success) being brutalised for being a woman, his woman. My grandfather was a man, and men do terrible things, unspeakable things that must be spoken to their women. He was a black man, a thing at which university departments spend their lives horrified. My grandmother took out a life policy for her children – the audacity of it all shocked the story of the black woman killed by her black husband for cooking rice for a change and not pap, for the time other men spent dressing her down, for not bearing him a son from his empty ejaculate, for embarrassing him at the Christmas lunch by correcting him in front of his family, for contesting the space of self-determination he occupies, for nothing at all.

Growing up, I watched Generations with my mother at 8pm in the living room with my grandparents in Katlehong. We watched Karabo Moroka move through space the way a breath moves through mist. We watched Mandla brood over the breadth of his dominion and wondered when our respective turns would come. We had recently stolen ourselves away from a physically and emotionally abusive black man who himself witnessed his mother being brutalised by his father. My mother did not leave in her own name but the name of her mother after the first night my father beat me, realising she was participating in some unremarkable tragedy spinning its taut silk tale. We sat there with our plates on our laps watching freedom play in unremarkable scandals and dreamt of a world when we could shame and be shamed by a glass of wine thrown to the face.

Eventually, she would come to find a husband of her own, a man with money, who drove a German car and looked at her like she was Karabo Moroka. At the wedding, his family sang “uzosiwashela siphekele She will do our washing and cook for us.” I cried in the outside toilet as my mother, who had once held the temerity to steal us back from the institutionally fractured identities of black men sat and smiled, wrapped in blankets like a gift to marriage. In the worst of times, she would resile her temerity and say things like, “I need to let him be the man of the house, I need to let him lead.” I watched my mother swallow herself into a child again.

At each point of the genealogy presented here are counternarratives, dissenting streams and contestations in the church, in the school, in the government and in the home. Marriage and identity systems have certainly come a long way from the violence in this account. However, the account of marriage demonstrated above dominates the core construct of marriage and love-coupling in the communal imagination.

A better writer would be able to demonstrate the continuities between marriage identity-making and gendered violence and sexual assault including rape while accounting for the intersectionalities of time, geography, politics, gender ideology, race and class. I hope, in this long, yet small, contribution, I have given that writer some of the necessary premises to present such an argument. A more brazen writer would advocate for the abolition of marriage notwithstanding its candied veneers of unconditional love, mutual support and partnership – as though a marriage was ever a necessary precondition to legitimize those characteristics in a relationship. I am not yet either of these writers. Back to the ghetto. MC

Kneo Mokgopa is a graduate of the Wilfred & Jules Kramer Law School at the University of Cape Town. They are currently writing their Masters in Rhetoric Studies at UCT on South African identity systems and are the Communications Manager at the Nelson Mandela Foundation. Kneo has been publishing since 2016 in Daily Maverick, the Cape Times, the Sunday Times, Amandla! Magazine, Hola Africa Magazine and has published a chapter in ‘We are No Longer at Ease: The Struggle for Free Education’, the upcoming 2020 CAPS Life Orientation textbook and many other platforms.


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