Men, Movements, and Gender Transformation in South Africa

Robert Morrell. Journal of Men’s Studies. Volume 10, Issue 3,  Spring 2002.

In the last decade, South Africa has undergone a major political transformation. The ending of apartheid and the installation of a democratically elected, black majority government has had major implications for gender policy and gender relations in the country. This paper examines how men collectively have responded to these changes. It identifies a number of different men’s movements and locates them in terms of their relationship to the goal of gender equity being pursued by government. It draws on the work of Mike Messner to suggest what contribution these movements might, or might not, make to gender transformation in the country. Finally, it examines the importance of race and the apartheid past to suggest that any analysis of men and gender politics should be sensitive to different understandings of gender and location within the current gender order.

South Africa’s constitution, among the most progressive in the world, forbids discrimination on the grounds of gender, sexual orientation, race, class, age, and creed. It is the apogee of a feminist struggle for the rights of women that has lasted for nearly a century (Walker, 1991). It also reflects the more recent history of the liberation struggle for an end to apartheid and the introduction of a human rights culture.

Naturally, the new policies and laws have not overthrown patriarchy or removed men from their domination of public life, politics, and earnings. But there have nevertheless been shifts in gender power. In parliament, the number of women members stands at just under 30%, while half of all the deputy ministers and a quarter of all ministers are women (Zulu, 1998). The percentage of women in full-time employment has also risen. These can legitimately be seen as victories for and of feminism.

Internationally, men’s responses to feminism have taken many forms. At one extreme, men have waged war on women (Dworkin, 1997; Faludi, 1992; French, 1992), fighting to maintain their position. Tactics have included physical attack, workplace obstruction, and legal counter-attacks. On the other hand, some men have embraced change (Connell, 1995; Hearn & Morgan, 1990; Kimmel & Mosmiller, 1992). Still others have been anaesthetised into inaction (Faludi, 1999). In this paper, the response of men to gender change in South Africa will be discussed. I argue that in a time of gender change, men have responded in widely differing ways. While it has been common to think that men stand in the way of gender transformation, there are signs that this is not uniformly the case. There are indeed instances where men are actively contributing to campaigns for gender equity. This paper examines some of the ways in which men collectively have responded to gender transformation.

It should not be surprising that men in South Africa have responded in varying ways to shifts in gender power. Class and race remain major factors in society, while colonialism and apartheid have had differential impacts on men. For this reason it is important, while noting the rich literature on the responses of men in first world countries (Messner, 1997; Schacht & Ewing, 1998), to allow for and explain different patterns of response.

Forces of Gender Change

Globalization is considered here as a process that involves a massive increase in the importance of information technology, gives free play to market forces, and is a powerful dissolving and constitutive cultural force. Its economic impact on the third world has been dramatic. Along with structural adjustment programmes, it has caused, or been associated with, the impoverishment of millions, rising unemployment, and a small but significant growth in the middle class, particularly in “developing” economies, such as South Africa.

The effects of globalization need to be considered in conjunction with the legacy of colonialism and apartheid. The economy remains racially skewed, with distinctive gender features as well. Black men are by and large limited to skilled and semi-skilled jobs in the cities. Most women are under or unemployed, and many continue to live in the countryside. The break-up of apartheid through the 1980s gave small numbers of middle-class blacks access to white-collar work in the cities. The ending of apartheid in 1994 visibly changed the demography of the economy. A black middle class emerged, gaining access to state positions and, slowly, to the boardrooms of the corporate world (Bond, 2000; Budlender, 1996; Marais, 1998; Michie & Padayachee, 1997; Taylor, 1997).

A significant gender gap still exists, though. Rural women are still the poorest, least literate and educated group in the country. In rural areas, 69.9% of African women live in poverty, compared to 64.3% of African men (Budlender, 1998). Women-headed households are on the increase, giving women more independence, but these households are more prone to poverty than male-headed households. In 1995, 23% of African women over 25 years of age had no formal education compared to 16% of African men (Budlender, 1998). In the same year, 46% of women over the age of 15 years were economically active, compared with 63% of men. Unemployment affects women far more heavily than it does men. The fortunes of African men have varied. The racial demography of the senior ranks of the national and provincial bureaucracies testifies to the accession of some. Yet unemployment has risen in the last decade, and millions of young black men live on the margins. Prospects of employment are exceedingly poor: the formal economy continues to shed jobs at an alarming rate—149,000 non-agricultural jobs in the year, June 1999-June 2000 (South African Reserve Bank, 2000).

Among white men, there have been changes too. They continue to dominate in the professions and businesses, but young white men are now finding access to these positions more difficult. Among the lower, primarily Afrikaans-speaking, middle classes there has been a downward pressure. In 1999, the unemployment rate for economically active whites was 6.9% (compared to 29.5% African unemployment) (Statistics South Africa, 2000). White beggars, a sight seldom seen since the poor white problem of the 1930s, have once again become visible.

South Africa is fast becoming associated with the AIDS epidemic. It has the highest rates of new infection in the world. In a district of KwaZulu-Natal where reliable records are kept, the incidence of HIV jumped from 4% in 1992 to 29% in 1997 (Whiteside & Sunter, 2000). The disease is spreading most rapidly among people between 15 and 30 and is rife particularly among young women and newborn babies. For each man infected, the rate is 1.37 women (Thomas & Howard, 1998). The number infected with HIV stands at about 4 million (10% of the country’s population). The actual impact of the disease on gender relations is unclear, although the higher mobility rates of young African women are producing and will shortly produce dramatically changed forms of the family. Numbers of orphans are rising, estimated at 180,000 in 1998 (Whiteside & Sunter, 2000). Grandparents, siblings, or extended family members parent many children. This may in time thrust long-avoided parenting and care responsibilities onto men. For the moment, however, AIDS needs to be considered as a disease that affects primarily young, black, heterosexual, working-class men and women. The rapid spread of AIDS may well also be caused by grim gender inequalities that play out as rape and nonconsensual sex. There are also recorded cases of HIV men having unprotected sex with women as a form of revenge (Leclerc-Madlala, 1997).

The state is the most visible and active of the forces discussed here. Guided by the 1996 constitution and the bill of rights, a legal and policy framework is now in place. Among the most significant gender developments are:

  • Marital rape is now a recognised offence.
  • Domestic violence is now subject to new and tougher sentencing.
  • People (almost all men) who defy child maintenance court orders are liable to prosecution.
  • Companies are obliged to appoint women in terms of labour relations legislation.
  • Women must be paid the same as men for equivalent work.
  • In education, the interests of the girl child have been identified as requiring special efforts despite the fact that the formal educational achievement of girls is almost on a par with boys.

To monitor the state of gender relations, two statutory bodies have been established: The Office on the Status of Women and the Commission on Gender Equality. These measures have, in the words of Shireen Hassim, transformed the situation of women “from presence to power” (Hassim, 1999).

The Effects on Men

Bob Connell (1998) has suggested that globalization has generated widely differing responses among men:

The global gender order contains, necessarily, greater gender plurality of gender forms than any local gender order. This must reinforce the consciousness that masculinity is not one fixed form. The plurality of masculinities at least symbolically prefigures the unconstrained creativity of a democratic gender order. (pp. 18-19)

Connell’s view on the emancipatory possibilities opened up by globalization needs to be contrasted with defensive, masculinist responses.

On the basis of state affirmative action policies, some commentators have suggested that there is a national “crisis of masculinity” in South Africa. It is claimed that men are losing their jobs and their opportunities of advancement are being limited (Lemon, 1995). This may be the case for a small proportion of white men seeking entry into or promotion into white-collar jobs. Overall, however, men still dominate in earnings and decision-making.

Affirmative action policies, which are slowly giving women greater power, have caused some men to feel threatened. These fears have been fuelled by the activities of women’s movements. In cases where women have tried to enter male institutions or to end male monopolies, they have met opposition. For example, where women have tried to become chiefs, they have encountered great opposition by men trying to preserve this powerful institution for men alone (Matlala, 1993). Similarly, men have resisted the attempts of African women to obtain and own land even though it is now a constitutionally protected right.

With regard to violence, men, particularly black men, are seriously affected. They constitute 96% of the country’s prison population. A study of Cape Town in 1995 showed that young black males constituted 84% of all homicide victims (The Sunday Times, 1995, December 3). Men have often responded violently to change. In KwaZulu-Natal, older and younger African men locked horns in intense inter-generational conflict. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, 15,000 people were killed. At the root of the struggle was the attempt of older African men to hold onto the rights traditionally accorded them and the efforts of a younger generation to break free from patriarchal control (Campbell, 1992; Carton, 2001). In the black townships, demilitarized freedom fighters have turned to crime. The heroic masculinity of the 1980s has been delegitimized and, without prospect of jobs and having lost their political status, these men have gone on the rampage, robbing, killing, and raping (Xaba, 2001). Not surprisingly, such a view of gender lends itself to gloomy conclusions about the vested interest men have in maintaining the status quo and their limited capacity to promote justice. Yet these responses are not the whole story.

Gender Transformation?

The term “gender transformation” can refer to the past and the present. This paper addresses both angles on the understanding that gender transformation has already happened and will continue to happen. Both claims are mildly contentious. In the first case, some would argue that gender transformation has not yet taken place. But Sylvia Walby (1997) makes a case for the fact of gender transformation propelled, she argues, by “the increase in women’s education and paid employment and new forms of political representation of women’s interests”. Earlier in this section I have offered some explanation for and description of these changes. They are not earth shattering, not least because gender transformation is more like the Industrial than the Bolshevik revolution—slow (Segal, 1990). The expectation that gender transformation will continue rests on an assessment of the state’s role and policies, as well as the recognition that many non-governmental and governmental agencies exist to promote gender justice and there are other impersonal forces (for example, AIDS) inadvertently forcing gender changes. In this latter, futuristic sense, gender transformation is taken to mean change that addresses gender inequalities, that improves the position of women in society, which is associated with and contributes to the development of a peaceful and democratic society. In many third world countries, however, the position of the poor and of women has deteriorated (Walby, 1997, Chapter 2). Gender transformation is not an ineluctable movement. For it to continue, men (and women) must contribute.

Internationally, in the last ten years particularly, there has been a growing recognition of the need for men’s movements to support gender transformation. The arguments made to support this can be summarised as follows: Men have a vested interest in gender change because they, along with women, also suffer the consequences of the present order. Men historically have often been interpolated as the “cause” of gender oppression, but in order for the situation to improve, they have to be encouraged to lend their energies to a campaign for gender peace and equality. Men can contribute in many ways—organisationally, ideologically, and politically. They can assist via their collective efforts as well as their individual efforts, the latter referring to attempts to create new models of masculinity and new ways of “being men.” The inclusion of men and masculinity into considerations of how to achieve gender justice has been most striking in organs of the United Nations. Success at this level has been augmented by initiatives by states (government ministries, for example) and men’s organisations (Breines, Connell, & Eide, 2000). And yet it is recognised that many, often the majority, of men’s movements are not oriented toward gender equality or supportive of feminism (Connell, 2000).

In South Africa, violent masculinities have been more in evidence and the colonial and apartheid past longer and more oppressive than in most countries around the world (Morrell, 1998). Under these circumstances, one should be particularly alert to responses that do not fit into existing patterns of understanding.

Men’s Movements or Movements of Men

South Africa is a country of movements, spectacularly in the 1980s and 1990s when populist and nationalist movements were particularly active in the struggle to overthrow apartheid. These were by and large militant groupings of young black men who had borne the brunt of state repression. Yet despite this, women participated, though seldom in leadership positions other than in organisations designed exclusively for women such as the ANC Women’s League. But this is not insignificant. Elsewhere in the continent, women have been particularly marginalized. Examining, for example, the situation in rural Zambia, Kate Crehan (1999) concludes that “women’s experiences in mainstream politics…within parties and in government (are similar). Unless women keep to the prescribed spaces and roles in the political women’s corner, they are where they are not supposed to be”. Despite the fact that many women are still denied a voice in domestic decision-making, prevented from occupying leadership positions, and, in very general terms, under-represented in the public sphere, they are in a substantially more powerful position than their sisters elsewhere on the continent. Part of the reason for this is the success of the women’s movement in the country. The political participation of women in women’s only and mixed gender movements has as its corollary the participation of men working together with women. The goals of such movements vary a lot. Church and civic movements which draw mixed gender participation, for example, may have goals that range from support for existing patriarchal relations to commitment to gender emancipatory practices. For the purposes of this paper, it needs to be noted that some men work for gender justice in movements not exclusively male and which therefore cannot be considered strictly speaking as men’s movements. Yet there is reason to be flexible in the process of analytical inclusion and exclusion. Connell’s examination of gender politics points out both the limits of men’s movements in terms of gender transformation and the importance of organizing around the principle of gender justice (Connell, 1995). Pursuing gender justice involves engaging with “complex equality concerns.” This process can obviously include men and women if one allows a broad definition of feminist. Karen Often (1998) suggests that a feminist is somebody who is committed to recognising the validity of women’s lives and the values they claim as their own, conscious and critical of discrimination against women, and advocates the elimination of that injustice. Beyond this is the practical goal of providing “an agenda for achievable community change” (Schacht & Ewing, 1998, p. 8). The acknowledgement that men and women can share a joint gender politics alerts us to the importance of seeing power not only as oppressive—a construction which propels analysis into a binaried analysis of men against women. It suggests too that men and women have in various contexts found reason to work together against forces that threaten on grounds of class, or race, or ethnicity (Carby, 1982). In the sections below I keep an open mind and work, where appropriate, with this inclusive frame to consider movements not exclusively male but which have a clear programme and commitment to gender justice.

The term “men’s movement” refers to an organisation or grouping (formal and informal) consciously constituted to appeal to men as gendered subjects. The distinction needs to be made between a movement of men (for example, political parties, armies) and a men’s movement. In the case of the former, while gender politics in the form of masculinist discourses, domination of public positions, and decisionmaking is clearly evident, these are not central to the organising principles which may in fact be framed in gender-neutral terms. In this case, the dominance of men is held to be unintended, coincidental or accidental. In the case of the latter, a men’s movement consciously organises and mobilizes men. Its membership is designed for men, and its purpose is to address specific gender challenges facing men.

In South Africa, as elsewhere in the world, men have organised for different reasons. Some have responded to the erosion of privilege, while others have focussed on issues (such as domestic violence) involving men. Internationally a distinction has classically been drawn between “the men’s movement” and the “new men’s movement.” The men’s movement is regarded as reactive, antifeminist, and committed to the restoration of male power. The new men’s movement is held to be profeminist and committed to gender justice. Here energies are directed toward developing new male role models that differ sharply from orthodox patriarchal models of men-in-charge. In reality, the binaried distinction is too stark. It highlights the politics of these movements as determining of their character, whereas with respect to membership and reasons for organising, there are commonalities between the two movements (Kimmel, 1995; Schwalbe, 1996).

The location of men’s movements within the gender terrain will be assessed in terms of their commitment and contribution (or otherwise) to the goal of gender justice. The work of U.S. sociologist Mike Messner (1997) will be used to assess the location of men’s movements in South Africa. Because Messner’s arguments are framed in a developed context, they cannot be adopted holus bolus to explain all aspects of the South African situation. The particular place of race and class in South Africa requires sensitive analysis. Nevertheless, his framework is an exceedingly helpful starting point. He locates a movement in relation to three criteria: institutionalized privileges, costs attached to adhering to a particular and narrow conception of masculinity, and differences and inequalities among men. Messner argues that the emphasis of each movement in relation to these criteria results in “critically important political possibilities, limits, and/or dangers”. Those organizations that concentrate on addressing the costs of masculinity and/or focus on addressing specific issues between or among men tend not to address the institutional and interpersonal power of men over women.

Messner argues that there are three “terrains” that can conceptually be used to categorize men’s movements: the anti-feminist backlash, anti-patriarchal politics, and racial and sexual identity politics. In considering how men’s movements might work toward social justice, he identifies a terrain of progressive coalition politics in which a number of men’s movements with affiliation to different terrains might come together. He identifies, for example, NOMAS (National Organisation of Men Against Sexism), Social Feminist men, elements within the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement, and Multiracial Feminist groupings as constituting the most likely combination of movements to successfully strive for gender justice.

Messner is highly sensitive to the issue of race and attempts to theorize gender liberation in tandem with racial liberation. In offering a critique of gender-insensitive groupings of black men, he suggests that “the only thing that makes `men of color’ a distinct group is the central role they play as racialized `other’ in the social construction of `white masculinity'”. Here race is considered as a fluid identity without a specific relation to a material base and without a particular historical location. When applied to South Africa, where race has a specific history and an ongoing correlation with class powerlessness that reflects the colonial past and the period of apartheid, this approach requires some qualification.

Men’s Organisations

There are not many men’s organisations in South Africa, and in their absence, it is difficult to talk of one or many men’s movements. In the sections below I survey the different types of organisations that do exist and attempt to classify them using Messner’s three key indicators.

Defending male privilege. Organisations that fall into this category prioritize the defence of male privilege. They are bound to an essentialist reading of men that bolsters hegemonic masculinity and excludes many men on grounds, for example, of race and sexual orientation. They stress the significance of men’s “losses” for ideological rather than therapeutic reasons.

Organisations in this category are prone to emerge as a backlash to gender transformation. A number of Australian studies of education have shown that where feminist policies have been implemented, male teachers and learners have often responded negatively (Kenway & Willis, 1998; Lingard & Douglas, 1999). In South Africa this response is also apparent.

There are two types of backlash—one attempts to limit the gains of women, another produces a counter-argument that boys/men are disadvantaged (Lingard & Douglas, 1999). Frank Brummer, a white, working-class man, probably spoke for a great many South African men when he said: “The ANC Women’s League promises women the world, but they won’t be able to deliver. In my household, we’re both equal, but I am the boss” (quoted in Cohen, 1997, p. 13). Brummer’s view has had organisational expression. A number of small movements have developed in the 1990s to defend male privilege. The most articulate has been the South African Association of Men (SAAM), established in 1994 by a university lecturer, Kieran O’Malley, and a Johannesburg businessman, John Loftus. Its goal was to fight discrimination against men in order to “restore the tattered remains of the male image” (quoted in Lemon, 1995, p. 61). It dedicated itself to challenging feminism that exhibited “an often-vicious loathing of traditional masculinity” (O’Malley, 1994). The organisation had little support and was primarily white, middle class, and heterosexist. One of the major concerns its establishment reflected was the erosion of white male privilege. In a 1999 legal case to test the scope of affirmative action legislation designed to advance women and black people, a participating lawyer commented: “Pale males have been very fearful of the new legislation (Affirmative Action), fearing it could lead to their extinction” (Independent on Saturday, 1999, August 14). But the new dispensation has proved less threatening than white prophets of doom imagined, and at the time of this writing, SAAM has all but disappeared.

A second type of loose organisation has developed around the concern of fatherhood. In various cities, organisations like TUFF (The Unmarried Fathers’ Fight) have been established. They have demonstrated against “unfair” laws that deny fathers custody of or access to their children and have taken up these issues in the media. Unlike SAAM, men’s organisations concerned with paternity issues are more enduring. Their bona fides have been questioned by lawyers and feminists who wonder whether these men actually believe in shared parenting and parental responsibility or are just concerned with challenging the increased power of women (de Villiers, 1998). The celebrated case of Laurie Fraser provides some basis for these suspicions.

In 1996, Laurie Fraser took his claim for paternity rights to the national constitutional court (the highest court in the land) and won. The case arose out of a situation where he had fathered a child with a woman who subsequently ended the relationship, had the child, and put it up for adoption without consulting him. Fraser’s case received great media attention, and the legal implications of his court victory were important in acknowledging the rights of fathers to participate in child rearing. His motives and subsequent actions discredited his gender crusade (which was taken up across the country by many unmarried fathers denied access to their children). He was found guilty of kidnapping in a case where he paid two Malawian men to kidnap his child from its adoptive parents. The backlash exemplified by these organisations is not just against women. It is against change perceived to threaten the status quo. The major threats are seen to be women, youth, criminals, and a state no longer committed to protecting male privilege.

Striving for gender justice. Quite a different set of organisations are to be found when one looks at those fighting for gender justice. In terms of Messner’s model, these organisations are committed to contesting male privilege. Many are also concerned with the costs of masculinity and to a lesser extent support the struggle of other masculinities for recognition. This is not to say that issues of homophobia are unimportant. Rather it is to say that they are not accorded primacy and little effort is made to work with gay organisations. The organisations are mostly non-governmental (as opposed to civic) and have been established to work with men to address pressing issues. Most of the organisations were recently established and, in one way or another, address issues of relational and domestic violence. South Africa has a frighteningly high incidence of rape and domestic violence. It has the highest rate of rape in the world. Estimates range from one million women to 1.6 million women, men, and children (out of a population of 40 million people) raped a year (Weekly Mail and Guardian, 1999, July 2-8; Women Against Child Abuse press release, 1999, November 19). Although the figures are disputed, this translates into one rape every 30 seconds. In 1996 more than a quarter of a million children were raped. Domestic violence, recently made the subject of criminal prosecution, has become a recognised problem. The extent and severity of such violence is notoriously difficult to determine, but a recent study conducted in black working-class localities in Cape Town found that 25 of the 26 relationships investigated were characterized by routine violence by the male partner (Wood & Jewkes, 1997). Most of the victims are young, black, working-class women. Much of the violence occurs in intimate relationships and is triggered by the insistence for sex by the male partner. “Boys frequently felt offended when girls fail to respond to their approaches. This is perceived as girls’ `snobbishness’—not wanting to mix with poorer boys. Girls are believed to want relationships only with boys or men who are prosperous” (Unicef/NPPHCN, 1997, p. 35). The insistence on sex, penetrative sex, is thus synonymous with being male. For a female to refuse to have sex is to call into question the male’s masculinity. A study conducted in an African township in the Eastern Cape suggests that the violence emanates from the vulnerability of young black men who have little life opportunity and thus give great emphasis to sexual prowess. In so doing they reveal their fragility and make themselves vulnerable to the sexual competition of other young men. Since neither men nor women practice monogamy, the discovery of “infidelity” often provokes violence (Wood & Jewkes, 2001).

In 1994, Agisanang Domestic Abuse Prevention and Training (ADAPT) was established in Johannesburg by a nurse, Mmatshilo Motsei, herself a victim of domestic violence. Initially it operated more as a shelter for battered women, but in 1997 it reoriented its activities toward men. The organisation grew rapidly, recruiting members mainly from among young black working-class men who have themselves been in violent relationships. It trains these men as counsellors who in turn involve themselves in mediation, therapy, popularisation, and gaining media exposure for issues of domestic violence (Dugmore & Stirton, 1997; Nkosi, 1998).

Taking a slightly different approach to the problem of violent expressions of male sexuality is the 5 in 6 project. Operating in Cape Town, it was begun in 1993 to give workshops to men on domestic violence and violence against women in general. Its founder, Charles Maisel, chose to name his organisation after a U.S. research project that found that five out of six men were not violent toward their partners. The organisation has a database of 50,000 sympathetic men (supporters) around the country. It provides the skilled personnel to help men talk about violence against women with a goal of creating “safe spaces” for men to open up and talk about their anxieties, worries, and emotions. While it works with men and women, it focuses on men. A recent project was the Everyday Hero Campaign in which men and women were asked to write stories about or nominate positive men who would then be asked to support the organisation and act as role models (Maisel, 2000).

A number of other service organisations, supported by overseas funding, work with men to teach that “sexism hurts us all” (Horowitz, 1997). GETNET (Gender Education and Training Network) is the foremost among these. It runs workshops around the country, working with trade unions and voluntary groups of men to develop self-understanding and to advance the broad goals of gender equity (Daphne, 1998).

Some Trade Unions with strong records of feminist campaigning have begun to bargain for paternity rights as a commitment to equal parenting. The Commercial, Catering, and Allied Workers Union, a union with predominantly female members, for example, has recently begun a campaign to get its male workers who are fathers more involved in parenting by negotiating paid paternity leave from employers (Appolis, 1998).

The capacity of profeminist organizations to mobilize men for gender justice on any significant scale is open to question in South Africa as elsewhere (Connell, 1995). They are most successful in working with men involved with particular issues (like domestic violence). They have been spectacularly ineffective in trying to generalize their appeal. In 1997 a Men’s March was held in Pretoria to protest high rape rates. Thousands were expected, but only a few hundred participated. A similar march in Durban in 1999 was cancelled for lack of support, and one in Johannesburg attracted only 70 women. The outraged organizer bemoaned the absence of support, pointing out that 7,000 people had supported a campaign the week before to protest cruelty to elephants (The Daily News, 1999, October 4). In the same vein, the international White Ribbon campaign, started in Canada to organize men against violence against women, has in South Africa a membership dominated by women. There is not, therefore, widespread support among men for organisations or campaigns that publicly commit themselves to gender justice and which condemn violence.

Yet it is important not to stop analysis at this point. In a sense the work being done in public can only be measured in private. Riane Eisler (1998) and bel hooks (2000) stress the importance of love and caring. Eisler believes that it is necessary to shift the attitudes of men from “scoring” to “caring.” This involves transforming relationships into “places of caring, trust, respect and honesty” (1998, p. 237).

Dealing with the “Crisis of Masculinity”

A third type of men’s organisation can be defined by its response to the “crisis of masculinity.” These organisations focus on the costs of masculinity and pay little attention to either the issue of the patriarchal dividend or of accommodating men from outside the mainstream. There are many such organisations. At the micro level, small groups of white middle-class men hold consciousness-raising sessions. This mirrors developments in Europe and America and has some connections with the mythopoetic impulse, though the scale of this American initiative is not matched in South Africa where introspection and personal transformation are normally tackled in the privacy and safety of suburban houses in the company of like-minded, racially similar men (Morrell, 2000). There are no wildmen retreats for South African men. In terms of gender politics, the atomised nature of these men’s groups renders them insignificant. At the other extreme, the scale of the newly launched Promise Keepers of South Africa makes this organisation highly significant.

In September 1998, the Springbok cricketer and current team selector, Peter Pollock, founded Promise Keepers South Africa. The impetus seems to have come from his religious convictions—he is a member of the charismatic Rhema Church—but was also a response to a perceived social crisis. Chairman of the organisation, Dr. David Molapo, outlined this situation: “Our families are crumbling. Daddies are not at home, they are not assuming responsibility.” In September 1999, 30,000 black and white men and boys gathered at a rugby stadium in Pretoria to launch the organisation. The call for support was given a patriotic slant by Molapo. “South Africa needs men of integrity who are committed to God, their families and their community” (The Natal Mercury, 1999, September 20). But the major recruitment device was for men to attend in order to find their true selves, “the men they were born to become” (The Weekly Mail and Guardian, 1999, September 17-22). The Promise Keepers have no connection with feminist movements and adhere to strict Christian fundamentalist principles. The organisation has committed itself to fighting crime and to reconciliation—”going beyond skin colour. We’re looking at each other as brothers” (The Weekly Mail and Guardian, 1999, September 17-22). The engagement of Promise Keepers South Africa with social problems and not just “the crisis of masculinity” requires, for the moment, a suspension of judgement about its relationship to transformation. Its ability to bring black and white people (men) together is an achievement in this racially divided country, which is not without gender implications.

Gay Organizations

The most organized and visible of men’s organisations are gay. For Messner, they are to be understood as energetically engaging with men’s differences but are less concerned with the patriarchal dividend (possibly because they believe that they do not benefit) and the costs of masculinity. In the Australian context, Gary Dowsett (1998) has analysed the relationship between gay organisations and men’s movements. He laments, “gay men find no solace in the men’s movement for, when push comes to shove, the men’s movement refuses the very centrality of sex between men as a challenge to patriarchy through its destruction of homosociality”.

Isolated and regionally specific groupings emerged among white urban men in the 1970s. These fused with the establishment of the national Gay Association of South Africa (GASA) in the early 1980s. The membership was small and mostly white. During the 1980s, the gay movement failed to associate itself with anti-apartheid organisations and was thus sidelined (Gevisser, 1994). It was only in the 1990s, and particularly since 1996 when the new constitution guaranteed protection from discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, that a national gay movement became prominent. In the 1990s, membership came to include black gays and lesbians, including the charismatic former anti-apartheid activist Simon Nkoli (who died of AIDS in 1998). Together with legal reforms—the liberalisation of censorship and association laws and the removal of “sodomy” from the law books as a criminal offence—a legal gay-friendly environment was created. Gay organisations still have a place as South African society remains homophobic. The National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality (NCGLE) was founded in 1994. It currently has 70 organisations affiliated to it. It is exceptionally active in lobbying, testing laws, and supporting those who choose to “out.” It has succeeded in making a major impact in the area of sexual politics by taking up high profile cases and encouraging “outing.” Judge Edwin Cameron is possibly the most visible of its members. It has also become involved in broader political campaigns: opposing right wing, supremacist, or exclusivist organisations and working closely with feminist groupings. But its ability to work with other organizations remains constrained by high levels of homophobia.

The AIDS pandemic now has the full attention of gay organisations. Many of their leaders have become AIDS activists, being themselves HIV positive. If there is any reason to think that the shape of gender politics and especially the men’s movement will change, it is because AIDS is now killing predominantly heterosexual African men and women. This is providing a tragic bridge between a range of gender organisations and those (for example, populist and nationalist groupings) hitherto undisturbed by gender politics. On the other hand, HIV/AIDS also has the capacity to strengthen divisions among men’s movements. White, especially middle-class, men are largely exempt from the depredations of AIDS and may retreat into a racially exclusive gendered response to this continental affliction.

The South African Men’s Forum

Some organisations do not fit easily into Messner’s model. The South African Men’s Forum (SAMF) is the most notable of these. It is a predominantly African middle-class organisation dedicated to “restoring the soul of the nation.” This voluntary organisation was established in 1997 after an appeal to concerned men to gather to forge a new vision of South African society. Worried about rising crime rates and the lack of a culture of responsibility and concern, Bongani Khumalo, a senior executive of the parastatal, ESKOM, brought 300 men together for a conference. “A call went out for men to unite in rejecting and condemning brutality against women and children as well as to address other social ills sweeping through the country”. The initiative was “men-centred and men-driven” (Khumalo, 1998, p. 46). Members were not the young black men to be found in ADAPT but prominent middle-class (mostly but not exclusively black) men in business, education, government, service organisations, and lobby groups (such as “Gun Free South Africa”). The all-male gathering condemned violence against women and asserted the need for men to take responsibility and to promote peace. SAMF shares with the gender justice organisations, a commitment to peace and non-violence and enjoys good relations with women’s organisations. It’s all male character and the patriarchal implications of its programme, on the other hand, something in common with organisations protecting male privilege—restoring male authority—and those (like the Promise Keepers) who focus on men and their gender wounds but fail to challenge the distribution of gender power.

There is no one united men’s movement. Men’s organisations vary in size, organizational style, and purpose. Some consciously are working for gender justice; some are explicitly opposed to gender change. A number tend both to contribute to transformation and uphold the gender order. Numerically, very few men in South Africa are involved in men’s organisations.

And What About Race?

The importance of race is unquestionable. But how does it play out on the terrain of gender politics? To answer this, I need to discuss the relationship between writings on race and gender. The relationship of race to subordination and marginalization is central to an understanding of gender in South Africa. Colonialism and imperialism created race as a marker of inferiority. These forces destroyed the autonomy of pre-colonial polities, initiated men into new ways of war and injected violence into the very gender identities of men (Mama, 1997).

Social formations before imperialism contained fluid and more equitable understandings of gender, which were destroyed by the imposition of colonial rule and its culture and language (Amadiume, 1987). In some pre-colonial African societies, women were powerful and respected, and functions and roles were not defined strictly in terms of gender. Decisions were consensual rather than conflictual, and gender-neutral mechanisms existed to deal with disputes. Social life stressed community not just in temporal but spiritual (e.g., ancestral) terms. Gender was part of a variety of relational understandings subsumed under a general assumption about humanity. In this understanding, humanity is what is common among people and is what unites them. What remains of a pre-colonial worldview is open to question. Yet there is little doubt that its imprint lives on in culture and affects understandings of gender.

African men have historically been active in resisting, accommodating, and attempting to end class and race oppression. Class and race oppression had a specific gender impact on black men—it emasculated them. They were called “boys,” treated as subordinates, and denied respect. Furthermore, in their home areas in the countryside, where they formerly enjoyed gender power over women and where their masculinity had been affirmed, their status and power were eroded. Where black men resisted class and race oppression, they were also, simultaneously, defending their masculinity. This often involved efforts to re-establish or perpetuate power over women.

How might these two observations affect an understanding of African men and men’s movements? In answering this question, we need to distinguish between race as a lived identity and race as a historically received, materially located identity. It is not the case, for example, that observations about race in societies where it is a contested marker of inferiority based on the exclusion of a minority are necessarily translatable into contexts such as South Africa. Having noted this reservation, it is useful to cite bell hooks (1998) on the reasons for black disaffection with feminism: “Many black women refused participation in feminist movement because they felt that an antimale stance was not a sound basis for action. They were convinced that virulent expressions of these sentiments intensify sexism by adding to the antagonism that already exists between women and men”. Furthermore, “Black women (and men) have not joined the feminist movement not because they cannot face the reality of sexist oppression; they face it daily. They do not join the feminist movement because they do not see in feminist theory and practice, especially those writings made available to masses of people, potential solutions”.


This paper has surveyed a range of collective and organisational responses by men to gender transformation. Men have responded in a variety of ways, which both advance and oppose the feminist goals of gender justice. With the exception of the Promise Keepers, who have been able to mobilize tens of thousands of men on occasion, however, the men’s movements have not reached large numbers of men. Nor do many of them give much indication that they have the capacity to endure.

The organisations that constitute a profeminist movement have attracted financial support and provide the strongest indication of a sustained capacity to contribute to the goals of gender justice. Backlash organisations come and go and seem symptomatic of men’s discomfort with the process of gender transformation. They capture media headlines from time to time but do not pose a threat to state-supported gender transformation. In a similar vein, organisations that engage with the costs of masculinity reflect a deep concern among South African men about their place in the new society. While this response has the potential to strengthen the impetus for the restoration of the patriarchal family (e.g., as in the SA Men’s Forum), it also can contribute to men engaging constructively with issues of masculinity.

The lack of support for men’s movements is a major indication of their limitation. On issues with a clear gender justice agenda, the support of men has been dismal. Very few men, for example, have attended marches against rape. On the other hand, marches organised around AIDS related issues (against drug companies whose charges are prohibitive and against the state’s AIDS policy or lack of it) have attracted sizeable support from men and women, black and white. There are still good reasons to organize and mobilize.

Understandings of gender and oppression are not uniform, and this is particularly important in a context where black people, hitherto oppressed on racial grounds, are now fully fledged citizens in a country with a democratically elected, black majority government. What is also relevant are the economic effects of globalization. Most black men remain unemployed and see little change in their circumstances or prospects. Women have suffered the consequence of anger and feelings of impotence. All of this has implications for organisation and gender change.

A feminism that interpellates men as gendered subject first and foremost will fail to gain the support or attention of most black men. A feminism that acknowledges the importance of other identities, especially race and class, and locates itself in the context of history and globalization is more likely to succeed.

So, can movements make any difference? They can, but not necessarily alone. They are critically important in countering “the powerful pull of dominator ideas and images that are constantly regenerated by religious and scientific authorities, politicians, educators and, in our time, the mass media” (Eisler, 1998, pp. 241-242). Movements can promote the idea of partnership as opposed to the idea of domination. They offer a vision of this as a possible, working solution to life’s challenges.

Men’s movements can contribute to challenging “dominator ideas” in a number of ways. They can create institutions that “require men to listen to women and open spaces for apology and dialogue (which) might clear the way for a collective wisdom to emerge” (Braithwaite & Daly, 1994, p. 211). They can engage in what Connell (1995, p. 240) calls a “politics of pure possibility” and reach out beyond a constituency of men to collaborate with feminist organisations. This is critical because the project of gender justice requires that “there must first be a breakdown of the solidarity among men which exists across age, class, race, ethnicity and sexuality. An acknowledgement of the diversity of men rather than their common claim to masculine privilege is required before productive alliances with women can begin to be forged” (Lingard & Douglas, 1999, p. 50).

This step must be taken with the recognition that gender transformation can best be effected with the support of “new men” and “old men.” A gender politics which is deaf to the predicament of, for example, African men in KwaZulu-Natal who have no prospects of work and whose worlds have been under attack by the sequential forces of colonialism, apartheid, and globalization is not likely to succeed. And nor should it if it cannot speak to men in terms other than of criticism.

The heartening feature of this survey is that it has found evidence that men are already engaged in reaching out. The 5 in 6 movement, for example, has more impact than the scattered fathers’ rights organisations. And it is engaging with issues that the mythopoets identified as important—the role of men in the family—but in a way that does not hark back to patriarchal constructions of family and the subordination of women.

The great tragedy of AIDS has also generated a host of initiatives, which are bringing people together in a gender politics of caring rather than hating. Numerous organisations that work with men and women are emerging. These organisations overlap with initiatives around domestic violence and bring the focus onto changing men’s behaviour rather than identifying men as “the problem.”

In the last decade there has been a shift from a focus on men to a focus on masculinity. In South Africa, this allows the importance of race and class to be recognised. It also permits new forms of organisation to emerge, which do not interpellate men as intrinsically having the same interests just because they are men. This is an alien concept to many men as demonstrated by the failure of men’s marches.

South Africa’s human rights culture faces a struggle to realize itself in the face of economic difficulty and a climate of violence. But it contains a vision of a freer, more humane world. Concluding her study on the plight of American men, Susan Faludi (1999) called for a new paradigm that involves learning “to wage a battle against no enemy, to own a frontier of human liberty, to act in the service of a brotherhood that includes us all (men and women)”. Perhaps it is new gender forces, men and women, which hold the key to gender justice in South Africa.