The Precarious Positioning of the Present Day Imbokodo

South African imbokodo

The Precarious Positioning of the Present Day Imbokodo

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Am I worthy?


This is a perennial question familiar to any modern day mbokodo. Am I worthy of bare consideration as a human being, worthy of compassion, worthy of justice? Black women in our society, particularly the educated from marginalised spaces such as townships that are positioned at the fringes of society because they are populated by the lower class, often have to negotiate and renegotiate parts of their identities in order to suit the type of space they enter. Imbokodo is a Zulu word meaning “a rock”, often used in the saying “Wathint’ abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo” meaning you strike a woman, you strike a rock; and while the saying is common, black women in these marginalized societies never quite experience the respect with which the saying is meant. While injustices experienced by black women are not only relegated and limited to marginalised communities, I can only give, rather unsolicited opinions on experiences from a marginalised community because that is where I am from. In many ways, black women cannot access ways to own their identities, their experiences and opinions because there exist very few spaces allowing that in marginalised communities, almost next to none.


On the 11th of August Rhodes University held a Silent Protest building on the #RUReferenceList protest, which did significant work to raise awareness about rape in Grahamstown last year. The protest managed to zone in on rape culture through activities such as a debriefing for survivors, most of which were black women, and an exhibition that challenged the objectification of women and celebrates women’s agency and choice in relation to their bodies. This brought to attention the ongoing violence and injustices that rape culture perpetuates, with the most interesting point being that it involved an educated community with most testifying that the space offers them the chance to own their story and come to terms with their experiences. One can only begin to imagine how imperative the space was for those who felt as though they could not set themselves onto a trajectory towards healing in their own homes and communities because their experiences would be invalidated. While one would expect people in our communities to value and practice the saying stated above in all matters, paradoxically black women are seen as iimbokodo only when it complies with the current space they occupy – either as mothers, amiable daughters, and submissive wives. I have observed a shift as soon as women stand up against injustices against their identities or their bodies, where they are not expected to stand as firm as rocks in the face of adversity as inflicted by men in particular.

The Spur restaurant incident is one of many examples where a black woman defending herself and her child by being a true mbokodo and standing her ground against the insults and violent threats of a white man, is problematised because she is defending herself against an injustice. The Silent Protest is one space where the negotiation of identities of educated black female survivors of sexual assault is clear, where the mbokodo is able to own her identity while when going back to their community they are not expected to.


The interesting truth about this precarious positioning of black women able to access spaces where they are allowed to own their identities and demand consideration and justice while being subdued in their homes revealed itself to me during two successive conversations with two close male friends of mine. Both men did something that I gather they did not realize as even vaguely patronizing and sexist. Upon reaching a point of disagreement on “sensitive” topics, religion and gender fluidity respectively, both men proceeded to dismiss my opinion by subtly suggesting that my logic is flawed. According to them, educated black women from marginalised communities often have no critical perspective on such issues because they choose to adopt perspectives that enable them to assimilate easier to elite circles. Both conversations ended on the note that I cannot hold personal opinion that is too controversial, not because I do not possess the capabilities to do so, but because I choose to remain ignorant of the importance of religion as related to heteronormativity.  

In a strange way, being a woman from a marginalised society – a township in the East of Johannesburg – who has the privilege to access elite spaces through being in a previously white traditional elitist university, I suddenly did not have an adequately objective enough perspective to form my own differing opinions which do not conform to the norm in my community. My seemingly unconventional opinions that appear to go against the grain of what women in my community apparently believe seemed to have marked me tainted by my ability to access elite spaces through my education. In my experience, I have had to negotiate my identity to fit into my community without appearing starkly different by being submissive and amiable towards the publicly acknowledged patriarchal ways of being. While when I am not in my community, I am able renegotiate my identity and own my opinions about heteronormativity, religion and patriarchy. However, my main concern in this is what that implies about my ability to stand against injustices in my community versus in other spaces and what that means for my community’s bare compassion for me as a human being – as the mbokodo I am often hailed to be.


women's march south africa

Lilian Ngoyi leading anti-pass march in the 1950’s: Photographer unknown

To me the fact of it all is that as a modern day
mbokodo able to access various spaces, the renegotiation of our identities and repackaging of our experiences as black women, particularly those in marginalised spaces, is a perennial feature of our engagement with the communities we access and the communities we hail from. Subsequently calling into question why there exists terms upon which we should demand justice and when we should be subdued.

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