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The Cultural Politics of Female Sexuality in South Africa by Henriette Gunkel

by Gráinne O'Connell
23 May 2012 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: General Issue [7] | Review

Review of: Henriette Gunkel (2010) The Cultural Politics of Female Sexuality in South Africa. Oxford and New York: Routledge, pb and hb, xii and 181

Gunkel’s The Cultural Politics of Female Sexuality in South Africa is a provocative and aptly timed contribution to the burgeoning research on sexuality studies in Southern Africa. This is no easy feat given the considerable academic interest in sexuality studies in the Southern African context, particularly in South Africa, since the official dismantling of apartheid in the early 1990s. What makes this study a welcome contribution is that it does not seek to chart a ‘new’ history of sexuality in the strictly Foucauldian sense. Instead, the book demonstrates a keen historical awareness of the ‘invention’ of western sexual ‘identity’ terms, the limits of relying too rigidly on the idea of discourse in most (western) queer theory, and the attendant racial, ethnic, class and gender ideologies which went hand-in-hand with the colonial and apartheid projects. Gunkel carefully elaborates on these historical and contemporary dynamics in the first part of her book by focusing on some of the major historical processes that have given rise to the fierce debates surrounding representations of black female bodies in the South African context. Specific attention is dedicated to the colonial construction of difference and the processes through which this was mapped onto the bodies of black South African women who were set up as the disreputable ‘other’ to ideal white womanhood through dominant cultural narratives, such as Afrikaner ethno-nationalist histories. The scrutinizing colonial gaze is then linked to the (relative) lack of public homophobic discourses in pre-1994 apartheid South Africa. The power of the colonial gaze is a major concern of this study as the author seeks to uncover the emergence of vehement homophobic discourses and stringent gender policing in post-apartheid South African contexts. Gunkel is keen to explore the rise in public homophobic discourses in light of the inclusion of sexuality in the South African constitution given the comparative lack of public homophobic discourses and gender-policing in apartheid South Africa.

The brief outline above may suggest an overly ambitious approach but Gunkel contextualises the specific focus on the rise of homophobic discourses in post-apartheid South Africa by elaborating on a central crux which runs through the entire book: That the current debates surrounding sexuality in South Africa cannot be fully understood without recognising the impact of the colonial and apartheid past on the post-apartheid present. This socio-historical ground work enables a critical exploration of the relative lack of focus on same-sex intimacy between black South African women in studies on sexuality in South Africa over the last twenty or so years. It is the latter which is the overall primary focus of The Cultural Politics of Female Sexuality. It needs to be made clear, however, that the overall book focus is not to represent the ‘essential’ realities of same-sex intimacy between black South African women. The author instead foregrounds that she is not focussing on gay and lesbian history in post-apartheid South Africa but on the concurrent local South African cultural histories which attest to same-sex intimacies between black South African women and which are not readily articulated by the parameters of western metropolitan discourses. Local South African words and concepts which are not simply the equivalent of western sexual ‘identity’ markers, nor locally read as reflecting a fixed sexual preference, but, which are specific to South African local registers and which reflect a more fluid approach to gender dynamics in certain African societies, in comparison to the (mostly) western centric binary of male versus female, are given preference in the study.

Such prioritising is understandable given the often hegemonic powers of western metropolitan identity politics and also in light of the complex historical and contemporary contextual dynamics which have contributed to a rise in explicit homophobic discourses in some political and media forums in post-apartheid South Africa. Various scholars have brought to light both the hegemonic power of western metropolitan identity terms, in metropolitan western contexts and beyond, and also the comparative salience of local linguistic terms in contrast to the often quite fixed identities suggested by the terms LGBTQ.[1]Thus, it is an important point of reference because of the teleological definitions which are associated with the term lesbian in the South African context. This study makes this point particularly in relation to the marked but uneven effects of the processes of colonialism and modernity, and most recently, the enactment of the ‘New’ South African constitution.

Whilst building on the historical backdrop in the opening half of her book, Gunkel frames her extended discussion of same-sex intimacy between black South African women by focusing on the tension between two contradictory and complex events/processes: The emergence of sexual rights in South Africa, on the one hand, especially since the 1970s and the enactment of the ‘New’ South African constitution in 1996, and, on the other hand, the extreme violence against perceived lesbians in black townships in post-apartheid South Africa and the possible counter readings of homosexuality as (un)African in homosocial spaces and in recent visual works. Zanele Muholi’s unique contribution to these debates and to contemporary visual representations of black South African lesbians in post-apartheid South Africa is a main focus of the study. The possibilities which photography, such as Muholi’s may offer to current debates on hegemonic debates is contextualized in relation to wider South African history, particularly representations of Sara Baartman via the western colonial gaze. Gunkel argues that the tendency to only focus on Baartman and the recirculation of neo-colonial ideologies in visual representations of black South African women has simplified the myriad other possibilities which contemporary photography may offer to the debates surrounding sexuality in South Africa. In this study, this is especially relevant to the debates surrounding representations of black South African women, especially black South African lesbians, as these debates have sparked a considerable outcry in many South African newspapers, most notable expressed through the idea of homosexuality as unAfrican.

Although Gunkel recognises the importance of Muholi’s work, and the debates that her work has raised, Gunkel risks setting up the idea of the ‘cultural archive’ as something easily represented. Thus, although Gunkel is obviously acutely aware of the dynamics surrounding Zanele Muholi’s images, and that these dynamics reflect the shifting dialogues surrounding South African citizenship and nationhood, her book may limit the impact of Muholi’s works in how Gunkel presents Muholi’s work as representative of black South African lesbian women. This may be the particular quandary within which Gunkel’s project gets embroiled as it is difficult for Gunkel’s project not to laud Muholi’s work as representative, if even by opening her book with an image from Muholi’s oeuvre, given the vociferous critiques of Muholi’s work by some groups in the media and given the neo-colonial dynamics which envelop many of the debates surrounding black South African women’s sexual expressions. These debates are not unique to South Africa as the furore surrounding sexuality in post-apartheid South Africa resembles many debates in other postcolonial contexts where ideas of the ‘West’, or foreign influences, get cast as an outside or foreign threat to the ‘nation’ or nationhood. Gunkel introduces some of these comparisons when she discusses Gloria Wekker’s ethnographic study of sexual cultures amongst working class black Surinamese women.[2]However, Gunkel does not expressly link debates that are happening in the local South African contexts with other postcolonial contexts apart from this passing reference. This challenges her possible too hasty disengagement with the idea of the global/local as although Gunkel critiques certain hegemonic ideas of Foucault’s theory of discourse, and some queer theory approaches which over rely on the ideas of discourse, the tentative links which she makes with other postcolonial contexts suggests a more complex link/relationship between South African and other global contexts.

The term visibility is not used in the book per se but the exploration of contemporary photography, such as Muholi’s, touches on similar ideas raised by Andrew Tucker in his book Queer Visibilities; Identity, Space and Interaction in Cape Town where Tucker critiques the tendencies of ‘global’ representations of South African LGBTQ which often universalise queer South Africans as white, middle class, English speaking and male.[3]However, although the two books share a similar focus, they have very different comparable approaches: Gunkel focuses on moving away from the dangers of hegemonic western theory, especially Foucault’s theory of discourse which according to Gunkel’s thesis argument leads to the marginalisation of same-sex desires which do not coalesce around western sexual identity markers. Tucker focuses more on the myriad of difficulties that arise when the idea of public visibility is uncritically celebrated as representative of all queers in South Africa. Tucker’s critical explorations of the idea of visibility would neatly complement Gunkel’s research and it seems odd that Gunkel has made no mention of Queer Visibilities given how closely correlated the approaches are.

In light of the specific dynamics of South African history which have shaped the emergence of gender and sexuality debates in both past and present South Africa, Gunkel, rather than adopting the acronyms LGBTQ as readily applicable, instead prefers to use the term same-sex intimacy and to focus on specific case studies which utilise terms that have currency within local South African contexts. She focuses particularly on terms that are locally understood as more fluid social and lexical markers than the fixity, which the terms lesbian, gay and homosexual can entail, such as ‘amachicken’ and ‘mummy-baby relationships’. Gunkel’s central argument that the focus on the power of discourses in queer theory cannot account for the histories of local South African same-sex registers is important to note here. However, although, the focus on local linguistic terms does challenge the universalising tendencies of some approaches to sexualities within South Africa, there is no sustained discussion of the politics of reclaiming certain terms. This is striking given the power of grassroots resistance for anti-apartheid resistance in South African history. There is a predominant focus on strictly ‘local’ contexts without much engagement with the complexity of how local contexts can reclaim terms and discourses. This may be one of the inevitable blind spots of labelling the use of Foucault’s idea of discourses as strictly western as this sets up a possible binary between the ‘West’ as theory centric and non-western contexts as not being able to develop theoretical approaches which are not already tainted by the western centric idea of ‘universality’.

An overarching theme in this book which links to the theoretical and methodological choice not to specifically explore the possible currency which the terms LGBTQ may have in South Africa is the focus on deconstructing the supposed ‘universal’ applicability of western queer theory and its attendant concepts, such as the closet, especially in relation to the South African context. For Gunkel, this has been a characteristic oversight of much western metropolitan queer theory: Gunkel criticises Eve Sedgewick for what she sees as Sedgewick’s simplification of homosocial relations/homosociality between women. Gunkel also firmly critiques the hegemonic tendency of some western queer theory that has typically represented homophobia as a monolithic and ‘universal’ experience. Although her book does re-examine some problematic features of research on sexuality in South Africa, especially the relative lack of focus on same-sex intimacy between black South African women, some of Gunkel’s proposed aims fall short of actively challenging some of the more problematic dichotomies of colonial, apartheid and post-colonial history. The introduction foregrounds the idea of the ‘West’ as an ideological construct rather than an exact geographical location but throughout the book, the relationship between local South African contexts and the wider global world is not consistently theorised. A ready example of this is when Gunkel critiques some of the existing scholarship on same-sex relationships between women in Southern Africa by William J. Spurlin who Gunkel critiques as trying to overly conceptualise the relationship between Lesotho women.[4] However, Gunkel fails to account for the theoretical differences between her research which does not attempt to consistently theorise the relationship between the local and the global and work, such as Spurlin’s, which does attempt to theorise the relationship if within the idea of the ‘theoretical’ which Gunkel critiques at length.

Although Gunkel’s critiques of the possible overly theoretical approach of some queer theory approaches is, in some ways, justified, it seems odd that she does not explicitly extrapolate on what explicit approach to the local versus the global debate she is engaging with and within. For this reason, it seems contradictory that Gunkel hints at the possibilities which queer theory may potentially offer for South Africa, especially when she uses the term queering, but she does not explicitly elaborate on any queer theory approaches which advocate a similar approach; she quotes Ian Barnard’s work Queer Race; Cultural Interventions in the Racial Politics of Queer Theory at various instances but she does not really elaborate on the similarities or differences between hers and his project.[5]The overall book seems to have a contradictory and ambiguous relationship to queer theory. Thus, even though some solid critiques are made, Gunkel both over relies on the idea of queer without really fully elaborating on the usefulness of the queer theory – such as how it emerged within the west as a challenge to certain ideas of heterosexism and heteropatriachy, even if it has now become (mostly) contained within a narrowly academic context which is largely dominated by a western centric approach to sexuality – and why the idea of the ‘closet’, in comparison to the arguably more general idea of queering, is not useful.

These unresolved contradictions suggest that at times perhaps it would be worth it if Gunkel engaged in explicit elaborations on what are the theoretical and methodological challenges to the sex/gender system of the West – a system which is constantly replayed in the emergence of homophobic discourses – and are these challenges simply the preserve of western elites or western metropolitan subcultures in light of the relative popularity of queer theory as a ‘universal’ method of deconstruction for (western) queer theorists. Gunkel hints at these possibilities in her discussion of ‘amachicken’ and ‘mummy-baby’ relationships but at times she seems to be describing her intentions rather than following through with her explications. These contradictions are also visible when she does not critique some of the more blatant heteropatriachy of some postcolonial theory and some nationalist discourses in South Africa. In this respect, the study would also be complemented by more discussion of the policing of sexuality in post-apartheid South Africa, especially for young people and poor and marginalised black South Africans, and women in particular, in light of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Gunkel mentions that lesbians are often left out of HIV/AIDS targeting campaigns but some campaigns are including lesbians especially with regard to gender-based violence. This area is ignored in the choice to focus on local South African registers as the term lesbian has been reclaimed in some gender based violence campaigns and in some HIV/AIDS grassroots campaigns. It is also noticeable that there is virtually no reference to the importance of Marxist critiques or the knock on effects of structural adjustment programmes for the South African context. This seems odd given the importance of many Marxist lines of thought and given the importance of capitalist critiques for some HIV/AIDS programmes.

As a whole, this is an important and provocative study, even in light of the expanding range of scholarship that has come out of sexuality studies since the official end of apartheid.


1.  Alan Sinfield, Cultural Politics, Queer Reading, (London: Routledge, 2005.) [↑]

2.  Gloria Wekker, The Politics of Passion: Women’s Sexual Culture in the Afro-Surinamese Diaspora. New York and Chicester: Columbia University Press, 2006. [↑]

3.  Andrew Tucker, Queer Visibilities: Space, Identity and Interaction in Cape Town. Chichester: Blackwell, 2008. [↑]

4.  William J. Spurlin, Imperialism within the Margins: Queer Representations and the Politics of Culture in Southern Africa. New York: Peter Lang Publishing Inc, 2007 [↑]

5.  Ian Barnard, Queer Race; Cultural Interventions in the Racial Politics of Queer Theory. New York: Peter Lang Publishing Inc., 2004. [↑]

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Gráinne O'Connell is currently completing her PhD in Anglophone Caribbean and South African literature and culture at the University of Sussex, England. Her main research interests focus on postcolonial/queer, gender studies, HIV/AIDS studies and transnational comparative approaches to postcolonial/queer texts and culture(s).
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