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Mbali,Mandisa (2004) Sexuality as the theatre for post-apartheid political battles?. Centre for Civil Society : -.

A critical review of Deborah Posel’s Harold Wolpe Memorial Lecture The politics of sexuality in post-apartheid South Africa

by Mandisa Mbali

Sexuality is the main theatre of post-apartheid political and cultural battles. Or so Deborah Posel tried to convince us at the Wolpe Memorial Lecture on the 29th August in Durban. Her arguments on why the politics of sexuality have become so heated were eloquently phrased, but her media-based methodology could not sustain many of the claims she tried to make. Moreover, in her use of Foucault’s theories around the history of sexuality, she tried to reduce the politicisation of sexuality to discourse. She thus, overlooked the complex interplay between discourse and material factors in shaping the politicisation of sexuality.

For instance, the inherent methodological flaws of the research discussed were evident when she asserted that the media increasingly equates blackness with freedom and sexiness, but did not show how ordinary people interpret these representations, which is key to understanding how they are used in the operation of modern power. Similarly, she focussed on discourse to the exclusion of looking at its complex interplay with material factors like poverty. The talk also didn’t seriously engage with the ways in which the politicisation of sexuality is gendered. Moreover, Posel neglected to mention the role of medicine in the politicisation of sexuality.

Sex as the ‘hot’ political issue in post-apartheid South Africa
The lecture began with an eloquent introduction by the chair Vasu Reddy reflecting on how sex has become politicised in the context of South Africa’s AIDS epidemic through its increasing link to pain and suffering and sexual and moral panics. Similarly, he argued that the emergence of new social movements dealing with sexuality such as the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) had raised questions of whether there can be dialogue between activism and academia, between the practice and theory of aiming the influence the politics of sexuality. Unlike most Wolpe chairs who largely offer a perfunctory summary of the speaker’s CV, it was refreshing to hear a decent but concise introduction to some of the key issues the main speech addressed.

Following Reddy’s introduction Posel launched into her talk by mentioning that it was part of a series of papers she had written on the politicisation of sexuality in South Africa. The central question her talk aimed to address is why sex had become such a ‘hot’ issue in post-apartheid politics.

Posel argued that in the late 1980s and early 1990s few South African academics could have predicted that sexuality would become the stage for post-apartheid political and cultural battles. There were several more interesting changes taking place, which were trying to address the damage caused by decades of apartheid social engineering. Whites were no longer guaranteed employment, there were questions of a new distribution of resources. There were also questions around how to build a new non-racial democracy. In this period of interregnum it seemed to academics such as Posel that the major post-apartheid contests would be over poverty and inequality, race and social services.

For Posel, these predictions were proven false as the major post-apartheid political debates have been over AIDS, sexual violence and child abuse. As she highlighted, AIDS has brought the ruling African National Congress (ANC) close to internal rupture, led to open conflict between provincial and national government and the Constitutional Court and has catalysed the creation of TAC, which is in her view the strongest post-apartheid social movement. Similarly, the ‘baby rape’ scandals have ignited public debates about abusive male sexuality and the need for a moral regeneration in post-apartheid South Africa.

The speaker framed her problematisation in terms of Michel Foucault’s notion that there is always a politics of sexuality which operates through multiple sites of power. On the other hand, she argued that the politicisation of sexuality only happens intermittently through public sphere discussion at specific historical moments. For Posel, such episodes in continuous public discourse on sexuality become a revealing lens through which to read the wider politics of change in South Africa. Positioning herself as a Foucauldian, Posel explicitly stated that she is interested in how sex is put into discourse.

Is the media the only public? The pitfalls of a media-based reading of post-apartheid sexuality
Posel based her analysis of the politicisation of the representation of sexuality in public discourse on a study of the media. In terms of this, she argued that in post-apartheid South Africa there are no longer stars covering nipples in topless pictures, or the intricate censorship and policing of interracial and same sex relationships. She asked the audience to remember that apartheid legislation policed sex as essentially private. The apartheid regime’s aim was to maintain white supremacy through keeping the white body pure and black fertility under control. Sexual deviancy was associated with the political radicalism of white communists.

She went on to argue that there has been a post-apartheid explosion of sexual imagery and debates in the media. For her, this explosion is evidenced in annual gay pride events in Cape Town and Johannesburg, condom demonstrations which take place in schools, and Pfizer’s radio and television campaigns advertising its blockbuster anti-impotence drug Viagra. Posel identified three discursive nodes or patterns in the representation of sex in South Africa: one clustered around the rise of a new black elite; a second focussed around the acceleration of the AIDS epidemic and a third focussed on the strategies and power of ‘Non-Governmental Organisations’ (NGOs) such as TAC.

Posel limited herself to a discussing public conversations in the media directed to the nation such as loveLife. This meant that her talk was a media studies-based analysis of how representations of sexuality have changed since the apartheid era. However, as Bernard Dubbeld (a PhD student at the University of Chicago) argued in question time, more publics than the media come into play when analysing changes in public discourse around sexuality.

The politicisation of the public representation of sexuality cannot be reduced to an analysis of media such as loveLife or radio adverts on Viagra. For instance, court records and proceedings and government policy documents also contribute to public debate on sexuality. Most importantly, as I shall argue later on in this review, the power of public discourse depends on how it resonates with ordinary people’s cultural and socio-economic contexts and their understandings of the world.

Freedom is ‘sexy’, but what if you’re unemployed?
Posel argued that there has been an eroticisation of liberation focussed around the imagery of the new black elite. Globally, sex sells and South Africans are increasingly exposed to global popular culture and commercial imagery. Sexy representations of cars and cell phones mirror a new urge to consume, new political imperatives and cultural aspirations. She argued that there has been a demobilisation of political movements and a celebration of newfound political freedom through sex. For Posel, blackness is now equated with being free and sexy in the new South Africa. Magazines aimed at the youth market offer frank advice on how to perform oral sex and to style yourself as hip and upwardly mobile you have to know how to make yourself seem sexy.

However, the weakness of Posel’s methodology was exposed once more, as she did not analyse how these images generated by capital are received or resonate with ordinary people’s life worlds: that is whether people actually buy into the idea that black freedom is consumption of ‘sexy’ things. While the corporate media may show cool, consumerist images equating black sexiness with wealth, these images would have a different set of meanings for a middle-class black person and for a poor black person. Posel did not analyse what it means to be black, poor and unemployed and see unattainable sexualised images of wealth and unbridled consumerism. Or for that matter, what it means for a young woman to read advice on how to perform oral sex on your boyfriend when the relationship is so unequal you can’t even ask him to use a condom.

To use Posel’s own terminology, surely the everyday politics of sexuality contribute to specific moments in the politicisation of sexuality, such as the formation of TAC. In turn, the everyday politics of sexuality are shaped by discursively and materially constructed social categories such as gender, race and class.

In terms of this, it is interesting to compare Posel’s talk to Patrick Bond’s recent Wolpe lecture. As I have argued with Kerry Chance in a previous review Bond’s lecture implied that resistance is a rational, necessary, inevitable outcome of the negative effects of the ANC’s adoption of neoliberalism on the poor in South Africa. In other words Bond developed an overly materialistic analysis of what shapes people’s political allegiances.(1) But Posel’s analysis of post-apartheid society attempts to reduce all political and social realities to discourse at the exclusion of material realities and can, therefore, be considered as the theoretical opposite of Bond’s excessive materialism. However, both share the same methodological flaws, which enable such theoretically over-simplified views of South African society and politics: by this I mean that neither use ethnographic or historical research methods to analyse politics or society. And, as Chance and I recently argued, what is needed is nuanced analyses of South African society and politics, based on such methods, which take both discourse and material realities seriously.

Putting gender back into analyses of post-apartheid sexuality
Despite the fact that Posel glossed over the ways in which baby rape scandals have opened up debates about pathologies in South African male sexuality she did not fully open up her discussion of the public representation of sexuality to a gendered analysis.

For instance, Zimbabwean feminist activist Everjoice Win said in the subsequent Wolpe lecture that if a woman is raped in Southern Africa, she is often asked by neighbours, family and friends, what she was wearing, doing, what time it was where she was. It is commonly assumed that women somehow invite or deserve rape. Stranger and acquaintance rape are often interpreted as being ‘dirty sex’ and rape survivors as being ‘dirty women’.(2) Marital rape is even less likely to be interpreted as rape but as the enforcement of ‘wifely duties’.(3) In fact, what would be legally defined as rape may not even be seen as rape by many men and women. ‘Freedom’ is less sexy for women who are rape survivors battling against these gendered stigmas and it would be interesting to hear more in-depth analyses of how rape survivors would interpret the glossy, consumerist images of sexuality. Ultimately, Posel did not enter into an analysis of how public discussions of rape or consumerist depictions of sexuality can objectify and oppress women and contribute to the ‘politicisation of sexuality’.

Medicine in the construction of sexual menace
For the speaker, AIDS ‘incubated’ during apartheid and only erupted post-1994. Posel argued that talking about sex did not come easy to Mandela and Mbeki equated AIDS with poverty. NGOs like loveLIFE brought the subject into the open and urged young people to “Talk About Sex”. LoveLIFE fused the iconography of popular culture with notions of responsible selfhood, self esteem and made safer sex a Foucauldian “technique of the self”. Posel went on to argue that AIDS has made sex discursively ‘contaminated’ by a virus and a healthy sense of self has been put at risk by HIV. In turn, the self has become fragile and threatened and sex is at the core of the crisis.

All of this is true, however, as I argued in question time, TAC’s campaign has revolved more around the politics of medicine than the politicisation of sexuality. By this I mean that TAC’s campaign, focussed as it has been on access to HIV treatment, has hinged on what constitutes medical knowledge, and on defining the appropriate roles for the state and capital in medicine. TAC has also shown how policies around medical interventions are a human rights issue. As a fan of Foucault’s medical historical work, it disappointed me that Posel did not discuss the role of medicine in the politicisation of post-apartheid sexuality, especially as it relates to the body. As the last few years of TAC’s campaign have clearly shown, what it means to have an HIV positive body is determined by medicine and whether or not the citizen owning that body can access treatment depends on what role the state and multinational corporations play in medicine.

Sexuality equals post-apartheid politics: An overstatement?
Posel concluded the lecture by arguing that there is a new visibility and vigour of sexual imagery and that sexual identity is being drawn in new ways. She somewhat overstated her case by saying that public arguments about sex are simultaneously arguments about the rest of society. For Posel, sex is the stage on which the drama of post-apartheid South Africa has been played out.

However, as Mike Morris of Development Studies at University of KZN argued, Posel may have overplayed her argumentative hand in pushing the role of discourse too far. As Morris argued, ‘discourse’ may not grasp the full reality and complexity of the political transition in South Africa. He went on to argue that sex may be more in the open but that does not make it more politicised. All politics cannot be reducible to the politics of sexuality. It was certainly thought-provoking of Posel to argue that sex is a major area of debate in post-apartheid South Africa, but a serious over-statement to argue that it is the stage for all post-apartheid debates.

What Posel characterises as the ‘old’ 1980s and early 1990s concerns still occupy plenty of space in public, post-apartheid political debate. For instance, TAC has not been the only social movement vocally fighting for socio-economic justice, the Anti-Privatisation Forum, the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, the former Concerned Citizens Forum and now the eThekweni Social Forum, the Anti-Eviction Campaign, the Landless People’s Movement, the Socialist Student’s Movement and Jubilee have all fought campaigns on less ‘sexy’ materially-based issues such as: privatisation and aggressive cost recovery of water and electricity; eviction of poor people from their homes for non-payment; the commodification of education; and demands for an acceleration of land reform and for multinationals to pay reparations to victims of apartheid.

Foucauldian and post-structural analysis have a role to play in helping to unpack the representation of sexuality. However, Posel’s analysis of the politicisation of sexuality in public discourse was divorced from serious analyses of class, race and gender and how society and culture produce these categories. This is because its fundamental flaw was that it ventured little deeper than a careful reading of popular media. If this critique seems unfair, perhaps I can draw the reader’s attention to recent ethnographic and historical work that has done all this when analysing public discussions about representations of sexuality. For instance, Mark Hunter has demonstrated how unemployment and gendered socio-economic inequality have shaped sexual relationships and changed masculinities in post-apartheid South Africa.(4) Another example is Fiona Scorgie’s work on the revival of virginity testing and the creation of new organisations publicly practising and promoting it in South Africa.(5) Peter Delius and Clive Glaser have also looked deeply at changes in sexual socialisation in South Africa in the twentieth century. (6)

When compared to this wealth of recent rich multi-layered historical-ethnographic research on sexuality in South Africa, Posel’s media analysis-based talk with its post-modern pyro-technics falls obviously short. Ultimately, the fundamental flaw at the heart of Posel’s talk was that its sweeping claims about the politics of sexuality’s representation could not be defended on the basis of her use of media studies methodology. Similarly, she did not show how the ‘man or woman on the street’ reads these representations, which closely relates to the question of what makes them powerful. In the same vein, she analysed the role of discourse while excluding material realities, when in reality the politicisation of sexuality involves a complicated interplay of the two. Also, the politicisation of sexuality is gendered in ways which Posel did not discuss in any length. Finally, the role of medicine in the politicisation of sexuality was also ignored despite its key role in the formation of TAC and in general in much public discourse around AIDS. In the final analysis, Posel’s Wolpe lecture was an eloquently phrased talk, but because of its methodology could not hold up its claims. Just like the loveLife billboards it was mostly trendy surface.

Notes and References

Mandisa Mbali is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Civil Society at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

(1) Kerry Chance and Mandisa Mbali, Talking is Walking: A Critical Review of Patrick Bond’s Wolpe Lecture. Centre for Civil Society (Wolpe Review), (2004). Available at .

(2) This observation by Win is backed up by research conducted by Soul City which showed that many African men and women think that women place themselves at risk of being raped if they dress or behave provocatively, hang out alone in public places, or ‘act like whites. In other words, many South African believe that rape survivors are ‘dirty women’ who somehow ‘ask for it’. For a summary of this research see: “Men rape to punish women”, Independent on Saturday, February 7th 2003. Available at the Independent Online’s website’s archive

(3) This is in turn a significant factor in the gendered vulnerability of women to HIV infection. A study recently published in the Lancet showed a strong correlation between women being in abusive and controlling relationships and being infected with HIV. See: K L Dunkle, R K Jewkes, H C Brown, G E Gray, J A McIntyre and S D Harlow, “Gender-based violence, relationship power, and risk of HIV infection in women attending antenatal clinics in South Africa”, Lancet, 363, 9419, May 1 2004.

(4) Mark Hunter “’The materiality of everyday sex’: Thinking beyond prostitution”, African Studies, 61, 1 (2002). Hunter also recently analysed representation of love in post-apartheid South African media but nested this interpretation in ethnographic and historical readings of changes in the sexuality of Zulu-speaking men and women in the twentieth century. See: Mark Hunter “All you need is love? The courting gift in 20th century KwaZulu-Natal” Paper presented at the History/African Studies Seminar, March 17th 2004. Available at

(5) Fiona Scorgie, “Viriginity Testing and the politics of Sexual Responsibility: Implications for AIDS Intervention.” African Studies, 61 (1), (2002). It’s also interesting to note that one of the key promoters of the practice is a well-known public figure who presents a regular show on Ukhozi FM, which has a millions of isiZulu-speaking listerners in South Africa.

(6) Peter Delius and Clive Glaser, “Sexual Socialisation in South Africa: A Historical Perspective”, African Studies, 61,1, (2002)

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