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Women assert their African identity at Jozi symposium


Issues ranging from racism and sexism to African identity and healing through writing were put in the spotlight during the fourth edition of the African Writers’ Symposium at the Joburg Theatre at the weekend.

The symposium, part of the City of Johannesburg’s 2016 International Arts Alive Festival, was attended by women writers and thought leaders from across Africa and the Diaspora. There was also a special plenary session to celebrate the life and times of distinguished writer and feminist Phyllis Ntantala-Jordan.

Head of content at WeChat Africa, Khosi Zwane-Siguqa, co-chaired the “Asserting Our African Identity” discussion with American writer and photographer Professor Syreeta McFadden and eNCA reporter Nontobeko Sibisi.

The session not only spoke to issues of sexism and gender violence but it also focused on the battles that previous generations thought they had won.

Said Zwane-Siguqa: “Our stories are similar and they are necessary to be told. In such spaces we are able to teach our male counterparts how they should treat us. But we’ve to start by loving ourselves as black women.”

Prof McFadden said as a young black woman growing up in the US she had always felt she had to declare her American identity. “This is my first trip to the African continent and it is so meaningful for me to be here with other women to share my story, opinion and feelings on certain issues that are not only affecting me as an individual but women globally,” said McFadden.

She said her father had ensured that as a little girl, she knew and understood to some degree the struggles that people in Africa were facing.

On the #BlackLivesMatter movement, McFadden said the death of 19-year-old Oscar Grant at the hands of the police showed that people thought that black lives were inferior. She said this showed they were having difficulty dealing with the fact that all people were equal.

Sibisi said the rainbow nation was “nothing but a dream”. She said although South Africa had made great progress in race relations, there were “still things that are lingering and need to be ironed out”. She said growing up, she had never questioned why she had to relax her hair.

“I’m truly proud of the girls at Pretoria Girls High School. They don’t want to lose their identity or compromise themselves and what they stand for to please others. This is an exciting time in South Africa. Young people are taking action against what they feel is an injustice to them,” remarked Sibisi.

Gender and political activist Nomboniso Gasa said South Africans were at a time of reflection and questioning.

“One of the topics that Phyllis Ntantala-Jordan spoke to is the issue of freedom and how we never got freedom in its fullest form in 1994 ... [We] just got a breather,” remarked Gasa.

She said that was why it was important to learn from the great writings of Ntantala-Jordan.

American artist, poet and educator Aja Monet spoke about how women were able to find healing through writing.

“Putting our experiences on paper enables us to heal and look forward to sharing our stories because we all have a story to tell, a story that’s worth being heard,” said Monet.