Here's how South African students talk about race and gender

University of Cape Town students.

University of Cape Town students. Back row left to right Sebastian Daniels, Kirsten Whitfield, Robynne Whitfield, Gift Nyatsambo Front Row left to right Robin Molteno, Carolyn Le Tang, Mary Clark, Namita Vanmali, Kgabisa Kobue


Jeb Sharp

I went to South Africa in November to report for our project, Across Women’s Lives. I sat down with a group of students at the University of Cape Town to talk about gender. The discussion quickly turned to race and class as well. Some members of the group knew each other before the conversation began but others did not. I was struck by how frank they all were. Here are some edited highlights from the discussion.

This conversation is just the beginning. Talk with these students, and add your thoughts on race and gender in a discussion on our Facebook page.


Carolyn Le Tang


Jeb Sharp

Carolyn Le Tang, 31, graduate studies in linguistics

Yes, on paper the constitution will say women are as equal as men, but on the ground and actually in the every day experience of being female, it tells you in every way you are not as equal as a man. You can’t walk down the street without you being made aware that you’re female, a non-white female or whatever it is about you. You cannot escape it in this society.

As someone who grew up abroad, I’ve never been more conscious of my race than here. Race to me was this external thing, but now it’s like a coat that I wear wherever I go. South Africans don’t realize when they talk, they say things like “there was this black guy walking down the street,” and I’m still waiting to hear why his race was important in the story but it’s not! It’s just a way we’ve learned to speak about people.

Not sure I agree people are more open-minded. At the University of Pretoria two girls dressed up as domestic workers, cleaners, maids and they were white women with black makeup and put (something) under their skirts to make their bottoms bigger — and proudly took photos on Facebook and Instagram.

Robin Molteno


Jeb Sharp

Robin Molteno, 20, philosophy and English

[Are men and women equal in South Africa?] No. Not in a realistic sense. But what’s interesting in South Africa is we have no written-down political baggage because we started with a new constitution (in 1996). [Under] apartheid, if you were a woman and you were working for the apartheid government, and you got pregnant, you lost your job. That’s changed with our new constitution. Women are very equal. But that attitude is still being carried into South African culture, even by like our president, who said of his one daughter, she must get married so that she can learn to be a woman and have kids and perform her role. So it’s a very messy situation.

Kgabisa Kobue


Jeb Sharp

Kgabisa Kobue, 20, film and media, gender, sociology

[South Africa] is a very patriarchal setting. We usually talk about white privilege and then we find that black women are at the bottom of that whole hierarchy. We find black men being oppressed by white men and at the same time they come home and oppress their black wives. People get away with things like rape. Like our president, for example. If you think of it culturally, his whole argument when he was in court was based on culture: how as a Zulu man, he can do this, because it’s his right. I think in South Africa we have to look at the difference between culture and the constitution.

Update — Kgabisa posted the following in our Facebook chat: "I would also like to correct my statement. The president was found not guilty of rape although it is a controversial topic. I do however believe that men in South Africa get away with the mistreatment of women because of how patriarchal the country's cultures are."

Robynne Whitfield


Jeb Sharp

Robynne Whitfield, 21, English and linguistics

Almost everything we do becomes dictated by [gender]. I did gender studies last year. Ads that cater to women, that assume you like pink things and makeup and shoes, things I don’t really care about, but also things like being discriminated against or whistled at or guys thinking that you’re their property because you’re a woman.

Rape is obviously very prominent in South Africa, and class and gender really intersect there. Women in townships are much more susceptible to being raped than a woman living in the suburbs. Being a woman, I’m much more afraid of being robbed or raped. I won’t walk down the street by myself. I prefer to have a friend or a guy with me.

Gift Nyatsambo


Jeb Sharp

Gift Nyatsambo, 20, law

I’m from Zimbabwe and when I came here I noticed how race is such a major issue and I feel like sometimes they take race too seriously and overshadow issues of gender and other problems. From the black face scandal in Pretoria [controversy over white students dressing up as black domestic workers] I feel like people were more outraged by the blackface, but they were not concerned about the perpetuation of the stereotype of women being cleaners.

Culturally, as a black man, the feeling is you are much superior to women and you tend to objectify women because culturally that’s the way it is. Women are like your possessions. It’s kind of a challenge because you try to move out of it but you have people around you and your friends and stuff and the way they see gender, the way they view women may be totally different. For me personally, I am of the view that women and men are equal. I even share it in a blog. But I have friends who tell me a woman is just a woman, she doesn’t have to be equal to you. You say the final thing.

I would say I try to be liberal. As I was growing up I was reading a lot. I read a book by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Purple Hibiscus, and it touched me and I started to see the world in a different way.

Kirsten Whitfield


Jeb Sharp

Kirsten Whitfield, 26, graduate studies in linguistics

I talk about [gender] pretty much on a daily basis with my friends, in terms of media representation of women and personal experiences of harassment and objectification and how it intersects with issues of race and class in a country like this. It’s a big part of the conversation. It’s pretty much a daily conversation.

Education [in South Africa] covers race. It doesn’t really cover gender equality at all.

Namita Vanmali


Jeb Sharp

Namita Vanmali, 21, psychology and genetics

It’s hard to change thinking. It’s been just over 20 years and thinking doesn’t change that quickly from generation to generation. How people think translates into their children. We are a generation with more open-mindedness but it still takes time and we’re still struggling to break through that.

I was listening to Cape Talk [radio] and they were talking about how in South Africa, gender and race are so under the microscope, that a story like that [controversy over white students dressing up as black domestic workers] is huge. Then this American guy called in and he said he went to Spur [a restaurant] one day. Spur has this Native American theme going on. He was offended. He was very offended. He said if this was in America there would be outrage and they would be shut down immediately. Just shows different things are sensitive to different countries. Some things are taken more seriously than others. Here gender, sexuality, race are so important and very scrutinized.

Sebastian Daniels


Jeb Sharp

Sebastian Daniels, 20, finance and accounting

I’m a white male. My mum has been the breadwinner most of my life, so I grew up not really being aware of sexism. I’ve been used to men and women being equal. My eyes aren’t open to these things. I don’t look for differences. It’s different, because I’m a male and I feel safe walking on the road. I never feel I’m going to be raped or have people whistle at me. But I’m always thinking about race. I always try to break down racial stereotypes. We all say South Africans talk about it a lot but I was friends with a lot of the American exchange students from last semester and they say it’s fantastic how much we talk about it. No one talks about it there. We’re quite open about it. We do address it. We do talk about it instead of hiding it in the closet.

I think we don’t talk about gender as much because race has been such a big thing in South Africa’s past.

Mary Clark


Jeb Sharp

Mary Clark, 20, social work

White people don’t know and can’t see their privilege. Sebastian’s talking about the gender inequality he hasn’t always seen — maybe that reinforces the gender inequalities if people can’t see it. In the same way white people can’t see their privilege.

I think about [gender] every time someone wolf whistles at me, if I’m driving in my car or walking in the street. You can tell by how men look at you. I study social work and I get placed in [townships] and the fact that I’m a white girl driving in a car alone already makes me vulnerable to certain things happening to me and that makes me think about it; the fact that I’m a female and how different my experience and my fear would be if a man was driving in the car with me to those places and how vulnerable I am as a woman … and in South Africa particularly, as a white woman in certain contexts.

To be a white woman, a young white woman in South Africa, class also comes into it, it shows you have money to certain people, it makes you susceptible to crime happening to you. Especially if you go into a township and you’re driving a car or if I’m talking to a client they just assume I have a lot of money, because I’m white, because I’m a woman, together I suppose it just shows I have status and I have money, and in a country that is developing but also has a lot of crime and a lot of poverty that can often be a point of, I suppose you can be victimized for that but also misunderstood for that, as if that’s all that you’re about and there’s nothing else to you. So in terms of being a woman and white particularly with clients there’s been a lot of misconceptions as to how can I help them, how do I have the experience, I don’t know anything about what they’re going through. That’s why I think class comes into it because I’m coming from a different class. Because of my gender and my race.

White man, black man, yellow man does not have to walk down the street and be whistled at! That is regardless of race. It has to do with gender and of course you [men] won’t be aware of it because it doesn’t happen to you!

Jeb's stories from Cape Town were produced in collaboration with South African journalist Kim Cloete.

Related Content