Performative activism and activist performance: Young South African women engaging in change for new imaginaries of everyday equalities and belongings
This lecture explores young people’s agentic engagement in activism, performance, art towards gender and sexual justice in contemporary contexts of decolonial, feminist and queer activism in South Africa. Located in a critical review of the current context of gender equality efforts, both research and practice, which has reproduced a problematic disciplinary lens on young people, Shefer argues the importance of current collective engagements that disrupt intersectional gender and sexual normativities, inequalities and violences. Over the last few years, the South African political landscape has been characterized by young people’s activism, starting at universities but also in the public domain more broadly. Student movements have made calls for radical change in higher education, including decolonizing the curriculium and providing free and equal education. Such calls also speak to larger social inequalities in a society that continues to repeat the injustices and inequalities of decades of apartheid, a system of institutionalized racial and patriarchal capitalism, and centuries of colonization. One of the notable features of these current struggles has been the presence of strong feminist and queer activist voices which have mobilized around intersectionality within the decolonial project and engaged in particular in what may be termed performative activism. The lecture shares some poignant examples of gender and justice activism among young people in current South Africa, illustrating a nuanced and intersectional understanding of the challenges facing contemporary South Africa that is cognizant of both past and present injustice. In particular, Shefer explores the value of such activist and pedagogical interventions within public spaces, both virtual and material, that disrupt normative gendered, sexual, raced and other social identities and inequalities. Through analysis of a selection of recent examples, she attempts to show the way in which counter-hegemonic identities, practices and performances claim public space to disturb continued marginalisations and exclusions. She argues that such performative activism and activist performance poignantly remind us that bodies and materiality matter and speak to ‘harnessing energy and power to transform despair and suffering into empowering rage, self-affirmation, theoretical inventiveness, political action, and the energizing vitality of materiality in its animating possibilities’ (Barad, 2015, p. 382). Shefer concludes with a reflection on the generative impact of such activism to the larger project of sexual and gender justice in South African and in global contexts.
Tamara Shefer is professor of Women’s and Gender Studies in the Faculty of Arts at the University of the Western Cape. She has had a long interest in young people and gender and sexual justice. She has researched and published in the areas of teenage pregnancy and parenting, sexuality education, HIV/AIDS, gender-based violence, masculinities, memory and post-apartheid subjectivities, gender and care, gender and disability, and the politics of higher education and social justice pedagogies. Her most recent books are edited volumes Engaging Youth in Activist Research and Pedagogical Praxis: Transnational and Intersectional Perspectives on Gender, Sex, and Race (in press for 2018, with J. Hearn, K. Ratele & F. Boonzaier) and Socially Just Pedagogies in Higher Education: Critical posthumanist and new feminist materialist perspectives (2018, Bloomsbury, with V. Bozalek, R. Braidotti & M. Zembylas).