“Nothing about us without us!” South African disability rights movements in the 1980s The first time I heard the phrase “nothing about us without us,” was in Johannesburg at a transgender rights conference in either 2015 or 2017.
Judge Edwin Cameron, who at the time was serving as one of the justices of the South African Constitutional Court had been requested to make opening remarks at the conference. His invitation was in recognition of his allyship and the role he had played, as a member of the judiciary as well as an activist, to advance the rights of transgender rights in the nation of South Africa. The judge, in all his opulence (I am a big fan, so I was completely enamoured by his stature and just the mere honour of being in the same space as this hero, who had spent his career and used his influence and privilege in service of HIV/AIDS and gay rights activism), took to the podium. We were all aware of his whiteness, maleness, and advanced age. All these placed him at greater privilege than many people in that room.
Put simply, he is top of the food chain when it comes to patriarchy. He opened with greeting all of us. Then, while we waited, pens and papers ready to jot down the undoubtedly important things he would have to say, he invited two of his staff members to come and deliver the opening remarks in his stead. He explained, that his reason for so doing, was that he recognised that he was not only privileged, but that there are those better placed to open and officially welcome participants to a conference of that nature. Both the people who spoke are transgender persons, who shared their experiences of being transgender in South Africa. They spoke about the risks they had taken with living their lives so openly and so publicly. From that moment on, I vowed, that where I can (to the extent that it does not endanger people), I will ensure that I do not assume myself an expert in the struggles and oppressions of others. I vowed that in exercising my agency, and putting myself in the frontlines of any social movement, it would be in the advancement of the inclinations of said movement. Specifically, that I would present myself a vessel, without ownership of the oppression, or the exertion of control or authority. This article interrogates the role of an ally in the achievement of social change. Specifically, we will start to look at the role of cis-gender men in the work towards equality and in the feminist agenda.
There is usually an inclination and tendency to centre ourselves when we speak of struggle or oppression. Human Rights and Gender Development practitioner and activist, Onkokame Mosweu observes that this often shows up in discussions of inequality, and frames itself as an attempt to validate the oppression or inequality being addressed. The effect of it, is of course the systemic erasure of the experiences of others outside of the person who, in that moment, is speaking. Abuse is already often isolating. Many times, it has nothing to do with “your mother, your daughter, your sister”. The need to familiarise it in that sense, often invalidates the realities of those who have been subjected to the abuse.
This is often characterised by a patriarch insisting on a baseline understanding that violence against women be understood first from a masculine perspective, or the insistence that men too are abused. It takes the form of sanitising the expressions of homosexuality which are acceptable, or an insistence that there are more acceptable forms of diversity. It sometimes even goes as far as suggesting that a person’s marital status is evidence of the validity of their opinion.
This is dangerous because what it communicates is that only if you are acceptable and respectable will your experience be worth the time of day. Mosweu counters this and profers, in the alternative, that an ally is one who, being aware of their privilege, offers his access, resources and networks, to the oppressed, as in the earlier example of Justice Cameron, in service of the change that is sought by the members of the marginalised group or the oppressed in this sense. The major misperception is to see feminism, advocacy for recognition and protection of persons of diverse sexual orientation and gender identity and expression, or the struggle for gender equality or equality generally, as essentially an attack on masculinity, or maleness, and nothing more – an exercise in bashing men.
To untangle the confusions, it seems to me to be useful to distinguish between allies. As a point to consider, although allies are critical, they are themselves not a political force, to achieve the changes needed, to the extents they are needed. To this end it would be problematic to even appeal to men, as allies for help where it is not readily availed. the oppressed cannot leave their fights to be fought by the objects of their oppression. Hence the centering of the oppressed in the fight against oppression – “nothing about us without us”.
This article was written in collaboration with Onkokame Mosweu. Onkokame is a Human Rights and Gender Development practitioner and activist with special interest and work in representation, inclusion, gender and human rights, male and men engagement, masculinities and access to equitable sexual and reproductive health and services.
He holds 8years experience in the gender and human rights development work across southern and eastern Africa. He identifies as an intersectional Pan-African queer person and feminist ally.