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Social and Linguistic Representations of South African Same-Sex Relations. THE CASE OF SKESANA

Stephanie Rudwick and Thabo Msibi


In South Africa, gender relations continue to be deeply embedded in the country’s patriarchal social structure, which, at the same time, intersects in complicated ways with racial, ethnic, sexual, and linguistic identity constructions. For example, same-sex relationships, while constitutionally protected, are far from being “widely accepted” in South African society. Often, the arguments presented against same-sex relations are drawn from essentialized and patriarchal notions of manhood and womanhood, with the belief that a linear and given relationship exists among sex, gender, and sexuality. Love relationships, in general, are often characterized by “patriarchal thinking” and actions, and heteronormativity simply remains, in many different facets, rooted in the consciousness of most South Africans. In this chapter we broadly aim to demonstrate that this is also the case in same-sex relationships and that there are diverse social and linguistic representations of this reality.

The chapter is based on semiethnographic research in the eThekwini area of South Africa (Durban metropolitan area), focusing on the situation of African men who engage in same-sex relations and who have knowledge of a linguistic variety termed isiNgqumo.1 IsiZulu is the base language of this variety and it can be described as a sociolect or genderlect, spoken primarily by Zulu men in the KwaZulu-Natal region who engage in same-sex relations. In observing the lives of isiNgqumo-speaking men over three years, we found that the traditional Zulu custom of hlonipha, which has complex social and linguistic facets, plays a significant role in the social and linguistic behavioral codex of these men. Our study also reveals a connection of the isiNgqumo lexicon and the hlonipha language lexicon, which is a linguistic variety employed to demonstrate respect. This chapter further portrays the social and linguistic complexities of the identity trajectories of a particular subgroup of African men who engage in same-sex relations and who self-identify as skesana, most of whom have knowledge of isiNgqumo.

Drawing on intersectionality theory (Crenshaw 1989; Collins 2000; McCall 2005; Levon 2011), we discuss multiple formations of gender identities in relation to this particular language use. The isiNgqumo lexicon is characterized largely by what Zulu speakers refer to as “deep” lexicon, an almost “archaic” form of isiZulu, comparable to Shakespearean English. A closer examination also reveals that there are lexical items that are drawn from the hlonipha language, in some instances also termed isiHlonipho sabafazi (‘women’s language of respect’). This linguistic variety can be described as a politeness register primarily employed by Zulu females before and after marriage. Hlonipha [lit. ‘respect’] language usage and social actions are representative for very particular power dynamics in Zulu society. Women who obey the hlonipha custom are generally showing referential submissiveness toward males and other persons who are considered superior in the sociocultural hierarchy.

We argue in this chapter that skesana men not only socially obey the custom of hlonipha but, in some instances, also make usage of an isiNgqumo variety which draws from the hlonipha lexicon. This suggests that isiNgqumo is a linguistic means that is deeply gendered and linked to a patriarchal cultural system constructing femininity as an inferior subject position. Within this gendered order, isiNgqumo can create tension-riddled identity categories and allows for complex positioning of African men who engage in same-sex relations, many of whom draw on heteronormative and heteropoleric categories in the construction of their sexual and gender identities. We further argue that men who know isiNgqumo, engage in same-sex relations, and self-identify as skesana—who, ironically, themselves experience widespread discrimination in the broader South African public—exhibit social and linguistic behavior that contributes to the perpetuation of the matrix of oppression in the gender landscape of the country. This, however, does not discount the emancipatory and agentive possibilities that the use of isiNgqumo may offer these men in some instances. Rather, it shows the multifaceted nature of sexual identities, and of the linguistic varieties associated with certain sexualities.

Cognizant of the contested panoptic use of Western sexual identity labels in African contexts, we use the rather lengthy concept of “men who engage in same-sex relations” in referring to our participants. Western sexual categories are increasingly being questioned in African contexts given their failure to capture the varied ways in which same-sex engagement is understood and enacted in these locales. Recently for instance, Sigamoney & Epprecht (2013) have shown, through an extensive study of more than 1,000 South African township youth, how concepts like “homosexuality” and other Western categories of identification fail to resonate with the local people as many often do not know the concepts or do not understand their meanings. In fact, Sigamoney & Epprecht found that the sheer majority of township youth and police officers in their study did not use the word homosexual, with less than 5% of their participants using it to refer to men and women who manifest same-sex desires. While the same study also revealed that gay and lesbian were often the preferred terms by study participants, we are also guarded in using these terms as these often take on particular localized meanings which differ drastically from those used in the West (see Msibi 2013a). Additionally, queer theory has highlighted the fluid nature of identification, thereby troubling the assumed static nature of labels such as gay and lesbian (Jagose 1997). We are, however, also constrained from labeling the participants queer due to the sparse use of this concept in contexts like South Africa. The general concept of “men who engage in same-sex relations” assists therefore in not only avoiding an imposition of concepts but also in highlighting the complexities of sexual identification.

We begin our argument by providing a brief background on the particularities of studies on African sexuality. This is followed by a discussion on the conceptual and theoretical positions adopted in this chapter. Then we introduce isiNgqumo as a South African genderlect and draw a connection to the hlonipha language variety. By exploring the genealogy of the skesana identity as a subject position constructed by African men who engage in same-sex relations, we showcase the ways in which the heteronormative, gendered positioning of this identity may have been informed by historical patterns of same-sex practices in South African mineral mines (mine sexual politics), with same-sex sexual engagements among men primarily defined along traditional, heteronormative gender lines. We also demonstrate how hlonipha social and linguistic behavior plays a role in the constructions of these sexual and gender identities.

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