Addressing unequal power relations in an unequal society

Posted on August 31, 2018

Prof Christi van der Westhuizen is a leading woman researcher, whose recent book, Sitting Pretty – White Afrikaans Women in Postapartheid South Africa and other academic and popular writing has made her a household name. 

She says that, “living in South Africa as a white person I cannot but engage critically with racism and its effects, including how I have benefited from apartheid and colonialism due to false values attached to the accident of skin pigmentation. Similarly, I feel compelled to critically engage with and resist gender oppression and heteronormativity, both of which I have felt the detrimental effects of in my own life. Within the context of South Africa’s history of institutionalised injustice, understanding becomes of vital importance and is the first step towards strategising for change for the good of all”. 

Her research is interdisciplinary, cutting across the fields of feminist and queer studies, sociology, history, political science, philosophy, and psychology; as well as cultural and media studies. Prof Van der Westhuizen investigates problems of identity and how oppressive discourses create power imbalances in society, such as those inherent to whiteness, patriarchy, and heteronormativity. She explores how forms of power and knowledge, including resistances, work to create new openings towards more just and equitable ways of thinking, doing and being. 

Her research is of critical importance to our understanding of how human beings create hierarchies to deprive some people from life resources simply because they are different to “us”. She explains that, “the current local and global rise of oppressive racial and gender populisms illustrates yet again the dangers of the abuse of social categories of difference. This abuse is frequently accompanied by violence and has real material effects in the form of deepening inequality and injustice. In South Africa, we have been trained over the past 350 years in a habit of thinking that sees difference as a problem, a point of division and a justification for oppression. That is why we see a recurrence of racist and patriarchal practices and violence, also in postapartheid South Africa. It is imperative for thinkers and researchers to make sense of these social phenomena, with a view to advancing more humanising ways of being in our country and in the world. What has been learnt can be unlearnt, and I see it as my job to provide the material for the unlearning and the new learning.”

Prof Van der Westhuizen says that women, and particularly black women, are woefully underrepresented in research and knowledge production. She elaborates that, “this is a historical legacy of women being seen as not in ‘need’ of education, as their sole purpose was deemed to be biological and social reproduction.

Historically women were therefore prevented from entering into, or completing their primary and/or secondary education. They were also actively excluded from tertiary education, or channelled into fields of study seen as 'appropriate' due to misogynist notions of femininity and maternity. Today at universities we still see a preponderance of women in fields regarded as more ‘feminine’. Few men enter such implicitly ‘feminine’ areas of study, while there is a lack of women in fields associated with ‘masculine’ acumen. The only way to rectify this injustice is to proactively take steps to expand women's contribution in research through targeted policy, institutional and monetary interventions. This includes addressing gender stereotypes in institutional cultures to remove informal barriers to women (and men) entering certain disciplines.”

As a former journalist, she understands the role of the media. In order to help address some of the imbalances in research representation, she contends that academics should make their research accessible through platforms like the University of Pretoria’s Research Matters: “I am a firm believer that research findings must be publicly accessible. Therefore, I am active as a public intellectual in various forums and in the popular media, including TV, radio, online and print. I have the opportunity to share my work and debate robustly with people across different spheres and positions, to make sense of this complex but also wonderful place called South Africa, and to help make life here more dignified for everybody. I am fortunate in getting regular feedback and appreciation from people for providing alternative ways of looking at old and new complexities. South Africans are politically engaged, which is why it is also important for me to contribute insights to public debates that strengthen our constitutional democracy.”  

- Author Shakira Hoosain

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