Intergenerational Feminist Organising and Solidarity in South Africa: A Conversation


The questions of old-vs-new approaches to feminist organising, critiques of the efforts of previous generations of feminists, and the impact of imperialist notions of competition and hierarchy on multigenerational feminist solidarity have all plagued multigenerational feminist spaces. Mase Ramaru is in conversation with Elsbeth Engelbrecht about the complexities of intergenerational feminist relations and the options for feminism of thinking through intergenerational solidarity.1

A woman advocates intersectional feminism at a protest in South Africa

Mase Ramaru: Maybe we can start around this idea of eldership. I want to unpack it and the ways it manifests in intergenerational spaces because die grootmense wil altyd die grootmense wees [the grownups always want to wield their age]. It often feels like more established feminists need their experience and years to be central to intergenerational interactions and not be contested.

Elsbeth Engelbrecht: Do you think it is ageism? Or is it a kind of need for affirmation? I don‘t know. It’s a combination of many things.

MR: I think people struggle to negotiate their roles as established feminists who have navigated their way through great struggle and have been part of key political moments. The challenge is how that intersects with building intergenerational relationships rooted in co-learning. I have found at times that some established feminists enter into spaces as an “all-knowing” voice, who feel like their wisdom and “authority“ should not be challenged, or they understand the suggestion of new ideas and new strategies as a direct challenge to their voice and experiences. I struggle sometimes with the idea of holding the work of generations of feminists before me and their amazing contributions alongside this feeling that, for this embracing and holding to happen, I must buy into the deeply toxic and patriarchal notions of eldership and knowledge hierarchies.

EE: I think that it is partly their own experiences. They - older feminists - had to go through the same kak [shit] that the current generation of feminists are dealing with, and some are dealing with it still, even now. Maybe I can’t say that things were much harder, but maybe just different. Saying that it‘s harder immediately creates a hierarchy around struggle, which I think is part of the problem. I think our experiences are just different and that includes trying to find the space for yourself in the collective. But I do not know if ours is a bit more punitive than the previous generations. It does feel that way.

MR: What do you mean, it feels a little more punitive?

EE: At the time when my generation started to organise, it felt like the enemy was clearly defined. Historically, in a South African context, the enemy was apartheid, and it was in some sense very easy, much more straightforward to narrow down. Well, that’s how it felt.

While there were conversations happening around women’s rights and gender justice, I think it was experienced as hierarchical, a kind of “Olympics of oppression”2. In all of this, there was still the central idea that the real enemy is apartheid and the apartheid state, and therefore racism or racist capitalist ideologies.

I think, in some ways, there was a way in which we, I‘m assuming, came together in ways that were less punitive because the enemy was much stronger and much clearer. But saying this also assumes that there was no competitiveness or clear contradictions, exclusions, in-groups and out-groups, because I think that was there. You would not have had icons if there wasn‘t some sense of “who can feminist the best”, who‘s the best one! Anyway, the point is I think multigenerational spaces have become more punitive because, all of a sudden, the “enemy” is more complex and contested at times. The “enemy” has become us or maybe we have become much more inward-looking, far less willing to compromise.

MR: I hear you. This makes me think of a conversation with a fellow feminist when she said something which I thought was quite impactful. She mentioned that how she understands and rationalises some of the contentions within feminist spaces is from the position feminists find themselves in society: because we always have to fight systems and society, we often fail to recognise feminist spaces as a space of difference. We end up bringing the fight to each other.

The questions that follow for me are around the contentions that exist within intergenerational feminist spaces. Can we name them and explore the reasons why we find it difficult to resolve these contentions? How do we understand the roots of these contentions? What are the grey areas and nuances we are constantly ignoring? Can we also explore ways to hold space for each other as we try to reach resolution?

EE: I‘m just wondering, maybe we need to go back a little and understand who are “the feminists” we are talking about, right? Who are the feminists we are centring?

For most of us, when we reflect on the people who have helped us to question our place in the world and resistance to power, it is often our immediate families. It always feels to me that when we reflect on our feminist organising, our feminist practice, they are often not the examples we make when speaking about the influences we connect to and learn from. We do not speak of the group of women in our local community who would see that somebody does not have food and then organise among each other and give support to them. It always feels as if, when we talk about feminists and reference instances of feminist activism, we inevitably talk about that either in civil-society or in academic spaces, and we are not intersectional. We have internalised our own hierarchies in which certain feminists have more value.

So, the question for me is also how and where do we look for affirmation and learning? If I look at all my scars, I often speak of the scars I picked up in an NGO sector. I rarely speak about the scars that I experience through my familial life, for example, and I keep that somehow separate from that lived experience. I feel like there is that kind of contradiction in the ways that we are more critical in how we look at different forms of feminist organising spaces for support and solidarity than how we view other relationships that we need to interrogate more.

As you were talking, I was thinking about what the continuum of eldership is. What would we speak of as a good experience of eldership? Because, like any other learning space or nurturing space, it will have both its contradictions but also its moments and places of support and affirmation. What are the patterns that we need to look for? Often the good stuff is the unspoken ways in which people care for you, right? This often happens outside of the meeting spaces where power plays itself out and where spaces are dictated by a hierarchy of knowledge and “formalised knowledge” leads the discussion.

But what I want to know is, what is the distinction that we make in feminist spaces around positive eldership? How do we recognise when so-called “older feminists” have a positive impact on us and our politics? Or even when that nurturing comes from the opposite end of the spectrum, from younger feminists? Even for myself, I would always gravitate towards certain people and learn from them. But there was always a sense that there was no space to openly claim certain feminists as good examples of eldership, and of feminism you wish to model. But I‘m wondering why the practice was always just an unspoken one, why we could not affirm good examples of eldership when we saw them, and why we could also not show each other vulnerability.

Intergenerational anti-GBV protest in South Africa
Intergenerational anti-GBV protest in South Africa. Photo courtesy of Sonke Gender Justice.

MR: I agree, and maybe part of the reason why the deadlock exists is that part of the challenge of vulnerability is acknowledging that there‘s a lot of learning that can happen both sides – without creating these hierarchies of learning and knowledge-sharing.

I do think a great error for us all, across generational lines, is the way we understand the concept of eldership, which we have come to define according to age and generation. Defining feminist elderhood according to age is not necessarily incorrect but I think it is limiting. At an intergenerational feminist convening some time ago, a fellow feminist raised questions around the limitation of understanding the concept of an old-vs-young feminist and how alienating it is to other feminists who do not sit comfortably in those moulds. For example, where do we put feminists who might be older but are just starting their journey with feminism? Do we neglect the fact that, in this instance, a so-called “younger feminist”, who is younger by age but quite advanced in the articulation of their feminist politics and their activism sits at the complete opposite of what this young/old spectrum we are using offers us?

So, a language that I adopted for myself when speaking of intergenerational feminism is to speak of the “emerging” and the “established” feminist. This minimises the obsession with age and this idea of the young and old. This language also allows me to think of learning within feminist spaces as a horizontal act, where knowledge has no hierarchy and is something that can be offered by anyone, at different stages of their journey. This is instead of a vertical idea of knowledge that is limited by age and knowledge rooted in particular contexts and time. This is not to erase the experience that generations of feminists before me bring or to disregard them as important knowledge-holders. Rather, it is to recognise that all of this can happen in conversation with experiences and knowledge that are more recent and are informed by current political dynamics.

The ways we diminish space for feminists who are still trying to understand their own feminist practices and politics is part of the marginality of our feminist practices. We do not make enough space for error and learning, especially for feminists who are finding their politics, thinking through how to articulate their politics, and for those who are stumbling their way through. I think this is a multigenerational error. An error that has great implications for feminist solidarity.

A woman advocates intersectional feminism at a protest in South Africa
A woman advocates intersectional feminism at a protest in South Africa. © Nicky Newman

EE: So, I wanted to say something about articulation and agency.

For me, the question around an emerging and an established feminist is something that we should probably question because it has such loaded meaning – and the baggage is heavy especially if you are talking about it in the context of race and class. I am just thinking how, especially in the case of Black feminists and in South Africa, we are constantly “emerging” but never recognised as “established”.

Something that I often think about is the assumption that the articulation of clear feminist ideas only happens in the formal organised space. There is a different kind of articulation or a politics when you have a clear sense of the world and that patriarchy in itself is deeply problematic and white capitalist patriarchy even more so. For me, often articulation, more than other experiences or contributions in organising, is the hierarchy on which feminism is built. I would say that your ability to speak your feminism – the better you are able to articulate your understanding of the context, of how power works and how it should or could be fought – the stronger your place in feminist organising. As opposed to the farmworker and the “auntie” in the farming community who does not necessarily have the words, who doesn’t have the language of feminism, but her feminism is deeply rooted in action. When we start placing who we are into our feminism, I think that we need to be what you call “non-linear” – where we don’t engage with feminism in hierarchic ways and rather be as cyclical as possible, where we recognise feminism as a circle of knowledge that is accessible to all.

I don‘t think there‘s enough pushing against that, and I think part of it is because feminism has become so monetised and so burdened by value and place. If you cannot speak truth to power in a certain way, your value is less. You are dependent on the feminist who can “speak feminism” to translate for you, to re-interpret your politics. As jy nie een van die mense is nie wat kan praat nie, fok jou. [If you are not this person that can speak, then fuck off.] Personally, that‘s something I really, really struggled with.

My first experience of the NGO world and, I guess, formalised, organised struggle work, was through the land justice struggle. I am rural. I want to use a local organisation I have worked with as my example. They came to write up the stories of land dispossession in Namaqualand. So, there was this push to document the stories of historical land ownership in Namaqualand and the struggles of land dispossession in the same way that they would document forced removals in the city. This was groundbreaking work.

I was, of course, on the outside looking in. Of course, the women who went into those spaces were white women and they were working with black men. To see this difference, this respect in the way these men were talking to these women, looking up to these women in ways that they were not doing to the black women around them, that was something else. This often meant that if the aunties had stories that they wanted to share, they couldn’t because [the men] would never be told to go make the tea or coffee, right? The aunties were in the kitchen. These women would then have to speak through these men and narrate the stories they wanted to share through them. The white women never ever would move to the kitchen, right? Well, I did not see that. If the kitchen was where women were organising why did they not go there to hear their stories? They always prioritised the men and always made an effort to meet them where they congregated.

That instance was the first time that I really had a deep understanding of what it means to be a white woman and the kind of power that white women have, to be listened to with respect, and that the men will act on what they say. There was a deference there that was sobering. I moved into this context of understanding that they hold knowledge, they get to interpret the stories of these men, and that is where the power lies.

When I came into this work, I was inevitably the fieldworker. I tried to also begin to write but there was no way of pulling into the spaces where the writers were, because it was a space that was held by white women. When that began to shift for me was when I began to meet black women in academia who were writing, but in some ways doing exactly the same. They did not really make space, pro-actively, for new voices. If I wanted to be part of it, I was always asked, “But why don’t you study further?” As if learning did not happen in the field or in communities, as if I would be somehow better if I had that formalised training, knowledge, theory in my pocket, that it would somehow deepen my feminism more.

So, that is my question around knowledge creation and articulation: why is that some “feminist practices” are more important than others? Now that I think of it, it feels somehow that the language that was used in my generation was in some ways far more accessible than this new generation. I am talking about black feminists.

MR: I think we have said a mouthful, and it feels like we have only scratched the surface of the complexities and nuances that inform intergenerational solidarity. What is quite clear is the need for continued engagement. Thank you so much for taking time to reflect with me, Elsbeth. Hopefully we can think through ways to continue these engagements and get closer to the intergenerational feminist support spaces we all can grow from.

  1. The conversation was written up by Mase Ramaru.
  2. “Olympics of oppression” is used to describe instances when individuals or groups compete to prove that they are more oppressed than another group or that their experience of oppression outweighs another.