The South African Sociological Association (SASA) conference theme for 2011 was ‘Gender in Question’, and I was invited to give the keynote address. There was a small problem with jet-lag, in fact I wasn’t present on Planet Earth 100% of the time. The avatar I left behind, however, does not seem to have disgraced me. Even better, immediately after my address, a student group gave a performance with very good harmony singing, both African and North American, and spectacular dance.
The South African academic world is still on the long trajectory of democratisation. This involves capacity development: many students are the first of their family or community to come to university. I went mainly to the sessions about gender and sexuality, and many of the presentations were graduate students trying out their research proposal or presenting a little data.
A lot of young people are doing ethnographic research, very eclectic (and usually Northern) in their conceptual framework, but often very interesting as fieldwork. They dealt with gendered workplaces and occupations, changing family patterns and housing, issues in the public sphere such as mass media, and questions of sexuality and violence.
In the conference’s plenary sessions there was sharper debate about the dilemmas of feminism in South Africa, as a male-dominated African National Congress (ANC, the governing party) consolidates power and there seems to be a drift towards nationalism and big-man politics. South Africa has a very advanced constitution, in terms of human rights, but the translation into real equality is another matter. Indeed that problem of ‘substantive equality’ was a driving issue for the conference.
The ANC’s turn towards neoliberalism in the 1990s does not seem to have dented the problems of mass unemployment and gender inequalities. I went to a very interesting session about a new book by Sarah Mosoetsa, Eating from One Pot. This is an ethnographic study of poor SA households responding to factory closures & economic restructuring. Worth reading; tough stuff.
In my keynote I talked about the tangled history of sociology’s encounters with gender issues. I also traced some of the important gender analysis and gender politics that came out of the global South but didn’t appear in the mainstream textbooks. We didn’t have an extended discussion in that session, but in later sessions I was part of discussions about global epistemology, the relevance of a concept of ‘intersectionality’, and the continuing under-recognition of feminist thinkers in sociology.
I went to the conference banquet and was placed at the official table with the Vice Chancellor and the Minister for Higher Education, Blade Nzimande. The Minister gave a speech declaring his affiliation with social science (he's an industrial sociology PhD, also the general secretary of the Communist Party), his intention to stir up the higher education system, and his critique of postmodernism for being too conservative. I can’t think of many ministers in our government who could have done the same.